With the horrors of the September 2004 school hostage massacre in Beslan (North Ossetia) very much in the Russians’ hearts and minds, the Kremlin announced sweeping reforms to strengthen central authority by phasing out the popular election of governors and presidents in the constituent regions and republics of the Russian Federation. In the emotional crucible of Beslan, centralization of central authority sounded appealing. The reforms were announced in the name of preventing terrorist attacks, keeping ethnic tensions from erupting into violence, and suppressing separatist challenges to Russia. Nowhere else in post-Soviet Russia have these challenges been more acute and the reform goals sounded more plausible than in the North Caucasus—a sliver of rugged lands between the Black and the Caspian Seas along the Great Caucasus Mountain Range. It is hardly a coincidence that the Russian president designated the principal architect of local government reform, Dmitry Kozak, as his special envoy in the region.
Evidence has been accumulating, however, that it is precisely in the North Caucasus that Putin-style centralization is more likely to sustain rather than to quell violence. This is because centralization inevitably suppresses political competition, which leads to erosion of government legitimacy and transparency. With clan networks, nepotism, and traditions of honorable revenge especially strong in the North Caucasus, diminishing transparency has been enhancing systemic corruption of institutions responsible for security and anti-terrorist defense. Through this process (see the diagram), Putin’s centralization of government has unwittingly contributed to the most serious acts of communal violence in the region, including police shakedowns, guerilla operations, kidnapping rackets, terrorism, and rioting. Completing the vicious circle, the persistent communal violence has been fueling popular support across Russia for tightening Moscow’s control over local governments. Ominously, this type of violence has significantly complicated not only the Kremlin’s genuine anti-terrorist efforts, but it has raised the question as to whether the whole region is governable unless one resorts to Draconian measures such as mass executions and deportations of the Stalin era. [...]