The North Caucasus is a highly complicated territory in Russia, comprised of seven different ethnic republics with complex relationships to the Russian federal center. Throughout the region, the already immense challenges of dealing with the COVID pandemic have been amplified by chronic local problems within several of the region’s republics.
In this episode of the PONARS Eurasia Podcast, Maria Lipman chats with Ekaterina Sokirianskaia (director, CAPC) and Grigory Shvedov (editor, Caucasian Knot) to learn more about the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the North Caucasus.
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Maria: Hello everyone, this is Maria Lipman and our PONARS Eurasia Podcast, featuring a series of discussions about Russia and Eurasia, about the region’s politics, and about other Russia and Eurasia related topics.
Our topic today is North Caucasus – I will discuss it with two experts who I will introduce a bit later.
The North Caucasus is a highly complicated territory that includes seven ethnic republics. The challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, hard as it is, is exacerbated here by chronic local problems, some similar, some specific to this or that republic.
One of those regions is Chechnya, which was the scene of two bloody wars between separatist insurgents and Russian troops, one fought by Yeltsin’s government in the mid-90s, and the other by Putin’s in the early 2000s. The second Chechen war ended with the Kremlin’s victory and installment of a loyal government in Chechnya. Terrorist activities and subversive acts continued for a few years after that, the major among them being the horrific tragedy of Beslan in Northern Ossetia in September 2004. A whole school with over 1,000 people in it was taken hostage; as a result of a bungled rescue operation, over 330 hostages, most of them children, were killed.
Chechnya had been the only one of the North Caucasus territories to engage in a war with the federal center, but elsewhere acts of violence against the police or local officials, ethnic clashes, terrorist attacks and armed skirmishes used to be common. In recent years, however, acts of violence in North Caucasus have been on decline.
The Kremlin has also successfully solved the problem of local leadership’s loyalty. For quite a few years now, the heads of the North Caucasus republics have been carefully selected by the Kremlin. Once installed, they are expected to deliver high turnout at federal elections and a pro-Kremlin vote, which they invariably do. The Kremlin also relies on them to keep the situation in their territories reasonably uneventful, which they faithfully try to do, but not always succeed. The Kremlin has a free hand to replace those leaders who failed to live up to its expectation. The head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, is an important exception – he’s headed his republic since 2007.
While the Kremlin may take credit for these two achievements – a radical decrease of violence in the North Caucasus and the unconditional loyalty of its leaders – beyond that many serious problems remain unsolved.
Economically the North Caucasus republics are heavily dependent on the allocations from the federal budget. This economic pattern is conducive to pervasive corruption. “A bottomless pit for federal subsidies” is how Russian economist Natalia Zubarevich described the North Caucasus.
All local regions except North Ossetia are Muslim, and manifestations of radical Islam are a matter of concern for local leaders. Territorial disputes, ethnic and clannish tensions are common in the North Caucasus.
The head of Chechnya, Kadyrov, is a ruthless leader who keeps his people in fear. Harsh extralegal repressions are common practice. Brutal assaults and assassinations of gays reported in recent years are just one out of too many examples. On quite a few occasions, those who dared criticize or oppose Kadyrov have been assassinated in Chechnya itself, as well as far beyond its territory.
Kadyrov has invariably expressed his deep allegiance to Putin, but in Chechnya his rule is absolute. In the words of Tanya Lokshina, Russia Program Director of Human Rights Watch, “Kadyrov runs Chechnya like his private empire – a state within a state, here no laws exist except his own orders,” Lokshina wrote.
On May 21, Russian news agencies reported that Kadyrov got infected with the COVID and delivered to a Moscow hospital. But these reports were not confirmed in Chechnya itself – apparently, Kadyrov’s officials did not dare make definitive statements without his orders.
We will talk about the situation with the coronavirus pandemic in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus.
In April, North Ossetia was the scene of an angry protest against lockdown measures. In the second half of May, Dagestan – North Caucasus’s largest territory, populated with dozens of ethnic groups speaking different languages – was reported to have a major COVID-19 outbreak that local authority tried to hide by dramatically underrating the number of infections and deaths.
Let me introduce my guests. Ekaterina Sokirianskaia is the Director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center. She is joining us from Istanbul. Hello Ekaterina.
Ekaterina: Hello Maria, and thank you for having me.
Maria: Thanks for joining us. Grigory Shvedov is the editor of Caucasian Knot, a 24/7 internet media outlet. Hello, Grigory.
Grigory: Hi, thanks for inviting me.
Maria: Thank you. Both my guests are prominent experts on the North Caucasus who have closely observed the developments in this region for many years. And my first question is a very general one. In your view, do the North Caucasus territories have enough in common so it would make sense to speak about the North Caucasus as a whole, or are they too diverse? And if it makes sense to speak about them as a whole, what are some of the features that they have in common? Ekaterina, maybe you start.
Ekaterina: Yes. Thanks. Well, this is a very good question. I think definitely the region has enough in common to speak of it as a whole, as a one cultural, sociological entity, even though very diverse. There are certain sociological and cultural patterns that are similar. For example, that the region that has stronger ethnic traditions compared to average Russian regions. In the northeast Caucasus is also very strong religious traditions, very strong kinship ties, very strong village communities, much stronger than elsewhere in the country. There’s very great attachment to land, which is not seen just as a resource, but as a cultural symbol. It’s also a kind of owner-based culture everywhere in the region. More conservative values, again, on the average, including in the Christian North Ossetia.
So that’s on the sociological and cultural side of things. But then of course, politically, there’s some similarities. It is ruled to a great extent in a kind of Neo-colonial fashion, all of the regions. We haven’t seen real elections for a very long time. Local leaders are appointed and are loyal to the Kremlin rather than to their constituencies.
Usually, all regions provide very high electoral support to the ruling party and to Vladimir Putin. Nearly all of the republics have territorial disputes or disagreements with their neighbors, and corruption and clientelism are on average higher than the Russian average, I would say. And the local economies are also more dependent on the federal center.
So, I think these would be some of the main features that make this region – some of the similarities that all these Republics share.
Maria: Right. Well, sounds like there’s a lot they have in common. Grigory, would you add anything to that?
Grigory: Well, certainly I would agree that they have a lot in common, but I also would say that, it’s very diverse in the Northern Caucasus.
So, usually when the Northern Caucasus is described in Russian national media, or in foreign media, it is seen as one region, and I would strongly disagree. Although I would support every single sentence Ekaterina just mentioned, I would also think that it is a very diverse region and there are huge, huge differences.
Not just between particular regions which are placed nearby to each other, let’s say Kabardino-Balkaria is very different from Ingushetia, but also inside of the regions. For example, if you take Dagestan, there are huge differences which you can see between people who are living in the North of this Republic to the people who are living in the South. So it is a combination of those things, differences and similarities.
Maria: Yeah. Thank you. And I’m sure we will touch upon both similarities and differences in our discussion. I would like to ask you, what are the factors, including those that I mentioned in my introduction already – that is, Kadyrov’s ruthless regime, dependence of those regions on the center, corruption, poverty, and many others – what are the factors that define the response of the North Caucasus leadership to the pandemic? Let’s begin with the leaders and then talk about other factors. Ekaterina?
Ekaterina: Well, I think that leadership does definitely play a role. We can see, for example, Ramzan Kadyrov, who rules Chechnya as a kind of personal fiefdom. It’s a very personalistic regime, a kind of totalitarian enclave on the territory of the Russian Federation, and his response to coronavirus has been very tough. And a lot of pressure has been exerted on the population, to impose lockdowns. Not from the very beginning, but pretty soon.
And I think he treated coronavirus in a kind of military way. He is a kind of military person, in a makeup, and he even calls himself a foot soldier of Vladimir Putin. And he was growing up, socialized, and most of his life spent in the conditions of, armed conflict. So, I think he perceived it as a kind of security threat, the sense that you should have a law enforcement and security response.
And this is how he handled it, while in Dagestan, for example, the leadership was pretty inactive. Until recently, we didn’t see much involvement from the regional head, Mr. Vasiliyev, until things got really bad. And I don’t see very strong response from the leadership of Ingushetia either.
I don’t know if Grigory will agree with me, but that’s the way I see it.
Maria: Thank you. We will definitely talk about Dagestan in more detail. And Grigory, in your interview recently, when you were talking about the response to the pandemic in Chechnya, you said that the fear of coronavirus, has gotten worse than the fear of Kadyrov. Can you explain what you meant by that?
Grigory: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you, Maria, for reading all of that. There was a recent protest in a local town in Chechnya, Gudermes, where in the clinic, the people who were working there were protesting. It seems they got not enough supplies.
And it was supposed, this clinic, to become a key clinic, dealing with those who are ill from COVID. So, a lot of a women there had been protesting, which was quite an unusual thing for Chechnya. And I think, it was not the only symbol of people who are less a frightened, have less fear towards Kadyrov and his army, let’s say.
I would fully agree with what Ekaterina just described, the situation in Chechnya. But for the last month, we saw how different people, from young people to grown-ups, have been actually not performing, quite legitimate requests of police. They’ve been running away.
And there were a lot of videos which have been distributed on social media of local people who are running away, who are jumping, who are just getting to their motorcycle and riding away from police. And it was many videos, so, Kadyrov himself made a statement that people should stop doing these videos.
Altogether, these formal protests in Gudermes, and these local protests – which are not even protest, which are just an illustration of how the local population actually does not perform what police want them to do – shows to me that people have less fear.
At least, it is my interpretation that they fear less, I think of Kadyrov, especially when, we’re talking about this clinic, because their main fear was that they will die from the COVID and not from the brutal, reaction of police.
It was for years that, people who are called Kadyrovtsy, this informal Army of Kadyrov, which is paid by the federal budget, was kidnapping and torturing people. And it became the main tool for organizing, so-called order in Chechnya. And fear was the main fuel of this practice.
But it looks like without actually kidnapping and torturing and killing people, this army of Kadyrov, he’s losing management of situation Chechnya, since they are not ready to kidnap and torture those who does not act properly in the quarantine. They’re losing this instrument, and people are starting to act differently from how they’ve acted for many, many years already.
Maria: Yeah, very interesting indeed that somebody should be afraid of anything at all more than afraid of Kadyrov. I think we need to talk about this episode recently, the report that Kadyrov has been admitted to a Moscow hospital and delivered from Chechnya to Moscow, something that was not recognized – certainly not confirmed – by the Chechen officials themselves. Why do you think this remains a mystery? It seems like, because we knew we about this infection from Russian official news agencies, this seems to be true. Why, is this kept a secret? Why do officials in Chechnya try to pretend that Kadyrov is perfectly healthy and maybe even in place, even though of course, we don’t see him? Grisha may be, you would start.
Grigory: Yes, well, we at some point in Caucasian Knot, we have been analyzing the reaction of users in the social media towards things which are happening with this contradictory news. The views have been quite contradictory from Chechnya. There is a right hand of Kadyrov, which is saying, “Oh, he’s completely healthy” and there is left hand of Kadyrov, another strong man who is saying, “Oh, we are praying for his health,” meaning he’s ill. So, in this contradictory news, it was unclear why they’re not able to make a clear statement.
They tried to make a statement later on, trying to contradict the information that Kadyrov is ill, but it looks like it was too late. So, the users of social media in Chechnya have been demanding the more information, and at some point, a video appeared where you can hear a voice that sounds like the voice of Kadyrov, but you can’t see him.
And then, more and more suspicious became the population, I think, in Chechnya. And this looks like, if Kadyrov is ill, the decision to share this information would be made not in Chechnya – not by the right hand of Kadyrov and not by the left hand of Kadyrov – but by people who are in Kremlin, probably.
So, it looks like there is no center to make a decision, if it is okay to tell that the symbol of Putin in the Northern Caucasus, who was recently himself, as Ekaterina described, imposing quite a military regime of quarantine and in Chechnya – and then at the same time, completely violating this regime. You can see it – well, you can’t see it anymore because his Instagram, Instagram of Kadyrov, was banned and blocked again – but you can still see in other videos how Kadyrov himself is violating the quarantine. So, if you would recognize that he is ill, then, a lot of people would say, “Ah, so, that’s the exact result of him being beyond the law.”
Maria: Interesting. I wonder what we will hear next, Kadyrov has never left Chechnya, now he’s coming back to Chechnya from Moscow.
Ekaterina, you spoke a lot about the similarities between different regions and Grigory agreed with you, but apparently, as far as leaders are concerned, they are very different. And it seems that the position of the leadership in Dagestan played a very significant role in this situation that we have in that region with the COVID now, could you please talk about that?
Ekaterina: Well I think the Dagestani authorities remained pretty silent and inarticulate for nearly two months since the pandemic started. And basically, it was the civil society, the community leaders, religious leaders, local businessmen, oligarchs, who tried instead of the state to address the issue. And I think the authority underestimated the scale of the disaster on the one hand. On the other hand, Vasiliyev generally doesn’t really talk to the population that much.
He doesn’t travel to the regions, to the villages. He is quite the closed leader. He doesn’t communicate too much with the media, so it’s not his style to be, you know, in close contact and quickly reacting to developments. And I think that basically, the official figures were given, which were completely, you know, inadequate, they were not reflecting reality. And I guess the Dagestani leadership today doesn’t know Dagestan well, and they didn’t expect that you can’t really hide things in this Republic, that you do still have…
Maria: May I interrupt you for a second? I think we need to explain how different Vasiliyev is, he is indeed unique to the post-Soviet history of Dagestani leadership. Can you please say a few words about him and how long he has been in Dagestan?
Ekaterina: He’s been in Dagestan for nearly three years, and he is basically somebody who was appointed by the Kremlin. He doesn’t have any roots in the region. He has never really spent time or worked in the region before.
Dagestan, for decades, has been torn by corrupt clans, which were entrenched deeply in the society. Basically, the governance system was, it was a failed state situation. The public services and the government institutions were pretty much privatized. These local clans were supported by the Kremlin for a decade or so, they were members of United Russia, they had connections and links to the insurgency, the armed underground in Dagestan. And oftentimes, not all of them, but some of them would use these armed groups in their internal struggles for power or for eliminating opponents. And the funds, which were coming from the federal center, were basically absorbed by these very corrupt elites for a very long time, and they didn’t get to the population. The Kremlin was closing eyes on this situation for a very long time, despite of the fact that local and Russian journalists and human rights defenders and analysts were shouting about it, screaming and shouting for a long time in numerous publications and in round tables and public events.
So finally, the Kremlin decided to do something about it. They dismantled the first layer of clans, and then, instead of, trying to clean the system from the inside or let the society do it through elections, they basically arrested the top of the regional elite – most of them are now in Lefortovo Preliminary Detention or in jail and they have been arrested and charged with corruption and embezzlement of funds. And then, Vasiliyev was brought in with a team of bureaucrats, technocrats, mainly coming from other republics or from other regions, not from Dagestan. So that’s the situation today where Dagestan is basically ruled by an external elite.
Maria: Right. And, how does it factor into this situation? And, I think, we need to introduce our listener to the situation, just how bad the situation with the COVID is in Dagestan.
Grigory: Well, that’s a major motto of propaganda. So we don’t have the real data, I think, neither in Russia in general nor in the Northern Caucasus.
Dagestan is a great example of that. We at Caucasian Knot, six times a day, update the map, to put the new data on all regions of Northern and South Caucasus, South of Russia, and Dagestan is the only region where, even though there is so much fake data coming from the state, it was the only region where it was possible actually, to put a real disclaimer on the data.
So today, for example, the official data shows there are more than 4,000 of those who got ill, it’s 4,200, and it’s 97 deaths. But at the same time, a week ago, a minister of health in an interview mentioned that actually there are not 4,000 but 13,000 of those who are ill, not with COVID, but with pneumonia. And of those 13 thousand, all but 600, exactly 657, died. And then at that time a week ago, it was about 30 deaths, maybe 36, maybe even 29 deaths, which had been registered as the deaths from COVID. And, in comparison with the information which was publicly released and which is released now. You see a huge difference between the data which was publicly distributed and is distributed the until now.
Not only, I think in Dagestan, the picture is like that. COVID is probably very complicated for those in the regions to make those tests, to get information. We got reports from regional journalists that sometimes it took a week, sometimes it took two weeks. And the information on deaths is quite different from what we hear from officials. Pneumonia is just one of the actual diagnoses which brought us completely different figure. It’s almost 20x bigger, the numbers we heard about pneumonia than from COVID.
Then what about other numbers? Recently, one of the independent outlets in Russia, TV Rain, made a great report from the villages visiting the cemeteries where you can actually see such big numbers of new graves. And it’s completely unclear, was it pneumonia or any other diagnosis, why those people died in the different villages of Dagestan. It’s clear only one thing. None of them are registered as a people who died because of COVID.
Maria: Yeah. But I think we can suggest with some certainty, with high probability, that all those deaths have something to do with the pandemic.
I would like to focus more on Dagestan. So the news came, the new numbers, the much larger numbers of infections and deaths, came not from the top leader, but from the minister of health. It looks like an act of insubordination. Would you interpret it this way, Ekaterina? And then why, I mean, if it is a case of insubordination, why did it happen, do you think?
Ekaterina: I don’t think the Dagestani elite is integrated enough, and there’s enough communication between different layers, so that we could speak about insubordination.
I also think that, because the reaction of the republican head was not adequate, as people felt it, the people were the origins in Dagestan, the Dagestani minister of health, also the Dagestani mufti, who was present at the meeting held by Putin – a special meeting on Dagestan which was carried out online – he also spoke about around 700 deaths. So think the local leaders, both officials and community leaders or religious leaders, they felt that they should speak out, and they should try to attract the attention of the federal center to this problem because it was already a huge disaster, and it was very clear to them that this is their obligation to do so.
Maria: Would it be fair to say that they, as it were, took the side of their people, not the side of their boss?
Ekaterina: In this case, I think so. Because the disaster was so clear they had to do this. They felt like that was their duty.
Maria: I would also ask you, Ekaterina, to speak about the factor of Islam. As I mentioned in the introduction and as you also mentioned, of course, it matters a great deal that most of the North Caucasus republics are Muslim, except for North Ossetia that is Christian. How does it factor in? What are the implications of Islam for what goes on now for the COVID Pandemic?
Ekaterina: I don’t think that Islam itself is a prominent factor. But the situation with mosques did play a role. And the problem was that, in Russia generally, there was no clear government regulation regarding the mosques in this particular sense, right? There was no strict prohibition to attend mosques.
Like for example, in Turkey, all the mosques were closed for congregations. There were no public services from the beginning of the lockdown period. There was nothing like this in Dagestan or Ingushetia, for example. The spiritual boards were reluctant to ban because, you know, it’s an obligation of each Muslim to perform prayers and to attend the Mosque on Fridays, particularly.
So as a result of this ambiguity, where nobody wanted to take responsibility for the closure of mosques, Friday prayers were going on ‘till the end of March. For example, in Ingushetia, in the end of March, people were still attending Friday prayers massively. Also in Dagestan. So this, of course, contributed to the spread of infection, definitely.
Maria: And what about rituals? I think you were talking about funerals that also became a source of even more infections. Could you please talk about that a bit?
Ekaterina: Absolutely. As I mentioned when we were talking about similarities, North Caucasus societies are kinship rich societies. The families are big, strong, and the rituals, especially funerals, they usually turn into very big events attended by very large numbers of people, like several hundred. And a funeral is something so important that, regardless of the pandemic, many people were reluctant to cancel them. So, in Dagestan and in Chechnya, and even in Adygea, big funerals did take place with like 500 people turning up, 600 people.And this was a mechanism for spreading the virus very quickly.
And generally, in the North Caucasus, there’s a lot more, probably, of interaction between people. People visit their relatives, friends, co-villagers on a daily basis, a lot more than the average Russian. It’s a more, kind of, communal lifestyle.
And also, people are very actively working in other regions of Russia, so when the pandemic broke out, they came back home and brought the virus. So this, on the one hand, ritual, a strong ritual side, and on the other hand, this communal lifestyle, they jointly, I think, factored into the greater level of infection.
Maria: Grigory. Would you tell us more about other regions? So far we’ve spoken about Dagestan, which has this horrific outbreak now with lots of deaths and a great number of infections. What about Ingushetia? We never mentioned it. Ingushetia, of course, is the smallest and I think the poorest of these regions. What is this situation there?
Grigory: Well, it’s quite interesting, because one of the regions which was, and is until now showing, I think, fake data on COVID is Chechnya. And Ingushetia is like half of Chechnya, even less. And we saw that Ingushetia is showing much bigger data until now, including today, in terms of amount of people who got ill, infected, in terms of how many people get ill every day. So, for example, today’s data would be like twice more got ill today in a small Ingushetia comparing to the way bigger Chechnya. You see that the numbers of deaths in Chechnya are relatively small comparing to Ingushetia, again, which is showing 3x more deaths than in Chechnya.
And, partly it is because of what was just described, the funerals. One incident was the funerals, which was recorded. But partly it is about the data. One more thing in common about Northern Caucasus – would not sound very scientific – its complete fabrication of data.
In these regions, in all of these regions, you would really see completely fabricated statistics, and I think it was going on in the Soviet times. It was going on from the time the Soviet Union collapsed, and it has been going on for last 20 years. And COVID is not strong enough to break this tradition and to break this logic of corruption.
The data is completely fabricated. And it might be data on taxation, it might be data on the use of a budgets, which the federal center provides to the region, and it might be data on COVID, and it might be data on how many people voted for Vladimir Putin in the recent election or how they would vote in upcoming constitutional vote, that all is completely fabricated. And then, the question is how much you fabricate. I think in Ingushetia, we don’t see the approach of Chechnya. In Chechnya, they want to show that things really are the best in the Northern Caucasus. And that’s why Kadyrov himself is a hostage. How can he be ill if it is as bad a thing in Chechnya as in other regions.
So, coming back to the question, if we look towards Ingushetia, I would say that from what I know about the medical infrastructure of Ingushetia, it’s really very bad. So, it’s going to be a lot of people who before pandemic would go to other regions, even, not only to Chechnya, for many different needs they have in terms of medical challenges. So, Ingushetia is really a region which requires a lot of development in terms of infrastructure, including the healthcare. But things with the fake data are even more important. And I think they show the reality way better.
So, the numbers, we see in comparison to other regions are just not showing the real picture, but just showing how badly numbers are drawn, in terms of sending the message to the Moscow, trying to show that things are under really strong control, which is not true.
Maria: Well, I guess what the two of you have been talking about so far points to what I mentioned in the beginning of my introduction, and that is that the Kremlin was able to solve two major problems, or problems that it saw as major problems, in the North Caucasus.
One, of course, was violence. And we don’t see large scale violence the way it used to be in that region anymore, which of course is an achievement. And another problem, the other problem that the Kremlin solved, was installing loyal leaders. However, having solved these two, the Kremlin looked the other way and has not done much in terms of solving many other problems, and some of them have played out in this pandemic.
Unfortunately, we don’t have time left. Thank you both – thank you, Ekaterina, and thank you Grigory.
Grigory: Thank you.
Ekaterina: Thank you.