Tag Archives: Denis Sokolov

Interview with Denis Sokolov conducted by Lidia Mikhalchenko.

On April 20, 2020, a spontaneous protest took place in North Ossetia. Official statements by the government described them as violation of public order aimed to subvert the quarantine measures. Is this an accurate description?

– Well, the protest was not so spontaneous in reality. Vladimir Cheldiev, an opera singer usually residing in St. Petersburg, published a call to the residents of Vladikavkaz to gather and protest quarantine.

Vadim has recently returned to Ossetia to tend to family matters and over the past few months has emerged as the face of protests in Ossetia. Two days prior to the protest, he was detained on charges of either “willingly spreading false information on the coronavirus”, or for “exerting physical violence against law enforcement representatives.” (Cheldiev is now facing charges under part 1 of article 381 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, use of mild violence against a government representative).

Vadim Cheldiev rose to fame in 2018, in the aftermath of a fire at the Elektrotsink (Электроцинк) factory. Using his social media accounts, he issued calls to close the factory, started conducted negotiations with the Region’s Head Bitarov, criticized local officials as being “anti-people” and vented about global consipracies.

Vadim Cheldiev’s videos resonate with a widespread folk mythology that all evils (from environmental degradation, loss of respect for elders, dishonorable conduct by women) stem from departure from the original “Indo-European” traditions.  Cheldiev’s accounts in Telegram and Instagram have tens of thousands of subscribers and readers. Cheldiev has an incredible charisma. During protests, one of the demands voiced by the crowds was Cheldiev’s release from detention.

This activist and defender of traditional values believes that there is no pandemic; that Covid-19 is a conspiracy concocted to enslave simple people; that the Russian government has turned the country into a colony for the West.

What’s different about the Ossetian protests is that here, out of the blue, a deeply traditional ethnos, whose worldviews and believes have been long overlooked and dismissed by officials, experts and journalists – started a riot. This is an ethnos living in a harsh reality, full of inconvenient and even outlawed beliefs: extremism, conspiracy theories, inciting hate toward other social and ethnic groups, condoning Stalinism, hatred of the elites. Of note, Russian riot police from OMON, Rossgvardiya, FSB operatives and many other officials live in the same exact world. If you pose a question on fears of having a microchip implanted during vaccination, the percentage of affirmative responses among the protesters and among those dispersing the protest, both on the streets and by issuing decrees from cushy offices, would be about the same.

The coronavirus quarantine measures and the accompanying administrative chaos have achieved something that opposition politicians and civil activists had failed to achieve 20 years ago, – they have awakened and mobilized the people.  Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. The incomes have been falling for several years straight; the quality of governance has been declining for several decades; regional officials, local businesses and even criminal networks have degraded. All of these factors have contributed to the shrinking opportunities for social advancement for ambitious youth.

Financial flows and oil exports, that have previously supported the system, have collapsed.  Cab drivers, small business owners, their employees, all those who had been living hand-to-mouth, are now left without any means to support themselves. All of this is happening against the backdrop of two restaurants that continued their operation even during quarantine, and both, not surprisingly, belong to the head of the Republic.

The Vladikavkaz protest is a protest against the elite and against modernization (as modernization in the minds of the people aims to advance the elites’ interests).  This is an uprising not only against the region’s head Vyacheslav Bitarov, but also against the current system as a whole.

This protest cannot be stopped by arrests (according to the official statistics, 69 people have been detained at the April 20, 2020 protest), puny handouts (159 families have reportedly received cash aid the day after the protest). Such half-measures only further enrage the people. It is possible, however, that rescinding the quarantine measures would temporarily dampen the wave of dissatisfaction.

The police, Rossgvardiya and the Cossacks that can be successfully unleashed against “foreign agents” and “unhappy urban dwellers” are not effective against a people’s uprising. One of the Rossgvardiya divisions from the Krasnodar Kray outright refused to dispatch units for the dispersal of the Ossetia protest; and after their shifts ended, the Vladikavkaz OMON had to be transported from the protest square to the barracks and not their homes, out of fear that they might  join the protesters.

Are any influential political leaders directing the protests or emerging from them?

– There were no influential political leaders among the protesters in Vladikavkaz. Of course, there are many politicians who overtly or secretly oppose Bitarov inside the Republic’s parliament, and at various municipal government offices, and among Ossetia’s representatives in the Russian State Duma and in the Federation Council. Most regional influencers and opinion-leaders are also in opposition to the head of the Republic. However, this protest is against all elites. So, the political intrigue is focused on discrediting potential candidates that may vie for the post of the head of the region whenever it becomes vacant. Ossetian legislators in Moscow have taken a huge political hit for their vote for (or not voting against) the initiative to move the Victory Day parade to September 3, which is not only the end of the World War II but is also the day of mourning for the Beslan tragedy victims.  However, all of these political games have lost their relevance for the time being. If the protest continues to grow, someone may attempt to reign it in, but that’s a different topic for discussion.

Is it fair to say that small businesses have taken the biggest hit from the quarantine?

– Yes, it is fair to say so. Small business is the source of sustenance for many in Ossetia. Small private cattle farms, vegetable gardens, orchards; and in urban areas – hair salons, markets, shops, restaurants, coffee shops. Protection racket income from these small businesses also supported criminal groups and the law enforcement. So those two groups are now in total alignment with the people.

Here, we have a situation where supposedly everything was shut down to fight the virus. At the same time, the restaurants owned by President Bitarov continue to operate.

Those with access to the administrative resource, levers, connections, take as much as they can without thinking twice. Federal chains such as “Pyatyorochka” or “Magnit” continue to operate; federal home goods stores remain open. Such businesses, by the way, are also perceived as part of the elite conspiracy against the people.

Why has Ossetia spawned so many coronavirus-deniers and corona-skeptics?

– The opera singer Cheldiev, whom we have discussed earlier, uncovered a story about a woman who died in a hospital from causes not related to the pandemic. The hospital administrators attempted to falsify the cause of death, even offered a bribe to the family of the deceased for their silence. Region’s doctors and health care workers are severely underpaid, the entire system is very corrupt, and in this situation they anticipated a direct benefit: 50,000 roubles for working with a coronavirus patient for the nurse, double that sum for the doctor, and there have been several nurses and doctors who have been handling the patient. But it’s a small city, so the ruse was debunked.

But that’s not all. The Kremlin propaganda can say what it wants on Russia Today. It can discuss how Russia is better than Europe and America in addressing the coronavirus; it can send formidable anti-virus dispatches to Italy and Serbia; it can sound outrage about the mass graves in Brooklyn; it can show the nightmare of the pandemic in the United Kingdom. But none of this would turn Russia into a developed country. None of this would restore the health care system that has been destroyed. Virus is a great fact-checker. The Russian government is unable to control the pandemic in our country or the number of victims neither organizationally, nor technologically. It is more likely to exacerbate the situation with sawing panic, or banning planned surgeries and providing health care to non-coronavirus patiens.

Russia is oftentimes favorably compared to Italy where there is a great proportion of recorded deaths. But in Italy, an average life expectancy is 85 years, and the average age of those perished from the virus is 82. In Russia, an average life expectancy is 72, so the majority of the Russian citizens die even before becoming a risk group for the virus at the age of 65-70.

North Ossetia, by the way, has the lowest life expectancy in the Northern Caucasus- 75 years. Therefore, Russia as a whole, and North Ossetia specifically, lack a real social infrastructure to impose strict quarantine measures. This is in contrast to the developed countries, where hundreds of millions of socially active citizens find themselves in the prime risk category. In Ossetia, sustaining a household economy is a much more acute of a problem than an abstract risk to die from pneumonia with lethality rate of 0.22%, if one goes by the estimates from the Bonn University. So, corona-skepticism fits within the anti-elite and even anti-Western narratives in Ossetia. And this can quickly spread throughout other regions of Russia.

How would you interpret the demand of Vladikavkaz protesters to appoint a new temporary government headed by Vitaly Kaloev? (Kaloev is an architect, a deputy in the Vladikavkaz Council of Representatives. He came to fame in 2004, when he murdered a swiss air controller whom he thought responsible for the plane crash that killed his wife and two children.)

– Again, this is consistent with the anti-elite nature of this movement. Kaloev is perceived as a people’s person.  This is also consistent with the anti-Western and anti-modernization tendency of the protest. Kaloev has punished those responsible for the death of his loved once in accordance with the tradition, while breaking the laws of a European country and then had to serve a prison term for it. In the spirit of ethnic traditions, he did the right thing, prioritizing vendetta over the law. So, in essence, he purveys the spirit of the riot even better than Vadim Cheldiev.

Kaloev himself did not support this demand. Was he pressured by someone?

–  I don’t want to speculate on his motives, you should ask him personally. But he is more of a symbol of the anti-elite movement and not a bureaucrat. He belongs to the streets and not at an office.

What specific initiatives of the federal government evoked such a explosive response from the people?

– The Russian government response to the pandemic has been inadequate and inconsistent.  By default, they tried to emulate European initiatives. However, in Europe, the government provides support to people who lose their jobs. Russia, currently, is suffering severe financial losses due to the drop in energy prices and an unfortunate attempt by Igor Sechin to play poker with the Saudis. While I think it is too early to proclaim the end of the Putin’s era, it is definitely the beginning of the end. This is the end of the time when Putin was extolled as national leader, when he functioned as an effective arbiter for competing elite clans and groups, when he was in charge of doling out and distributing the oil rent, the times when power and money contributed to his charisma. All of that is over, along with the oil revenues and the love of the people. He is a scared and confused 67-year old, disconnected from reality retired colonel, who is in fact in the main group for dying from Covid-19.

The fact that this truth has become so exposed, is not so much a mistake, but an insurmountable challenge for the Kremlin. The people stopped seeing the great leader in Putin; now they see a helpless crook. People, of course, knew all of this before, but their optics were different. All of this “unitarian federation” is crumbling down, the regions are forced to improvise, without direction, funding or experience. And this time it’s impossible to simply throw money at the problem, since there is no money left.

Putin announced that he has granted discretion to governors in addressing the threat of the pandemic, since, according to him, everyone knows better what is going on in their own regions.

– This crisis has exposed just how rotten and insolvent is the Russian power vertical. Previously, there was an illusion of a powerful state. But the inside is rotten through and through. The pandemic is a tough test for the regime. Similar to a war that demonstrates what is the potential of a military force, this pandemic shows the potential of the Russian state. Of course, this is not a problem just for Russia; other weak states throughout the post-Soviet space are going through the same challenge.

So, Russia is in the midst of a constitutional crisis, an oil crisis and now the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a triple hit.

– Yes, this has amounted to the perfect storm. Even somehow the federal government could come up with money for social relief, they would not be able to get to the people. This is because the entire bureaucracy understands that the material wealth of the state is depleted, and they would pillage and syphon off whatever comes their way. The situation would be similar to that during the collapse of the Soviet Union, when funds are disbursed, but “the soil does not hit the bottom of the pit”- it is stolen mid-fall. We can anticipate that officials will start stealing all they can, without any limitations. Together with those who are supposed to catch them.

Ossetia has more monuments to Stalin than other regions. It is a region with many supporters of communism. It is not rare to see the red Soviet flag or seal on houses or as car stickers. Is there a possibility that the protesters would espouse this ideology?

– I think it will remain as it is now.  It will be a hodgepodge of traditionalism, communism, anticommunism,  anti-globalism, Stalinism and anti-Stalinism, because severe hardship is experienced by people of many different worldviews. And those worldviews are not so important. Again, I would like to stress that this is an anti-elite protest in its essence. The mythology behind is secondary. The people don’t trust local authorities and the current state system. Entrepreneurs whose revenues used to be supported by good relationships with government officials, have lost them. They are aggressively crowded out by large players and chain retail, including by taking away the land. This is a situation similar to what has happened in Kislovodsk. Three thousand cab drivers have been quarantined, and two hundred of “insiders” continue to drive, with a special dispensation from the regional administration. And the situation is the same in almost all of the Russian regions.

Do you anticipate that the Ossetian protest will grow? What is your prognosis?

– I don’t think that it will grow, but it won’t die out either. Protest sentiments will grow.  People’s incomes have been taken away, government showed their ineptitude. Other regions also feature protest sentiments. Local authorities are not in a position to rescind the quarantine, they are not so brave. However, we should anticipate the weakening of the quarantine measures, otherwise there will be an explosion.

Is there a protest potential in Chechnya?

– Absolutely, there is; but it has not manifested yet. The head of Chechnya Kadyrov has its own military and several hundreds of people embedded throughout various divisions of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. His people understand fully well why he is holding his position, and anyone from Kadyrov’s inner circle can be easily arrested. The Chechen leadership has a very fine infrastructure which controls financial flows through support network created by Kadyrov Sr. This not a state structure, but a criminal one. It controls the money flows, state institutes and public figures.

What we have ahead of us are huge budget losses. This summer, tens of thousands of Chechens living in Europe come to Chechnya for traditional vacations, but this time, they won’t bring their usual remittances. Kadyrov is also in a more precarious position in Moscow, where he is involved in a skirmish brewing against the backdrop of the “perfect storm”.

So you think all those who have been forced to publicly apologize under Kadyrov would go to the streets with new messages and attitudes?

– Those who had to apologize would probably be more radical. This would not be tomorrow but can happen at any time. And I don’t think a mass protest in Chechnya will be peaceful.

In Dagestan, using quarantine violation as an excuse, authorities have detained an activist and broke his nose, which was even video recorded. Why has this abuse not caused any protests?

– The political and civil society field has been “mopped up”. The people are not prepared to defend activists, activists are not perceived as “of the people”. It is very unfortunate.  If, in the near future, a mass protest takes place in Dagestan or another Russian region, it will not be one similar to the peaceful marches through the Bolotnaya or Sakharov Squares, it will look more like the April 20 protest in Vladikavkaz. It will not be about democratic values, but about revenge and about redistribution, sadly.

Events in Vladikavkaz can be described as mass unrest. What would you call other similar events throughout the Caucasus?

– In Russia, by and large, there are no riots, there are only civil and corporate peaceful protests. In the North Caucasus, each of such events has a regional flavor. Street rallies in Ingushetia, protests in Dagestan, Cherkessian marches, congress in Ossetia.

Ingushetia used to have a group of civil activists, all of whom were detained; the leaders were put in prison with long terms, with the exceptions who has managed to immigrate. Such people are not under the control of the government, and the government does not understand how to interact with them. They express their civic positions.

Protests in Kabardino-Balkaria and Ossetia are very archaic, they include historic myths, the agenda is different there. At the same time, in Kabardino-Balkaria a year ago we didn’t see the same level of anti-elitism that we observe in Ossetia today. Traditionalism serves different purposes.

What options does the Russian government have for solving this problem?

– I don’t think the government has any options. It has deprived itself of a maneuver space. The bureaucracy has degenerated to the point where it’s not able to solve any political problems.  Moscow can try to end quarantine very quickly. This may give the government some time. The transformation of the Russian political system is unavoidable, but Putin and his circles decided to fortify their grip on power by force, so they don’t have anywhere to retreat. They won’t give up without a fight. The big question is what would come out of this storm.

How can the civil society provide support?

– With solidarity. For example, the activists in St. Petersburg and Moscow should not view so negatively the differences between them and civil activists from the Caucuses. Maybe it makes sense, by using Caucasus as a case study to perform some self-assessment, — what’s going on in our own regions, what key agendas and interests are behind the leaders and people in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Now is a good time for such evaluation. And, of coutse, some of the civil society activists should be prepared to transform into politicians.

What can the West do to help activists in Russia?

– Perhaps by supporting the “new urbanites”, which are now present not only in cities but also in rural areas due to social media and access to smartphones and internet connection. This is a fairly new social group. It has already brought to power Nikola Pashinyan in Armenia and continues to support him through very challenging circumstances. They were also a critical part of the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity.

The Summer 2019 protests in Moscow have scared and paralyzed the government. “New urbanites” value independence from corporations and the corporate state, they want to be in charge of their own lives, they already are a part of the globalized world, they don’t want to work in the government, because they don’t see any politics, just a very depressing bureaucracy.

The new urbanites are at the same time the commissioner and the executor of constructive societal changes. They are the main lever which can organize the deeply post-Soviet ethnos with all of their phobias and conspiracy theories, into a modern state. No Putin with his technocrats and bureaucrats can do such a thing.

In 2018-2019, the Ingush people have demonstrate quite well the creative potential of youth incorporated into the modern globalized world. There, civil society activists managed to transform into an alternative political elite.

I recommend we pay close attention to these people. They have not gone through the enlightenment programs of the 90’s and 00’s, they were just born then, and they are have only recently become adults. But they don’t want to remain in the passenger seat, they want to steer. They are not content with repeating the lives of their parents. We have to find new ways to work with this new cohort, as well as for the new circumstances that we are finding ourselves.

Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation recently sat down with Denis Sokolov, an expert on security and the North Caucasus, to talk about Russia’s current power structure, its link to criminal networks, the danger it poses, and the need for the West to work with Russia’s regional leaders in order to tackle these challenges.


The “market of violence” is spreading internationally

“In principle, we can say that the Russian government today is a political elite consisting of the post-Soviet bureaucracy, intelligence officers and criminals. Together they form a political class that governs the Russian state, in which criminal networks are built in, and their activities go far beyond Russia,” says Sokolov.

Over the years, the security services, which have risen to a position of power, have incorporated these criminal actors into the system. This differs from pure organized crime in that, in addition to direct violence, there is also the violence that is facilitated by authorities – the judicial system, law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies and administrative bodies.

In the 2000s, adding to income generated from illicit activities, the ruling powers introduced economic institutions into the system, providing revenues from energy sources, natural resources and infrastructure enterprises. “They receive most of it legally, through dividends from public companies such as Rusal, Rosneft, Gazprom,” says Sokolov.

As the system has become entrenched, its threat to the international community has grown due to the emergence of political interests within this mafia. There may be economic motivations, but when it comes to control in the Middle East or Ukraine, political interests clearly prevail, says Sokolov. And the “mixed ontology” of the system – fragments of the state, organized crime and the security services – have manifested in the hybrid tools used by the Russian political elite: unleashing wars in local conflicts, informal armed groups, outright bandits, agents networks, criminal money, co-opting Western politicians, propaganda and disinformation.

The North Caucasus plays a significant role in the spreading of this “market of violence,” says Sokolov, having significant influence within Russia and spreading beyond borders as well. One of the most powerful criminal groups is that led by Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, with its private army and FSB backing. It represents an inseparable mix of criminals, intelligence officers and jihadists, with a network operating in Georgia, Ukraine, Turkey, Syria and Europe. According to various sources, up to 7,000 combatants who took part in the war in Syria came from Russia, primarily from the North Caucasus. Of these, according to various studies, about 2,500 primarily came from the North Caucasus, 500 people have gone to war from Chechnya, and 2,000 second-generation of emigrants after the Chechen wars have traveled through Istanbul from Europe. Those who survived have later gone to Turkey and Ukraine, says Sokolov.


Losing control

The question that arises is whether Putin maintains control over this spreading network. “I think that his control is constantly diminishing,” says Sokolov.

Over the last five years, Russia’s involvement in various conflicts and the use of hybrid tactics has led to a transfer of decision-making from the top to the bottom, says Sokolov. The situation is complicated by the various competing interests, which range from entrepreneurial activity to economic and political motives.

“This is a mosaic, which has not been described in detail – I have not seen publications describe this mosaic in detail, but it would be useful to understand how it is organized,” says Sokolov, adding that if Putin himself is no longer in control, it would be useful to know who is. “It’s a matter of security,” says Sokolov.

And in the case of Kadyrov, with his private army and transnational networks of gangsters and agents, the Chechen strongman sometimes acts on direct orders from Moscow, but other times makes decisions independently, at his own risk.

In a way, the North Caucasus represents Moscow’s declining influence, says Sokolov. There are fewer people who represent Moscow, and generally speaking fewer Russians as well. In the eastern and western Caucasus, Islam and alternative ideologies of independent statehood are developing. In some regions, conflicts in the criminal world are no longer resolved through gangster methods, but through sharia. For now, it is more convenient for Kadyrov to maintain the status quo, rather than to embrace separatism, but when Moscow runs out of money, Sokolov asks, how will it remain in control?

The network as a whole is fueled by and kept together by revenues from natural resources, and Moscow can more or less hold on to its authority as long as there is enough money, says Sokolov.


Growing risk of conflict and violence

There is a growing danger of conflict and violence within and outside of Russia, due to rising tensions between Moscow and Russia’s regional powers, says Sokolov.

The parallel process of a generational shift is underway among the ruling elite, says Sokolov, and to maintain control Moscow has appointed bureaucrats and siloviki to replace regional heavyweights. However, the new appointees are not integrated into the regional powers, says Sokolov, forcing them to rely on the FSB to assert their power.

“Thus, the chief of the regional FSB becomes a ‘warlord’ of a vast territory,” says Sokolov, “and I think that regional politics will see the development of competition with these warlords. They will try to strengthen their positions and deprive the centralized powers of the opportunity to change the composition at the regional level of the FSB.”

On the other hand, these FSB officers are driven mainly by economic interests while the regional elites – local politicians, regional business owners and criminal actors – will try to protect their own economic interests. Yet in order to protect these interests, Sokolov says, they must rely on ethnic, religious or regional groups. This is the case in the North Caucasus, he says, where there are many such groups, which can easily be mobilized. Raising the role of these regional identities may lead to the emergence of a process of de-colonization.

Moreover, in the absence of fair political processes, the only option for regional elites in this conflict is to resort to violence – all types of violence, says Sokolov.

“There is a risk that the whole network will fight among themselves and compete for favoritism with the centralized powers, as we saw in the Caucasus,” says Sokolov, adding that such conflicts could take place in many other regions, including outside of Russia.

If at some point, the situation gets out of control to the extent that the global community imposes tougher sanctions against the major companies that generate financing for the network, it can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this would help decrease violence outside of Russia, since there will be less money to finance external military initiatives, says Sokolov. But on the other hand, cutting off funding could increase criminalization within Russia even more. Revenues from natural resources would still find their way into the system – in ever more disintegrated and illicit ways – creating more players and making this “market of violence” more competitive. “We need to be prepared that it doesn’t all turn into Iraq,” says Sokolov.


The role of the West

To avoid the worst, the West should build closer ties with Russia’s regional elites, says Sokolov. To some extent, this work is already underway, mainly between business communities, yet more should be done.

“It is clear that at the political level, there is no such work going on today. There are no legislative or administrative mechanisms for this, and there is no motivation to develop these mechanisms due to the risks involved,” says Sokolov.

“It is, of course, a challenge,” says Sokolov, “yet there is a need to at least develop policies toward working with the regional and industry elites in Russia, and to at least understand who these people are.” In addition to the business communities, this cooperation could also include regional political, community, ethnic and religious leaders, says Sokolov.

But is it possible to have such cooperation within Russia? “There is a clear need for discussions in the regions today about how to organize life inside the regions, how to arrange the rules of the game within the regions. Because everyone understands that the system in its current state does not have a future. It will not be able to exist for long and it is impossible to develop in this system. There is a definitely a demand for change,” says Sokolov.

On May 19, 2018, in Moscow, supporters of Alexei Navalny founded a new party “Russia of the Future” (Россия будущего). Navalny himself is under an administrative arrest for a “repeat violation of the law pertaining to the organizing of a public event” which refers to his May 5, 2018, countrywide demonstration under the slogan “He is Not Our Czar”. Around 1500 demonstration participants have been arrested throughout Russia.

Around the same time, on May 21, 2018, about 15,000 Circassians joined a memorial march dedicated to those who lost their lives fighting for the independence of Circassia. This is the largest turnout since the march originated in the early 90’s. Circassians clearly are harboring historic and contemporary grievances against the Russian government.

From the video coverage of the two events, it is evident that the majority of participants of both, the Navalny demonstration, as well as those in Nalchik, have been born after the mid-80’s and grew up using social media and smartphones. Today they constitute about 30% of Russia’s working age population, and by the end of Putin’s current term will amount to about 60%. This population wants to live in a different Russia.

If they are to realize their vision of living in a different country, those fighting for democracy, those fighting for a free Circassia, and many other groups, must make deals with each other. This has to be done directly, without Kremlin intermediaries. Moreover, in order for this to happen, the new social contract must involve regional elites, — those who control the financial flows, assets, and violence within the various regions of the Russian Federation.

Regional business owners, criminal bosses and law enforcement officials— in essence, all former or still active bandits—can gain political and economic sovereignty only with the support of the population at large.  This piece is an attempt to explain three points: 1. Why the entrepreneur strongmen must be involved in modernization efforts; 2. Why they should be interested in getting involved; and 3. How this process would look in practice.

 

Well-Armed Gentlemen

Simply passing good laws is not enough for political modernization to take place. Armed elites must be compelled to observe these new laws. And up to now, this has only happened, crudely speaking, in two ways:

  1. As described by the American sociologist Charles Tilly, the modern state is created by organized crime as a way to settle military and political competition among more or less equal opponents. This has been the case in Western Europe and North America. Mature democracy, therefore, is a product of competition between stationary bandits and institutionalized organized crime through political mechanisms, including labor unions. This is a long and expensive process; the pioneers that took this approach did so due to the lack of alternatives, and, thereby, willingly or unwillingly, created a contemporary open society.
  2. As a result of the absorption of one entity by another already mature jurisdiction (including ones created by means described above), with simultaneous acceptance of rules by all social groups (including strongmen) integrating them into the democratic society. This can happen as the result of an occupation and removal of military aristocracy from power (the way it happened in Japan when it was occupied by the U.S.) or voluntarily, for example, the way it happened during the secession of the three Baltic States from the U.S.S.R. The Norms and institutions in the newly independent Baltic States were, for the most part, borrowed from the E.U. National elites; and almost all of the social groups perceivedsaid transition to denote the country’s return to its original historically ordained path. By the early 2000’s, former criminals and strongmen of the Russian-speaking Narva in Estonia had cleaned up their act and turned into law-abiding entrepreneurs and politicians. Some have even agreed to serve prison terms in order to remain within European jurisdiction.

Georgia is a telling example of a policy reversal, after the political defeat of Mikheil Saakashvili, exposing the social mechanics of such a transition. During his time in power, Saakashvili succeeded in consolidating parts of the Georgian elite around the idea of importing good institutions and integrating into the European Union. He even managed to temporarily usurp the monopoly on violence, sidelining organized criminal networks. However, to Moscow’s satisfaction, his successor Bidzina Ivanishvili managed — with the help of the revanchist old political and criminal elites with ties to Russian organized criminal networks, the Georgian clergy; and by using the institution of elections, capitalizing on his opponents’ crude mistakes as well as on the post-Soviet infantilism of certain civil activists — to freeze Georgian reforms and push the Saakashvili team out of Georgian politics.

At this point, Ukrainian reforms also look like forced concessions by the Petro Poroshenko Administration to civil activists and business associations in wartime and under pressure from Europe and the U.S. Criminals networked with Russian organized crime as well as law enforcement officials remained in the camp of the corrupt bureaucracy.

In Russia, the rut is even deeper, yet there are practically no real forces outside of the ruling class similar.For example; to the networks of entrepreneurs in Ukraine, the only functioning political mechanism in Russia is the FSB, whose regional directorates control investigations, law enforcement agencies, courts, criminals, bureaucrats (including governors sitting atop financial flows), and large business enterprises. Its structure and culture is similar to organized crime which has taken control of the state, society, and even international businesses.

Therefore, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, conditions of political modernization are equal to the conditions of change in rules of behavior of well-armed gentlemen in this society.

A question follows: why would the armed gentlemen accept such a change?

 

Why Bandits Need Democracy

This “Chekist Order” that has subjugated courts, the police and organized crime in Russia is a completely new state, no longer the U.S.S.R, nor a criminal post-Soviet Russia.  It’s a police state in which the monopoly on violence, in fact, is delegated by the FSB regional directorate heads. With the threat of criminal investigations, they keep a firm grip on everyone, from governors to owners of gas stations. When direct physical violence is required to deal with activists, they turn to the Department of Countering Extremism and when violence is needed to deal with public figures, even with representatives of the law enforcement bureaucracy, they turn to private paramilitary forces.

Neither business owners nor criminals like this arrangement. As an entrepreneur from Dagestan put it, “when in Moscow even the smallest commercial entities started increasingly to employ people who introduced themselves as former officers of the KGB, FSK, FSB, GRU, and others, or who were even on active duty, it has become clear that capitalism would not be taking hold. Instead, there would be banditry served under different sources (in law, outside of the law), but not capitalism. There is no point in trying to think in economic terms.”

Russia’s regional business is hemorrhaging. In the early 2000s, carbons, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, lumber and fertilizers were taken away from the regions. In the decade after that, the manufacturing of vodka, local electric power networks, and gas pipes were taken. As we speak, the regions are losing control over chain retail, agricultural production.  New tariffs are being levied on long-haul truck drivers, and ideas are floated on taxing the self-employed.  My friend who owns a small chain of stores used a metaphor to describe the situation: “it is as if your bloodstream was open with a small cut. The blood flows, and you are slowly growing weaker and weaker. There are fewer resources and no means to fight back.”

As small and medium-size business is degraded, the income of the corrupt system itself at regional levels is dropping as well. The only remaining source of profit is government contracts. But Moscow meddles with a heavy hand even there. More or less powerful governors and mayors that cannot be controlled from Moscow are imprisoned and their replacements are sent from the capital — young bureaucrats trained by the Kremlin’s Personnel Reserve Program or former law enforcement agents. This is a result of a generational change within Putin’s circles, which has entered the indefinite stage of the political golden years.

All of this is part of Putin’s attempt to raise the stakes by taking the Russian world hostage and securing his rule indefinitely.  He is walking on thin ice, however, and the current regional policy is more dangerous for the regime than even a moderate drop in oil prices or protests against toxic landfills.

Owners and beneficiaries of liquid assets in Russia’s regions— electrical power companies, retail, natural resources and agricultural complexes— are losing assets as well as the ability to pass property on to their heirs. They either run, like Akhmed Bilalov and Yevgeny Chichvarkin; or sell their assets, like Sergey Galitsky, vodka manufacturers and intensive garden owners from Kabardino-Balkaria, and owners of private oil service companies from Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region; or they are already in detention or prison, like Vyacheslav Derev and the Magomedov brothers; or they have just been released from prison like Magomed Kaitov.

Whether they understand it or not, the only way for regional elites and large businesses not only to preserve their assets but to survive and keep something to pass down to their children is by taking down the political system. This process can notionally be divided into two phases.

The first phase— decentralization. Large land-owners in Southern Russia could easily strike a deal with rural communities; organized crime can do the same with mayors, governors and labor unions. They need each other’s support. Regional politicians and civil activists would not survive without the protection of the well-armed gentlemen. This was a lesson learned long ago in the North Caucasus due to the traditional importance of familial and communal ties. But other regions, little by little, will come to the same realization.

The Second Phase entails the transfer of functions of safeguarding persons, private property, contract, civil liberties and transparent elections to independent judiciary and law enforcement institutions. Today, due to advances in communications technology, a wholesale direct import of institutions is possible. The only political issue to resolve is what choices to make from an array of good institutions. Open and just courts, the protection of property and civil liberties, are not policy issues but prominent features of contemporary society, akin to a smartphone connected to the internet.

Russian Guard soldiers in riot gear or Cossacks with whips may personify state authority only for the older generations, but Young Russians see them as a zoo with extinct specimens, and demonstrations as a dangerous safari. Modernization of the Russian mind has already taken place. What is needed to be available on the market, are institutions such as property registries, contract enforcement systems, good educational and health care systems, and financial services. It is not necessary for each village to invent its own iPhone.

If this does not happen, regional elites and corporations will be forced to flee, the way the Baltic Republics once fled from Russia’s atavistic tentacles and to a modern jurisdiction. They, along with the FSB generals keeping tabs on them, will either run or vanish into obscurity.

 

Contract to Occupy

Putin’s Administration has been forced to replace seasoned regional politicians with the boy scouts from the Personnel Reserve Program and former bodyguards in order to create a safe environment for their own heirs. However, these local powerhouses are supported by desperate people with nothing to lose, or with youth with their own political aspirations. They are also supported by local mafia bosses whose assets are being expropriated; by former mayors and municipal heads kicked out from their posts and unable to find a spot in Putin’s United Russia party; and by bankrupt entrepreneurs. In fact, there is a handful of other protest movements that could be mobilized with ease.

The well-armed gentlemen, business owners, and opposition movement leaders already possess a full spectrum competence in order to take over control of any regional assets and entities— from municipalities and agricultural production facilities to aluminum plants and oil processing companies. De Soto’s contract for the takeover of political, industrial assets and infrastructure would work well as the action plan for economic decentralization and secure the monopoly on violence.

In the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, for example, it can happen in the following manner.  Let’s suppose there are several million acres of land formerly a part of a collective state farm and now leased for 49 years to an entrepreneur with connections within the local government. With government funds, this entrepreneur has built intensive gardens on this land and leased those too poor local farmers to operate. The local community is unhappy they have lost the collective land. The landowning entrepreneur faces a real threat of a raid takeover by federal law enforcement agents— they initiate criminal investigations against him, attempt to impound his property, and their ransoms demands keep growing.

One way for this entrepreneur to liberate himself from the direct pressure of the strongmen would be, together with civil activists, to organize mass demonstrations, and with the pressure from the local population to take the land out of the jurisdiction of the Republic. For example, the land can be turned into a shared ownership property and a collective venture could be created. In such a scenario, of course, the large landowner would have to make deals with the local community. But there he is likely to have relatives, he would have enough money for such negotiations, he is known by local farmers, and his small security detail would turn into the core of a national movement.

There are real-life examples of municipalities in Dagestan receiving compensation for land flooded for hydroelectric power station reservoirs as the result of the municipal leader airing the issue with the local community. In this case, neither strongmen nor the mafia dons were willing to go against several thousand angry men and women.

In theory, RUSAL’s aluminum plants and northern oil companies from Western Siberia are not that different from collective farms. The young bureaucrats from the Personnel Reserve Program would have a hard time dealing with the armed men if they all of a sudden side with labor unions or with those protesting new landfills. Several such scenarios playing out throughout Russia would amount to a de-facto decentralization.

It is, therefore, precisely regional criminal networks and associated entrepreneurs and protest movement leaders that hold the potential to launch a decentralization process. The paradox here is that the only measure available to Moscow in such a scenario would serve to facilitate the takedown of the police state.

Trillions of rubles that Putin has promised to support infrastructure and social services, such as healthcare, education, and construction, will, no doubt, be expropriated (i.e. stolen). Regional actors would either transfer these funds offshore or use them for re-privatization of assets into their own private property. The balance of forces will inevitably shift.

Sanctions against Russian companies brought about by the foreign policy adventurism of Putin’s government, as well as the Russian counter-sanctions, are destroying corporate control over finance, decreasing the value of assets, facilitating the takeover of regulatory control as offshore funds return to Russia, and making devalued assets more attractive to investors. For example, the much cheaper shares of RUSAL (РУСАЛ) and Rosneft (Роснефть) now can be bought by regional players along with the global businesses and thereby protected by both, the international law and the “bayonets” on location.

Technological progress with its global education, market, Internet and the invincible Telegram erase borders and devalue local political sovereignty. Contemporary financial and legal instruments allow almost anybody to go to the global market and a more transparent jurisdiction. Insurance companies, retirement funds, property ownership registries, educational programs and even healthcare companies now can be headquartered in any spot on the globe. The less a government meddles in redistribution of collective resources, the less cost is imposed on its population. Regions and networked communities that join the global market and global jurisdiction would lower the cost of political institutions, compared to old democracies. Old democracies, in turn, would successfully sell their jurisdiction globally.

To end on a positive note, profit can be made from the modernization of the post-Soviet space. This motivation, in practice, is much stronger than any higher humanitarian goals. The moment this huge (and still with a future potential to expand a hundredfold and by hundreds of billions of dollars) market of the gentrification of institutes and infrastructure opens up, it will be impossible for any archaic criminal regime to counter free capital.

This article first appeared in Russian at the Republic site

As of today, there are just two real political projects that are available for the Russian Muslims that they can choose in between. They are: al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the “Islamic State” (IS – a terrorist organization banned in Russia), and Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic and major general of the Russian police, who, as of late has been positioning himself more and more so as an advocate of Islam in Russia and around the world. As of today, there is nobody else there who is capable of competing with them for Islamic youth residing in urban and rural areas. The youth, which is on its quest for radical and simple ways of its personal self-fulfillment.

Nonetheless, and however paradoxically as they may appear, these two extreme figures are similar, both as far as their content is concerned, and aesthetically so as well. They both terrify the world with their brutality and the marching of the cut-throat assassins clad in black, they both have state agencies at their disposal, and they both enjoy an enormous amount of support outside the boundaries of the territories that are under their control. They both ascended to the leadership positions throughout the course of civil wars bloodbaths. They both have managed successfully to establish their control over quite substantial fiscal flows.

The IS prisons where the security services hold, torture and execute those dissidents who oppose them on the territories of the self-proclaimed caliphate were nicknamed in a joking manner by the Russian jihadists as: “department number six,” using the analogy with the Ministry of Internal Affairs subdivision, which is in charge of countering extremism and terrorism, and which has a notoriously infamous reputation for kidnapping people, and using torture against its detainees.

Only al-Baghdadi, who is 46 years of age has been already losing his caliphate, meanwhile, the 40-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov is quite possibly getting a new lease of life, his second wind both as a politician and a religious leader. The mass rally on September 4th that took place in the city of Grozny in support of the Myanmar Muslims, which was attended by representatives of various interpretations of Islam from different other regions – it simply is Ramzan Kadyrov’s report to the general public on the work of consolidating Muslims around himself, that has been performed during the last two or three years.

Cleanup of the alternatives

The polarization of the active part of the Islamic community has always been the result of the internal policy of Russia, whether it was done consciously or not, it is not up to me to be the judge of that. The criminalization of Islamic dissidents had begun in Dagestan in 1998 when the law on the prohibition of Wahhabism was approved. Later on, in the early 2000’s, several educational projects and amnesty attempts for Caliphate followers, which refuted violence ended up with the arrests of their movement participants and in forcing their members to go underground, along with the repressions against the clerical curators.

Such Islamic party movements as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Tablighi-Jamaat, and Takfir-Waal-Hijra, which renounce the armed jihad version, were legally banned in Russia. In the mid-2000’s the attempts of the Islamic activists and intellectuals to come to an agreement with the Administration Office of the President in order to create an Islamic youth movement similar to those pro-Kremlin ones like “Ours/Our own” (“Nashi”) did not find support of the Kremlin’s political technical strategists. And the announcement of Doku Umarov’s, in which he had proclaimed the creation of the Emirate of the Caucasus (banned in Russia) and the shift of some part of the most radical activists towards joining the movement under his banners, those attempts were totally discredited.

The initiatives of Russian “converts” (those, who have converted to Islam from the Orthodoxy) organizations that are somewhat similar to the National Organization of Russian Muslims (NORM) got suppressed with equally vigorous severity, and their leaders and members were forced to emigrate outside of Russia.

The last attempt of the Muslims practicing Caliphate beliefs for peaceful co-existence with the governmental authorities were undertaken in Dagestan under the presidency of Magomedsalam Magomedov. With the support of the Administration of the President, they established an association of Islamic scholars and preachers – “Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a.” Now, most of its members have either emigrated or have been accused of supporting of the IS and sometimes those accusations were not without some legitimate merit. Small Caliphate communities continue to exist legally in the Nogai villages of the Stavropol Region, and in Ingushetia. However, in general, the cleaning up of the peaceful Islamic field has been accomplished.

The reprisals against dissidents who think differently have always been particularly brutal, in the Chechen Republic, and as far as the freedom of conscience is concerned, in the state headed by Kadyrov it was abolished in an absolutely medieval fashion: in 2016 a “spiritual and moral passportization” of the Muslims varying in age from 16 to 35 year old was launched – the document was monitored and signed by the people who bear responsibilities for the young person – the neighborhood police inspector, the head of the Teip (the Nakh family clan structure), and the head of the Wird (religious brotherhood). The most typical characteristic of the Chechen fight against dissidents is that its main criterion has always been, and it still remains either the loyal allegiance towards Ramzan Kadyrov’s or the absence of such.

Controlled underground movement

After the chaos of the Chechen wars, national movements and the turbulent re-Islamization of the 1990’s by approximately the mid-2000’s regional elites in the North Caucasus have learned how to resort to the utilization of the armed religious conflicts in their political and economic interests. From 2007 on (the announcement of the “Caucasus Emirate”) up until August 2012 (the murder of Sheikh Said Afandi Chirkeisky in Dagestan), that militant scheme was titled as the fight against international terrorism.

The correct, “traditional” Islam was put into an opposition to the Caliphate version, which was linked to the international terrorism. The history of mutual crimes committed against each other, including the killing of the well – acclaimed famous religious and social leaders were pushing each and every Muslim to define his choice towards either of the parties, despite the fact that the majority of believers attempted to take a stand of neutrality on the matter.

Both sides were putting demands to identify and pick his own side on every Muslim. In Dagestan, as well as in other regions of the country, there were Caliphate and Muftiyat (Muftiate) mosques. There were activists in both groups ready to join in the conflict at any given moment. The “Caucasus Emirate” was almost on the same legal page with the law enforcement agencies as a supplier of militant violence as a resource used as a resolution of commercial and political conflicts.

For example: in one of the of halal network bistros in Makhachkala city, where the visitors and the staff were predominantly of Caliphate belief some waiter refused the service to the police. Later on, the owner of the establishment fired that employee, in some part due to the pressure on behalf of the of law enforcement agencies, and in part due to the fact that the waiter simply did not wait on his customers. After that incident, threats followed from the organizations: “From the forest” and representatives of the “Caucasus Emirate” for firing a Muslim in order to appease the infidels.

After 2010 two things finally became quite apparent. The first thing was that Sufi Islam of the Clerical Spiritual Council has been losing its battle for the youth to the Caliphate version of Islam. It was exactly at that time when the Clerical Council Administration of the Muslims of Dagestan after it received a consent from Sheikh Said Afandi Chirkeisky, moved towards getting closer with the Caliphate religious trend, but two years later the Sheikh perished. The second thing that became apparent was that the “Caucasus Emirate” has been intertwined with the local elite and organized crime and that it has been transformed into a proxy organization, which is providing non-systematic violence to the political market of the region, making it non-transparent for the federal center.

In 2012, Sheikh Said Afandi was blown up by a female suicide bomber and the reconciliation of Sufis with Caliphates was ceased, a wave of repressions was launched against all non-systemic Muslims. A situation similar to that one in its structure has occurred in Tatarstan as well. There the cleansing of both the Caliphate followers and Hizb ut-Tahrir (banned in Russia), as well as the members of the Tablighi-jamaat, has reached its critical decisive phase after a former deputy mufti Valiulla Yakupov had been assassinated, after which an attempt to kill the mufti himself- Ildus Faizov was made. One has to separate Islam from the politicized distortions that are being used by the Islamists and Jihadists, including those ones from ISIS, which is banned in Russia.

At the very same time when the cleanup of the field commanders of the armed underground had commenced and the cleansing also began of those linked to prominent political bigwigs from among the local elite communities, who had their own private armies and their allies as part of the armed underground movement.

Said Amirov, the mayor of Makhachkala, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in Dagestan, he was accused, among other charges, of having connections to the underground movement; the Director of the Republic’s Pension Fund – Saigid Murtuzaliyev was put on the wanted search list; Ibrahim Gadzhidadayev, the leader of the Gimrin armed group was murdered, and those politicians at the Republican level, who attempted to save him were arrested. Doku Umarov, Aliaskhab Kebekov, Magomed Suleimanov, who have been consequently succeeding each other as Amirs of the “Caucasus Emirate” were liquidated. Albert Nazranov, who was in charge of establishing liaisons between the political elite of the Republic and its armed underground movement was assassinated in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. In a short period of time, all of the well respected and acclaimed leaders of the underground movement were killed.

By 2012 the “Caucasus Emirate” has been practically destroyed. In the North Caucasus, Islamic preachers and activists were pushed into Syrian war, which became a massive trend before the Olympics, and continued on ever after Al-Baghdadi announced about the creation of the caliphate creation in the summer of 2014. Ramzan Kadyrov has practically declared al-Baghdadi to be his personal enemy, especially so since according to different sources about 5,000 Chechens from Russia and Europe have joined the IS, or some of its other fronts, that are predominantly linked to Al-Qaeda (banned in Russia) and the Caucasus Emirate. Chechens who are from both IS and the Emirate are the enemies of Kadyrov.

The second generation of urban Muslims, those whose families moved from villages to cities in the 1990’s and early 2000’s gives its preference to the global projects. It does not remember regional and local problems and has no desire whatsoever to know about them. It is exactly this generation that is choosing between Kadyrov and al-Baghdadi. And, it is exactly these young Muslims, who are the target audience of the head of the Chechen Republic in his fight for the leadership position among Russian Muslims.

The second life of Ramzan

When the followers of al-Qaeda, including the leaders of the Caucasus Emirate, talk about how the IS not doing the right thing, al-Baghdadi responds by saying: the IS fighting, the IS is supporting the Sharia law on its territory, and what is it that you all are doing?

When Kadyrov’s opponents say that he is terrorizing the Chechen people more and more Muslims answer that: he is defending Muslims all over the country, as well as around the world, and that in Chechnya, which is the only republic in Russia, Sharia Law is placed above the Russian Constitution, an Islamic dress code has been established in public places. There is something that was built in post-war Chechnya, there is order set there, and it is clean. Chechen cultural autonomies across the country and the diaspora throughout Europe (and, possibly, Chechen criminal networks with similar geography) all have a certain level of support from Ramzan Kadyrov.

Kadyrov and al-Baghdadi are sharing the same target group in Russia, as well as in Turkey and Europe among those Russian migrants. In 2015 a rally named “We are not Charlie” was organized in Grozny city. Using that rally as his venue Kadyrov has annunciated himself as the ideological leader of the protest aimed against globalization and the development of Western democracies of freedom that are associated with them.

A high-publicized scandal with the persecution and murder of gay men in Chechnya in early 2017, along with the statements made by the head of the republic on the topic have enabled Kadyrov to practically implicate all those Muslims, who could not condemn his openly homophobic rhetoric along with the violence for the sake of religious reasons as the co-conspirators in the suspected murder.

Grozny city fatwa (adopted in August of 2016 by the participants of the Islamic conference held in Grozny city, declared many religious trends as sectarian ones, which also caused a scandal and criticism in the Muslim world) -it is also a dispute between al-Baghdadi and the Caliphate sheikhs, who are close with al-Qaeda, and there is a solution, although it may not be the most successful one to the most convoluted mission: how while condemning and speaking out against international terrorism, and subsequently against those Muslims, who have already embarked on the path of jihad to still secure and keep their existing loyalty, and how to gain a new one from those young Muslims, who are almost ready to follow this path.

Ramzan provides support to all Muslims in all majorly well – resonant stories in the country, as it was in the case of the Chechen women, who got insulted while being on a walk in Voronezh. He financed Iftars (a meal after sunset during the fasting period in the month of Ramadan). In Moscow, he was offering a treat in halal cafes of the capital city to all Muslims who were willing to partake in it. He is working on saving children and women from the North Caucasus – the widows and the orphans of the IS militants, who have found themselves on the territories of Iraqi and Kurdish formations after the attacks on Mosul. By doing so he becomes an ally and a partner to those children, simply common Muslims, and even to his own enemies from the “Caucasus Emirate”.

That is why the organization of a rally with a million people in attendance (according to the data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic) in Grozny city in support of the Myanmar Muslims is an absolutely logical, essentially crucial move for Kadyrov as a political and religious leader of Russian Muslims. One can say that the Chechen leader is permitted to do that. Naturally so – he is allowed to do it. However, he is positioned at the very forefront of the Russian politics, there are millions of people behind him, his popularity is increasingly growing, and as far as the decision on whether to become the leader of an Islamized social protest movement, or whether to remain a general in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, this is not even up to Kadyrov to make this decision. The choice will be made for him by the circumstances.

 This article has first appeared in Russian at the Vedomosti site.

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