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The North Caucasus: The Challenges of Integration (I), Ethnicity and Conflict
The North Caucasus: The Challenges of Integration (I), Ethnicity and Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Women in the North Caucasus Conflicts: An Under-reported Plight
Women in the North Caucasus Conflicts: An Under-reported Plight
Report 220 / Europe & Central Asia

The North Caucasus: The Challenges of Integration (I), Ethnicity and Conflict

Russia’s North Caucasus region is Europe’s deadliest conflict today, with some 574 deaths already this year, and the killing is unlikely to end soon.

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Executive Summary

Europe’s deadliest conflicts are in Russia’s North Caucasus region, and the killing is unlikely to end soon. The state has fought back against attacks, first claimed by Chechen separatists, now the work of jihad-inspired insurgents, that have hit Moscow, other major cities and many Caucasus communities. But its security-focused counter-in­sur­gen­cy strategy is insufficient to address the multiple causes of a conflict fed by ethnic, religious, political and economic grievances that need comprehensive, flexible policy responses. Moscow is increasingly aware of the challenge and is testing new approaches to better integrate a region finally brought into the Russian Empire only in the nineteenth century and that has historically been a problem for the Russian state. Diversity in religion, ethnicity, historical experience and political allegiances and aspirations complicate efforts to alleviate local tensions and integrate it more with the rest of the country. Understanding this pluralism is essential for designing and implementing policies and laws that advance conflict resolution rather than make differences more irreconcilable.

The challenge of ethnic nationalism has been most evident in Chechnya where two bloody wars caused tens of thousands of deaths. During the early 1990s, separatists sought full independence for their republic, but the failure of their state-building project and the ruthless manner in which Moscow fought transformed the nationalist cause into an Islamist one, with a jihadi component. Chechen fighters began to use terrorism widely, and the state responded with massive, indiscriminate force. After 2003, it adopted a policy of Chechenisation, transferring significant political, administrative and security functions to ethnic Chechens. Today the republic has gone through a major reconstruction, and its head, Ramzan Kadyrov, wields virtually unlimited power. Governance and rule of law remain major concerns, but human loss is significantly reduced. The effects of the ongoing insurgency continue to be felt across the North Caucasus, where it has spurred mobilisation around fundamentalist Islam.

Several inter-ethnic conflicts that developed at the end of the Soviet Union remain unresolved, continuing to fuel tensions. The Ingush-Ossetian conflict led to full-fledged war in 1992, as both groups asserted claims over the Prigorodny district. Though Russia invested large sums to return displaced persons and rehabilitate their communities, the Ingush in Prigorodny remain unintegrated in the rest of North Ossetia. Exclusionary historical narratives and competition over land and decision-making, fuel conflicts in other multi-ethnic republics, especially Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Stavropol Krai. Some of the groups maintain maximalist aspirations, including the change of internal borders and establishment of new ethnically-identified entities.

Inter-ethnic tensions do not presently threaten major violence, but they may grow with the recent revival of national movements that were particularly strong in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though political parties based on national or religious identity are prohibited, a new law simplifying registration is likely to make it easier for politicians with nationalist agendas to infiltrate small parties. Large investments and a return to regional elections are likely to facilitate ethnic competition and mobilisation if local communities feel their rights and interests are not adequately protected by the state. Already groups such as the Nogays, Kumyks, and Lezgins in Dagestan and the Circassians and Cossacks are sharpening their organisational capacity and political demands that tend to focus on rehabilitation and justice, state support for native language and culture, development, greater autonomy and access to land. Tensions are beginning to appear where the legal framework is not sufficient to address these, existing laws are not implemented, and police and local administrative capacity are perceived as ethnically biased and corrupt.

Many of these disputes and tensions feed into the Islamist insurgency that causes most of today’s violence. Parts of the younger generation that twenty years ago would have joined nationalist movements to address their grievances have become disenchanted with those movements and choose to join the Islamist insurgency instead. It increasingly operates across the entire region, attracting youth of all ethnicities, and attacking not only federal forces and local police, but also civil servants and elites who disagree with its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

A day rarely goes by without an attack on a Russian security official or the killing of an alleged insurgent in a counter-terrorist operation. Some 750 people were killed in 2011, and with over 500 hundred deaths in the first eight months of 2012, there appears to be little chance of a let-up in violence that has spread to parts of the North Caucasus that were peaceful only a few years ago. The threat of jihadi groups is not unique to Russia or the North Caucasus, of course, and many governments are looking for effective means to cope with it. Russia’s counter-terrorism policies have primarily focused on eradicating insurgents through heavy-handed law enforcement measures, but the need for a more comprehensive approach is becoming evident in Moscow and among local leaders.

The North Caucasus is also wracked by corrupt institutions, ineffective governance, poor rule of law and uneven economic development in a combination that leaves a vacuum some dissatisfied youth seek to fill by joining groups that appear to have resolute aims. The weakness of the institutional and economic system further undermines Moscow’s efforts to implement policies to better integrate the region and combat extremism. These systemic problems will also need to be addressed for any conflict resolution effort to succeed.

This first report of Crisis Group’s North Caucasus project outlines the region’s ethnic and national groups, their grievances and conflicts. The simultaneously published second report analyses the Islamic factor in detail: the growth of fundamentalist Islam (mainly Salafism); radicalisation of parts of the community; the insurgency; and the state’s counter-insurgency effort, which mainly aims to eradicate extremism via hard-security methods but is beginning to also use softer means, including dialogue with Salafis and rehabilitation of ex-fighters. A subsequent report will elaborate on the quality of regional governance, the rule of law, the economy and Moscow’s regional policies and offer policy recommendations for all three parts of the series.

Moscow/Istanbul/Brussels, 19 October 2012

School in Grozny in 2014. All school girls in Chechnya have to wear a head scarf. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

Women in the North Caucasus Conflicts: An Under-reported Plight

Women in the Russian republic of Chechnya have never been under such pressure as they are today. Yet not much has been written about their role, their place in society, and their rights in Chechnya and in other North Caucasus conflicts.

For more than two decades since 1994, the armed conflict between Russian federal forces and the insurgencies of the North Caucasus has been among Europe’s deadliest, churned by a vicious circle of unresolved religious and ethnic tensions, brutal counter-insurgency, lack of democratic procedures, social inequality, and bad governance. Instability and war resulted in a dramatic erosion of state capacity, weakened state institutions and the increased prominence of traditional and religious practices and intolerant ideologies.

All of this has shaped women’s experiences and roles – as victims, providers of security and perpetrators of violence – not just in Chechnya but also in the neighbouring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan.

Women’s rights violations

Women and girls in Chechnya are subject to honour killings, domestic violence, abductions for marriage and early marriages. In some Dagestani villages, they also suffer genital mutilation. In Chechnya and Ingushetia many are deprived of their children after divorce – with reference to purported “tradition” which allegedly prescribes children to be raised in their father’s family – and are often denied visiting rights. Some have been struggling to see their children for years. In Chechnya, sexual violence by close relatives, is hardly ever prosecuted; if such a crime becomes public knowledge, the victim may be killed to “purge the family shame”’.

Women and girls in Chechnya are subject to honour killings, domestic violence, abductions for marriage and early marriages.

Maternity wards in the region are below acceptable standards, resulting in preventable maternal deaths and injuries. Corruption is also omnipresent in the health system: without a bribe a pregnant woman can hardly get adequate help. Even a bribe cannot guarantee quality care: women often encounter incompetent and negligent doctors. Infant mortality in the eastern North Caucasus is almost twice that of the developed regions of Russia.

In one hospital in Ingushetia, several cases of alleged criminal negligence, including instances in which women lost their babies and reproductive organs and one woman died, have been reported, most recently in September 2015. Investigations have so far led nowhere. In Dagestan, three women reportedly died in a hospital in the town of Kizilyurt in the last couple of months, relatives claim as a result of criminal negligence. Earlier this year, the death of a woman in the maternity ward of Dagestan’s Khasavyurt brought hundreds of protesters into the streets and ended up in stone throwing and disturbances.

Most of these crimes are punishable under Russian law. Yet, Russia is not able or is reluctant to enforce some aspects of its laws when it comes to gender-based violations, in some of its North Caucasus republics where women’s problems continue to be under-researched, under-reported, and insufficiently addressed by both central and local authorities.

Women working in a bakery in Gimry, Dagestan, in 2013. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

Trapped in a legal triangle

Russian law is rather progressive in respect of the women’s rights, even though the Committee to End Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) recommends that Russia adopt more comprehensive legislation to prevent and address violence against women, and notes the absence of an effective complaints mechanism for women to claim their rights. However, for a woman in Chechnya, Ingushetia or Dagestan the situation is further complicated by the fact that Russian law is just one of the three co-existing legal systems that regulate her position: customary law, Islamic sharia law and/or Russian law. All these systems are open to arbitrary interpretations, which can lead to serious infringement of rights.

The formal Russian legal system suffers from corruption and enforcement problems. Even when Russian courts pass decisions in favour of women, the local authorities, especially in Chechnya, openly sabotage their implementation. They have, for example, ignored court orders in favour of women in custody disputes, citing “tradition”. In one case taken to the European Court for Human Rights, the Russian state itself cited “tradition” as an obstacle to enforcing custody decisions. Some mothers have been unlawfully separated from their children for years.

Three co-existing legal systems regulate a woman’s position and all three are open to arbitrary interpretations.

Victims rarely dare to seek redress, and when they do, regional law-enforcement agencies often do not react or openly obstruct. In Chechnya the state protection that victims do get sometimes involves officials who collude with suspected perpetrators. Sergey Bobrov, a federal official, the head of Chechnya’s investigative committee, tried to investigate honour killings which implicated local security officials, but received threats and was six months later dismissed from his position by President Putin. Moscow does not pay sufficient attention to investigating crimes against women, being either unaware of the problem or finding it unimportant. “They have lived this way for ages, there’s nothing we can do”, a high level federal human rights official told me.

The temporarily liberating impact of war

Today Chechen women are particularly vulnerable and at risk.

Women carried a special burden on their shoulders during the republic’s two wars. Men fought on both sides, and for those who didn’t, it was dangerous to move through the republic’s numerous checkpoints. They could be arrested, abducted, tortured or killed. Women became the main breadwinners, took care of children, cleared away debris and repaired damaged houses. They negotiated with the military, and when men were abducted by security services they blocked roads, protested, spent days in official institutions trying to establish their whereabouts, and searched through mass graves. Some eventually started to document crimes and became outspoken human rights defenders.

In the village of Agachaul, Dagestan, women wait for a family house to be blown-up by security services as a punishment for their son being member of the insurgency. Crisis Group/Varvara Pakhomenko

Paradoxically the extreme conditions of war were liberating for women. The pressure of tradition was forced aside as wartime conditions and the absence of men created an opening for women to take up leading roles in society.

Many Chechen women remain family breadwinners and still have to do all the housework, but since the war their social status has dramatically changed for the worse. After full-blown military confrontation ended and federal troops established control over the whole of Chechnya in 2003, the Kremlin launched a policy of “Chechenisation”, whereby most political, military and administrative functions were transferred to ethnic Chechens. The Kremlin put in power the formerly separatist Kadyrov family, to whom it outsourced law-enforcement and governance in the republic.

Chechnya’s 38-year-old dictator Ramzan Kadyrov declared that his regime was going to restore traditional values and mores, and today exerts immense pressure on women. He has described women as a husband’s property, whose main role is to bear children. In 2007, he introduced a strict dress code (a head scarf, shirts with long sleeves and long skirts) in government institutions, including schools.

Kadyrov describes women as a husband’s property, whose main role is to bear children.

He advocates polygamy as the solution when women run foul of traditional law, saying it is “better to be a second or third wife than to be killed”. Though he officially bans under-age marriage and bridal abduction, cases of local security servicemen forcing very young girls into marriages, and as second or de facto temporary wives have been reported. Women’s activists told me that parents are afraid their daughters be seen in public, especially in the evenings, for fear of them being noticed by people in positions of power. Families cannot resist pressure from powerful security types who may seek to take them for marriage.

Honour killings also appear to have become more common in recent years. There are no distinct state statistics about crimes committed against women in Russia, an omission that international monitoring institutions repeatedly advise state authorities to correct. Perpetrators also go to great lengths to conceal their crimes. Honour killings and domestic violence are also reported in republics beyond Chechnya. Most recently in Dagestan, a father reportedly killed his two daughters for coming home late, while another family chained a woman up for suspected misdemeanour.

Women in Agachaul, Dagestan, clean up after security forces destroyed the house of an insurgent’s family. CRISIS GROUP/Varvara Pakhomenko

Women’s radicalism

Women in the North Caucasus are not only victims of violence or peacemakers, they are also sometimes perpetrators of violence and bearers of radicalism.

Since 2000, Russia has been hit by 82 suicide bombing attacks involving 125 suicide bombers, at least 52 of whom were women. I know of several families in Dagestan whose young women adopted radical strands of Islam and then converted their siblings and even their fathers. One by one their family members joined the insurgency in Russia and were killed, or are now members of the so-called Islamic State (IS). In the last two years many radical women from the North Caucasus have resettled in areas of Syria and Iraq under IS control.

A popular jihadist slogan says: ‘It is better to be a widow of a shaheed (martyr) than wife of a coward’.

IS presents itself as the most successful jihadist project of the 21st century, enticing young radical women who want to marry mujahidin (holy warriors) with the hope to win a place in “paradise”. As one popular jihadist slogan has it: “It is better to be a widow of a shaheed (martyr) than wife of a coward”. While women’s radicalism shares similar pull and push factors to men’s, there are some specific causes: pressures of the traditional society; lack of opportunities and freedom to make their own life choices or realise their potential; sexual abuse; or traumatic relationships with husbands, brothers or parents. Understanding these is essential to devising effective de-radicalisation strategies.

Conclusion

Since the end of the Soviet Union the status and roles of North Caucasus women have undergone several transformations. Two decades of instability and conflict gave rise to authoritarian regimes, traditionalist policies and ideologies that have resulted in a dramatically deteriorated context for women’s rights, especially in Chechnya, the most affected conflict area. Local activists try to raise awareness and assist victims of abuses, but their voices are weak and the plight of women in the North Caucasus conflicts remains under-reported.

The Russian government should invest in a consistent effort to guarantee equal protection of women not only in Chechnya, but also in Dagestan and Ingushetia. Among other measures, Russian authorities should improve maternal and social services, effectively investigate gender-based violence to combat impunity, and devise effective gendered de-radicalisation strategies. The women of the North Caucasus deserve at least the same level of protection as those in other parts of Russian territory.