Monday, August 17, 2015

Like Gorbachev, Putin Said Ready to Violate Ethnic Quota System in Non-Russian Areas

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 17 – A few months before he became the leader of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev declared that competence rather than ethnicity should be the basis of all appointments, a principle that he applied in Kazakhstan in December 1986 when he replaced the ethnic Kazakh Dinmukhamed Kunayev with the ethnic Russian Gennady Kolbin.

            Gorbachev’s “ethnically blind” approach was praised by some in Moscow and the West as an indication that he would modernize his country, but it had the effect of calling into question the understandings of non-Russians about who was to get what and thus sparked a wave of nationalism within the elites of the union republics.

            That elite nationalism in many cases joined up with the nationalism of cultural elites and larger groups of the titular nationalities in those republics; and it contributed to the desire of many who had never thought about the exit of their republics from the USSR to focus on and pursue that goal.

            Now, there are indications that Vladimir Putin is about to pursue something similar in the North Caucasus, elevating competence over ethnicity in the selection of cadres for key posts.  If he does so, the response will be even more dramatic because if Gorbachev was seen as a Soviet official, Putin is clearly viewed as an ethnic Russian one.

            Consequently, many among the elites in the North Caucasus will view what he does in that regard as the latest form of Russian nationalism and imperialism; and they will likely be even more willing to join forces with anti-Russian groups in the population, thus destabilizing Moscow’s position there.

            That Putin may be about to repeat Gorbachev’s mistake is suggested by an article by Ayk Khalatyan in an article today on the transformation of “the power vertical” in the North Caucasus (

            Khalatyan discusses the demand of Kumyks in Daghestan that one of their community be named mayor of Makachkala, something they say will “serve to restore history justice and stabilize the social-political situation in the republic” given their growth in numbers in recent years.

            But the Armenian analyst says, “the appointment to a post on the basis of ethnic membership and not personal qualities hardly correspondents to Russian law and could elicit surprise in many other Russian regions” which may not want to see a Daghestani style “system of unwritten agreements and national quotas” be applied to them.

            In the last decades of Soviet power, Khalatyan points out, the leading posts in Daghestan were handed out to representatives of the three largest peoples, the Avars, the Dargins and the Kumyks. After the USSR came apart, “the Kremlin closed its eyes to such practices;” and they continued, thus allowing the leaders of each to establish clans that really ran the republic.

            After the murders of leaders of other ethnic groups there in 2000 and 2003, the other nationalities were frozen out almost entirely from the top positions, something that infuriated them and contributed to administrative and political problems in the republic as a whole, the Armenian analyst says.

            He then reports the following: “in the opinion of a number of experts on the North Caucasus, notions about the importance of the ethnic factor in the structure of the Daghestani elite now are too exaggerated.” 

            Konstantin Kasenin, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service and a Kremlin advisor, says that the alliances leaders form are invariably “multi-national” and thus ethnicity matters less. Moreover, the population doesn’t care about this system as much as the leaders do. They are more animated by Islam than ethnicity.

            And consequently, the Moscow-based scholar argues, “ending the practice of making appointments to senior positions in the republic on the basis of nationality will not generate a serious negative reaction in Daghestani society.”

            Mairbek Agayev, the editor of Daghestan’s “Chernovik” newspaper agrees and says that “the population has distanced itself from the observation of this parity.”  He adds that only by challenging the ethnic quota system can Moscow hope to shake up the situation, gain control, and integrate the region in Russia as a whole.

            Khalatyan clearly agrees. He notes that “in recent years, the federal authorities have adopted a course of naming as heads of the republics of the North Caucasus, siloviki connected with the federal center.” These people were the right ethnicity, but they were not linked to the clans in the republic capitals.

            Moscow even named a security forces type, Lt.Gen. Sergey Melikov of the Internal Troops, to head the North Caucasus Federal District.  And there are rumors, Khalatyan says, that Melikov may be appointed to be the head of Daghestan. He is a Lezgin, and his appointment would shake up the ethnic quota system that has existed there for decades.

            One can only agree with Khalatyan that such an approach would have “far reaching consequences” in the North Caucasus, although the probable results would be very different than Moscow wants – and would resemble what Gorbachev faced when he did the same, convinced that as he was that he had no other choice if he wanted to restore central control.

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