Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Making and Breaking the Political Machine in Kabardino-Balkaria

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Making and Breaking the Political Machine in Kabardino-Balkaria

Article excerpt

Abstract: Three very different forces are contesting social powers in the North Caucasus republics: the ex-nomenklatura from the 1980s reliant on their administrative skills, insider knowledge, and patronage networks; political capitalists or "oligarchs" wielding the weapons of violent entrepreneurship developed in the 1990s; and the social movement of young Islamist zealots rising from the mid- and lower strata in the 2000s. While the fractured elites of ex-nomenklatura and violent entrepreneurs are common results of the Soviet collapse, in the North Caucasus the cultural legacies of Islamic highlanders provided the ideological framing, transnational brokerage, and action repertoire to the third force of antisystemic rebels. The stalemated triangular contention, however, is fraught with state collapse rather than revolution.


Terrorist violence has become the hallmark of post-Soviet politics in the North Caucasus. (1) In April 2013, its effects allegedly reached as far as the finish line of the Boston Marathon, forcing the American public and policy makers to realize that Russia's internal security threats could become transnational.

What causes such destructive energy and ferocity? The prevalent explanations for the political violence raging in the North Caucasus can be grouped under three broad categories: historical legacies and ethnic identities, socioeconomic problems including the "backwardness" of the region, and the political ideology of Islamic jihad, which has spread from the Middle East to supplant the region's discredited programs of secular nationalism. (2) Each of these three broad drivers highlight certain facts, yet they represent rather distant and indiscriminate causal explanations. Our intent here is to explore a more proximate layer of causality informed by state-centered theories of political mobilization and ideological framing. (3)

Our central argument is that the state is paralyzed from the top down in the Muslim-majority republics of the North Caucasus, such as Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachai-Cherkessia. Chechnya is a special case of the Russian state center delegating its powers and finances to an ostensibly tame warlord. The semblance of functioning sub-national states in the region is maintained by the flow of federal subsidies and the sheer inertia of Soviet-era institutions that remain deeply ingrained in the structures of everyday life, especially in urban centers. The Russian state, however, lost both the moral authority and infrastructural power to act on anything beyond daily repression and the brazenly inequitable redistribution of rents and subsidies. (4)

What makes the situation in the North Caucasus different from the rest of the Russian Federation is neither particular venality, nor the heavy dependence of local governments on budget transfers. It is rather the presence of an anti-systemic force that gives local politics a peculiarly triangular shape. Social power is contested by three distinct kinds of political elite: the late Soviet era officialdom; rent-seeking political capitalists (a local variety of "oligarchs") originating in the 1990s; and the Islamist underground, which emerged in the 2000s, putatively as an alternative state and society. None of the forces so far can prevail over the others. The triangular gridlock of three contestants, each with a distinct group culture and action repertoire, thus becomes at the same time both the consequence of state weakening and the cause furthering its collapse. This condition, as we demonstrate through in-depth case study analysis of Kabardino-Balkaria below, represents further stages in the erosion of the Soviet state following its disintegration in 1991.

Using historical evidence from the twentieth century, we will show that in the internal ethnic fringes of the USSR, state elites were organizing around neo-patrimonial chief-like figures rather than formal rational-bureaucratic institutions. …

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