A Profile of the Karachai Dzhamaat

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 19

The leadership of Karachaevo-Cherkessia has loudly and vociferously claimed, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the republic is the quietest region in the Northern Caucasus (www.kavkaz.memo.ru, March 23). The minister of internal affairs of the republic has noted that “he possesses no information regarding a Karachai dzhamaat, since no such organization exists” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 24). Despite these wildly optimistic pronouncements, the leader of the Karachai-Cherkessian division of the FSB had to admit that “small groups [of militants] still remain” and that it is necessary to block Middle Eastern influences in the republic.

The Karachai dzhamaat was originally formed as a political force oriented toward an Islamic ideology in the 1989 to 1993 period. However since then it has undergone a number of significant changes, notably concerning its relationship with the authorities during the period of democratic transformation within the Russian Federation. Often the group would shift from one extreme to another, and by 1992-1993, the dzhamaat leadership was working closely with the official clergy and making far less aggressive political moves than those typical of the group in the late 1980s.

The events in Chechnya have energized those forces that had originally come together under the ideological aegis of Islam. The participation of dzhamaat members in the military campaigns in the Eastern Caucasus set new goals and created new priorities for the organization. These goals were much more concrete than those previously held, and included the takeover of political leadership in the republic and the removal of Russia’s influence in the region. At this time the older leadership of the dzhamaat was fully occupied with various projects financed by Islamic organizations and was thus unable to effectively challenge the authorities. This divergence in views led to a change in leadership and tactics for the Karachai dzhamaat.

By the second half of the 1990’s the Karachai dzhamaat staunchly opposed the Russian government. By cooperating with the Chechen radicals, it took part in the planned strategy of forcing the Russian military to spread its forces thinly across the whole of the Northern Caucasus, rather than just focusing on Chechnya. The new dzhamaat leadership worked closely with the new forces present in Chechnya, specifically the Islamic Renaissance Party and the foreign religious and military notables such as Sheikh Fathi and Emir Khattab. Such contacts allowed the dzhamaat to enter into a closer dialogue with international Islamic organizations and groups that were willing to finance and gain influence over the developing situation in the Northern Caucasus.

In Karachaevo-Cherkessia itself, members of the dzhamaat sharply criticized the ruling elite, the police and members of the official clergy, the latter being accused of promoting pro-Russian propaganda and abandoning “real” Islam. Today one of the group’s former leaders, Muhhamad Karachai (Berdzhiev), runs the educational organization al-Islamiya. “I am a centrist in religious questions and am against the outright condemnation of either Sufism or the so-called ‘wahhabites.’ My most important goal is the survival of my people and that concerns me much more than religious infighting” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 29, 2006).

Despite theses words and his well-known conflicts with members of the dzhamaat, Berdzhiev is still considered one of the most influential members within the republic’s Muslim elite. The republic’s present head mufti, Ismail Berdiev, has been frequently criticized by the dzhamaat for the way in which he mixes business with his direct religious responsibilities (www.camagat.com). On the other hand, the dzhamaat has disavowed any responsibility for the recent assaults on religious leaders throughout the republic.

A unique feature of the Karachai dzhamaat is the fact that it functions outside the borders of the main ethnic concentration of the Karachai people and has a noticeable presence in Moscow as well as in a number of other regions. It is not surprising that the FSB has chosen to attack the Karachais and blamed them for the explosions of buildings in Moscow and in Rostov province, when in both cases all the men who were on trial were members of the Karachai dzhamaat. The heavily hyped PR campaign against the Chechens was shifted onto the Karachais. Much of the blame for the terrorist acts committed during the Second Chechen War was laid upon the Karachain dzhamaat as well. During the spring of 2001, when terrorists attacked Mineralnyi Vody, Essentuki and the suburbs of Cherkessk, the Karachai dzhamaat was held responsible and almost two dozen people were arrested. The Russian government was forced to admit the seriousness of the problem posed by the group. In 2002, 17 residents of Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Stavropol provinces were indicted for plotting to overthrow the governments of Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria (www.strana.ru, May 12, 2002). Later in 2004, members of the dzhamaat were also indicted in connection with a series of terrorist acts committed in Moscow during February and August of that year.

There are several reasons for the Karachai dzhamaat becoming one of the most militarily active members of the Northern Caucasus Resistance Movement. There are a number of long-lasting inter-ethnic conflicts that have been part of Karachai life for the past two decades – conflicts with the Russians, the Circassians and the Abazins. Also the Russian Orthodox Church has taken a particularly militant position in this historically Muslim territory, leading to additional religious contention. Depending on the external circumstances, the ideas of pan-Turkism and pan-Islamism have swept the republic. Additionally, despite the sizable economic potential of the region, the republic is impoverished and heavily dependent on budget transfers, with poverty and high unemployment driving people to migrate to other regions of the Russian Federation.

Given all these factors it is not surprising that Karachaevo-Cherkessia, along with Dagestan, is one of the two republics in the Northern Caucus to host the newly created motorized mountain brigades of the Russian army (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 20). It seems as though the Russian government is quite aware of places where potential threats to its hold on the region can arise, and tacitly acknowledges how active and able the members of the dzhamaat are.

The Karachai dzhamaat remains one of the most active units of the Caucasus Resistance Front and has openly declared its support for those who fight against the Russian army. Close ties are maintained with the Kabardino-Balkar “Yarmuk” dzhamaat, underpinning the close relationships maintained with many Balkars. Any deaths of members of the “Yarmuk” dzhamaat are always listed as deaths of the Karachai-Cherkessian dzhamaat on the Karachai websites (www.camagat.com).

It was recently announced that in order to prevent any terrorist activity during the May holidays, the police of Karachaevo-Cherkessia will be inspecting all public transportation and stopping motorists in order to verify their passports (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 26). If the pronouncements of the republic’s leadership about the non-existence of the dzhamaat are true, one may well ask what then is the point of having anti-terrorist sweeps during the holidays?