After at least a year of warnings, the situation across the entire North Caucasus has deteriorated alarmingly. All the republics in the region share the same problems: Islamist militants, popular distrust of the authorities, and conflicts among the governing elite. The tragedy in Beslan made the Ossetians, who once were Russia’s most loyal allies in the region, hate the federal government. Now criminal violence in Karachaevo-Cherkessia has undermined the last relatively quiet corner of the region.
The republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia is divided among greatly different ethnic groups, such as the strongly Russified Cherkess and the Turkic highlander Karachai, and was already on the brink of civil war in 1999. Now the atmosphere is tense again, as factions fight for control of the republic’s lucrative cement factory.
According to Kommersant, the latest conflict ignited when the controlling interest in the Kavkaztsement factory passed to Ali Kaitov, the son-in-law of the republic’s president, Mustafa Batdyev. Rasul Bogatyrev, an influential deputy in the local parliament who previously had controlled Kavkaztsement, did not like the idea of Kaitov running the company. On October 10 he and another six shareholders went to Kaitov’s dacha to negotiate. None of the group has been heard from since. Neighbors reported hearing shots in the vicinity of Kaitov’s house that night, but the police said that they did not find any evidence of a shootout when they arrived (Kommersant, October 22; also see EDM, October 22). Relatives of the missing people did not believe the officials, and on October 21 they went to search themselves. They found bullets and traces of blood near Kaitov’s country house. Outraged, they stormed the government palace in the capital city, Cherkessk, and demanded an “immediate and impartial investigation” (gazeta.ru, October 21). Batdyev and Kaitov disappeared soon after.
President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, Dmitry Kozak, rushed to Cherkessk, but a planned visit to the republic by the State Duma Commission for the Settlement of the Situation in the North Caucasus was canceled (thus providing more proof of how little the Kremlin cares about such commissions) (yufo.ru, October 22). Kozak tried to calm the relatives, who also had attracted the attention of the local opposition. He declared that a special investigator, Boris Karnaukhov, a deputy department head in the Prosecutor General’s Office, had already been appointed to conduct an objective investigation. But at the same time, Kozak lent support to Batdyev, saying that he had just called the president and that Batdyev was still in the republic, not in hiding as rumors suggested (yufo.ru, October 22).
Kozak’s statement did not damper the crisis. On October 22, the parliament of Karachaevo-Cherkessia called on President Batdyev to resign (yufo.ru, October 22). The business dispute had now turned into a political conflict. Another rally in Cherkessk, held the same day, demanded the resignation of the heads of all local law-enforcement agencies, including the Chief of the Federal Security Service (FSB) (yufo.ru, October 22). Officials in the Prosecutor General ‘s Office bombarded the media with numerous announcements of new arrests. Ten suspects had been detained by October 26 (ORT TV, October 26). Kaitov himself was put on a federal “wanted” list (yufo.ru, October 22).
On October 22, Batdyev announced that his daughter had applied for a divorce from Kaitov three days earlier (yufo.ru, October 22). He would have been better off had he not issued this revelation. According to gazeta.ru, by distancing himself from Kaitov, Batdyev gave the impression that he had already known that his son-in-law was a murderer three days earlier, while the police were still denying such allegations. This slip outraged the people, who now made Batdyev’s resignation their top priority (gazeta.ru, October 25).
The Kremlin decided that the time had come to show its teeth. Kozak declared, “Certain forces appeared which would like to get some political dividend from the tragedy” (yufo.ru, October 25).
Anti-government demonstrations continued, and on October 25 more then 1,000 people gathered in the central square of Cherkessk to declare that Batdyev must go (gazeta.ru, October 25). At this point, the authorities gave the demonstrators one last non-political concession.
On the afternoon of October 25, the police announced that Ait Kaitov had surrendered. According to NTV television, he came to a police station with two of his lawyers (NTV, October 25). Then Kozak and Batdyev met with relatives of the disappeared shareholders in a Cherkessk conference room. During the meeting, furious relatives and members of parliament again demanded Batdyev’s resignation (gazeta.ru, October 25).
The authorities understood that the time had come to go on the offensive. On October 26, Rossiiskaya gazeta, the quasi-official Russian newspaper, published an article that described the events in Kaitov’s dacha on October 11 as not the murder of innocent people, but a skirmish between two armed groups. Sources from the FSB provided this information to the newspaper (Rossiiskaya gazeta, October 26).
Investigator Karnaukhov, who had just announced Kaitov’s confession, backpedaled, saying that Batdyev’s former son-in-law had not actually admitted that he had participated in this crime (gazeta.ru, October 26).
Clearly, the Kremlin is not satisfied with President Batdyev’s policy in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, but it is not interested at all in a popular revolution similar to the one that swept Georgia last year. There is a real danger, however, that any further support of Batdyev’s criminal regime by the federal government could cause a violent uprising in the republic.