Anti-Corruption Campaign in Kabardino-Balkaria Signals Moscow May Adopt a More Aggressive Approach Toward the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 16

On July 27, the RIA Novosti news agency reported that a Nalchik city court temporarily suspended the head of the Russian Treasury Department’s branch in Kabardino-Balkaria, Leonid Zrumov, from his post. A criminal case against Zrumov had been launched earlier, back on June 28. On July 5, he was officially charged with embezzling an estimated $700,000 in government funds. On July 24, the mayor of Nalchik, Zalimgeri Khagasov, was suspended from his position for alleged abuse of his office that resulted in a $500,000 loss to the government budget. On July 14, the head of the Russian pension fund’s branch in Kabardino-Balkaria, Khasanbi Sheozhev, was arrested for an alleged criminal scheme that involved over $2 million in losses to the fund (http://ria.ru/inquest/20120727/710606223.html).

The anti-corruption campaign in Kabardino-Balkaria began suddenly in June 2012, when an estimated 100 investigators, police and security services officers from Moscow descended on the city. The operation was so secret that the group arrived at the military airport in the town of Mozdok in neighboring North Ossetia and then traveled to Nalchik by ground transportation. The chief of the presidential administration of Kabardino-Balkaria, Vladimir Zhamborov, was arrested along with his brother; the head of the Federal Post Service in the republic, Ruslan Zhamborov; and the republican minister of state property and land resources, Khabdulsalam Ligidov. Businesswoman Madina Khatsukova was also detained along with the three Kabardino-Balkarian officials on charges of involvement in a scheme that allowed Khatsukova to privatize a building worth $700,000 for the equivalent of $30,000. The president of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, suffered not only reputational and administrative losses: the Zhamborov brothers are Kanokov’s cousins, while Khatsukova is a relative of Kanokov’s wife (see EDM, June 13).

The well-known Kabardino-Balkarian civil activist, Ibragim Yaganov, said that following Moscow’s raid on the republican bureaucrats, the republican authorities were “paralyzed” and that regional functionaries were fleeing en masse. According to Yaganov, Kabardino-Balkaria’s minister of agriculture, Albert Kazdokhov, had “disappeared,” while the deputy prime minister of the republic, Tembulat Erkenov, went abroad and many others “either left the republic, went on sick or vacation leave.” The most popular explanation for the anti-corruption campaign in Kabardino-Balkaria among the local residents was that some Russian top officials and big businesses affiliated with the central government intended to put pressure on Kanokov to force him to relinquish his aspirations to participate in a lucrative tourism development project around Mount Elbrus. At the beginning of the campaign, many residents of the republic had a negative attitude toward the anti-corruption campaign launched by Moscow in Kabardino-Balkaria, according to a local activist, Aslan Beshto. “Not because people felt sorry for the officials,” he said. “Rather people felt sorry for the republic, which had been reduced to a state in which it did not decide anything and was worth nothing.” However, as the investigators leaked some of the telephone conversations of the republican officials who were arrested, many people turned against them, since in the phone conversations they referred to the republic’s general population in a denigrating way (http://www.ekhokavkaza.org/content/article/24637668.html).

Moscow’s anti-corruption campaign in Kabardino-Balkaria illustrates a profound political weakness of local government officials in the North Caucasus that stems directly from their strength. Moscow has developed the habit of supporting a single clan in each of the North Caucasian republics, often reverting to direct assistance for a given clan to solidify its grip on power in the territory. Consequently, Moscow has rarely, if ever, prosecuted top officials in the North Caucasus on corruption charges. In response, the republican officials provided a kind of stability, proving overwhelming vote counts for the existing authorities in Moscow and a chorus of vows of loyalty to Russia. However, this system of republican elites nurtured by the Kremlin becomes very vulnerable as soon as Moscow withdraws support for it, since the popular support for such elites quickly erodes. Few people, if any, are prepared to protest if Moscow decides to prosecute select North Caucasian republican officials on corruption charges. Still, Moscow has used this tool extremely sparingly.

The anti-corruption campaign in Kabardino-Balkaria may be a pilot project presaging a new, much more aggressive Russian policy in the North Caucasus. To some functionaries in Moscow, the idea of winning the hearts and minds of the locals in the region via an energetic fight against corrupt officials may seem an attractive prospect. In addition, reprisals against officials in the North Caucasus potentially should find favor with ethnic Russians who have demanded an end to “feeding the Caucasus.”

Meanwhile, on July 26, the Gazeta.ru website reported that Yuri Kokov could resign as head of the Russian Interior Ministry’s department for fighting extremism. Kokov is an ethnic Kabardin and Arsen Kanokov’s long-time foe. Kanokov’s team apparently believed that Kokov was the mastermind of the assault on Kabardino-Balkarian bureaucracy. Members of Kanokov’s team now hope that their prosecution will end as soon as Kokov resigns (http://www.gazeta.ru/social/2012/07/26/4694833.shtml).

The attack on Kabardino-Balkarian officials is unlikely to have been caused by the narrow interests of lobbying groups in Moscow – engaging in such a contentious diplomacy risks affecting the stability of the political system. It is more likely that the reasons for the pressure on Kanokov are political and possibly go beyond Kabardino-Balkaria. Moscow may be using the republic to test the effectiveness of its new approach to the North Caucasus – one that relies less on the loyalty of the local elites and more on direct application of administrative and military force. The crucial test for the Moscow-led campaign will be whether the acting head of Kabardino-Balkaria is dismissed from his position or simply “taught a lesson.”