On March 11 residents of Karachaevsk, the second-largest city in the North Caucasus region of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, voted for mayor. Yet two months later, the final result of the election is still unknown. Meanwhile, two local political forces are fighting each other to gain control of the city.
Karachaevo-Cherkessia is a multiethnic region, but currently the Karachai, the largest ethnic group, is in power. In 2003 Mustafa Batdyev, a Karachai, was elected the republican president, and since that vote all key positions in Karachaevo-Cherkessia have been occupied by the Karachai. However, a fierce power struggle is going on now among rival Karachai clans. Batdyev almost resigned in 2004, when a group of enraged Karachai attacked the Government Palace in Cherkessk, the regional capital. At that time Batdyev was accused of protecting his son-in-law, who had been accused of murdering several Karachai business rivals who were in opposition to Batdyev (see EDM, November 10, 24, 2004).
Kremlin intervention kept Batdyev in power, but he became extremely unpopular among the Karachai after the incident. Islam Burlakov, head of the Supreme Court of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, leads the Karachai opposition to Batdyev. Burlakov used his influence to support the opposition in the Cherkessk mayoral election last year. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the opposition, but the authorities ignored the court’s ruling and did not allow the opposition candidate to take office.
A serious standoff between the two most influential political groups developed this year during municipal elections in the Karachai-dominated districts of the republic. The city of Karachaevsk is located in the mountain part of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The city’s municipal district also includes Teberda and Dombai townships, which have ski resorts that attract tourists from all over Russia.
As part of its efforts to pacify the North Caucasus through economic development, the Russian government recently launched a program to improve tourist infrastructure in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. According to Regnum news agency, Moscow plans to build a huge ski complex in the region that could be replicated in two other Caucasian republics, Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia. Moscow plans to allocate about $1.2 billion from the federal budget to finance the project (Regnum, March 14, 15). Whichever group controls Karachaevsk will control this cash flow, which equals seven times the annual budget of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Thus, anyone who controls the money could easily control the entire republic, setting the stage for a battle over elected offices.
There are two main contenders for the mayor’s office in Karachaevsk, including the incumbent, Sapar Laypanov, backed by Batdyev, and Magomekt Botashev, the city’s opposition leader, who is supported by Burlakov.
On March 12, one day after the elections, several hundred Burlakov supporters gathered on the square in front of the local administration building to wait for the official announcement of the results (Regnum, Kavkazky uzel, March 12). At the same time, both Laypanov and Botashev declared their victories. Laypanov insisted that he had 100 votes more than his rival, while Botashev claimed a 480-vote victory.
Although the local election committee made no official announcement on March 12, Batdyev’s official website declared that Laypanov had won “according to preliminary results.” The opposition readied for protests, while the authorities sought ways to install Laypanov.
On March 13, Batdyev issued an order to investigate allegations that the elections had been rigged. One day later the Karachaevsk election committee announced that it would cancel the results in six of the 18 polling stations — precincts where Botashev led the vote count. Botashev accused Batdyev of interference and fraud. On March 15, Batdyev met a group of Botashev’s activists but could not calm them down. They demanded that the president recognize Botashev’s victory or face a massive protest campaign. On March 17, according to Regnum, hundreds of Botashev supporters gathered in the center of Karachaevsk, while another group blocked the Dombai-Cherkessk highway. The opposition tried to stage a massive protest rally near the presidential palace in Cherkessk, but they were interrupted when special-task police units supported by armored personnel carriers moved into the city (Regnum, March 22).
Facing such staunch resistance, the authorities decided to reach a compromise with the opposition. On March 20, the local election committee cancelled the results at all polling stations and announced new elections. The opposition did not agree with this move and appealed to the republican Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, headed by Botashev ally Burlakov, ruled that the results — and Botashev’s victory — should be recognized. Instead, the authorities ignored the ruling and declared that they could not announce the results due to technical problems. On April 27, dozens of opposition activists, mostly women, stormed the administration building in Karachaevsk and occupied the mayor’s office. At Botashev’s request, they quit the building one day later, but remained on the square outside.
No new information has emerged about how the crisis will be resolved. Both the opposition and the authorities remain silent. But it is clear to everyone in the republic that the population no longer tolerates Batdyev’s authoritarian rule, and something should be done to make political life in Karachaevo-Cherkessia more transparent.