Martial law was unofficially declared in Karachaevo-Cherkessia early in August. According to Regnum News Agency, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) is bringing additional troops into the Republic from Rostov, Krasnodar, Stavropol, Moscow, and other regions of Russia. The piedmont area of Karachaevo-Cherkessia is isolated from the valley by Police Special Tactics Squad (OMON) checkpoints reinforced with armored vehicles.
Late last month the republic’s Anti-Terrorist Commission met to discuss measures “to prevent terrorist crimes in the territory of Karachaevo-Cherkessia” (Regnum, August 3).
On July 22, republic President Mustafa Batdyev issued a decree to establish a “Frontier Zone” that includes three mountain regions: Predgradnya, Zelenchukskaya, and Karachayevsk. This territory, mostly populated by the Karachai ethnic minority, is known to be a stronghold of Islamic and separatist groups. (yufo.ru, July 22). Batdyev frankly admitted that this decree was connected with the continuing Chechen war and the recent rebel raid into Ingushetia. “The situation is complicated now not only in Chechnya and Ingushetia, but it is complicated in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia as well,” the President told journalists (yufo.ru, July 22). Batdyev also pointed out that it was no secret that “Islamic groups linked to Chechen separatists are operating in the Republic.”
On July 27, Yegor Yakovlev, the Russian President’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, met with the local Minister of Internal Affairs, Alexander Obukhov (Regions.ru, July 29) After the meeting a large-scale anti-terrorist campaign was launched in the republic.
Well-armed troops and armored carriers are highly visible and explicit statements by high-ranking officials caused panic among the local population. Rumors about mined buildings and attacks on policemen have spread throughout the republic (Regnum, August 3). Minister Obukhov tried to calm the people, explaining that the new troops could help to investigate such crimes as robbery, murder, and carjacking. When asked about the armored carriers his answer was quite evasive: “Armored carriers could arrest hijacked cars and surround criminal groups” (Regnum, August 3).
However, police officers continued to link the militarization of the republic to the situation in Chechnya. “There are special operations to be held in all parts of the Southern Federative District to prevent possible terrorist acts organized by Chechen separatists,” a police representative told Regnum news. It was decided that additional units would stay in Karachaevo-Cherkessia until the end of the Chechen presidential elections. Police and special military units have started to conduct “mopping-up” operations and checking suspicious facilities. At the same time, exercises are underway to better protect police buildings and other facilities during a possible raid.
Increased security precautions in Karachaevo-Cherkessia cannot be dismissed after the Ingushetia raid. The concerns about the situation in the republic are long standing. After visiting Chechnya in April 2002, the Russian Minister of Defense, Minister of Internal Affairs, and Head of the Federal Security Service met in Mineralny Vody (Stavrpol Krai) with leaders of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia to discuss “problems caused by the rising popularity of Wahhabism in the republics” (grani.ru, April 21, 2002).
A wave of arrests in the region began shortly after the meeting. In July 2002, 17 insurgents from two Caucasus republics were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment “for preparations to overthrow the legal authorities in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria” (RIA Novosti, July 11). Another trial of six rebels from Karachaevo-Cherkessia ended on November 10 in Pyatigorsk (Kommersant, November 10).
The first underground organization in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Karachai Imamate, was founded by Mohamed Bidjiev in 1998 (Gazeta, July 7, 2002). According to the Gazeta newspaper, this group had close ties with the Karachai separatist movement. Ramazan Barlakov established another radical group in the town of Uchkeken, where he is the local imam. When the second Chechen war started in 1999, this group was transformed into a paramilitary unit known as the Karachai Battalion. Members went to Chechnya to fight for the separatists, and some veterans returned and still live in the republic.
Local authorities usually blame “radical Islam” whenever illegal arms are discovered in the Northwest Caucasus region, but there are other explanations. Maryam Yandieva, author of several articles and a study of the 1944 deportations, believes it is no accident that most of the members of insurgent groups are ethnic Karachai, not Cherkess. “The Chechens, Ingush, Balkar, and Karachai peoples have all gone through deportation horrors, and they still feel unsatisfied with the compensation they have received. No wonder that many Karachai are ready to help their Chechen or Ingush brothers.”
Whatever the real reason for the Karachai insurgency (Wahhabism or separatism), the authorities concede its existence. They fear that Chechen warlords like Shamil Basaev will use the insurgency to facilitate separatist attacks in the westernmost part of the North Caucasus region.