Balkars in Kabardino-Balkaria Believe Government Is Deliberately Undermining Their Economic Well-Being

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 5

On February 20, the Memorial Human Rights Center published its October 2011 report on the situation in the mountainous region of Kabardino-Balkaria. The report details the adverse effects of the counter-terrorist regime on the economic situation in this remote and vulnerable republic. A counter-terrorism operation regime was introduced in Kabardino-Balkaria, including the Mt. Elbrus area, on February 20, 2011. Memorial’s report points out that the Elbrus district was the last district in which the counterterrorism regime was lifted, although it was not the main site of terrorist attacks. Heavily dependent on tourism, the district’s economy collapsed because tourists were not allowed to visit once popular recreational sites in the mountains. Mt. Elbrus is a dormant volcano and, at 18,510 feet, is the highest mountain on the European continent (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/201485/#n1, February 25).

The mountainous parts of Kabardino-Balkaria are traditionally inhabited by the ethnic Balkars, a Turkic-speaking people closely related to the Karachays in the neighboring Karachaevo-Cherkessia. With a population of 105,000, Balkars constitute just under 12 percent of the total population of Kabardino-Balkaria. Relations between ethnic Kabardins (aka Circassians) and ethnic Balkars have periodically soured over the issue of resource allocation. Many Balkars believe they are entitled to their own separate administrative unit within the Russian Federation.

Although the counter-terrorism regime in Kabardino-Balkaria was finally lifted in November 2011, the climate of fear and instability has persisted in the republic, with killings and abductions continuing well into 2012. The counter-terrorism regime in Kabardino-Balkaria was introduced after several tourists from Moscow were killed there, while the killings of locals, as a rule, provoked a much milder government reaction. This became further evidence of the double standard for ethnic Russians and non-Russians in the Russian Federation.

Conspiracy theories abound among the local Balkars in Kabardino-Balkaria’s Elbrus district, who have developed an impressive infrastructure near Mt. Elbrus to accommodate visitors to the increasingly popular resort area. The population of visiting tourists was gradually becoming more and more affluent, as tourists from Moscow and the West flocked to the republic for skiing and hiking. According to a private hotel owner in the Cheget valley, tourist companies from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Europe, Japan and South Korea were ready to continue operating as usual, but Russian security personnel prevented tourists from accessing the area. The Balkars eventually developed fears that the counter-terrorism regime and even some of the terror attacks themselves were carried out by the government to drive the Balkar owners out of business and bring so-called “strategic investors” into the Elbrus area (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/201485/#n1, February 25).

Although this theory may seem somewhat conspiratorial and far-fetched, it does correspond with the Russian government’s general approach to the economic development of the North Caucasus. Moscow’s envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, is one of the advocates of such a solution to the region’s problems. Khloponin tirelessly promotes the project for building world-class resorts across the North Caucasus with little or no consultation with representatives of the local population. The aim is very straightforward: the North Caucasian economy should be dominated by large Russian corporations, while the locals should be reduced to a hired work force. By revamping the economic environment in this specific way, Moscow hopes to solve the issue of separatism in the region once and for all. To achieve this objective, Moscow needs to undermine local businesses, especially those generating significant incomes, and pave the way for Moscow-based companies to capture the local markets and disposable resources.

There are, however, several problems with this approach. First, it does not go unnoticed by the local elites, who do not want to be deprived of their share of resources and power. This leads to the rise of nationalism in the region. On the Russian business side, there is also a problem, since private Russian capital finds it too risky and too unproductive to invest into the North Caucasus. There are many other areas throughout the Russian Federation and abroad where capital can be invested with considerably lower risks and greater returns than those can be expected from investment in the North Caucasus. The locals, feeling increasingly disenfranchised by the state, which has now apparently reverted to imposing indirect limits on businesses, are unlikely to bow to Moscow’s plans. So the colonial-like relationship between Moscow and the North Caucasus will draw more criticism in the region from all sectors of society, not only from the radicals.

Memorial’s report emphasized that “paradoxically, the indignation of the local population is spearheaded not against the terrorists, who conducted an attack targeting the tourist business at Elbrus, but against the government and possible serious investors” (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/201485/#n1, February 25). In fact, this development is not paradoxical, given the rising awareness among the people in the North Caucasus of Moscow’s plans in the region.

Whether the counter-terrorism regime in Kabardino-Balkaria was a form of collective punishment, a disguised form of redistribution of property, or still another turn of Russian colonialism; it did not solve any of Moscow’s problems in the region. Indeed, it was recently partially reintroduced: on February 16, a counter-terrorism regime was introduced in the town of Nartkala, near the capital Nalchik, and lifted on February 17 after three suspected rebels were killed (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/201383/, February 17). By reverting to the collective punishment mechanisms that Russia widely used in the North Caucasus in the 19th century, Moscow is solidifying local identities and driving the region’s population toward greater radicalism.