Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 11

By Igor Rotar

The first elections for the head of the north Caucasian republic of Karachai-Cherkessia almost erupted into civil war recently. As soon as rumors began circulating that the second round of voting on May 16 had resulted in a victory for the former commander of Russia’s ground forces, General Vladimir Semenov, supporters of his opponent, the mayor of the republic capital Cherkessk, Stanislav Derev, came out onto the streets in an indefinite protest, demanding that the election be declared void and that direct presidential rule be established. The local electoral commission was split down the middle: Fifty percent of its members considered the election valid, and exactly the same number thought it invalid, because they believed there had been gross violations. The situation grew more tense by the day, threatening to develop into an armed confrontation between the supporters of Derev and Semenov. Derev, a Circassian (Cherkess) by nationality, declared that the Circassian lands in Karachai-Cherkessia should be returned to Stavropol’s jurisdiction.

The small republic–which seceded from Stavropol krai and became an independent subject in 1990 (before which it was an autonomous oblast within the krai)–is politically unique. Its inhabitants had never elected their own leader. This is the only such case in the Russian Federation, unless one counts Dagestan, where the leader is elected not by universal suffrage but by a special assembly of electoral delegates.

Prior to this, the republic had been governed for nineteen years by Vladimir Khubiev, a Karachai. Unlike many other apparatchiks of the old school, Khubiev never adapted to the new order and continued to run the republic by old pre-perestroika methods. Significantly, when the autonomous oblast saw its status raised to that of a republic, Khubiev was not elected by popular vote but was appointed by Boris Yeltsin with the approval of the local parliament. One of the reasons the Kremlin delayed holding free elections in the republic for so long was the potential danger of interethnic conflict posed by its varied ethnic composition. About 40 percent of the population are Russian, 30 percent Karachai, 10 percent Circassian and 6.6 percent Abazinian (a people closely related to the Circassians).

The aftermath of the recent elections has basically confirmed these fears. The elections turned into a power struggle between the Karachai political elite, which supported the Karachai Semenov, and its Circassian counterpart, which backed the Circassian Derev.


Realizing that they were unlikely to win the election by relying solely on the votes of their own people, both candidates tried to concentrate their attention on the local Russians, the most populous people in the republic. Thus, for example, nationalist (Circassian) rhetoric had virtually no place in Stanislav Derev’s election program. Derev stressed that he spoke for the interests of all the peoples of Karachai-Cherkessia. Significantly, after becoming mayor of Cherkessk, Derev had appointed a Russian as his first deputy, and even created the special post of deputy mayor for Cossack affairs. He also supports close relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1996 Derev paid a ransom for a priest, Sergei Zhigulin, who had been held hostage by the Chechens for 106 days, and is now a high-ranking official in the Moscow Patriarchy. And in April of this year, Metropolitan Gedeon of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz presented the Moslem Derev with the order of Saint Daniel, which doubtless raised the Cherkessk mayor in the estimation of Orthodox Russians. The moment of presentation was captured and reproduced on colorful posters, and displayed for everyone to see alongside election slogans such as “Stas is class!” [Stas is the diminutive form of Stanislav] and “Care for the weak, jobs for the strong”.

General Vladimir Semenov, the former commander of Russia’s ground forces, was also banking on the votes of the Russian electorate. Although Semenov’s father is Karachai, his mother is Russian, and the general was able to play on this to attract Slavic voters.


Given that the official election results are unknown, it is impossible to say with any certainty which candidate’s tactics were more effective. One thing is clear, however: Whoever wins, his opponent will not accept defeat, and his supporters will resort to highly unconstitutional methods.

It seems that the Kremlin has realized this. Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin unexpectedly arrived in Cherkessk on May 25. As a result of his visit, the ruling authorities in the republic stepped down, and until the Russian Supreme Court and Central Election Commission make their ruling on the second round of elections, the republic will be run by a provisional government headed by the speaker of the local parliament, Igor Ivanov. Stepashin stated that a provisional government was the only possible solution to the crisis, because it would help to stabilize the situation, to maintain interethnic harmony and to keep the peace in the republic. The prime minister said that there had been a large number of violations in the elections. Interestingly, Stepashin did not rule out that in the future elections may determine the head of the republic in the future. This basically means that the transition period may last from six months to a year.

Neither can it be ruled out that eventually Moscow will try to impose a “Dagestan system” for the elections of the head of Karachai-Cherkessia. Recent Russian history provides no precedent for the Kremlin’s actions. Although Moscow has not taken the step of declaring direct presidential control in this republic, which is on the brink of interethnic strife, the mere mention of such an unconstitutional form of rule as a “provisional government” suggests a new departure in the Kremlin’s Caucasian policy, and indeed its entire nationalities policy. It is the first time that the center’s intervention in a brewing interethnic conflict has been so decisive: Moscow has tried to nip the crisis in the bud, rather than intervening only after many lives have been lost, as it used to. It may also be noted that Moscow has never before annulled the results of leadership elections in any federation subject, let alone a national republic.

It is also of interest that a Russian has become the head of a national republic for the first time since 1991. The fact that Russians are the most populous people in the republic does not alter the significance of this. Moscow has allowed the political elites of the titular peoples to usurp power in the republics (without worrying about even a semblance of parity with local Russians) in exchange for loyalty to the Kremlin.

The Kremlin’s new ploy, however, may have unpredictable consequences. Moscow basically snatched victory from the grasp of Karachai-backed General Semenov. The Karachai political elite has traditionally governed the republic and is unlikely to accept its loss of power. If it becomes clear that the Central Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court are dragging their heels in their ruling on the result of the election, then mass unrest among the Karachai will be inevitable. On the other hand, if Moscow recognizes Semenov’s victory, then stability in the republic will be threatened by the Circassians, who will never accept the defeat of their candidate.

The danger that the conflict may spread beyond the republic’s borders is another potential stress factor. The Kabardians, Circassians and Adygeis–most of whom live on the plain with a small number in the foothills–are linguistically and culturally quite close to one other and form a single ethnic community of Adygeis. The Balkars and Karachai, who live in the highlands, are also closely related peoples and speak one Karachai-Balkar language (which belongs to the Turkic family of languages). Thus, the national-territorial division (the creation of dual-subject unitary republics–Karachai-Cherkessia and Kabardin-Balkaria) in many ways preordained potential interethnic conflicts. Balkar congresses, for example, have passed resolutions on the creation of a Balkar republic on four occasions.

If Semenov’s victory is not recognized, it may provoke a new upsurge in Balkar separatism in Kabardin-Balkaria. For his part, Stanislav Derev may rely on support from the Kabardians and Adygeis.

Djohar (Grozny) may also try to profit from the Adygei-Karachai-Balkar conflict. When the Balkars last tried to secede from Kabardin-Balkaria in the winter of 1996, the separatists were supported by Chechen field commanders.

Igor Rotar is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.