In Karachay-Cherkessia, the unstable republic in Russia’s North Caucasus with a population of less than 450,000, the political year and preparations for elections to the local parliament began with a tragic start. On Tuesday, January 13, the vice speaker of the parliament and leader of the parliamentary faction from the Party Spravedlivaya Rossiya (Just Russia), 47-year-old Islam Krymshamkhalov was gunned down in the capital of the republic, Cherkessk.
According to the press release issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Karachay-Cherkessia, the Member of Parliament (MP) was killed at the entrance to the building of the Supreme Court of the republic at 9:30 PM local time. In an apparent drive-by shooting, machine gun volleys burst from a passing vehicle just as Krymshamkhalov stepped out of his parked car to enter the court building. The machine gun fire killed the MP on the spot (https://www.rg.ru/2009/01/14/reg-kuban/deputat.html).
On January 14, the president of Karachay-Cherkessia, Boris Ebzeev, made an official assessment of this tragic event, which he characterized in the following manner: “This was a political crime, act of political terrorism, which was well prepared and well organized” (https://www.kchr.info/news/3281-prezident-karachaevo-cherkesii-ubezhden-chto.html).
Before his appointment to the position of president of the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia, Ebzeez worked for a long time at the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation where he took active part in the creation of the Constitution of the Russian state.
During the behind-the-curtains negotiations regarding the candidacy of the next president of the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia, which the Kremlin was carrying out amidst the local elite prior to the appointment of Ebzeev, Krymshamkhalov was apparently lobbying for another candidate. Yet, he still considered Ebzeev’s appointment by Moscow as a positive and thoughtful step (https://echo.msk.ru/programs/beseda/34106/).
Subsequently after Ebzeev’s appointment, he attempted to bring Krymshamkhalov into his team. This is how the president described his attitude toward the assassinated MP: “This person was a true opposition figure. But he was in opposition to criminality, corruption and bribery. I am for such opposition. This is why I felt deep respect toward this person. I thought he had a bright future and I placed big hopes on him.”
The reason why Ebzeev praised the deceased MP opposition figure is clear—Islam Krymshamkhalov represented one of the most respectful Karachay clans, which traced its lineage to the princely family—and in that capacity he presented serious opposition to the previous president of Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia, Mustafa Batdiev.
Already in the early 2000s, Krymshamkhalov entered a coalition with another influential figure, Islam Borlakov, who occupied the post of supreme judge of the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia for more than 15 years. Borlakov and Krymshamkhalov possessed decisive influence in Karachay society, including both the elites and the population at large. The national movements, such as the Council of Karachay People, as well as the media, including the newspaper Vesti gor (Mountain news), and human rights organizations and individuals, who had political aspirations or who suffered from the authorities—all of them sought support or alliance with this duo.
Islam Krymshamkhalov was the only member of the parliament of Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia, who publicly supported the families of seven young Karachays, who were killed in the autumn of 2004 at the villa of the son-in-law of then President Mustafa Batdiev, Ali Kaitov. Kaitov was a powerful criminal boss and the owner of a controlling share in the largest cement factory in the Caucasus region.
As a result of assistance rendered by the MP Krymshamkhalov and the Supreme Judge Borlakov to the families of the victims, the president’s son-in-law was arrested and convicted of group murder along with twelve of his bodyguards and friends.
In 2004 the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia launched a criminal case against Krymshamkhalov. He was accused of inciting unrest to oust the constitutional order in the republic and organizing mass disturbances. The formal pretext for these criminal accusations was the mass demonstration against the criminal authorities and the ensuing seizure of a government building by an outraged crowd consisting of mostly women.
The “Karachay revolution” failed, but the government building was occupied by the crowd for more than three days. Among the demands of the protesters were calls to secede from Russia. The Kremlin representative Dmitriy Kozak managed to defuse the situation through peaceful negotiations at the time. The factual result of the negotiations was Kaitov’s arrest and subsequent conviction.
Four years ago Krymshamkhalov admitted in a private conversation to the author of this article that Kaitov would take revenge for his defeat and that he would be one of the main targets of this revenge. It is possible that Kaitov, who is serving his time in jail, has no relation to the assassination of the MP. Yet, it is rather suspicious and worrisome that Krymshamkhalov’s assassination occurred right after Mustafa Batdiev, Kaitov’s father-in-law and former president of Karachay-Cherkessia, suddenly left the republic. In doing so, Batdiev’s sudden departure appears intended to avoid having the assassination of the opposition figure reflect negatively on his political career or personal security.
Krymshamkhalov became the fifth MP from the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia and seventeenth high-ranking person, who was killed in the republic since 2000. None of the previous murders have been solved with the exception of the assassination of the MP Rasul Bogatyrev. It should be noted that Krymshamkhalov took active part in the investigation of that murder case (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/krymshamhalov_piatyj).
Krymshamkhalov was planning to continue his work in the legislative body of the republic. Not long before his death he registered as a candidate to run in the parliamentary elections of Karachay-Cherkessia, which are scheduled for March 1. Krymshamkhalov’s murder sets the stage for a nervous election campaign, according to the Caucasus expert Konstantin Kazenin. (https://www.regnum.ru/news/1109997.html).
The parliament of Karachay-Cherkessia consists of 73 MPs. The MPs are allied in different coalitions depending on their party affiliation. The largest faction is represented by the Kremlin’s party Edinaya Rossiya (United Russia), which is also the case across Russia in general. Krymshamkhalov, who used to head the faction Spravedlivaya Rossiya, was put on the ballot by Edinaya Rossiya in the upcoming parliamentary elections. This change of party affiliation indicates that Krymshamkhalov was no longer in opposition to either local or federal authorities.
It is noteworthy that the party coalitions in the parliament of Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia as well as in parliaments of other multi-national subjects of the Russian Federation represent only formal associations. In practice the MPs are allied in factions based on their nationality. In particular, in Karachay-Cherkessia, where inter-ethnic tensions are recurrent, nationality is a forever dominating feature that trumps all other factors, including political views or religious preferences. For instance, even in the main assembly hall, where Parliament holds its proceedings, the seating arrangement of MPs is based on their ethnic groups. So the parliamentary majority of Karachays usually occupies the left side of the hall, whereas the center and front rows are occupied by Cherkess and Abazins, and farther rows by Russians and Nogays, while the right side is reserved for the press.
The physical location of MPs in the main assembly hall of the parliament is deeply symbolic. As a mirror it reflects the centers of gravity in the political life of Karachay-Cherkessia. Until recently the center of gravity has been invariably shifting toward the Karachay majority. Yet, it should not be expected that the Karachays’ loss of a bright and charismatic leader will inevitably lead to the restoration of the equilibrium. The preponderance of one of the sides or, in other words, the domination of the national majority over minorities will remain unchanged, thereby preserving smoldering intra-republican ethnic standoff. It is, however, precisely this sort of situation that virtually guarantees relative stability of Moscow’s positions in the region because it is guided by the principle of “divide and conquer.”