Kabardino-Balkaria Leaders Offer Few Attractive Alternatives to Nationalism and Islamism

One of the Balkar people’s leaders, Sufian Beppaev, declared at a press conference on January 14 that a land ownership dispute is threatening peace and stability in Kabardino-Balkaria. A Russian constitutional court decision about the land distribution issue in the republic handed down in April 2007 has not come into force because it is still contested by the Kabardin and Balkar groups (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 16).
The fact that former Soviet military general Sufian Beppaev and his organization are considered to be close to the government circles of Kabardino-Balkaria makes it more significant that even he is ringing alarm bells about the inter-ethnic situation in the republic.
The government authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria are reportedly trying to suppress both sides (the Balkars and the Kabardins) as the two ethnic groups try to make their voices heard. On December 5, news agencies reported that Ibragim Yaganov, the leader of the independent Kabardin civil organization Khase, was severely beaten by a criminal gang the day before a scheduled protest action (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 5, 2009). Several days later, on December 9, unknown trespassers burned down the office of the Balkar Elders Council, which is also known for its independence from the Kabardino-Balkarian authorities (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 9). It seems that all significant grassroots organizations not under the direct control of Kabardino-Balkaria’s government begin to experience grave problems as soon as their activities receive considerable public acclaim.
President Arsen Kanokov’s position in Kabardino-Balkaria appears to be still relatively strong, but more and more members of the public are expressing frustration with his leadership. “Whatever we write here, there is still a little hope and desire [on our part] for you not to become the enemy of your [Kabardin] people and for the [Kabardin] people not to become your enemy,” remarked a Kabardin author on a popular republican website. “This is where everything is currently headed” (www.elot.ru, December 28).
Whatever the government authorities might strive for, the forces of nationalism are showing signs of strengthening and evolving into new forms that the authorities might find hard to contain. On January 8, Circassian civil activists launched a campaign that calls for all Circassians (Kabardins, Adygs, Cherkess, Shapsugs and Adygeans) to call themselves Cherkes when the all-Russian census takes place in October 2010 (www.perepis2010.org, January 8). If the Circassian activists succeed, the 2010 census will create a new situation: the Cherkess, a people with an explicitly unified identity, will appear to be scattered across the three neighboring North Caucasian republics –Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygea– as well as parts of the Russian-speaking Krasnodar region. This phenomenon is likely to renew the Circassians’ demands for a united republic, a move that the Kremlin is anxious to avoid, as it would further complicate an already complex situation in the region.
The land dispute between the Kabardinians and the Balkars seems to both derive from the revival of nationalism in the region and serve as one of its sources. According to the results of the 2002 census, the Balkar minority comprises less than 12 percent of the total population in this Kabardin-dominated republic, where the Kabardins make up 55 percent of the population. Russians are the second largest ethnic group in the republic, comprising 25 percent of the population. The Balkars traditionally lived in the mountains of Kabardino-Balkaria, while the Kabardins occupied the lowlands. Most of the republic is mountainous, and it includes the highest point in the Russian Federation –Mount Elbrus. Since much of the lowlands are ploughed, the only significant pastures are located in the mountains and hills, which are hard or impossible to cultivate. The Balkars claim all rights to those mountainous areas as it is their habitat, while the Kabardins argue that the pastures should be distributed equally. In addition, since the Balkars, along with their brethren the Karachays, were expelled to Central Asia by Stalin in 1944, they still claim that some of their lands were not reclaimed after they were allowed to return. The mountains are also the republic’s most promising tourist destination and already generate a substantial income that is projected to grow substantially in the future (www.caucasustimes.com, October 13, 2009).
The rise of nationalism is not the only threat to political stability in Kabardino-Balkaria. On January 14, the head of the republican criminal police department, Naurbi Zhamborov, stated that according to estimates, the underground insurgency numbers are up to fifty people. Zhamborov urged the journalists to use the term “bandits,” instead of “illegal armed formations,” when referring to the Islamic insurgents (ITAR-TASS, January 14).
The most prominent leader of the Islamic insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria, Anzor Astemirov, also known as Emir Saifullah, has declined to condemn nationalism among the Muslims of the North Caucasus, suggesting instead that the insurgency should concentrate on the fight against the Russian occupation of the region and that the various ethnicities should cooperate with each other to achieve that goal (www.kavkazcenter.com, December 13). This indicates that nationalism is too strong a force in Kabardino-Balkaria for the Islamists to ignore or challenge openly.
Meanwhile, the law enforcement agencies in Kabardino-Balkaria are displaying growing exasperation in their fight with the insurgents. In November 2009, an investigator and a bailiff were found beheaded in the republic. Their heads were subsequently displayed on an insurgent website as proof of the insurgents’ responsibility for the beheadings (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 28). The police say they have identified six people as the perpetrators of this crime and are searching for them (www.sk-news.ru, January 14).
As the law enforcement bodies were stepping up their activities, Valery Khatazhukov, a human rights defender based in Nalchik, warned that the situation in the republic was looking more and more like the situation in restive Ingushetia and Dagestan in terms of a growing number of extralegal killings. “We do not know who they are and what they want,” Khatazhukov said, referring to four cases of disappearances in Kabardino-Balkaria. “The only obvious thing is that, ignoring the law and the constitution of the country, they carry out punitive actions without taking public opinion or the opinion of the regional authorities into consideration” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 21).