On April 1, the head of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, and Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Aleksandr Khloponin, jointly announced that the resignation of the republic’s government was imminent, probably due on April 4. Kanokov held his government responsible for Kabardino-Balkaria’s instability over the previous several months. “The government is responsible, in particular, for interaction with youth, for fighting the religious extremism,” Kanokov stated. “I plan to strengthen precisely these sides in the new administration.” Khloponin reassured Kanokov that he still trusted him and that he did not think Kanokov himself was responsible for the instability that has been growing Kabardino-Balkaria since May 2010 (www.gazeta.ru, April 1).
Aleksandr Merkulov was appointed as the head of Kabardino-Balkaria’s government in August 2009, following his predecessor, Andrei Yarin’s departure to the Russian president’s administration. Merkulov and Yarin, both ethnic Russians, had little prior knowledge of Kabardino-Balkaria and its people. Neither of the two men enjoyed particularly close personal or business relationship with Kanokov or were known for being effective managers. So it can be concluded with a great degree of certainty that their function was to be Moscow’s “eyes and ears” in Kabardino-Balkaria’s government to keep Kanokov in check. Merkulov’s dishonorable resignation symbolizes another profound failure of Moscow’s policies to implement a bureaucratic version of checks and balances in the republic. At the same time, it highlights the weak position of Kanokov, who apparently was unable to select a head of government on his own will until now.
The significance of the worsening security situation in Kabardino-Balkaria transcends the republic’s borders. Khloponin’s grandiose plans for pacifying the North Caucasus by rapidly developing tourism in the region were dealt a heavy blow in Kabardino-Balkaria. On February 18-19, rebels in Kabardino-Balkaria killed three tourists from Moscow, while a blast destroyed a cable-car support pole near Mount Elbrus. A car laden with explosives was also found near another resort. For the first time, Moscow used military planes to bomb areas in the mountains of Kabardino-Balkaria to root out rebels – to no avail. The militant attacks effectively choked off the ski season in the republic, causing a massive disruption. But, even more importantly, it severely undermined Khloponin’s plans for developing tourism and for a final settlement in the North Caucasus.
Khloponin is also reportedly forcing the resignation of one of his deputies, Arkady Yedelev, the former deputy Russian Interior Minister, who was closely linked to Moscow’s operations in Chechnya. Some republican administrations reportedly disliked Yedelev. In Chechnya he had to be guarded especially heavily, even though his importance was marginal. Yedelev obstructed Khloponin’s efforts to build up a new system of governance in the North Caucasus, according to some sources (www.gazeta.ru, April 1). What the sources may have meant, in fact, was that Yedelev, using his professional links to the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Interior Ministry, entertained a parallel system of patronage with the regions that Khloponin could not tolerate.
Meanwhile, violence continued in Kabardino-Balkaria at its usual pace. On April 2, an alleged militant, Aleksei Frantsuzhan, an ethnic Russian, was killed in Nalchik (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 3). On March 28, Asker Khazhirokov, an alleged rebel leader, was killed in Nalchik as well (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 28). Several other young men had been killed in Kabardino-Balkaria over the past few days under strikingly similar circumstances, with the police claiming to have stopped them to check their papers, after which they resisted and were killed. However, the Kabardino-Balkarian rebels’ website rejected the official claims. Rebel sources published photographs of the dead showing signs of torture, like traces of handcuffs and cigarette burns on their bodies. Additionally, the rebels did not declare at least three of those killed as “shahids” or “martyrs,” as they normally do with militants killed in fighting with the government forces (www.islamdin.com, April 2; March 16 and 24).
There are serious grounds to suspect that Kabardino-Balkaria is going down the “regular” path of the other North Caucasian republics as the Russian security services revert to outright terror in an attempt to scare the insurgents and their support base. In the process, the security services invariably also kill innocent people, which evokes wider protest and takes the violence to a higher level.
The parliament of Kabardino-Balkaria came up with an initiative to revoke the right of close relatives to testify against crime perpetrators. The move, which is designed to allow officials to pressure the relatives of rebels into reporting them to the police, goes against not only the existing Russian criminal code, but also the country’s constitution (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 31). The rebels appeared to have ignored an earlier call by relatives to surrender: on March 15 a group of 11 mothers of suspected rebels, encouraged by official promises to give them fair trials, appealed to their sons to submit to the authorities (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 31).
Another important process involves the Circassians (aka Kabardins), who comprise a majority of the population in Kabardino-Balkaria. On March 24, a conference on Circassian issues took place at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which operates under the auspices of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Following the conference, participants formed a working group to investigate the alleged “genocide” that the Circassians experienced in the hands of the Russian army in the second half of 19th century in the northwestern Caucasus (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 28). The Circassians, whose numbers were severely depleted after they lost the war to Russia, argue that they were subjected to ruthless physical extermination and subsequent deportation to the Ottoman Empire. Circassian activists challenge the viability of the Winter Olympics, set to be held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2014, since it located on “the land of genocide.”
For years, Moscow ignored Circassian grievances, but after the 2014 Sochi Olympics became the focus of international media, the Circassians slowly started to advance the forgotten narrative of their tragic past. The Jamestown Foundation along with its Georgian partners held two conferences on the issue in Tbilisi, Georgia in 2010, which elicited a strong response from the Circassians and the Russian state alike. The Georgian parliament agreed to consider officially recognizing “the Circassian genocide” issue. The government in Moscow now seems to have realized that the issue cannot be ignored any longer and is trying to lead the discussion. However, there are few positive signs that Moscow has the ability to put Kabardino-Balkaria on track to stability and prosperity.