During a visit to Kabardino-Balkaria on February 9, Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Aleksandr Khloponin, tried to reassure the region’s government and public of Moscow’s support against the growing insurgency in the beleaguered republic. At a meeting with a group of 200 students in Nalchik, Khloponin admitted mistakes on the government’s side that allowed Islamism to spread in the republic. He blamed the increasing violence in Kabardino-Balkaria on unemployment, social injustice, corruption and low levels of education. Khloponin promised that the dire security situation in the republic would change soon, hinting there was “a concrete plan” to improve it that would be enacted shortly (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 10).
However, Moscow’s envoy did not elaborate on the government’s plan for the republic even at a meeting with the regional government. Instead, he stated that a special group of experts would be created at a local branch of the Krasnodar University of the interior ministry that would work out a strategy to fight terrorism in the North Caucasus. Khloponin praised Kabardino-Balkaria’s leadership for improving the economy, but advised them to embrace advanced management benchmarks “as in Europe.” According to Moscow’s envoy, investments in the republic fell by 28 percent in 2010 (www.president-kbr.ru, February 10).
Kabardino-Balkaria’s government was nearly on the verge of panic before Khloponin’s visit. At a joint extraordinary session of the republican parliament, the executive branch and the public chamber on February 3, a special appeal to the Russian government was adopted. Citing the growing terrorist threat, the statement said that “all plans for the socio-economic development [of Kabardino-Balkaria] are under serious risk of disruption.” Kabardino-Balkaria’s leadership urged Moscow to boost the law enforcement presence in the republic “adequate to the security threats” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 4). The republic’s government tried to conceal the panicky mood as it made no reference to this appeal to Moscow on its websites, camouflaging it with a separate address to the people of Kabardino-Balkaria (www.president-kbr.ru, February 4). Khloponin denied the need for introducing a counterterrorism operation regime in the republic, stating that the government should fight “not the consequences, but the causes of the insurgency.” He estimated that the insurgency in the North Caucasus numbers about 1,000 members (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 3).
Rapidly increasing violence in Kabardino-Balkaria was one of the main reasons for the alarmist tone of the republic’s government. On February 2, four policemen were shot dead at a café and the assailants seized their weapons. On February 3, a police patrol came under fire after the policemen tried to stop a car. On February 7, an Interior Ministry and a Federal Security Service (FSB) serviceman died in an attack in Nalchik. But, perhaps most disturbingly for the republican authorities, on January 28, Mikhail Mambetov, head of the Chegem district of Kabardino-Balkaria, died in an attack (Interfax, January 28). The Islamic insurgents assumed responsibility for Mambetov’s murder, but provided no details apart from those already released by news agencies (www.islamdin.com, January 28). Mambetov was the most important government functionary to suffer a violent death in Kabardino-Balkaria in the past several years. Heads of districts are instrumental in controlling rural territories in the North Caucasus republics, so if they feel unsafe, a breakdown of government power may loom ahead. Mambetov headed the Chegem district, one of the largest in Kabardino-Balkaria, for 18 years, and it became a hotspot of the insurgency in the past year.
The republican authorities’ visible retreat and the increasingly flamboyant posture of the Islamic insurgents in Kabardino-Balkaria have been manifested in the insurgents’ erecting of roadside signs proclaiming the “Caucasus Emirate.” Four such signs were found in the republic in the past two weeks, and three of them turned out to be booby-trapped, with at least one policeman injured by an explosion (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 1).
Possibly in order to pressure Moscow, Kabardino-Balkaria’s head Arsen Kanokov came up with his own ideas, like setting up home guard groups to maintain order in the republic as well as working with the relatives of the insurgents and their clans’ elders (Ogonyok, February 14). This immediately recalled the kind of “work” that the ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, performed in his domain, where relatives of suspected insurgents were reportedly deprived of government payments, their houses burned and they themselves detained and tortured.
In fact, an extremist group, the “Black Hawks-Anti-Wahhabis,” previously unheard of in Kabardino-Balkaria, threatened the family of a suspected insurgent, Astemir Mamishev. On February 5, the group attacked the Mamishev family’s house with Molotov cocktails, causing a fire and leaving a message that the household members would be killed if “Astemir Mamishev murders any inhabitant of Kabardino-Balkaria” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 7). Mamishev’s family said, however, that they had not seen Astemir for two years and did not even know whether he was still alive or not. Mamishev is suspected of murdering Kabardino-Balkaria’s mufti, Anas Pshikhachev, in December 2010, as well as several other high-profile killings (Ogonyok, February 14).
Whoever was hiding behind the “Black Hawks-Anti-Wahhabis,” on February 7 President Kanokov claimed five families of suspected insurgents had asked him for a private meeting to come to a solution concerning their prodigal relatives. However, Kanokov notably failed to provide any guarantees for the rebels, just blurting out inconclusively: “We can hand them [the suspected insurgents] to the law enforcement agencies and ask that they [the law enforcement agencies] treat them more softly” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, February 8).
This reaction shows that the republican authorities have little leverage in security issues and therefore can hardly influence the situation. At the same time, Moscow’s system of super-centralization of governance indicates its failure to curb the declining security trend in Kabardino-Balkaria. The choices Moscow faces in this republic boil down either to allowing more independence and more real autonomy for the regional government and the general public or cracking down indiscriminately on the local population with overwhelming military and police force. Both outcomes would mean the effective end of Khloponin’s mission in the North Caucasus, so the situation seems likely to remain in a state of limbo for the near future.