Karachaevo-Cherkessia: A Small War with Big Repercussions

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 4

During the past few months, the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic (KCR) has remained below the mass media’s radar. In the meantime, the events unfolding in the republic illustrate a growing confrontation between the Russian authorities and the separatists. Despite the official announcements that the Karachaevo Jamaat has been eradicated (Vremya Novostei, January 24), a number of developments demonstrate that the underground is alive and well. In fact, the area of influence of the so-called jamaat has spread beyond the mountainous part of Karachaevo.

On January 26, KCR Interior Minister Nikolai Osiak said that a video surveillance system code-named “Safe City” will be installed in the KCR capital Cherkessk in 2008 (RIA Novosti, January 16).

According to the minister’s statement, the installation of this expensive system is vital to ensuring an adequate level of security in the capital. Video surveillance is an extraordinary acquisition for a republic in which federal subsidies account for 97 percent of the local budget and all economic indices rank near the bottom of the list of the Russian Federation’s federal subjects.

The leaders of the KCR’s law enforcement and military agencies do have reasons to be concerned.

On January 23, one of the members of the Karachaevo-Cherkessia jamaat, a 32-year old Stavropol Krai resident Pavel Novikov (Abdullah), was detained in Moscow. Russia’s mass media refer to Novikov as a leader of the Karachaevo Jamaat (RIA Novosti, January 23), but in truth Novikov was a member of the group headed by Rustam Ionov, an ethnic Abazin. Importantly, the arrest was a joint operation of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the federal Interior Ministry’s Anti-Terrorism Center, not the local special services.

Rustam Ionov (Abu Bakr), the group leader, was assassinated along with his wife in the fall of 2007 during an attempt to cross the Russia-Georgia border (Regnum, September 5, 2007). Ionov was born and lived in the Abazin village of Psyzh, which is just across the Kuban River from Cherkessk. He was able to establish one of the most effective and largest jamaats in the KCR—around 35 members, according to official data. Ionov’s group included mostly Abazin and Cherkess members with a handful of Russians and Karachays. The group considered itself a part of the Caucasus Front and acted independently to plan and carry out assassinations of Russian Federation law enforcement personnel across the entire territory of the KCR.

Rustam Ionov was also involved with Camagat.org, a website containing information on the activities of the Karachaevo-Cherkessia jamaat as well as an extensive photo and document collection related to the Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat. The site has been hacked numerous times and was taken offline in the summer of 2007.

Ionov’s assassination exposed his group and 27 members were arrested. Four more members known to the special services escaped and are currently wanted by the authorities.

The Karachaevo Jamaat, whose zone of influence and active operations were confined to the mountainous part of Karachaevo and the southwestern part of the republic, had to go deep underground even prior to these events. In the spring of 2007, a number of special operations conducted by the FSB and Interior Ministry in villages formally known as Cossack settlements resulted in the killing of 12 jamaat members.

In December 2006, one of the jamaat leaders, Tokov, was surrounded in a residential building and killed after the building was stormed; another Karachaevo native, Salpagarov, was arrested during the same operation. At the same time, the KCR’s FSB branch helped disseminate information on the ties between the Karachaevo Jamaat and KCR President Mustafa Batdyev (Kommersant, December 26, 2006). Despite that, Batdyev managed to stay in office while his son-in-law received a lengthy prison term.

After a number of actions in the southwestern part of the KCR and the elimination of Ionov’s group, the director of Russia’s FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, announced that the Karachaevo Jamaat had been eradicated.

However, on December 26, 2006, shortly after Patrushev made his statement, a young man opened fire and killed a police sergeant during a document check in Cherkessk. Afterwards, he detonated the bomb hidden in his gym bag and received lethal wounds. The interesting thing about this incident is that the fighter hailed from the Khabez district, an ethnically homogeneous area in which 90 percent of the residents are Cherkess or Abazin who had never previously been associated with jamaats.

In May 2007, the first “clean-up” operation in the Cherkessia part of the KCR took place in the Khabez district’s central mosque. Notably, the operation was conducted by an OMON division specially sent from Cherkessk, not by the local police. Approximately 160 young men were forcibly detained as they were leaving the mosque and taken to the police precinct, where they were kept for a long time, fingerprinted and photographed.

The Cherkess and Abazin roots of Tishkov and Ionov’s group, as well as the massive clean-up action in Khabez, suggest that the Cherkess population of the KCR has joined the resistance movement. The reasons that the FSB prefers not to announce that fact publicly are also quite clear.

The spread of resistance ideas among the Cherkess youth has most certainly been triggered by the developments in Kabardino-Balkaria. The young people were obviously very much influenced by the fact that the underground leader in the neighboring republic is of Kabardinian nobility (Kabardins, Cherkess and Adygs are the same people, who were artificially split into three groups by Russia), while an overwhelming number of those who took part in the Nalchik operation in October 2005 were Cherkess (Kabardins).

Another reason Russia’s special services are keeping quiet is the risk posed by the growing authority of the resistance movement in Adygeya, another Cherkess republic. Looking into the future, the Moscow camp will certainly be concerned if the young Cherkess from the 6-million strong Circassian diaspora become involved in the struggle for freedom in the Caucasus.

Along with an increasing numbers of troops and personnel of the Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, FSB and GRU in the republic, the Kremlin is trying to reactivate another time-proven weapon against the Caucasus resistance by providing financial and emotional support to the Cossacks.

In January 2008, the Russian government adopted a special program to support Cossacks in the KCR and Adygeya. Five million rubles (more than $200,000) were earmarked for Cossacks in the KCR alone in 2008. Since 2000, Cossacks have been permitted to carry knives and firearms, something that remains a criminal offense for members of other social and ethnic groups in the Caucasus. In addition to special funding incentives, the government is also providing the Cossacks with ideological support. On January 25, the KCR’s mass media reported that churches in the KCR and Adygeya held services to commemorate Cossack casualties of Communist political repression during the Soviet period.

The measures pursued by Kremlin are clear proof that the threat of Cherkess retaliation remains real. It seems that Russia failed to resolve the problem in Cherkessia even after the eradication of the entire country and forcible deportation of its population. Russia is now facing the threat of Cherkessian consolidation within and outside the Caucasus, and it is perhaps ready to make some concessions.

One of the signs of Russia’s wavering is its policy toward the genocide issue. Earlier, any demands to acknowledge Russia’s genocide against the Circassians in the 19th century were strongly rebuffed, but in January 2008, Zvezda, a St. Petersburg-based academic journal, published an article entitled “A Cherkessia Atlantis,” which hints that it would be possible and even desirable for Moscow to admit its wrongs against the Circassians.

However, the article’s author, Yakov Gordin, made it clear that the genocide may be acknowledged to provide validation of a strictly emotional character, with no financial, territorial or status-related obligations assumed toward the Cherkess; an emotional bone to throw, of sorts. What is important about this article is the author’s connection to Vladimir Putin: Yakov Gordin stands close to the Russian president as his advisor on national policy.