With Russia’s September 2016 parliamentary elections fast approaching, the political elites in the North Caucasus are becoming increasingly nervous. The country continues to be embroiled in an economic crisis, which is forcing a change in the relations between Moscow and regional governors, while the overall political situation becomes ever more fluid. Although the Russian government will likely try to rig the vote, as usual, national elections are still seen as a legitimization ritual for the ruling United Russia party. Hence, governors who do not deliver a sufficiently large number of votes for United Russia could face serious repercussions.
The governor of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Rashid Temrezov, is one of the North Caucasus governors most at risk. His position is precarious because United Russia faces formidable opposition in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Temrezov has managed to make many powerful enemies in the republic. President Vladimir Putin confirmed Temrezov’s status as Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s acting governor just days before Temrezov’s first term as governor was set to expire on March 1. Keeping Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s elites in suspense indicated that the Kremlin was considering other candidates for governor. The fact that elections to the regional parliament and the Russian State Duma will be held simultaneously in September provided Moscow with the pretext to remove those North Caucasus governors who fail to elect a sufficient number of United Russia deputies, according to local observers. As part of its strategy to ensure United Russia wins in the North Caucasus, Moscow appointed regional governors as interim leaders of United Russia, who run for parliament as candidates on party lists. However, once the elections are over, the governors simply “refuse” to take their parliamentary seat and a lower ranking United Russia apparatchik (loyal bureaucratic functionary) is delegated instead. Since governors are well known in the republics and have de-facto control of the local electoral commissions, the ruling party invariably “wins” elections there by a large margin (Onkavkaz.com, June 28).
This tried-and-true scheme, however, does not always work. It is especially likely to fail in such a multiethnic and politically divided republic as Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Turkic-speaking Karachays, for example, comprise a plurality in the republic and control much of the government apparatus. However, the Cherkess (Circassians) and the Abaza also have strong and well-organized structures, even though they are in the minority. Moreover, several groups in Karachaevo-Cherkessia have their own autonomous status within the republic, which makes it easier for them to organize for political action. Apart from the disgruntled minorities, the Karachays themselves also appear to be quite divided over Temrezov’s leadership.
Karachaevo-Cherkessia has a few politically strong civil society organizations that are normally arranged along ethnic lines. To shield themselves from criticism, republican officials organized their own parallel “civil organizations” that do the government’s bidding. For example, there are two main civil society organizations of ethnic Karachays—an independent Congress of the Karachay People and a government-sponsored organization called Karachay Alan Khalk. The deputy speaker of the republican parliament, Ruslan Khabov, also leads Karachay Alan Khalk. Karachays were among the ethnic groups of the former Soviet Union that were deported to Kazakhstan en masse by Joseph Stalin for alleged collaboration with the Germans during the Second World War. Now, Karachay activists say that the government has failed to rehabilitate them fully. Karachay villages lack basic facilities and joblessness is rampant. Karachaevo-Cherkessia is the only North Caucasian republic that has no direct connection to Moscow either via an air link or by railway. “People cry and are on their knees,” said Azim Salpagarov, the editor of the regional newspaper Kubanskie Vesti. “Many bureaucrats are involved in business activities and work for themselves. Those people simply make money, and they do not care that ordinary people in the republic face enormous problems due to the price hikes and credit debts” (Yug.svpressa.ru, June 24).
Temrezov was connected to Mustafa Batdyev, who was Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s president from 2003 to 2008. After a scandal involving the gruesome murder of a group of businessmen by Batdyev’s son-in-law, Ali Kaitov, and an ensuing uprising in the republic, Batdyev was removed from office. Temrezov unexpectedly came to power in Karachaevo-Cherkessia in 2011, after the premature resignation of the previous governor of the republic, Boris Ebzeyev. After Temrezov came to power, however, he and Batdyev reportedly had a falling out (Onkavkaz.com, June 18, 2015).
More recently, Temrezov has faced opposition from Aliy Totorkulov, a popular and charismatic political figure who attempted to participate in United Russia’s primary elections, but was sidelined. Totorkulov promised to fight his way to the Russian State Duma as Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s representative despite Temrezov’s opposition. However, Totorkulov was appointed deputy chairman of the Council for Nationalities in Moscow (Kuban.kp.ru, June 27). The gesture was apparently meant to appease the ambitious independent Karachaevo-Cherkessian politician and help republican authorities.
Despite Totorkulov’s retreat, there are other figures and forces in Karachaevo-Cherkessia that can still challenge Temrezov’s rule by voting against the United Russia party. Finally, the economic hurdles that the region is facing could easily upend the situation in the republic, which has persistently lacked either government or private investment in recent decades.