On May 22 the Russian Supreme Chamber of Judges rejected Islam Burlakov’s nomination for an additional term as head of the Supreme Court of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. All 19 judges voted against Burlakov; now the nomination goes to Russian President Vladimir Putin for his approval or rejection.
Burlakov has headed the KC Supreme Court since 1997. During the past 10 years he has become one of the most influential politicians in the region and the main rival of Mustafa Batdyev, the president of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Burlakov ran for president in 2003 but lost to Batdyev. He accused Batdyev of rigging the elections, while Batdyev supporters said that Burlakov had used his position as chairman of the Supreme Court to his benefit. Indeed, the Supreme Court tried to cancel the results of the presidential elections, but Moscow was against it and Burlakov lost the case.
Since the election, Burlakov has led a latent power struggle against Batdyev. Rival groups of Batdyev supporters from the Karachai minority (the largest ethnic group in the region) and the Circassian opposition tried to rally around Burlakov. In 2004, Batdyev’s son-in-law, Ali Kaitov, was accused of murdering several Karachai business rivals who opposed Batdyev (see EDM, November 10, 24, 2004). Burlakov has spearheaded the effort to bring Kaitov to justice, despite strong resistance from Batdyev and his entourage. In December 2006, the republican court sentenced Kaitov to 17 years in prison, a verdict ensured by Burlakov’s close attention to the case.
This year the standoff between Batdyev and the opposition intensified over the election of the mayor of Karachaevsk. The Karachai-dominated Karachaevsk is an unofficial capital of the mountainous part of the republic, where ski resorts — the main source of money for the republic — are located.
The election was held on March 11, but no winner has yet been announced; the top contenders were the incumbent, Batdyev ally Sapar Laypanov, and Magomekt Botashev, the city’s opposition leader who is supported by Burlakov (see EDM, May 10). On April 20, the republican Supreme Court ruled in favor of Botashev, but the city electoral committee refused to accept the court decision, explaining that voting reports from some precincts had been given to the Regional Prosecutor’s Office to check their authenticity (Regnum, May 14).
On May 14, Laypanov, accompanied by policemen, took control of the mayor’s office, prompting new protests from Botashev supporters. They occupied the office building and demanded immediate official recognition of Botashev’s victory (Regnum, May 14). The next day, they left the building when Batdyev promised to solve the political crisis. As it turned out, Batdyev was just stalling, waiting for support from the Kremlin. While the Electoral Committee of Karachaevsk appealed to the Russian Supreme Court to the republican court decision, Batdyev tried to persuade the Russian federal authorities to fire Burlakov. With Burlakov out, it would be much easier for regional authorities to certify Laypanov’s victory.
Nobody in Russia has any doubts that the decision to reject Burlakov’s re-nomination was politically motivated. Out of five candidates for the post, the Chamber rejected only one –Burlakov. Russian officials have not concealed the political reason for the Chamber’s decision; Burlakov will be fired in favor of Batdyev. A Kommersant newspaper source in Batdyev’s office said that Burlakov should be fired because the republican Supreme Court supports only opposition candidates. Another source in the staff of Dmitry Kozak, the Russian president’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, said “Verdicts of the KCR Supreme Court have paralyzed the political life in the republic; elections of any kind cannot be held” (Kommersant, May 25).
Russian officials did not explain why opposition candidates in Karachaevo-Cherkessia appeal to the local court after each election, accusing the authorities of rigging the outcome.
On May 22, Botashev supporters held another protest rally in the center of Karachaevsk. “On March 11 we elected a legitimate mayor. People expected changes, but we are being mocked,” one of the protestors told Komsomolskaya pravda. “Why have elections?” she wondered. “Appoint anybody you want and do not fool people!” (Komsomolskaya pravda-Severny Kavkaz, May 25).
By firing Burlakov the Kremlin has again demonstrated that the Russian authorities are not interested in the democratization of the North Caucasus. Instead, they support unpopular, corrupt local leaders. Just like in 2004, when the Kremlin took the side of Batdyev, who still remains in power today thanks to Moscow. Clearly, without help from the fired head of the Supreme Court, the opposition candidate has little chance of becoming the mayor of Karachaevsk.