Kremlin Plans for Kabardino-Balkaria Tourism Plagued by Grass-Roots Opposition

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 6

On March 12, Russian security forces killed six suspected rebels in the village of Mir in Kabardino-Balkaria’s Chegem district. A counter-terrorism operation regime was introduced in this small settlement with its name that, ironically, translates into English as “Peace.” According to government reports, five of those killed were rebels, while the sixth person killed was a female “accomplice.” Another female “accomplice” was arrested. Government sources alleged that the security services uncovered paperwork proving that the rebels had extorted money from local businessmen. According to the Russian National Anti-Terrorist Committee, one of the slain militants, Arslan Gegraev, was the leader of the southwestern sector of the rebel command (http://kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/202878/, March 12). The Russian security services apply the term “accomplice” to virtually anybody who has been in touch with the rebels in one way or another. The “accomplices” usually receive the same treatment as the actual rebels, but are still differentiated in news reports.
 
A group of women who are the mothers of rebels on the Russian wanted list arrived in Mir to try to persuade the besieged militants to surrender. The results of their efforts are unknown (http://kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/202859/, March 12). Previous attempts of women-peacemakers to get involved in negotiations were unsuccessful because the Russian command did not allow them to engage the blocked rebel forces. Analysis shows that the Russian security services see their role as killing suspected rebels rather than capturing and trying them in courts. The logic of collective punishment supplants the Russian justice system in the North Caucasus when it comes to dealing with the rebels.
 
Meanwhile, one of the titular ethnicities of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Balkars, rallied on March 8 to commemorate 68 years since Stalin’s deportation of this Turkic-speaking people to Central Asia. An estimated 2,000 people took part in the rally in Nalchik. A significant part of the event was dedicated to contemporary issues the Balkars regard as crucial for their survival as a nation (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/202640/, March 9).
 
Land distribution is becoming the most contentious issue in this small republic with a potentially lucrative tourist industry. The highest mountain in the Caucasus, Mt. Elbrus, is located in the republic. The mountainous areas of Kabardino-Balkaria are traditionally inhabited by the Balkar minority. The Balkars try to keep at bay potential competitors – big businesses that might take over their lands in the mountains. However, this is precisely what might happen with the creation of the so-called tourism cluster in the North Caucasus that Moscow’s envoy in the North Caucasus, Aleksandr Khloponin, vigorously champions.
 
On March 11, President Dmitry Medvedev presided over a large government meeting in Krasnodar region devoted to developing tourism in Russia, mostly to projects related to the North Caucasus. According to the Russian president, the government signed $3.5 billion worth of binding agreements with foreign investors from France, Singapore and Korea who are willing to invest in the North Caucasus tourism cluster development. Six airports in the region are being upgraded – Krasnodar, Maikop, Mineralnye Vody, Nalchik, Beslan and Makhachkala. The current capacities of the existing infrastructure allow only 20,000 passengers per day to be serviced and the plan is to increase that figure to 100,000 per day. It has not yet been decided which airports will become transportation hubs for delivering tourists to the ski resorts in the mountains and resorts planned for the Caspian coast in Dagestan (http://www.kremlin.ru/news/14745#sel, March 11).
 
Most likely Moscow will revert to the Soviet era scheme, in which the airport in Mineralnye Vody, which is situated in the Russian-speaking Stavropol region, will be designated as the primary transportation hub to serve Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Adygea will be served by the airport in Krasnodar. Only Dagestan is likely to have its own air transportation hub because there is no nearby Russian city that could supersede it. Chechnya also might be able to carve out special privileges for its own airport.
 
Khloponin specified that seven special tourist economic zones had been created in the North Caucasus. The special zones provide tax breaks for the residents of the zones and simplified visa procedures for foreign personnel of the companies that work on construction of the tourist-related infrastructure. At the moment, the only project moving forward is a tourist complex in Arkhyz, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, which is being financed by the Russian Sinara group. All other projects are still in the early stages of development with no clear deadlines (http://www.kremlin.ru/news/14745#sel, March 11). The new tourist economic zones are being set up without consulting the locals, although the government creates the illusion of “mass approval by the population” in a strikingly Soviet manner (http://www.ncrc.ru/r/news/index.php?id_4=450, February 21). Local residents are increasingly aware of their potential losses, as their lands are practically expropriated by Moscow.
 
The head of the Balkar Council of Elders, Ilyas Sabanchiev, stated at the March 8 rally marking the Balkar deportation that the government was trying to take away Balkar property. “The genocide of the Balkar people that started on March 8, 1944, has continued to these days, but is now about economic deprivation,” he said. “Then, in 1944, families of people who fought [Germany] on the frontlines were put into cattle cars and sent to the east – (to) Central Asia. Today, economic genocide is taking place against the Balkars, as there is not a single industrial or agricultural enterprise on Balkaria’s territory.” The Balkars are demanding the restoration of Balkar territories within the same borders of four districts that were in place before their deportation from the homeland in 1944 (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/202640/, March 9).
 
The virtual elimination of participatory political mechanisms in Russia constantly backfires in the North Caucasus: the government finds itself so detached from the population that it makes mistakes even in relatively simple situations. Now, the problem of Balkar opposition to mass tourism in Kabardino-Balkaria has been added to the challenge posed by the ongoing insurgency in the republic.