On June 7, an unusual police operation took place in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. About 100 investigators and special forces servicemen had arrived the previous day from Moscow at the Russian military airbase at Mozdok in neighboring North Ossetia. The group secretly moved into Kabardino-Balkaria and embarked on its mission at 6 a.m., on June 7, simultaneously in several locations. The investigative group from Moscow targeted four high profile figures in the republic: the head of the republican governor’s administration, Vladimir Zhamborov, and his brother, Ruslan Zhamborov, who shortly before that had become head of the Russian postal service in Kabardino-Balkaria and previously had overseen the distribution of state property and land resources. Reportedly, Zhamborov initially refused to let the police in and yielded only after one of the officers threatened to storm his home. The main government building in Nalchik was practically ransacked by the Russian security forces who were armed with machine guns. The two others were Khabdulsalam Ligidov, the current minister of state property and land resources in the republic, and a businesswoman, Madina Khatsukova. All four people were dispatched to Moscow on a special flight for further interrogation on corruption charges.
The main charge against all four people was that they had devised a scheme that let Khatsukova become owner of the state philharmonic building, worth $700,000, without paying anything for it. The charge of illegal arms possession was added later on as several guns were found in the officials’ possession (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/1953786, June 8).
This pointed attack against the republican leadership in Kabardino-Balkaria was an extremely unusual event that broke the unwritten covenant between the North Caucasian leaders and Moscow. The assumed rules of the game were that the local governments in the North Caucasus had virtually free rein in distributing government funds while providing a semblance of political loyalty to Moscow and an invariably high turnout and high voting for the powers that be in Russia. Following this unusual police operation, the Kabardino-Balkarian elites and governors elsewhere may start rethinking their relations with Moscow. In an interview with Izvestia published on June 7, Kabardino-Balkaria’s leader, Arsen Kanokov, frantically denied that members of his government had been arrested and brushed aside the charges (https://izvestia.ru/news/526857, June 7).
The investigators denied any political undertones in their sudden interest in privatization matters in the republic, saying that new Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev was intent on fighting corruption. However, the Zhamborov brothers are reportedly relatives of Kanokov on his mother’s side and long-time business partners of the republican leader, whereas Madina Khatsukova is a sister or cousin of Kanokov’s spouse. Consequently the investigation is inevitably going to be perceived as a political act (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/1953786, June 8; https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207907/, June 9). Local sources suggested that the attack may have been caused by the political rivalry meant to undermine Kanokov’s grip on power. Interior Ministry General Yuri Kokov and oil magnate Valery Kardanov are known as strong challengers to Kanokov, who was reappointed as head of the republic in 2010 (https://mn.ru/incidents/20120608/320086657.html, June 8).
Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that Kanokov’s rivals triggered – or much the less orchestrated – an assault like this. All leaders of the North Caucasian republics have strong rivalries, and shady financial schemes abound across the region; yet, such investigations are extremely rare. Also, disregarding the alternative contenders is one of the rules in the unwritten agreement between Moscow and the North Caucasian governors. Circassian activist Ibragim Yaganov suggested that the attack was driven by business rather than political rivalry (https://kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/208039/, June 12). Kanokov indeed has a business background: he headed the Sindika holding company, with a yearly turnover of roughly $1 billion, and likely still has strong connections to it. Sindika has interests in construction, banking, hotel and retail businesses, primarily concentrated in the Moscow region (https://www.vremya.ru/2007/86/4/178555.html, May 22, 2007; https://www.sindika-holding.ru/, June 12).
Given the resources that were used to carry out the special operation and the charges against those targeted, one of Kabardino-Balkaria’s politicians, Anzor Shakhmurzov said: “The operation carried out by the Interior Ministry of the Russian Federation cannot produce anything apart from bewilderment, because the cost of the philharmonic building is several times less than dispatching a hundred police special forces and investigators from Moscow on the special flight” (https://kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/208039/, June 12).
The circumstances surrounding the arrest of the officials in Kabardino-Balkaria are indeed puzzling. It is not very likely that high-profile businessmen in Moscow had a conflict with the company associated with Kanokov and tried to take revenge on him this way. People who could stage an attack like this on Kabardino-Balkarian soil would have been much more likely to attack Kanokov’s company in Moscow, where most of its assets are. There might be a struggle for Kabardino-Balkaria’s own resources going on. Apart from having the highest mountain in Europe, Mt. Elbrus, and vast opportunities for building ski resorts, significant deposits of gold have recently been discovered in Kabardino-Balkaria (https://skfo.ru/news/2012/06/11/V_Kabardino-Balkarii_nashli_promyshlennye_zapasy_zolota/, June 11). Although it is possible that Kanokov’s team may have appeared unaccommodating in talks with Russian businesses who wanted to take over parts of the republican economy, it is hardly plausible that Kanokov’s business partners chose such a tortuous way of delivering a message to Kanokov.
The arrests of officials in Kabardino-Balkaria for relatively minor crimes that have not yet been proven are most likely directed against Kanokov. And the motive for the assault is most likely political, not economic. Khadzhismel Tkhagapsoev, a Kabardino-Balkarian academic close to the republican government, approached the puzzle in a more forceful manner than probably anybody else. According to Tkhagapsoev, Moscow’s attack on the republican leadership was caused, apart from everything else, by Kanokov’s perceived reluctance to cooperate in suppressing the so-called Circassian question. According to Tkhagapsoev, the approaching Olympics in Sochi and the international Circassian activist movement, which is demanding recognition of the Circassian genocide of the 19th century, prompted Moscow’s backlash against the Kabardino-Balkarian authorities, because the Russian government thought the republican leader needed to be “disciplined” (https://www.sk-news.ru/news/obshchestvennye_organizatsii/18495/, June 11).
The intimidation tactics Moscow has opted for in Kabardino-Balkaria mean that the Circassian cause has widespread popularity among the local population. That is why Moscow cannot simply take out several people and resolve the issue, because then it will face grassroots opposition to its rule in the region. Instead, Moscow wants to solve its problem using a local Circassian governor who would diligently do the job of suppressing local Circassian activism and averting popular resentment directed against Moscow.
Regional governors in the North Caucasus might be prompted to draw some lessons from the events in Kabardino-Balkaria. They might organize some kind of semi-official militia that would shield them from sudden incursions from Moscow. Or they could get in touch with the insurgency and start cooperating with them in certain areas. Still, the most likely reaction will be to quietly close the ranks and try to keep Moscow at bay.