On July 18, the Russian air force launched a surprise massive military exercise in Kabardino-Balkaria. Fifteen military aircraft are taking part in the exercises, including Su-24, Su-25, Su-27, Su-34, MIG-29 and Tu-22M3 planes, and Mi-24 and Mi-28 helicopters. These are the largest maneuvers in Kabardino-Balkaria in the past 15 years. The only mountainous firing range for the Russian air force was in a dormant state, but the worsening security situation in Kabardino-Balkaria, Georgia’s perceived threat to its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the impending Olympic games in Sochi reportedly prompted the Russian military to flex its muscles. According to a source in the Russian air force, the firing range in Kabardino-Balkaria was used to test Soviet and Russian guided and non-guided missiles, drones, and military command and control systems. Military airbases in Prokhladny, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Mozdok, North Ossetia, will be used to host the aircraft (www.ng.ru, July 18).
These massive exercises suggest that Moscow is preparing not for the development of tourism in the North Caucasus, but rather for a war. Although the stated aircraft models are of an older generation, they are probably sufficient to impress the locals and any other parties the drills might be addressed to. At the same time, however, the demonstration of military might signifies certain weakness on the part of Moscow, which chose to ensure the loyalty of its citizens by utilizing the air force. The armed underground in Kabardino-Balkaria has proven to be much less potent since its leadership was wiped out as a result of a Russian security operation on April 29. A counterterrorism operation regime is still in place in the republic and there seem to be no signs that it is going to be lifted soon.
The insurgent threat is not the only destabilizing factor in Kabardino-Balkaria. Old tensions between the Kabardins (aka Circassians) and the Balkars are simmering too. The heads of 17 Balkar villages addressed the Russian president to defend their rights. The Balkar leaders claim that the Kabardino-Balkarian government, dominated by the Kabardin majority, is encroaching on their land and pushing the Balkars to the brink of extinction (https://gazetayuga.ru, July 14). In fact, the counterterrorism operation regime and the virtual end of tourism in Kabardino-Balkaria affected the Balkars perhaps most, because many of them received subsistence from this business, since they traditionally occupy the highlands. This puts additional pressure on the local society and ethnic relations. On July 19, one of the Circassian leaders, Ibragim Yaganov, was severely beaten up near his house. Yaganov was organizing a conference with Circassian, Balkar and Cossack organizations to discuss land distribution and other contentious issues (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 19).
Meanwhile, the first official publication of the Russian list of extremist and terrorist organizations and individuals caused uproar in Kabardino-Balkaria. The Council of Balkar People’s Elders, which is outspoken in its opposition to the republican government, was included on the list, despite the Russian Supreme Court’s ruling to lift extremism charges against this organization back in 2010 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 18). Since Russian courts are notoriously politicized, the fact that a court in Moscow allowed the Balkar organization to function means Moscow is looking for ways to balance the Circassians in Kabardino-Balkaria with the Balkar minority.
The Cossack population of Kabardino-Balkaria received another sign of official benevolence. Of the estimated 10,000 Cossacks in the republic, 3,000 are already employed by the government to cooperate with police, Federal Security Service (FSB), Emergency Situations Ministry and the military. Now the Cossacks have offered to patrol the streets as policemen and the head of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, expressed his approval of this proposal (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 17). The talk about Cossacks being recruited for patrolling betrays a profound failure of the state to control this territory with conventional police. Cossacks historically spearheaded the Russian conquest of the Caucasus and controlling the territories after they were subdued. So if the Cossacks receive official approval to patrol the streets in Kabardino-Balkaria, the Circassians and Balkars will likely be deeply offended. In 2010, the Cossacks in Adygea also tried to assume a law enforcement role, but their claims were rebuffed because of the local Circassians’ concerns (www.regnum.ru, June 30, 2010).
On July 9, the Russian TV channel TV Tsentr attacked Georgia and the Circassians over the issue of the Circassian “genocide.” Journalist Aleksei Pushkov, who has conspicuous ties to the government, stated that Georgia’s official recognition of Circassian “genocide” in the nineteenth century was meant to fuel separatist trends in the North Caucasus. The program mentioned a conference sponsored by The Jamestown Foundation and Georgia’s Ilia State University in Tbilisi in March 2010, at which the Circassian “genocide” issue was extensively discussed. Disrupting the 2012 Sochi Olympics is one of the main goals of the Circassian diaspora and Georgia, according to Pushkov. Kabardino-Balkaria is allegedly the weakest spot because of its high levels of corruption and unemployment (www.tvc.ru, July 9). The program sparked outrage even among the Circassians in the North Caucasus conspicuously loyal to Moscow. For example, Asker Sokht, a Circassian activist from Krasnodar, stated that the goal of the TV program was to make the Circassian people and the Circassian diaspora into enemies for Russian viewers. Sokht alleged that this campaign against the Circassians has been going on in Russia for several years (www.aheku.org, July 11).
On July 18, FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov stated that his organization thwarted a major terrorist attack in Moscow. Officials said that the plotters of the attack had received orders from Doku Umarov and were the followers of Said Buryatsky, a charismatic Muslim cleric who was killed in Ingushetia in March 2010. The novelty of this situation is that plotters were not only from Chechnya and Ingushetia: there was also a person from Kabardino-Balkaria and another from Mordovia, a region near Volga River in Russia (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 19).
By ramping up the response to the actual or perceived rebel threat, Moscow may be contributing to a loss of trust in the government. The more it appears that Russia treats the North Caucasian territories as something to be captured, suppressed and controlled, the more alienation it evokes among the local population.