Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 6

A demonstration planned for January 6 by opponents of Valery Kokov, president of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, was cancelled after the authorities informed its organizers that they would not receive permission to hold it. The demonstration’s organizers–four of the six candidates who are challenging Kokov in the republic’s presidential election, set for January 13–decided to cancel the event in order not to heighten tensions in the republic. Despite this, some 2,000 protesters gathered in the central square of the republic’s capital, Nalchik. When they arrived, they found it filled with police, who just happened to be holding a public drill and inspection there. Although the protesters, after brief talks with police officials, agreed to disperse, several uniformed policemen detained an activist from the election staff of one of the opposition candidates, Mukhamed Batyrov. His comrades were subsequently unable to locate him in any of the city’s police stations and now plan to set up a committee to secure his release. A second member of Batyrov’s campaign team was detained the same day. Opposition sources claim that the police action is having a boomerang effect, and that the entire republic is now talking about how the police prevented an opposition demonstration from taking place (Kavkazweb.com, January 8).

The January 13 election in Kabardino-Balkaria, which is located just a two-hour car ride away from Chechnya, will be the republic’s third presidential election in a decade. None of those elections were fully democratic. For example, the Balkars, who number around 80,000 of the republic’s total population of around 800,000, refused to participate in the 1992 presidential election, hoping that their districts would be declared a national autonomy. The next presidential election, which took place in 1997, set a kind of record: Ninety-eight percent of the republic’s eligible voters participated in the election, and of those, 99 percent voted for Kokov, who was then, as now, Kabardino-Balkaria’s president.

The current contest, at first glance, appears more democratic, given that there are six candidates challenging Kokov. The fact that the incumbent is running for a third term, however, calls the contest’s legitimacy into question. The constitutions of both Kabardino-Balkaria and the Russian Federation limit presidents to two terms. The Kremlin, however, has allowed certain regional leaders to seek a third term, including Kokov, who has headed Kabardino-Balkaria since 1989 and apparently fully suits Moscow. During a visit to Kabardino-Balkaria last September, President Vladimir Putin praised the republic as a model for “developing the state” (see the Monitor, September 10, 2001).

It is true that, on the one hand, Kabardino-Balkaria has not had mafia wars like Dagestan and North Ossetia or interethnic tension like Karachaevo-Cherkessia, nor has it experienced the terrorism that has taken place in various parts of the North Caucasus. Kabardino-Balkaria, however, has managed to avoid these problems thanks to the authoritarian nature of Kokov’s regime, which employs openly illegal means that are occasionally dressed up in “legal” forms. In November of last year, for example, the regime forced the republic’s parliament to adopt a measure limiting the right of citizens not living permanently in Kabardino-Balkaria to register residence, marriages and the births of children there. This measure violates Articles 17, 20, 27 and 31 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation.

According to Mukhamed Batyrov, one of the opposition presidential candidates, social conditions in the republic are less than ideal. He notes that some 3,000 underground factories producing substandard “spirit,” or grain alcohol, are operating in the republic. So much of this alcohol is produced that it sells in markets for 8-12 rubles (around 35 cents) for a half-liter. At the same time, alcohol is often used to pay state workers, and when this is done, the price is calculated at 31 rubles a bottle. And though Batyrov is a Russian army general, he recalls that Kokov was the initiator of the 1994 appeal from the presidents of the North Caucasus republic to Boris Yeltsin that called on the then Russian president to intervene in Chechnya militarily (only Ruslan Aushev, who was then Ingushetia’s president, refused to sign this appeal).

At the same time, most observers predict that Kokov will easily win a third term. The “Kokov clan” possesses almost unlimited administrative resources, which it has accumulated during its many years in power in Kabardino-Balkaria. The other crucial factor is that Kokov’s complete loyalty and ability to control the situation in the republic fully suits the Kremlin, which really doesn’t care what methods he uses to achieve that end.