Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 164

During a trip to the North Caucasus last week, President Vladimir Putin held up Kabardino-Balkaria as an example for Russia’s other regions. In comments given little attention by the Russian media, Putin said that while Kabardino-Balkaria is not one of Russia’s more prosperous republics, it is developing positively thanks to its leadership, which is placing the interests of the people over its own ambitions (Ria Novosti, September 6). “We have to get away from the conception of the North Caucasus as permanently associated with conflict and confrontation,” Putin declared, “I am confident this can be done. Kabardino-Balkaria illustrates this. The time for the protest democracy of the 1990s has gone. We must proceed to developing the state” (AFP, September 7).

Putin’s praise for this republic was interesting, given the authoritarian nature of its social-political-economic system. Its president, Valery Kokov, headed its Soviet Communist leadership before 1992 and was re-elected to a five-year term in 1997, when he ran unopposed, receiving the votes of some 97 percent of the republic’s eligible voters. About five years ago, all opposition newspapers in Kabardino-Balkaria were shut down, and local television and radio stations were totally subordinated to the authorities. Kabardino-Balkaria’s media are prohibited from writing or speaking about the war in Chechnya, which is located a mere 100 kilometers away.

Kabardino-Balkaria’s top officials are chosen solely on the basis of their personal loyalty to the republic’s president. While livestock has replaced money in many of the republic’s villages, members of Kokov’s bureaucratic clan build luxury mansions and cruise around in Mercedes. Anyone who might have represented political competition for Kokov has either left the republic or withdrawn from political life. Despite assurances by the authorities, problems between the republic’s two main ethnic groups, the Kabardins and the Balkars, remain unresolved. In reality, practically all of the political and economic power in the republic belongs to the Kabardin elite, to which Kokov belongs. The Balkar minority considers that its rights have been infringed and, under the right circumstances, this dissatisfaction could come out into the open.

Putin’s praise for Kabardino-Balkaria’s development model is also interesting given the comments recently made by a leading member of his cabinet about another of Russia’s authoritarian republics. During a visit to Tatarstan last month, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref said that the republic had successfully carried out economic reforms and was even ahead of the country at large in certain respects. Gref said that he liked, among other things, Tatarstan’s “simplified” system of bookkeeping for businesses, adding that in this and other areas Tatarstan was a testing ground for Russia. As the Polit.ru website noted, the comments by Gref, known as one of the cabinet’s leading liberals, were somewhat strange given Tatarstan’s system, which some observers have described as “state capitalism (Polit.ru, Finmarket.ru, August 30). Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, who ran unopposed in 1996, was elected to a third term this past March, winning 79 percent of the vote. During the election campaign, the republic’s authorities withdrew two newspapers hostile to Shaimiev from circulation (see the Monitor, March 27).