Russian Military in Kabardino-Balkaria Promises to Follow Russian Laws

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 12 Issue: 21

On October 23, the Russian military command called on the insurgents in Kabardino-Balkaria to surrender, promising fair trials and assistance with adapting to civilian life. The Russian military even consented to hear “constructive proposals” by rights activists that they be allowed to participate in investigations to ensure that the surrendering rebels receive legally sound treatment. Officials estimate the number of rebels in the republic at 30, but their social support base is believed to be significantly larger (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 24).

The statement by the Russian military is astounding because the officials essentially promised to follow Russian law in dealing with the surrendering rebels. The officials did not promise amnesty or any other accommodation other than following the provisions in the Russian criminal code for voluntary surrender. The military’s statement is likely to fall on deaf ears, since the security services have frequently preferred to kill rebels rather than capture. Several such killings provoked a public outcry in Kabardino-Balkaria, as several people deemed to be manifestly innocent were shot dead by the security services (see EDM, July 14, and Circassian analyst Sufian Zhemukhov’s blog at http://echo.msk.ru/blog/word/799676-echo/). Also, many Muslims allegedly joined the rebel forces because the police constantly harassed them in their homes. Unless the police stop cracking down on Muslims who follow officially unapproved Islamic teachings, there is little chance rebels will surrender en masse.

On October 25, the head of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, also urged the rebels to surrender, saying that he would meet with relatives of insurgents to try to persuade them to put down their weapons. Kanokov said that two rebels had already surrendered and “would serve minimal [prison] terms” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 26). In saying that, Kanokov was again tacitly conceding that prison terms are handed down not according to fair trials, but rather according to political considerations.

While on a visit to Kabardino-Balkaria’s mountainous and predominantly Balkar-populated Elbrus district, Kanokov announced that the counterterrorism regime in the republic would be abolished on November 1. A counterterrorism operation regime was introduced throughout nearly all of Kabardino-Balkaria in February after several tourists from Moscow were killed in the republic. Despite ending the counterterrorism operation regime, the extra police and military enforcements that were dispatched to the district will remain there to ensure stability (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 26). This indicates that the situation remains unstable and the government is unsure that it has the support of the population.

The Russian security services hailed the results of the counterterrorism operation. According to Kabardino-Balkarian police, 65 rebels were killed and 97 arrested, while the number of militant attacks declined from 80 in 2010 to 40 in 2011. The Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website reported that 71 suspected rebels have been killed and 64 arrested since February 20, when the counterterrorism operation regime was introduced in the republic (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 26).

On October 27, the republican government of Kabardino-Balkaria was reshuffled, with Kanokov reorganizing some ministries and their personnel. Thus, the republican government appointed in October 2010 lasted only one year.  In April of this year, Kabardino-Balkaria’s Prime Minister, Aleksandr Merkulov, was replaced by Ivan Gerter. Also, the Circassian Congress organization in Kabardino-Balkaria was reorganized as the Circassian Union (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 28). Circassian Congress has been one of the few Circassian organizations in the North Caucasus that have been vocal on the Circassian genocide issue and the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

Georgia followed up on its official recognition of the Circassian genocide at the hands of Russia and significantly expanded its links to the Circassians. For example, on October 19, a Circassian cultural center opened in Tbilisi that will interact with the 5 million strong Circassian diaspora. According to some estimates, even though there are few Circassians living in Georgia, the country is rapidly becoming a more popular destination for Circassians worldwide (www.ekhokavkaza.com, October 19).

Georgia’s warming up to the Circassians did not go unnoticed in Moscow. Some Russian analysts went as far as to say that “the anti-Russian position of Tbilisi in the North Caucasus is facilitating separatism and extremist movements in the region.” One analyst, Nikolai Khorunzhy seems to use terms such as “Islamic insurgents” and “North Caucasian nationalist movements” interchangeably. Khorunzhy implies that Georgia may face an influx of Islamists from the North Caucasus and the disapproval of its US allies (http://inforos.ru/?module=news&action=view&id=27944).

The Russians appear to be admitting that in the North Caucasus they are facing not the existential threat of Islamic extremism, but a separatist movement with the concrete political goal of breaking away from Russia. The movement may appear to be chaotic and have various political undertones, such as Islamism and nationalism, but its core idea is not fading away. The very existence of the independent country of Georgia bordering the North Caucasus troubles Moscow, as it seems to be providing some hope to those in the North Caucasus that the region could achieve independence at some point in the future.