The War on Terror in the North Caucasus Provokes Public Protests

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 45

The armed standoff between the security officials and the insurgency in the North Caucasus is destabilizing the region and provoking new civic protests by the local population. The continuing arrests and rebel attacks are aggravating old simmering conflicts while the war on terror itself is provoking new ones.

This year, Dagestan has faced numerous protest rallies about different issues. There has also been a wave of protests in the North-West Caucasus—Ingushetia and the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria (KBR)—this fall. On November 10, the authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria banned one of the most influential public organizations in the region representing the Balkar minority—“The Council of Elders of the Balkar People.” The republican prosecutor’s office called the council “an extremist organization” and banned it under the federal law “On Counteracting Extremist Activity.” The same day, November 10, the KBR authorities banned a rally the council had planned to hold in the center of Nalchik, the region’s capital, directly in front of the Government Palace. Police troops surrounded the rally site and arrested anybody who tried to get into the square.

The main demand of the Council is to preserve two Balkar villages, Khasanya and Belaya Rechka, as independent settlements. This year these villages were incorporated into Nalchik as suburbs. The residents of the villages opposed this because they regard the decision of the republican government, which is dominated by officials of Kabardin origin, as an attempt to confiscate land from the Balkars.

Relations between the Kabardins and Balkars in the KBR are not easy and the Balkars regularly protest against their de-facto second-class status in the region. While the authorities earlier did not have big problems in suppressing such protests, it now looks more serious because of the anti-Russian insurgency that is on the rise in the republic. When the rally was banned, Ruslan Babaev, a leader of the Council of Elders, declared the beginning of a protest campaign by the Balkars; however, Oyus Gurtuev, another leader of the council, subsequently withdrew the declaration. It seems that the KBR authorities managed to calm down the Balkar leaders by promising a behind-the-scenes dialogue. Yet, as soon as the problem with the Balkar rally was solved, the KBR government faced another protest. Late at night on November 15, policemen stopped a car near Khasanya that was moving towards the mountain village of Gerpegezh. Ammunition, food and bomb-making materials were found in the car. The driver, Zaitun Gaev, was detained and sent to the police’s Organized Crime Department (OCD). His lawyer was refused entry into the OCD building in Nalchik. On November 16, police told relatives of Gaev that during the interrogation he jumped out of the window from the fourth floor and died. Gaev’s relatives apparently did not believe the police and assumed that he was tortured to death. Gaev’s death inspired a protest movement of the relatives of those who had died in police department buildings while being held as suspected terrorists. A protest rally was to be held in Nalchik on November 19, but the organizers had to cancel it, fearing possible clashes with the police.

In Ingushetia, the civic protest movement is much better organized and stronger. The opposition to the Ingush president, Murat Zyazikov, plans to hold a massive protest rally on November 24 “to discuss the current situation in the republic.” The methods of the Russian anti-terrorist forces in Ingushetia are much harsher than those of their colleagues in Kabardino-Balkaria. The death of a 6-year-old Ingush boy during an anti-terrorist raid by Russian special forces provoked new protests in the republic (Chechnya Weekly, November 15).

Despite differences, the protests in Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia look similar. First of all, the protests in both republics are an indicator of the rising feelings of mistrust that the locals have towards the regional governments. It is also clear that the counter-insurgency operations have damaged the popularity of the local governments. At the same time, civic protests in the Caucasus do not target the Kremlin. For example, the rally that the Council of Elders of the Balkar People tried to hold in Nalchik was called “a rally to express trust in Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Those who plan to protest in Ingushetia on November 24 also want to appeal to Vladimir Putin and ask him to replace Zyazikov with somebody else.

Nevertheless, having all kinds of protests in the North Caucasus now is unacceptable for the Russian authorities. Ironically, such an attitude on the part of the Kremlin is to the rebels’ advantage. The fewer the possibilities to express protest in a non-violent way, the higher the popularity of the anti-Russian insurgency. The resonance of Zaitun Gaev’s mysterious death in Kabardino-Balkaria is proof of this. On November 19, KBR militants attacked the police post near Khasanya where Gaev had been detained. One police officer was killed and two wounded. The rebels thereby demonstrated to everybody in the KBR what should be done when the authorities ignore the people’s demands.