Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 23

On January 27, Russian troops and local police forces surrounded an apartment building where members of an underground Islamist organization known as “Yarmuk Jamaat” were hiding in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. The troops stormed the building, and seven rebels, three men and four women, died during the assault. One of the casualties was identified as the leader of Yarmuk, Muslim Ataev, also known as “Seifulla” (see EDM, January 28).

Ataev was born in the village of Kendelen in the Mount Elbrus district, which is populated by the Balkar, one of the republic’s three main ethnic groups. Security officials usually emphasize the Balkar origin of the Yarmuk militants. For example, local police officers told the press that one of the reasons the Nalchik raid began on the second day of the standoff was to allow additional security measures to be implemented in Balkar settlements in the mountain areas (gazeta.ru, January 27). After the Nalchik raid, Yarmuk threatened to launch large-scale guerilla warfare, leading police to undertake several mopping-up operations in the village of Kendelen.

Police and Federal Security Service officers had believed that Yarmuk membership was confined to Kendelen (yufo.ru, October 2, 2004). Indeed, Rashid Khulamkhanov and Murat Zhabelov, two insurgents killed during the first major skirmish between the police and Yarmuk fighters, which took place near the town of Chegem last summer, were Balkars from Kendelen (Rossiiskaya gazeta, December 16, 2004). However, the insurgency network in Kabardino-Balkaria was originally established by the Shagen brothers, who were Kabardins. In 2003, the brothers arranged for Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev to visit Kabardino-Balkaria. Both brothers were killed later that same year (Russky kuryer, August 2003).

Relations between the Kabardin and the Balkar populations have never been easy. In 1992 Valery Kokov, a Kabardin, became the president of Kabardino-Balkaria. The Balkar tried to organize their own autonomous entity, but Moscow objected. Secession was also impossible for geographical reasons, because three districts populated by Balkars would be left isolated in the mountains.

According to Konstantin Kazenin, editor-in-chief of the North Caucasus division of Regnum press agency, Kokov almost destroyed the Balkar opposition and succeeded in marginalizing the Balkar community. Kokov and his clan controlled the social, political, and economic sectors of the republic (yufo.ru, December 16, 2004). The only business sector left for the Balkar was related to Russian tourists, who went to the Elbrus area to ski. The best educated and most ambitious of the Balkar were dissatisfied with merely entertaining tourists from Moscow and St. Petersburg and became rebels. According to Regnum sources, both of Yarmuk’s top commanders, Ataev and his deputy Ilyas Bichekuev, had graduated with honors from Nalchik University (regnum.ru, January 31).

The war in Chechnya also encouraged some Balkar residents to take up arms. The Balkar had been deported to Kazakhstan along with Chechens under Stalin, and the new war rekindled appalling memories. When Russian troops invaded Chechnya in late 1994, the largest anti-war demonstrations took place in Nalchik. Russian television showed a crowd in the center of the city shouting “Allah Akbar!” (Allah is great). The authorities suppressed these non-violent protests, thus encouraging the peaceful movement to transform into armed resistance. Yarmuk issued a statement through the Kavkazcenter website, saying that the organization would cease its activities and leave the territory of Kabardino-Balkaria if Russian President Vladimir Putin began negotiations with Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov (Kavkazcenter.com, September 28, 2004).

The Balkar comprise 10% of the republican population, while the Kabardin and Russians comprise 50% and 32%, respectively. Given the imbalance, it is little surprise that the authorities would like to depict the insurgency as a solely Balkar problem. If the Kabardin support the rebels, it would be almost impossible to destroy them. After the September 1, 2004, terrorist attack in Beslan, the Kabardino-Balkaria security agencies used the Kavkazweb website to spread disinformation that Yarmuk was planning a terrorist operation called “Doomsday,” whereby gunmen would seize a school with Kabardin children (kavkazweb.net, September 16 and 17, 2004). The rebels accused the authorities of attempting to foment ethnic conflict. “Your attempts to inspire ethnic conflict in Kabardino-Balkaria are useless as well as your attempts to represent our Jamaat as a monoethnic organization.” The statement went to say, “The Kabardin and the Balkar are two fraternal Muslim nations with many family ties” (kavkazweb.net, September 28, 2004).

Unlike the authorities, the rebels have sought to show that Yarmuk Jamaat is not a “Balkar project.” On December 19, Kavkazcenter published a letter from anonymous Kabardins who expressed their support for Yarmuk.

On February 1, the website announced that the Yarmuk shura (council) had elected a new commander of the group, who is a Kabardin. However, the militants are trying to mobilize not only the Muslims of the republic but members of the local Russian community as well. Thus Yarmuk praised the death of a Russian woman who was “the first Russian girl who became a shaheed fighting against the Russian army” (Kavkazcenter, February 1). Olesya Trunova, a Russian, was one of those seven Yarmuk members killed in the Nalchik apartment building (yufo.ru, February 1).

Many things about Yarmuk Jamaat are still unclear; it is hard to say whether it is a strong group or just a small gang, but there is no doubt that it has the capability and the ideological basis to be attractive not only to the Balkar, but also to members of other ethnic groups in the North Caucasus.