The Plight of Kabardino-Balkaria, by Sergei Markedonov

The Regional and Federal Authorities Have No Comprehensive Strategy to Deal With Escalating Violence in Kabardino-Balkaria

Comment by Sergei Markedonov

In September of 2008 my friend and colleague Konstantin Kazenin suggested that I write the foreword to his book. It was tellingly titled “Quiet Conflicts in the North Caucasus: Adygeya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia.” Two and a half years ago Kazenin, an experienced journalist and political scientist who has spent much time “working in the field,” compared the relatively stable formations in the western part of Russia’s Caucasus with turbulent formations in the eastern part of the region (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia). Back then this approach would have probably been accepted by many professional Caucasus scholars.

But today it would be impossible to call the events taking place in Kabardino-Balkaria “quiet conflicts.” Last year this republic surpassed Chechnya in the number of terrorist attacks, and it is now in the top three after Dagestan and Ingushetia. Local counterterrorist operations (CTO) regimes were introduced there twice in the same period, with the operation in Tyrnauza lasting for two months (from October 20 to December 25).

The first attack on an industrial object in the recent history of north Caucasian terrorism – the Baksanskaya Hydroelectric Power Plant – took place last year in Kabardino-Balkaria. Unfortunately, in 2011 the terrifying dynamics of terrorist activity continued. In just one day, on February 18, we heard news of a group of Moscow tourists being shot, the pillar of the “Old Horizon – the World” funicular getting blown up and the murder of Ramazan Friev, the head of the Khasanya settlement administration. A week later there was another incident – on February 25 a couple of insurgent groups made a series of attacks on law enforcement personnel.

So what is the reason behind the increased destabilization of this small north Caucasus republic, which was called the “sleeping beauty” of the Caucasus in the early 1990s? How did it happen that this “quiet” republic turned into a shooting range? Much is being said today about incidents in Kabardino-Balkaria, but for the most part only the facts, explosions, attacks and sieges are being noted, without the larger picture of these events coming to light.
In reality, unlike Chechnya at the end of the last century, the situation in Kabardino-Balkaria is more complex and convoluted. In Chechnya everything was more or less clear. On the one side there were the separatists, on the other – their opponents with the Kremlin as their backer. In Kabardino-Balkaria, however, there was no powerful ethnic-separatist movement throughout the entire post-Soviet period, although ethnic conflicts here always made themselves known. If in the early to mid-1990s these issues were an “unsettled score” with the Soviet authorities (the problem of completely rehabilitating the deported Balkars), then at the beginning of the 2000s it took on distinctively modern connotations. A deficit of land together with the complex of the so-called “ethnic property” (when some area was perceived as the collective property of a specific ethnos), as well as the implementation of reform in the area of local self-government (when Balkar settlements were united with predominantly Kabardin municipalities) sidelined the historic disagreements. The recent murders of such prominent figures as anthropologist Aslan Tsipinov (an authoritative figure in the Kabardin movement) and Ramzan Friyev again broached the notorious “ethnic question.” It was echoed in the recent appeal by the Balkar Council of Elders to the president of the Russian Federation. In this appeal the authors mention an incident of five years ago, when the predecessor of the deceased Friyev was likewise shot, but this crime was never solved.

Besides interethnic problems another schism exists in Kabardino-Balkaria – the prolonged conflict between the official Muslim hierarchy in the face of the republic’s Muslim Spiritual Council and the so-called “new Muslims.” It began in the 1990s as a conflict between the council’s management and its younger wing, and was later transformed into a standoff between the spiritual council and the so-called “Islamic center.” This was a struggle not only for the hearts and minds, but also for specific mosques. On the one side attempts were made to get the authorities involved with their mechanism of repression. On the other side the balanced criticism addressed mostly to some dogmatic aspects of religion was replaced with extremist activity, including terrorism.

A series of attacks in 2004 and 2005, the most prominent of which was the attack on October 13, 2005 on Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital Nalchik, showed that the “Islamic question” has become the main socio-political problem in the republic. Besides the conflict between the official Islam and the “new Muslims” this conflict became part of the all-Caucasus Islamic movement, directed not only and not so much at the “wrong” Mufti and Imam-Khatibs, but at the Russian state and the republican administration.  

And what about the authorities? How do they react to the above-mentioned problems? It must be said that the approach of the center and the regional authorities has changed over the years. Some severe methods were implemented, including the “elimination” of such leaders of the underground as Mussa Mukozhev or Anzor Astemirov. Before the beginning of 2000 a severe policy was implemented with regard to the so-called “praying people,” when any man with a beard was put on the watch-list of the law enforcement establishment and the special forces. There were attempts to develop the tourist business, to attract investment. But all this was done (and continues to be done) without a unifying strategy. The regional authority in Kabardino-Balkaria is an economy without politics, and the federal authorities are just power politics without elements of “soft power” and a contextual vision of the situation.

All this creates significant problems in legitimizing the authorities’ actions, especially considering the fact that the president of the republic is not directly elected. The extremists use this dissonance to apply greater pressure and make daring and cruel attacks. As for the greater masses of inhabitants, they get even more frustrated and don’t believe that their rights, property and human dignity can be protected.

Source: Russia Profile