Circassian Activist Detained On Suspicion of Possession of Drugs, by Liz Fuller

Martin Kochesoko

Liz Fuller | Special to Circassian World

Martin Kochesoko, 30, president of the Circassian public organization Khabze, was flagged down by police late on June 7 while driving home after visiting relatives, and taken into custody after a police search of his car revealed a package that purportedly contained narcotics. He is currently being held in solitary confinement in Nalchik and pressured to admit to illegal possession of drugs, according to the Prague-based Caucasus Times

Both Kochesoko himself and his colleagues believe the drugs were planted in a blatant attempt to discredit him and furnish a pretext for a criminal case that would put an end to his public activities. Khabze co-founder Azamat Shormanov told the news portal Caucasian Knot that he has known Kochesoko for over 10 years and is certain that he does not dabble in drugs. In Chechnya, no fewer than three prominent civic activists have been framed and jailed on fabricated drugs charges in the past five years.

Other Khabze members, including Shormanov, have also come under police scrutiny and/or been summoned for questioning in recent days. The organisation’s office was searched on June 8 and all computers confiscated.

A graduate of the history faculty of the Kabardino-Balkaria State University, Kochesoko began his public engagement in 2006, according to the news portal Caucasian Knot. He was for a time a member of the Circassian Congress, but quit it to campaign independently. He has made a name for himself over the past couple of years through his defence of the Circassian language and national identity and his engagement on behalf of ethnic Circassian refugees from Syria seeking to settle permanently in Russia.

Kochesoko publicly criticised the legislation enacted last year by the Russian State Duma restricting the teaching in schools of national languages, including Circassian. He also condemned the republican Interior Ministry’s intervention in April 2019 to prevent the transit of a motorcade of cars displaying the Circassian national flag to mark the Circassian Flag Day.

Russian expert Denis Sokolov of the Centre for Strategic and International Research highlighted Kochesoko’s positive role in seeking to defuse the stand-off in September 2018 between Circassian participants in a mounted procession to mark the 310th anniversary of the battle of Kendelen and Balkar villagers seeking to disrupt the commemoration. Kochesoko himself stresses that his civic activities are conducted exclusively within the framework of the law and the Russian Constitution.

In addition, Kochesoko has been extremely active in discussing Circassian issues on social media, thereby seeking to compensate for what the website has termed  Kabardino-Balkaria’s almost total absence of independent media outlets.

Kochesoko’s engagement is not, moreover, confined to to strictly national problems. He was one of the co-founders last year, and subsequently became a co-chairman, of the Democratic Congress of Peoples of Russia(DKNR). Kochesoko has attributed pressure recently brought to bear on his parents to persuade him to scale back his political activities to the screening at a round table organised by the DKNR in Moscow on 24-25 May of a discussion convened by Khabze of federalism in Russia.

That pressure on Kochesoko’s family may reflect disquiet on the part of Kazbek Kokov, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin named acting head of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic in late September 2018 after dismissing Yurii Kokov (no relation to Kazbek) in the wake of the clashes in Kendelen. Kazbek Kokov is theoretically to be confirmed in that post when new governors are elected in 16 regions of Russia in September.

As elsewhere in the North Caucasus except for Chechnya, the republic head in Kabardino-Balkaria is not popularly elected, but chosen by the local parliament from among three candidates approved by Putin personally. Kokov may therefore be trying to enhance his standing in Putin’s eyes by cracking down both on any activities that could conceivably be construed as nationalism, and on public criticism of the systematic erosion under Putin of the last vestiges of genuine federalism in Russia.

Several Russian analysts interviewed by Caucasian Knot  have similarly linked the recent arrests on corruption charges of several Kabardino-Balkaria Interior Ministry officials to Kokov’s imputed desire to be perceived as governing with a strong hand.

Whatever the authorities’ motives may have been in seeking to sideline Kochesoko and the organisation he heads, his detention has triggered an outraged response. Activists in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan, staged a protest on June 9 in support of Kochesoko and Russian journalist Ivan Golunov, who was arrested last week in Moscow on suspicion of drug-dealing. A petition on demanding Kochesoko’s release collected over 2,000 signatures within the first 24 hours.