Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin’s North Caucasus Policy Failing Completely in Kabardino-Balkaria

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 18 – The Kremlin’s policy of sending money and relying on repressive local leaders to pacify the North Caucasus has succeeded in some places, but it is failing spectacularly in Kabardino-Balkaria, where a formerly apathetic population has been transformed into an angry one that “hates” the Moscow-installed regime.

As a result, Russian analyst Dmitry Kovalev argues in a 3,000-word survey of trends there, that republic which had been relatively quiet until the last several years appears set to become the next and perhaps most explosive “hot spot” in the North Caucasus unless and for which Moscow clearly has no good answers (www.lenta.ru/articles/2012/12/17/kabarda/).

            The murder of Kazbek Gekkiyev, a television journalist, in Nalchik on December 5 caused ever more people both in Kabardino-Balkaria and Moscow to ask “what underlies instability” in that republic. Indeed, if one judges by media coverage, KBR is now “one of the most explosive regions of the Caucasus,” a major shift from only a few years ago.

            In fact, Kovalev says, KBR “reflects all the processes which are taking placein the North Caucasus Federal District” and thus represents “a litmus test” of Moscow’s policies, a test that the center is clearly failing.

            Ethnically, the analyst says, KBR is divided into three parts: the Turkic speaking Balkars who occupy much of the mountainous area of the republic, the Circassian Kabards who live in the low lands, and Slavs, overwhelmingly ethnic Russians, who live in Nalchik and a few other cities.  

But this ethnic picture is “changing like in a kaleidoscope” as a result of the move of Balkars to the valleys and the ethnic Russians out of the republic altogether.  Symbolically, the airport of the republic capital no longer has flights to Moscow, but it does feature “charter flights” for those who want to make the haj to Mecca.

            KBR was created within the USSR in 1922 and although it underwent several permutations, including those caused by the deportation of the Balkars at the end of Stalin’s time and then their return to the region in 1956, it developed rather more rapidly than many other North Caucasian republics.

            As a result, when other bi-national republics in the region were torn by ethnic strife in the 1990s, KBR went through that period with fewer obvious challenges. This superficial stability was linked in the minds of many with Valery Kokov who headed the KBR from 1992 to 2005, all the more so after he was replaced by Arsen Kanokov and violence increased.

            Kanokov, despite his ties to United Russia and Vladimir Putin personally, was unexpected in many respects because he came from a business background rather than from the force structures. A ruble billionaire, he did manage to attract investment, but he unsettled ethnic relations, and was in office during a period of increased corruption and rising violence.

            As a result, Kanokov lost support not only in KBR because all of these developments “violated the borders of ethnic business interests” on which such stability as the republic had was based but more importantly in Moscow, where ever fewer people especially in the force structures were prepared to defend him.

            According to Kovalev, “everyone is now dissatisfied” with the situation in KBR.  The Balkars are furious that their pasture land is being sacrificed to develop ski resorts, and in December 2010, they took the unusual step of staging a hunger strie in Moscow to press their case. But they did not get relie, and this fall, members of that community held protests in their region.

            The Kabardins are not happy either, the Moscow analyst continues.  Elders who traditionally spoke for the community have lost their authority to those who have gone into the forests to fight and to activists like Ibragim Yaganov, a former Hero of Abkhazia and now a leader of the Khase organization who has frequently met with domestic and foreign reporters.

            “Both Islamic terrorism and zombified young people are on the rise” in KBR, he says, and the center thinks it is “easier to govern us with the help of special operations” than to address the more serious issues that are leading to protests.  And Kovalev underscores Yaganov’s comments with the following observation:

            “Internal republic problems are [now] so serious that recently Khasa has been devoting ever less attention to traditional pan-Circassian themes –the recognition of the events of 1864 as a genocide, the Sochi Olympics [which are slated to take place at the site of that disaster], or the issue of the repatriation of Circassians from Syria.”

            The Russians are not happy either. They have no strong leaders, they are declining in number as a result of migration and low fertility, and they, like the Kabardins, are leaving the republic in the pursuit of work.  But perhaps most important they do not believe they have any defenders except the state.

            None of these attitudes have changed with the appearance of the new government of Ruslan Khasanov, someone who was close to former President Kanokov. And they are unlikely to change unless there are “structural changes” and not simply the “change of clans” or “cosmetic” approaches to the various ethnic groups.

            “The apathy of the population is intensifying,” the Moscow analyst says,” and is becoming hatred to everything connected with the authorities,” who in the minds of the population have failed to end instability now or uncertainty about future developments in the KBR.

            Indeed, such attitudes show that “the Kremlin’s policy of pacifying the Caucasus with money and the fist has suffered defeat after defeat in KBR. [Its] reliance on a corrupt elite is undermining the trust of citizens in the authorities, and [its] force operations are only driving young people to the bandits.”

            Moreover and most seriously, “all the threads of dissatisfaction” in KBR are heading “from there directly to the federal center,” a place which needs “to find some kind of model to replace the one it has been used” and one that “over the last seven years has completely discredited itself.”

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