Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Anger Spills Over in Karachai-Cherkessia

Furious crowd occupies president’s office after seven dismembered bodies are found in a pit.
By Fatima Tlisova

President Vladimir Putin’s envoy is seeking to defuse a growing crisis in the North Caucasian republic of Karachai-Cherkessia after angry demonstrators occupied the president’s office for two days.


It was the second time in a month that angry locals stormed the government headquarters of Karachai-Cherkessia, one of Russia’s most ethnically diverse autonomous republics.


They are demanding the resignation of the president, Mustafa Batdyev, who they allege was involved in the deaths of seven young men in what has become a highly politicised quarrel.


The seven men, all from influential affluent Karachai families, went missing on October 10 after being invited to the villa of the president’s son-in-law Ali Kaitov, who was subsequently arrested and charged with murder. His wife, the president’s daughter, has sued for divorce. (See “Karachai-Cherkessia in Turmoil by Akhmat Ebzeyev, CRS No. 260, November 4 2004)


On November 8, the seven bodies were recovered from a pit in a hill 70 kilometres south of the republic’s capital Cherkessk. After being tipped off by Kaitov’s bodyguards, the detectives removed rocks blocking the entrance to the pit, and retrieved the dismembered and burned remains of the seven men. The bodies, which could not be immediately identified, were sent for examination to a laboratory in Rostov.


The prosecutor’s office is investigating a link between the murders and the controversial privatisation of the Tsakhilov Chemicals Factory in Cherkessk. Kaitov’s lawyers were unavailable for comment.


Angered by the news of the discovery of the bodies, a group of relatives tried to hold a demonstration on the morning of November 9 in Cherkessk’s main square. However, the rally could not start because there was no electricity to power the sound amplification equipment, and a number of invited government officials failed to appear.


“They cut the power to stop our protest,” Khalit Bairamukov, one of the organisers, yelled into his loudspeaker in the Karachai language – and this sounded like a battle call to the wailing women.


The 6,000-strong crowd turned on the government building, the White House, although only several dozen attacked. The police guards used teargas and water jets to repel the crowd, but did not open fire.


The crowd spent about an hour smashing up the ground floor of the White House before they reached the presidential offices. Batdyev had already escaped through a back door and his office was empty.


The insurgents occupied the president’s suite for two days. Many of the women were weak from fasting over Ramadan, and their clothes had been drenched by water jets. This, coupled with the emotional strain, took its toll on the occupants’ health. The president’s office was suffused with the odour of a cheap heart medicine, and one of the victims’ relatives - a 36-year-old man - died in the ambulance that had come to pick him up from the government compound.


The besiegers soon revealed that they also had a political agenda. When Russia’s deputy prosecutor general Nikolai Shepel arrived to negotiate, he was told that last year’s election in Karachai-Cherkessia had been rigged, and that former president General Vladimir Semyonov had been unjustly removed from office.


Batdyev, former head of the national bank of the republic and Semyonov, former head of Russian ground forces, are both ethnic Karachais, who head two powerful political groupings in a divided region.


On November 11, Putin’s envoy Dmitry Kozak – who is the presidential representative for the entire North Caucasus – arrived and held five hours of talks with the demonstrators, after which he convinced them to leave without conceding to any of their demands.


“There can be no question of any dialogue as long as you are here,” Kozak told them. “I have kept all my promises about the investigation into the murder of your family members. All those accused have been arrested, and the bodies have been found.


“As for your political demands, they cannot be met. We will not allow a precedent to be created that could lead to civil war.”


Oleg Safonov, an aide to Kozak, reinforced this message, telling IWPR, “There’s no doubt that standing behind the relatives who stormed the government house, there are forces which present a danger not only to the republic and for the southern regions, but to Russia as a whole.”


Batdyev, who showed up at Kozak’s request, promised to resign if the official investigation determined he had played a role in covering up the killings. But few took his promise seriously, and the day after the attack on his office, the president vehemently denounced the actions of the victims’ families in parliament and threatened criminal proceedings.


A former Semyonov loyalist, parliamentary deputy Islam Krymshamkhalov, put the blame squarely on Batdyev.


“This is not an interethnic conflict because both parties are Karachai,” he said. “But it’s not a political conflict either. We are talking about a crime in which the president’s family is mixed up, and which has provoked mass disorder.”


In the mean time, the relatives have begun their own inquiry into the financial activities of the president and the government.


“We understand that the Kremlin wants to keep Batdyev as president, perhaps temporarily until Putin’s constitutional amendments take effect and enable him to appoint and remove governors,” said Svetlana Gerugova, the mother of one of the victims, referring to plans to abolish direct elections for the heads of regions in Russia.


“But maybe they need him for some other purpose. However that may be, we cannot live with a president like this, so we will continue to push for his removal from office by any means necessary.”


The attack on the government headquarters was an almost exact repeat of an episode on October 21, when the families of the missing men invaded the same building. On that occasion, too, Kozak persuaded the relatives to leave by promising them an impartial investigation into the disappearance of the young men.


The Russian prosecutor general’s office then sent in an investigative team headed by General Boris Karnaukhov, which arrested 15 suspects within 12 days, including the president’s son-in-law Kaitov, six local police officers and homicide detective Kamal Veziev.


The latest turmoil will focus attention on what is one of Russia’s most ignored trouble spots. On November 12, Vladimir Kulakov, deputy chairman of the North Caucasus commission in the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, described recent events in Cherkessk as “brigandage, a kind of lawlessness that is happening with the tacit agreement of the law enforcement agencies”.


Kulakov added that in the past five years, more than 200 people had died and more than 500 had disappeared in the Karachai-Cherkess republic, which has a population of fewer than half a million people.


Fatima Tlisova is an independent journalist from Nalchik.