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

Balkars Begin to Protest

The Balkar minority in Kabardino-Balkaria takes to the streets following murder of local leader.
By Fatima Tlisova

Hundreds of people from the Balkar ethnic minority defied a security crackdown at the weekend to hold a rally in Nalchik, the capital of the North Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, in protest at what they describe as persistent discrimination by the authorities.

Some of the 1,500 people at the May 28 demo called for the recreation of Balkaria within its 1944 boundaries – a time when the Balkars were deported to Central Asia en masse by Stalin, shortly after the mass deportation of the Chechens and Ingush. The demonstrators also complained about police intimidation and abuses in Balkar villages in Kabardino-Balkaria.

The immediate trigger for the protest was the murder of a leading Balkar politician who had opposed a new law which redraws all the territorial boundaries inside the republic. The legislation is encountering mass opposition.

More trouble broke out on May 30 in the town of Tyrnyauz when a spontaneous rally was held to protest against attempts to sack Elbrus district head Khizir Makitov, another strong opponent of the territorial law. A delegation of ministers arrived in the town to announce the dismissal of Makitov and the appointment of his successors, but failed to persuade deputies in the local assembly of their decision.

Balkars, a Turkic ethnic group, currently comprise around ten per cent of the population in Kabardino-Balkaria, being outnumbered by Kabardins and Russians.

The authorities made strenuous attempts to obstruct the initial rally, cutting off access to mountain villages from the early morning of May 28 and even cancelling public transport. The square in front of the government building was surrounded by a triple cordon of police and interior ministry troops. The spot where the protest actually took place - a memorial to victims of political repression - had an even higher concentration of troops.

The residents of the Balkar village of Khasanya, on the edge of Nalchik, got through the cordons with difficulty and walked into the centre of the city. “The actions of our authorities cannot be explained,” said Ramazan Friev, deputy head of administration of Khasanya. “You can’t call it anything but provocative.

“We made an application to hold the rally ten days in advance, as is required by law, and met the interior minister on the day before. He promised that they would not obstruct us. We are capable of providing our own security and we have a group of 250 trained sportsmen who keep an eye on things.”

On May 15, Friev’s boss Artur Zokayev, head of administration in Khasanya, was gunned down outside his house. No one has been arrested for his murder but many Balkars immediately said they thought it was a political assassination.

Zokayev was the unofficial leader of the Balkars at the time of his death. The city authorities of Nalchik had twice tried to prevent him being elected to his post in Khasanya, but had backed down after public protests. Recently, he had been an outspoken opponent of the draft border legislation.

Under this bill, Khasanya will stop being a village and will turn into a suburb of Nalchik. Zokayev had demanded that the villagers be allowed to hold a referendum on their future.

Zokayev was killed eight days before the scheduled start of court hearings on the legality of the proposed referendum and nine days before a hearing on the constitutional status of the law. Both hearings went ahead after Zokayev’s death and the Balkar side lost both of them. From June 1, Khasanya and three other villages lost their status as municipal entities and Friev was sacked as deputy head of administration.

The Balkar inhabitants of Khasanya fear that the loss of autonomy will lead to the loss of their national identity and lead to assimilation.

However, the mayor of Nalchik Khaziratali Berdov has rejected these claims. He told local television, “By joining Nalchik, the people of Khasanya will get a number of advantages: city transport, city telephone numbers, the education system and social welfare of a big city.” He added that the nationality issues being raised were artificial and irrelevant.

The protesters were not convinced by this. The new committee formed at the rally in Nalchik has set itself the task of seeing the law “on the rehabilitation of the victims of political repression” of April 1991 implemented. This would restore to the Balkars two regions that they lost after the Stalinist deportations of 1944. Another goal is the suspension and then abolition of the law on municipalities that led to the change in status for Khasanya. However, the protesters stopped short of proclaiming as a final aim the proclamation of a republic of Balkaria.

Ten years ago, there was a more active separatist movement for an autonomous Balkaria, led by former Soviet general Sufian Beppayev, who talked about forming an army of Balkars and Karachais - another once-deported Turkic people from the neighbouring republic of Karachai-Cherkessia - which would “liberate Balkaria from the Kabardin yoke”. Beppayev had good relations with former Chechen pro-independence leader Jokhar Dudayev.

However, Beppayev is now accused by Balkars of being a traitor, having joined the administration of local president Valery Kokov as his human rights commissioner.

Balkars are showing discontent not only in Khasanya but in the republic’s impoverished mountain villages as well. Uzeir Kurdanov, head of administration of the village of Elbrus – underneath the famous Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe – is also strongly opposed to the new municipal law.

“This law redraws the boundaries for population centres in the republic in such a way that the Balkar population is completely deprived of recreational land and resources for development,” said Kurdanov.

The proposed new territorial divisions sometimes cut through the middle of villages. For Balkar villagers, this means that someone may not have the right to use land located on the other side of his fence or graze sheep on nearby pastures. For people who live entirely off the land, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Fears are being expressed that these protests could lead to inter-ethnic tension between Kabardins and Balkars. Some observers say there are no quarrels on ethnic grounds but this factor could be manipulated by the authorities to strengthen their own regime.

“Both Kabardins and Balkars are living equally badly, because they have been left out by the ruling clan,” said Ismail Boziev, a member of the municipal council in Khasanya. “There were lots of reasons why the Balkars came out on to the streets. But the patience of Kabardins has reached a limit too.”

Fatima Tlisova is editor-in-chief of the information agency Regnum in the North Caucasus and contributes to IWPR from Kabardino-Balkaria.

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