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

Calm Before the Storm

The president of Karachaevo-Cherkessia is stubbornly resisting repeated attempts to dilute his authority.
By Bella Lyauv

An uneasy calm reigns over Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The demonstrators have left the streets and police activity is dwindling but, behind the scenes, the ethnic unrest which followed last September's presidential elections is reaching boiling point. There is unnerving talk of a "second Chechnya" in the North Caucasus.

The past year has seen desperate attempts by the Kremlin to quell the tension as Cherkess, Abazin and Russian minorities accuse the ruling Karachai group of deliberately excluding their leaders from key government positions. Some even claim the new regime is attempting to drive them out of the republic.

The simmering discontent surrounds the imposing figure of General Vladimir Semenov, a Karachai and former commander-in-chief of the Russian ground forces. Dismissed from his post on charges of embezzlement, Semenov returned to his native Cherkessk in April last year.

Portraying himself as a victim of behind-the-scenes political intrigues in Moscow, the general soon won a loyal following in a region where people still consider soldiering to be the noblest profession (Chechnya's first president, Dzhokhar Dudaev, was a Soviet airforce general while Ingushetia's premier is the Afghan war veteran, Ruslan Aushev).

Moscow, however, saw Semenov's bid for power as a direct gesture of defiance and moved its own candidate, Cherkess mayor Stanislav Derev, into the presidential ring.

Predictably, Semenov's election victory pleased no one but the Karachai. Cherkess, Abazin and Russian demonstrators promptly occupied the Central Square in Cherkessk, protesting against the "dirty" methods allegedly adopted by the general to seize power. They claimed that, of the 20,000 ballot papers examined by the federal prosecutor's office, 12,000 were "signed" by voters who were under age, living in neighbouring regions or even dead. The demonstration lasted for nearly seven months.

Meanwhile, leading members of the Cherkess minority announced their desire to secede from Karachaevo-Cherkessia and join the Stavropol region. They said Semenov's government was pursuing an active policy of discrimination against other ethnic groups.

Muhamed Kilba, a deputy from the People's Assembly, explains, "We acknowledged Vladimir Semenov's presidency not so much because he won the elections but because we didn't want to exacerbate the situation. However, our hopes that the general would solve our problems proved to be empty.

"Today one clan [the Karachai] lays claim to all the leading positions in the republic. Judging by what we've seen during nearly a year of unrest, we are forced to conclude that there can no longer be any question of the different ethnic groups in Karachaevo-Cherkessia living together in harmony.

"If we are all citizens of the Russian Federation then we should all have equal rights. When the Cherkess talk of seceding to the Stavropolsky Kray, they first and foremost have one goal in mind - a desire to live according to Russian law."

A decision by the Russian Supreme Court on October 22, 1999, to uphold the election results added insult to injury. In the wake of fresh upheavals, Vladimir Putin, then prime-minister, was forced to "make peace" between the two leaders of Karachaevo-Cherkessia in the Kremlin.

The deal struck in Putin's office entailed concessions from both sides but, most importantly, Vladimir Semenov was told in no uncertain terms to appoint Stanislav Derev to the post of prime-minister.

However, it soon became clear that the general had no intention of bowing to the Moscow ruling and the protests continued unabated. Further unrest was triggered by a government plan to divert two rivers which flowed through Cherkess territories and irrigated their agricultural land.

On December 3 last year, a federal commission led by Nikolai Aksenenko came to Karachaevo-Cherkessia and set up an advisory body representing the republic's different ethnic groups. A month later, the commission made a second visit in order to monitor the results of its work.

Although Karachai representatives made little effort to take a constructive part in the proceedings, it was ruled unanimously that the interests of all the peoples in Karachaevo-Cherkessia should be respected. In the event of a Karachai being elected president, the parliamentary speaker should be a Russian and the premier a Cherkess. The decision was signed by all parties, including the members of the federal commission and General Semenov himself.

Less than 24 hours later, on the eve of the first session of the People's Assembly, Semenov reneged on the agreement. He met with a select group of Karachai deputies to elect an ethnic Nogai as parliamentary speaker. The Nogai are a small ethnic group related to the Karachai.

Aksenenko's commission continued to make visits to Cherkessk. Each time, the general promised to dissolve the existing government and to appoint a Cherkess as prime-minister. Unhappy with the candidature of Stanislav Derev, he asked for the list of candidates to be increased to three, then to 10.

But, in the end, none of these were elected because the general claimed that each of the 10 proposed candidates had his own political agenda. He then proceeded to give all key government positions to fellow Karachais, dividing up the remaining posts amongst those Cherkess and Abazin deputies who had offered him the least opposition in the past.

In early April, members of the Russian elite, which supported Semenov at the polls, accused the president of deliberately replacing Russian officials with members of the Karachai clan. Semenov retorted that this was a figment of their imaginations.

However, patience ran out for Semenov's opponents when the general appeared on local television and announced, "My appointment policies will probably become clear during the course of the year 2000" and added, "I will accept no pressure whatsoever from within."

Most political observers agree that the main item currently on General Semenov's agenda is to exclude Stanislav Derev from the Karachaevo-Cherkessian government. If Derev becomes prime minister, he will be in a position to lock horns with the general over major policy issues. And, in that case, no one can guarantee that the legislature which the general himself ratified will not turn against him.

The tribal enmities in Karachaevo-Cherkessia are deep-rooted. Russia completed its conquest of the North Caucasian territory in 1864, sparking a mass emigration of Karachai and Cherkess refugees to the Ottoman Empire. It is thought that there are around three million ethnic Circassians currently living in Turkey.

The Cherkess and Karachai homelands remained separate autonomous republics until the 1930s when they were merged by Stalin in a bid to divide and overcome resistance by joining unrelated ethnic groups into artificial administrative units.

The clans were further driven apart in 1943, when the Karachai were deported to Central Asia while the Cherkess remained in the region. The Karachai were permitted to return in 1957 when the autonomous oblast was established. The territory, which now has a population of 436,000, proclaimed itself a republic in 1990.

Bella Lyauv is a freelance journalist in Cherkessk.