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

Cherkess Martyr's Image Tarnished

Support for the Cherkess champion, Stanislav Derev, begins to melt away after an old ally turns against him
By Boris Akbashev

Perhaps the most enigmatic figure on the Karachaevo-Cherkessian political scene, Stanislav Derev has become a hero to some and an arch-villain to others. But this month a bitter attack from an erstwhile ally has severely damaged Derev's image as a champion of the republic's ethnic minorities and cast his political future into doubt.

Derev, the mayor of the capital, Cherkessk, and a leader of the Cherkess minority, became a national martyr after losing to General Vladimir Semenov in last year's presidential elections. Early polls indicated that Derev would win the first round of voting outright but Semenov, an ethnic Karachai, eventually swept to victory amid widespread rumours of voter intimidation and ballot rigging.

Since then, the new president has been accused of appointing fellow Karachai to all top government positions in a bid to sideline the republic's ethnic minorities. Both Cherkess and Abazin leaders have demanded that Derev be named prime minister and thousands have joined protests in Cherkessk city centre championing Derev's cause.

However, many analysts and political commentators have speculated that Derev is, in fact, a puppet in the hands of more experienced masters. Some claim he is controlled by Valery Kokov, president of Kabardino-Balkaria who is also an ethnic cousin; others name Aslan Dzharimov, the president of Adygea. Certainly, links can be traced between the Cherkessk mayor and Boris Akbashev, former president of the International Cherkes Association, as well as Nazir Khapsirokov, assistant to the General Prosecutor of the Russian Federation, Yuri Skuratov.

And yet, it is equally possible that Derev is playing his own political game - and that the cause of Cherkess nationalism is, in fact, a front for more sinister political goals.

Speculation along these lines reached fever pitch when the republican newspaper Novaya Zhizn (New Life) got hold of a damning letter written to Derev by Umar Temirov, himself a leading figure in the Cherkess community and a former Communist Party bigwig.

Temirov's letter began with the words: "Stanislav Edikovich, as you keep hanging up the phone whenever the subject of our conversation becomes distasteful, I'm sending you what I want to say by fax..."

The contents of the letter focus on an ongoing vendetta between Temirov and Derev which started in the early part of this year. The dispute surrounds a large sum of money that was stolen from Derev's younger brother, Khadzhi-Murat, when he was en route from Cherkessk to Moscow.

Derev promptly accused Temirov's son-in-law of having waylaid Khadzhi-Murat and appropriated the cash. It was then that Temirov dispatched his fax to the mayor's office from where it was leaked to the press.

Temirov goes on to charge Derev with "taking the law into his own hands", by "using the methods employed by the KGB in 1937 or the Gestapo during the War to extract confessions from suspects".

The letter has had an explosive effect on the entire North Caucasus. Vladimir Semenov immediately seized the opportunity to announce officially that he would never allow a "criminal" to assume a position of power in the republic - although he refrained from mentioning Derev's name.

More importantly, in the wake of the Novaya Zhizn publication, support for Derev from the Cherkess and Abazin minorities has become distinctly half-hearted. While the Cherkessk mayor's political rivals are openly casting aspersions on his Mercury drinks factory and the political activities of his two brothers, Vladislav and Khadzhi-Murat, Derev's former allies are beginning to sense that they may be backing the wrong horse.

Temirov himself has accused the mayor of pursuing political goals in a bid to secure lucrative government contracts. He says, "Everyone understands that, at the moment, access to power means access to the state budget and state property. However, one must not lose one's head and believe that everyone and everybody can be bought with money. Remember that if you are a politician then the fate of peoples cannot be decided this way."

And, while Derev himself maintains an icy silence, the supporters who once trooped daily into Cherkessk's Central Square to demand justice are now conspicuous by their absence.

Yuri Akbashev is a regular contributor to IWPR