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

Cherkess Unrest Reaches Fever Pitch

Opinion: the Cherkess are determined to reclaim their ethnic homeland but the authorities are refusing to listen to their demands
By I. Ibragimov

Russia is turning a blind eye to a mounting conflict which threatens to engulf the entire North Caucasus region. Distracted by its "anti-terrorist" operations in Chechnya, Moscow has chosen to ignore the danger signals coming out of Karachaevo-Cherkessia.


For months we have been shouting, "You're going to have a war across the whole of the Caucasus!" But, apparently, no one is listening.


There are weapons in every house across the Caucasus Mountains. Every clan has old scores to settle with its neighbours -- and all of them are convinced they have right on their side. A single spark would be enough to ignite the powder-keg.


People like to say that things are calmer now, that we have stepped back from the abyss. But in fact, the cancer has simply penetrated deeper into our society, disappeared beneath the surface, and the situation is no less volatile than before.


I speak for the Cherkess and the other ethnic minorities in Karachaevo-Cherkessia whose fundamental human rights have been violated. The presidential elections -- held for the first time last autumn - were a travesty of democracy. We believe that we were ruthlessly cheated of our birthright.


It has been made very clear to us that the voices of our leaders will never be heard in Cherkessk. The Karachai have seized all the most influential government posts, thanks to the brutal election tactics which brought their candidate, General Vladimir Semenov, to power.


Even though the Karachai outnumber the Cherkess by three to one, our representative, Stanislav Derev, scored a clear victory in the first round of the elections. No one had any doubt that he would beat Semenov in the subsequent stand-off.


But the Karachai launched a campaign of violence and intimidation in the run-up to the second round. Russians who sympathised with the Cherkess were openly threatened. In the Zelenchuksky and Dzhegutinsky regions, which are dominated by Russian and Cossack settlements, there were beatings, rapes, even a handful of murders.


In Ust-Dzhugut, a journalist from NTR (Independent Television of the Republic) was severely beaten whilst TV reporter Fatima Tlisova was attacked by a gang of Karachai youths at a polling booth. Five men kicked her repeatedly as she lay on the ground. Tlisova was attempting to report on the election proceedings.


For people living in civilised Europe, this may sound like barbarism. But what may seem barbaric to you has become the norm for us.


I feel that I can speak for thousands of my fellow Cherkess because I was at the centre of all these events as they unfolded. I saw it all happening with my own eyes.


Together with Fatima Tlisova, Inal Gashokov, of NTR, and my brother Murat, I visited almost all the towns where violence flared up. We ranged over the entire republic with Fatima behind the camera and Murat, an accountant at NTR, operating the sound equipment.


I later tried to get my material (enough to fill several volumes) published in neighbouring Kabardino-Balkaria. I thought people there would want to know the truth. But the official newspapers printed just one article which was heavily edited. The authorities in Nalchik don't want to get involved - even though upheaval in Karachaevo-Cherkessia will inevitably spread to Kabardino-Balkaria because of ethnic links between the leading clans.


The "neutral" stance adopted by the Kabardino-Balkarian government simply reflects a desire to ignore the issues at stake rather than search for peaceful solutions. A desire that is shared by the Kremlin in Moscow.


Today, Cherkess who once counted Karachai amongst their friends no longer wish to associate with them. In mixed families, the situation is even more tragic.


As a result, the Cherkess, the Abazins and the majority of the Russian population are calling for Karachaevo-Cherkessia to be split into two separate republics, as was the case in the early part of the century.


However, in the old days, the Cherkess occupied a far larger territory than they do now. Our population was decimated during the wars against the Russian empire - even today it is less than a tenth of its former size.


The Cherkess, then considered the aristocrats of the North Caucasus, bore the brunt of the tsarist campaigns - the Karachai for the most part took refuge in the mountains. During the early years of the Soviet empire, entire Cherkess settlements were wiped off the face of the map. Later, they were subjected to the depredations of collectivisation and land redistribution.


During this time, Cherkess territory was carved up and settled by other ethnic groups. Consequently, we were forced to merge into an alien environment which gradually eroded our language and traditions.


But we have never forgotten our roots. We are determined to resurrect the Cherkess Republic. We want our children and grandchildren to speak their native language and to observe the traditions of their forefathers. We want to be led by a democratically elected president. General Semenov is clearly not such a leader.


I. Ibragimov is a print and TV journalist from Cherkessk, in Karachaevo-Cherkessia