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

Coup Rumours Rattle North Caucasus

An alleged coup attempt by Islamic militants spells trouble for the Balkar and Karachai minorities
By Dmitri Nepomnyashy
In mid-August, Russia's prosecutor-general, Vladimir Ustinov, informed the press in Chechnya of the arrest of 11 Islamic conspirators who, he alleged, were planning coups in the neighbouring republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachajevo-Cherkessia. Sergei Prokopov, a special advisor in the Russian prosecutor-general's North Caucasus office, confirmed the allegations.

Prokopov claimed that an investigative unit attached to the prosecutor-general's office had discovered an apartment in the Chegem Valley used by an Arab instructor named Mansur to train local dissidents in the use of mines and explosives. Mansur, he alleged, had worked alongside Khattab, one of the leading commanders in the Chechen rebellion. A weapons cache has also been found.

Ustinov's allegations made sense - at first glance. Infiltration by Wahhabi activists has become a real problem in the North Caucasus. Wahhabis were reportedly involved in three terrorist bomb attacks in Mineralnie Vody, Yessentuki and Cherkessk, which claimed 23 lives in March 2001. Ustinov also blamed Wahhabi groups for the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, in which over 300 people died.

Vladimir Kravchenko, also in the prosecutor-general's North Caucasus office, claimed on August 29 that investigators had found clear links between foreign Islamic organisations and local Wahhabis. Officials in the interior ministry, meanwhile, say they have confiscated 200 guns, 76 grenades and a "large amount" of explosives since the beginning of the year.

Ustinov's revelations, however, made local officials uneasy. The office of the presidential envoy to the South Russia federal district said that the media attention merely played into the hands of those seeking to destabilise Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachajevo-Cherkessia. The security agencies in both republics refused to comment, as did the office of the Kabardino-Balkarian Security Council.

The few officials who would comment were openly sceptical. Kabardino-Balkaria's hard-boiled interior minister, Khachim Shogenov, said, "If people were thinking of a military coup and the creation of an Islamic state in Kabardino-Balkaria, it was just in their sick imaginations." He said that prosecutors should concentrate on the March bombings instead.

"I laughed," said Soslanbek Betrozov, the republic's military commissary. "To suggest that the 11 arrested men were preparing a mutiny in Kabardino-Balkaria, one of the most stable republics in the federation, is like claiming someone is going to fly to the moon on a balloon."

Betrozov was being disingenuous. Ever since the outbreak of the second Chechen war, in summer 1999, Moscow has regarded Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachajevo-Cherkessia and nearby Adygea as potential new sources of instability in the North Caucasus. Kabards and Cherkess dominate political and economic life in the two republics, to the detriment of the smaller Balkar and Karachai ethnic groups. The Kabards and Cherkess are also related to the Abkhazians, who seceded from Georgia in 1992. The dream of a single Greater Cherkessia resurfaces regularly.

Takhir Otarov, head of the North Caucasus organised crime unit, supplied a more measured response. "We participated in the arrest of some of the members of this criminal group," he said. "Investigations have yielded no evidence as to their aims, nor is there any clear definition of their activities. The statement that they were preparing a coup is groundless."

Others had less tempered reactions. Ustinov's allegations stirred up anger and disgust among the public in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachajevo-Cherkessia, who first learned about them from Russian news reports. "Rubbish from Moscow!" said pensioner Irina Puchkova in the Kabardino-Balkarian capital, Nalchik. "They should take care of their own affairs, and stop confusing us." One young Russian added, "If the prosecutor-general thinks 11 people are sufficient to launch a coup, then it's beginning of the end."

"I don't think that we have a mutiny on our hands," said Saladin Khagazhaev, a judicial official. " I assume these are rumours spread by people who stand to gain from them." Local analysts believe wealthy Kabards and Cherkess living in Moscow lie behind both the coup report and the March bombing campaign.

"Kabards and Cherkess continually try to discredit Balkar and Karachai people," said the Karachajevo-Cherkessian newspaper Dialog. "They accuse them of terrorist acts and other sins through the Russian security services, FSB, and the office of the prosecutor general."

The fact that all 11 arrested terrorists appear to be Balkars and Karachais seems to support this theory. According to information given to IWPR, one of those wanted by the police in connection with the alleged plot is known by the last name Bekkaev, a former administrator of the Elbrus settlement near the Abkhazian border and brother of a well-known Balkar businessman, Omar Bekkaev, who lives in Moscow.

The Russian media generally treated Ustinov's plot allegations with reserve due to lack of evidence. Some pointed to a possible link with the proposed Tengiz (Kazakstan)-Novorossijsk oil pipeline that is due to be built along the unstable northern frontier of Karachajevo-Cherkessia. One thing, however, appears clear. Rightly or wrongly, the allegations confirm that the FSB and local authorities both regard the Karachai and Balkar peoples as a serious threat to stability in the region.

Dmitri Nepomnyashy is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria.