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

Fear and Loathing in Karachaevo-Cherkessia

Ethnic disputes between the Karachai and the Cherkess appear to be irreconcilable, raising concerns of new conflict in the North Caucasus.

Cherkessk is a town divided. I hardly recognised the place I had known before the Troubles. The rift which has opened up between Karachaevo-Cherkessia's disparate ethnic groups is threatening to erupt into violence. And people talk about nothing else.

Before leaving Nalchik, I telephoned my Karachai friend, Sakinat, and asked, half-jokingly, if she would be prepared to meet me. I am an Abazin, ethnically grouped with the Cherkess - a tribe which the Karachai view with increasing hostility. "Of course," she said with bitter irony, "if the Cherkess don't manage to turn you against me in the meantime."

Sakinat greets me with the words, "We're going to have a war!" She hastens to add, "Everything the Cherkess tell you is lies. They twist everything around to suit themselves. They're asking for the impossible!"

We have been friends for years - we met long before questions of ethnic loyalty cast their shadow over the Caucasus. But now I sense a new wariness in the tone of her voice.

I ask her how she knows what the Cherkess have been telling me. "They all say the same things," replied Sakinat. "They're convinced that we are making life hard for them, that we have insulted them. They want to secede from the republic."

The first separatist murmurings were heard less than a year ago when a Karachai, General Vladimir Semenov, was elected president of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Members of the Cherkess and Russian minority groups have since accused the Karachai elite of deliberately excluding their leaders from key government positions. Some even believe Semenov is trying to drive them out of the region. Sakinat explains that the Cherkess are simply indignant that Semenov beat their candidate, Stanislav Derev, in the presidential elections. "They were mortified when we openly celebrated his victory," she says.

I try to change the subject. I ask her about life in her village but, even there, no one talks of anything but the Troubles.

"At the local school, the headmaster is a Cherkess!" she says. "In a Karachai village! It's hard to imagine that you could have the same situation in a Cherkess settlement."

But it soon emerges that the Cherkess who are socially "accepted" in the village are the ones who have a good knowledge of the Karachai language. "We don't need Russian to get by," says Sakinat.

But, if the language question points towards a certain degree of assimilation, Sakinat's remarks gloss over the real issues at stake. The Cherkess claim that it is impossible for the two ethnic groups to live together in harmony because they have different traditions, different customs and, most importantly, different mentalities.

They say the protests which came hard on the heels of the presidential elections were the violent expression of a deeper malaise. Semenov's victory merely served to detonate an ethnic time-bomb which has existed since the 1920s.

Meanwhile, the Karachai counter that the elections were fair and democratic, that the blame lies entirely with the Cherkess. I ask Sakinat about Cherkess claims that radical Islamic tendencies such as Wahhabism have become prevalent amongst the Karachai. "Many of our young men are fighting in Chechnya," admits Sakinat. "Most of them are Wahhabis. But, in our village, we have nothing but scorn for families who let their sons go and fight in the name of Wahhabism."

She explains that many young people are unable to get a decent education and find a job. Wahhabism offers them a spiritual credo and way out of the poverty trap. "We all live in the fear that, if the war ends in Chechnya, then war will break out here..."

It's hard to believe that Sakinat, or any of her people want war. They desire neither money nor power but if fighting breaks out, they will undoubtedly take up arms against their neighbours. They will do what they are told.

On the surface, Cherkessk is an ordinary provincial Russian town. The roads are in a state of disrepair, the grass verges are overgrown. Outside the social clubs, old men play chess, old women sell nuts. Eager students hurry past downtrodden alcoholics, eyes brimming with self-pity. Salesmen ply their trade with an exaggerated sense of purpose.

But the ordinariness, the tranquillity are just an illusion. No one is calm. No one has any faith in tomorrow. The spectre of war hangs over Cherkessk, biding its time, fanning the flames of civil unrest with well-practised wings.

Maya Bitokova is a press, radio and TV journalist in Nalchik.

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