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

In-fighting Splits Circassian Minorities

Cherkess and Abazin politicians are ostracised for accepting posts in the Karachai government
By Murat Botashev

Minority leaders in Karachaevo-Cherkessia have been accused of launching a terror campaign against any of their ethnic kin who "collaborate" with the ruling authorities.


Alleged victims claim they have been forced to quit top government posts after being beaten and threatened by hired thugs. They believe these attacks were ordered by their own ethnic leaders who have dubbed them "enemies of the people".


The Cherkess and Abazin peoples have been at loggerheads with the Karachai majority ever since a Karachai general, Vladimir Semenov, was elected president of the North Caucasian republic nearly a year ago.


Leading members of the two clans claim the existing regime is deliberately excluding the ethnic minorities from government posts and attempting to drive them off their traditional territories. As a result, they have declared a political boycott of the Cherkessk parliament which they say has been formed illegally.


Days after President Semenov's inauguration on September 14, Cherkess and Abazin leaders announced that any of their ethnic kin caught cooperating with the authorities would be ostracised. By the end of June this year, only four Cherkess and three Abazins remained in official positions.


However, things came to a head on July 14, just days after Professor Anatoly Shevkhuzhov, a Cherkess national, was elected to the post of deputy chairman of the Karachaevo-Cherkessian government.


Shevkhuzhov said that armed men broke into his home at around 10pm that evening, then took him and his elderly parents to the headquarters of Adyge Khase, a socio-political organisation representing minority groups in the republic.


Here, the professor says, he was forced under threat of physical violence to write a letter resigning from his post and send it to government offices by fax.


On the following day, another Cherkess, Idris Kyabishev, Minister for Architecture, Construction and Roads, was reportedly subjected to similar intimidation and told to abandon his position.


The two incidents provoked a storm of protest from groups across the Karachaevo-Cherkessian Republic, including the Russian Community Organisation in Cherkessk, the Union of Rightwing Forces and the Council of Kuban Cossacks which called for those guilty of staging the attacks to be brought to justice.


However, as the summer wore on, other minority figures came forward, complaining of blackmail, threats and open violence. Intruders in black balaclavas broke into the home of Cherkess businessman Oleg Argunov and beat up members of his family. The elder Kanshau Arashukov claimed to have been the victim of a similar attack.


The escalation of violence within the minority clans has been openly condemned by both Cherkess and Abazins as well as their ethnic cousins in nearby Abkhazia. In an open appeal, Akhiet Chukov, a member of the Abkhazian Initiative Group, said, "Over a prolonged period of time, a campaign has been waged against representatives of the Abazin nation, persecuting so-called 'enemies of the people'.


"Victims have included Valentina Patova, deputy to the People's Assembly, Professor Sergei Pazov, rector of the Karachaevo-Cherkessian State University, Mikael Chikatuev, the State Poet, Mukhamed Tlyabichev, general director of the Kaskad factory, Rauf Malkhozov, deputy to the Federation Council, and the entrepreneur, Ilyas Nakokhov."


Chukov concluded, "It is well known that unanimity and unquestioning consensus are the symptoms of a sick society, but today, in Abazin circles, a dictatorial situation has arisen, in which everyone must think as the Adgylar [an Abazin socio-political organisation] wants them to think. Those who are of a different opinion are immediately dubbed 'enemies of the people'."


Meanwhile, Umar Temirov, a well-known Cherkess politician working on the nationalities committee of the Russian State Duma, wrote an open letter to Cherkessk mayor Stanislav Derev in which he accused him and his two brothers of "carrying out punitive functions".


Derev was Semenov's only rival in the presidential elections and the general's subsequent refusal to appoint him prime minister sparked mass protests in Cherkessk's Central Square.


Temirov wrote, "Why do you assume the right to pass judgement on your fellow Cherkess? Why do you organise punitive brigades which carry out illegal investigations and summary punishments with the aid of lie detectors and cellophane bags?


"For almost a year, your people have been standing on the [Central] Square, defending you while you've been committing criminal acts behind their backs. Through these illegal acts, you discredit your people's bid for self-determination."


The growing crisis in the ranks of the Cherkess opposition is further reflected by the recent upheaval in the International Cherkess Association, now based in neighbouring Kabardino-Balkaria. Last month, members ousted the ICA president, Boris Akbashev, from office.


General Victor Kazantsev, newly appointed governor of the Southern Federal District, is currently taking an active part in quelling the ethnic conflict. In a meeting with President Semenov last month, it was decided that a Cherkess should be elected to the post of government chairman while a new position, deputy head of the republic, would be filled by a Russian national.


Meanwhile, the figurehead of Cherkess nationalism, Stanislav Derev, has been spirited away to Krasnodar to join Kazantsev's administration in what many see as a shrewd political move calculated to keep the spark away from the powder-keg.


Murat Botashev is a political commentator and journalist in Cherkessk, Karachaevo-Cherkessia