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Kabardino-Balkaria: End of the Road for Kokov?

Several candidates waiting in the wings to replace the ailing leader of the North Caucasian republic.
By Valery Khatazhukov

Valery Kokov, the veteran leader of the key North Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria is likely to step down this year on health grounds, analysts and government sources say.


Kokov, aged 63, has virtually withdrawn from running the republic since he fell seriously ill after a lung operation more than a year ago.


The nature of his illness remains unknown, but his increasingly rare television appearances make it painfully clear that he is unwell. His voice has weakened and he looks older. The president spent most of 2004 in various Moscow clinics and it has been reported that he also received treatment in Israel and Germany.


To many in Kabardino-Balkaria, Kokov’s resignation is only a matter of time. A source close to the president revealed in December that Kokov would announce his resignation in his traditional televised New Year’s Eve address. The forthcoming address was heavily promoted in the local media, something that had never happened in previous years.


In the event, Kokov did not mention resigning, but his address did sound very much like a farewell speech. He sounded particularly emotional when he said all his thoughts and actions were dedicated to his republic and its people.


Kokov took time to praise the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and pledged strong support for all of Putin’s initiatives. While this part of the speech was received calmly by viewers, there was a more critical reaction to Kokov’s optimistic assertion that the economy was growing, salaries were rising and paid on time.


The republican parliament reviewed the state of the republic’s economy only a week before New Year, and it came up with some disturbing figures. It said that there are only 10 to 15 fully operational manufacturing enterprises in all of Kabardino-Balkaria, that 20 per cent of the able-bodied population is out of work, 60 per cent of the republic’s budget is subsidised by the Russian federal government, and budget targets are routinely unfulfilled. Employees in Kabardino-Balkaria have some of the lowest average wages in Russia and salary payments in the public sector are frequently delayed.


Many in the republic also question Kokov’s assertion that the local leadership is fully prepared to counter any terrorist threat and fight crime. Only two weeks earlier, the republic’s anti-drug agency had been attacked by a group of criminals who killed four employees and stole 200 firearms.


Kabardino-Balkaria is a secretive society, and many who spoke to IWPR did so on condition of anonymity. A parliamentary deputy told IWPR that, in his opinion, Kokov had effectively usurped power in the republic and was not planning to step down. “President Kokov runs a tough regime based on his personal power, and there is practically no division of authority,” he said. “In this situation there can be no question of publicly discussing his successor.


Kokov is now serving his third term as president of the autonomous republic. Even before his first election in 1992, he served as Communist Party first secretary in the republic and chairman of the Supreme Soviet, after many years as a party official.


An official in Moscow who follows developments in the North Caucasus confirmed that “Kokov’s resignation is indeed being discussed, but no drastic change is envisioned in the republic’s political elite. There is at least a 70 per cent chance that power will pass to a successor acceptable to all the parties concerned. The Kremlin will let Kokov have his say on the choice of successor.”


The source said that there were three likely contenders to take over a republic which he characterised as suffering from economic collapse and irredeemable corruption.


First, there is deputy prime minister Khauti Sokhrokov, who is frequently tipped as a successor. Sokhrokov heads the presidential “clan,” which includes several members of Kokov’s family and government ministers.


A second candidate is Moscow-based businessman and State Duma deputy Arsen Kanokov, who was elected on the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party ticket, but later shifted allegiance to the pro-presidential United Russia party. Kanokov is known in his native Kabardino-Balkaria as a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist. He has financed the construction of a mosque in Nalchik, and an Orthodox church is currently being built with his donations.


A third potential candidate is Valery Kardanov, a powerful local businessman with strong interests in the local petrol business. He too is a member of Kokov’s inner circle.


Another hopeful outside the republic whose name has been mentioned is that of Mukharby Kumyshev, deputy head of the FSB, the domestic intelligence service in Russia’s Astrakhan region, a post previously held by the current president of Ingushetia, Murat Zyazikov. An official source told IWPR that the national head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, recommended Kumyshev – who is a Kabardinian - to Putin six months ago as a candidate for the presidential post.


Many in Nalchik told IWPR that Sokhrokov was their least preferred candidate, because he has a reputation for suppressing critics of the government. Intellectuals blame him for disbanding Kabardinka, a famous dance company, and forcing its director, Auliadin Dumanishev, who now lives in Turkey, into emigration.


Many businessmen favour Kanokov. “We businesspeople want the government to leave us alone and let us do our business in comfort according to a set of common rules that apply equally to all players,” said a local entrepreneur, who declined to be named and who supports Kanokov on the grounds that he will focus on the economy. “The government should stay away from business, and then everything will be just fine.”


Writer and public figure Zaur Naloyev, one of the leaders of the national democratic movement of the early Nineties, warned that none of the candidates, however talented they might be, will be able to make any major economic or social improvements in the republic. “The future president will have no social base and he will not be worried about what citizens think of him, since he will not be elected by them,” he said.


Naloyev is concerned that the new Russian law abolishing regional elections is a direct threat to the future of Kabardino-Balkaria. He said, “According to the constitution of Kabardino-Balkaria, citizens have the inalienable right to elect their ruler, but this right has been taken away from them.”


Valery Khatazhukov heads the Republican Human Rights Centre in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria.


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