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

Kabardino-Balkaria Leader Offers Way Out in Land Dispute

President proposes a major rethink on laws that ethnic Balkars say will deprive them of their lands.
By Aishat Osmanova
The leader of Kabardino-Balkaria has offered a way out of a long-running dispute over land legislation which has angered the Balkar minority in this North Caucasian republic, saying a controversial law could be annulled by parliament.



Kabardino-Balkaria’s president Arsen Kanokov made his conciliatory comments in a television interview, after ethnic Balkars protested against laws that redrew the boundaries of some villages, and effectively detached common land from the communities who use it.



“We will do an assessment and if we conclude that those people who are worried about this issue are in a position to make something of the land, we will transfer it to be managed to municipal authorities,” said Kanokov.



“If eliminating [the concept of] ‘inter-village lands’ will help these districts develop, we will make a proposal to that effect for the autumn [parliamentary] session.”



The two laws in question date from February 2005, seven months before President Kanokov – regarded as a reformer - came to power.



One of them introduced the concept of “inter-village lands” – taking common lands out of the control of village councils, and placing them in the hands of higher levels of government.



Such lands, although “ownerless”, often provide the pasture and hayfields that support livestock farming, an important means of subsistence in the mountain areas where most Balkars live.



Balkar activists argue that the legislative change means they have been stripped of control of some 80 per cent of their lands. They fear the land will then be rented to outsiders on long leases, preventing the locals from using it. In particular, they are concerned that prime spots near Mount Elbrus - Europe’s highest mountain and a tourist magnet – could be leased or sold to businessmen and developers as a result of the changes.



The second law meant that certain villages including the two biggest Balkar settlements, Khasanya and Belaya Rechka, were swallowed up by Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital Nalchik. Apart from the loss of separate identity and self-government, one practical result is that villagers owe the city authorities rent if they put their animals on their own hereditary pasturelands.



The Balkars account for around 128,000 of the 900,000 people in Kabardino-Balkaria, and because they mostly live in a tough mountain environment rather than the more developed lowlands to the north, they tend to be at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.



The Balkars, along with their closely-related neighbours the Karachay, as well as Chechens, Ingush and many other minorities in the Soviet Union, were deported en masse to Central Asia by Stalin during the Second World War. They were only allowed to return to their native lands in the Fifties, after Stalin’s death.



Some say the new laws mean their very existence is under threat once again.



“This is not a matter of a mistake being made. It is part of a planned destruction of the people so as not to allow Balkar districts that existed before the repression of 1944 to be restored,” said Ismail Sabanchiev, a retired police colonel who chairs the Central Council of Elders of the Balkar People.



Sabanchiev said the notion of farmlands that are not attached to villages is asking for trouble in a populous region with high unemployment and widespread poverty, where livestock and the land to sustain it are essential to survival.



He accused the Kabardino-Balkaria authorities of deliberately stoking ethnic tensions. “Whenever we raise a problem affecting the Balkars, the authorities try to twist it into a question of ethnic relations,” said Sabanchiev. “But we have no grudge against Kabardans, Russians or any other ethnic groups who live in the republic. Their position is as miserable as ours.”



President Kanokov argues that an essentially economic problem has been politicised, and insists that the Balkars’ fears are entirely unfounded.



“There’s been talk that an ethnic group is being stripped of its land, of territories being carved up,” said Kanokov during his TV interview. “Moreover, there have been [people] going round the villages talking about a genocide. I assure you that such talk is entirely without foundation.”



The law concerning common or “inter-village” land was merely aimed at expanding the borders of municipal entities, and improving their tax-raising capacity, he said.



The dispute has rumbled on for some time, even reaching Russia’s Constitutional Court. But the ruling that court issued in April was so vague that all sides in the argument have used it to justify their own particular position.



On July 14, some 6,000 people - including Kabardans and Russians angered by the legislation as well as Balkars - gathered in a square in Nalchik to insist that the 2005 laws be repealed.



Tauzhan Bekulova lives in a Kabardan village called Kenzhe which, like the two Balkar settlements, has been incorporated into the greater Nalchik conurbation.



“After the laws were passed, the powers of our village administration were delegated to the Nalchik city administration, and as a result we residents have found ourselves in a very difficult situation,” she said. “We used to take our problems to the village administration and get some help there. Now they tell us to go to the city.”



Bekulova said the local administration used to provide young families with plots of land to build houses on, but the practice has died since Kenzhe was incorporated into Nalchik.



“All these problems are real,” said journalist Valery Khatazhukov, who chairs the local Centre for Human Rights. “They need to be addressed as a common challenge, because they affect Kabardan and Russian settlements as well as Balkar ones.”



Khatazhukov welcomes President Kanokov’s suggestion that the laws should be reconsidered by parliament. “The authorities understand clearly that the problem should be solved by annulling the laws,” he said.



By Aishat Osmanova is a correspondent with the Zaman newspaper in Nalchik.