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Karachai Leader Under Attack

An erstwhile political ally has accused President Semenov of reneging on election promises and "betraying" his people
By Yuri Akbashev

The embattled General Vladimir Semenov, president of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, is facing growing opposition from the man who was once his staunchest ally.


Murat Karaketov, 43, a former Communist leader and a leading activist in the Karachai ethnic association, ALAN, played a leading role in bringing Semenov to power in September 1999.


This in itself was no mean feat. Semenov, also a Karachai, commanded almost no support from the Russian, Cherkess and Abazin groups which make up nearly 70 per cent of the population.


However, he managed to beat the favourite -- Cherkessk mayor Stanislav Derev -- in the second round of elections amid widespread accusations of voter intimidation and ballot rigging.


But, frustrated by Semenov's refusal to give him control over the state budget, Karaketov has now joined the ranks of the opposition, accusing the general of dooming the republic to penury while a small cabal of monopolists bleeds the economy dry.


He says, "In just 16 months, the regime which was apparently chosen by the people has turned into a symbol of iniquity. Semenov has simply betrayed his own motto 'Law, Justice and Dignity' which at one time brought 138,000 people out into the streets of Cherkessk.


"He has betrayed not just those who worked on his electoral campaign but also all the women who picketed the interior ministry in Cherkessk for long days and nights. A regime founded on such treachery hardly bodes well for the future."


Karaketov claims that Semenov has reneged on his election promises. First and foremost, all attempts to boost the local economy had been directed at the local oligarchs whilst the tax police had deliberately targeted any business that was out of favour with the authorities.


"Apparently Semenov has no wish to see small- to medium-sized firms flourish," said Karaketov. "He favours the monopolists. He has made no secret of his intention to ensure that the authorities have controlling shares in all the biggest businesses -- the cement factory, the chemical factory, the sugar factory and others. But there have been no serious investment programmes in the republic."


According to Karaketov, the general had also failed to create 20,000 jobs for women, a pledge which was central to his manifesto. "We waited for him to find at least 5,000 or 6,000 but not one woman in Cherkessk has found work as a result of his initiatives," he said.


And there was no sign of the gas supply network which Semenov had promised to introduce across the republic within two years. "Sixteen months out of 24 have gone by and there's still no gas," said the ALAN leader.


Karaketov went on to focus on crime and corruption in the republic. "Semenov promised to root out crime in Karachaevo-Cherkessia but Magomet Tekeev, editor of the independent Mountain News and now State Duma deputy, has been beaten up while the health minister Khabchaev has been the victim of an assassination attempt. There have been a number of mob killings in Cherkessk and cattle-rustling is widespread.


"Furthermore, whilst crime is flourishing, the people of the republic are unable to penetrate the cordon of officialdom that stands between them and their elected president. And they say top government positions are up for sale -- a minister's job costs between $20,000 and $40,000 while the vice premiership goes for $100,000. I have never come across this myself but such rumours bring little credit to a man who swore he would mercilessly fight corruption."


The local elite had also crossed swords with the president. Leading scientist Zukhra Karaev, the academic Rashid Khatuev and Professor Anatoly Shevkhuzhev had all been dismissed from university positions. And the authorities have carried out regular purges within the bureaucracy, said Karaketov -- "with the result that government officials no longer trust nor support General Semenov. He has to rely implicitly on his own inner circle."


Finally, Karaketov attacked the president's lifestyle, pointing out that, since his election, Semenov had visited Moscow 38 times and the local resorts of Dombay and Arkhyze a total of 30 times.


"He works in Canary Island conditions," said Karaketov. "But he's done nothing to boost the tourist business, blaming the Chechen war for the lack of visitors. But in Egypt they blow up busloads of tourists and still people go on holiday there. They've never blown up guests here -- especially foreigners."


The president has been quick to respond to Karaketov's attacks in the local press and on the public stage. He has accused his former ally of "being motivated by his own frustration and antipathy which are not shared by anyone else in the republic".


The president points out that he still has eight months in which to introduce the promised gas supply but argues that his hands are tied by the lack of funds from Moscow.


Limited resources had also sabotaged his crime-fighting initiatives but, Semenov commented, "It is more important to improve social conditions and to work hard with young people than to flex the muscles of the law enforcement bodies."


He added that he had been obliged to purge the bureaucracy of all the officials who helped Khubiev's government drive the republic into an economic and social dead-end. "How can I introduce reforms in Karachaevo-Cherkessia with the old cabal of bureaucrats who were accustomed to use power for their personal goals rather than to protect the interests of their own people?" said General Semenov.


Yuri Akbashev is a regular IWPR contributor


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