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

Karachai President Sparks Fresh Outrage

Renewed unrest in Karachaevo-Cherkessia could spill over into neighbouring republics
By Cherkes Bek

Demonstrators have once again taken to the streets of Cherkessk, protesting against President Vladimir Semenov's "continued attempts to divide and conquer the ethnic minorities in Karachaevo-Cherkessia".


Both the Cherkess and Abazin groups claim that Semenov is pursuing a flagrantly discriminatory policy in the republic, allotting all top government positions to members of the Karachai clan.


Minority leaders are also incensed by the president's apparent refusal to name a prime-minister - a crucial issue in the dispute. Both Cherkess and Abazin leaders are demanding that the mayor of Cherkessk, Stanislav Derev, be appointed to the top job but Semenov remains obdurate. Derev, an ethnic Cherkess, was his only rival in last year's presidential elections.


Now, thousands of protestors are holding daily meetings outside the capital's government buildings, reenacting the angry scenes which rocked the city centre for nearly eight months after Semenov's election victory.


Last September, the demonstrators accused Semenov of fixing the polls in a bid to beat Derev whose victory was thought to be a foregone conclusion. Now they have apparently resigned themselves to the fact that Semenov's presidency enjoys the official sanction of the Kremlin.


But despite repeated intervention from Moscow, Semenov has shown few signs of making any compromises. Although he pledged to appoint a prime minister and a parliamentary speaker from the minority groups before the end of July, no official announcement has been forthcoming.


In fact, earlier this month, the president sparked fresh outrage by suggesting that the prime minister's job and the post of speaker should be combined - a proposal which left the opposition flabbergasted.


Cherkess leader Boris Akbashev has since accused the president of "continued attempts to divide and conquer" the Cherkess and Abazins after Semenov made an official trip to an Abazin enclave, reportedly to deal with educational issues.


Meanwhile, concerted efforts are being made to draw the Russian population of Karachaevo-Cherkessia into the arena. Although the Russian vote leaned heavily towards Semenov during the presidential elections, this majority sector of the population has shown increasing sympathy towards the plight of the Cherkess and Abazin minorities.


The renewal of active protest in Cherkessk once again throws a chilling shadow over the region. Not least because ethnic cousins in neighbouring republics have rallied to the Cherkess cause.


The Cherkess share ties with the Kabardinians and the Shapsug in Kabardino-Balkaria as well as the Adygeans in the Krasnodarsky Krai and the Abkhazians in Georgia. Any infringement of the rights of the Abazins and Cherkess is deemed by many to be a direct attack on the entire ethnic group.


Certainly the situation has worsened since the billionaire tycoon Boris Berezovsky resigned as Duma deputy for Karachaevo-Cherkessia last month. Berezovsky was seen as the champion of the Cherkess minority and strongly backed Derev's candidacy for prime-minister.


Now, say local observers, Semenov is free to pursue his discriminatory policies. The Kremlin is too concerned with the fortunes of its Chechen campaign to be distracted by the simmering conflict on the western side of the Caucasus.


However, earlier this month, Victor Kazantsev, the new governor of the Southern Federal District, which includes Karachaevo-Cherkessia, made a calculated move to defuse the time bomb. He offered Stanislav Derev the post of his deputy in the district administration. By removing this figurehead of the Cherkess separatists, he was in effect reaffirming Semenov's constitutional supremacy.


Cherkes Bes is a political commentator in Cherkess, Karachaevo-Cherkessia.


More IWPR's Global Voices