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

Little Cause for Celebration

With each faction convinced that its superior wisdom and statecraft has won the day, a semblance of normality is returning to Karachaevo-Cherkessia
By Zarina Kanukova

In Karachaevo-Cherkessia, everyone is claiming a moral victory. While tribal disputes continue to simmer beneath the surface, the leaders of the various ethnic groups are loudly boasting that they have averted a bloody revolution. The more cautious, however, mutter that they may be tempting fate.


The republic's president, General Vladimir Semenov, formerly commander of the Russian ground forces, is satisfied that the interests of the Karachai ruling elite have been protected.


Following his election last September, Semenov has pursued a highly discriminatory personnel policy, appointing only fellow Karachai to top government posts and dismissing members of minority groups from the local bureaucracy.


He has steadfastly succeeded in keeping his Cherkess rival, Stanislav Derev, at arm's length, reneging on promises to give the Mayor of Cherkessk the prime-minister's job.


As a result, the People's Assembly, the lower house of the Karachaevo-Cherkessian parliament, is dominated by Karachai deputies while the cabinet is entirely made up of Semenov's appointees. The general has also managed to purge any opponents from the judicial system which, in direction contravention to the constitution, supported him throughout his election campaign.


The independent media has come under heavy attack. Journalists who supported Derev during the elections have been subjected to physical and verbal threats. Leading political figures have brought legal action against several newspapers including The People's Paper, in Cherkessk, and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.


In addition, Karachai delegates have taken over the Council of Elders, which according to federal law, should represent all ethnic groups on a rural, regional and municipal level. A presidential advisor to the council, Shakman Erkenov, has been introduced and his appointment confirmed by the justice ministry.


This move has incensed minority leaders. Cherkess elder Nurbi Chaparov said, "Erkenov's crude attacks on the leaders of other peoples provoke widespread indignation. What right does he have to come forward in the name of all the peoples of the Karachaevo-Cherkessian Republic?"


The Cherkess have doggedly refused to accept the new status quo. Following nearly eight months' of protest meetings outside the House of Parliament in Cherkessk, their tribal leaders have set up an International United Council of Elders, in direct defiance of the government's mono-ethnic policies.


The council which brings together representatives from the Russian, Cossack, Abazin and Cherkess minorities is calling for Moscow to reimpose a decision made in 1926 when the Soviet government divided Karachaevo-Cherkessia on the grounds that the Karachai and Cherkess were unable to live together. They were merged again by Stalin in the 1930s.


Nurbi Chaparov said the Cherkess would continue pushing to secede from the republic and join the neighbouring Stavropol Kray as an autonomous Circassian state.


Throughout the crisis, the Russian and Cossack minorities have run with the hare and hounds. Their voting trends have been dictated by concerns of personal security with some communities subjected to fierce pressure from Karachai groups.


Russians in rural areas have tended to vote according to local loyalties. In Cherkessk, the majority came out in support of Derev, who had secured them improved working conditions. Apparently, their main concern is to live in harmony with their neighbours.


Although direct intervention from the Russian president would seem to be the most effective solution, the Kremlin is still playing a waiting game. In fact, none of the options open to Vladimir Putin are particularly attractive.


Firstly, Moscow could declare September's presidential elections null and void on the grounds that serious infringements of electoral law were committed across the republic. Direct Kremlin rule could then be introduced, as it has in Chechnya, for a period of between one and three years, until free democratic elections could be held under close external supervision.


This approach, however, could provoke armed intervention from General Semenov's supporters and a complex inter-tribal conflict.


Secondly, Putin could simply appoint Derev prime-minister, reshuffle the cabinet in favour of the Cherkess and Abazin groups and reinstate any bureaucrats dismissed during the political crisis. Semenov would remain head of state until the next round of elections.


Finally, Moscow could declare a state of emergency and deploy interior ministry troops to the mutinous republic. Such a move would undoubtedly provoke fierce retaliation from local Wahhabis and could risk an escalation of violence across the North Caucasus. With the war in Chechnya showing no signs of coming to an end, military intervention in Karachaevo-Cherkessia seems increasingly unlikely.


If there is any hope for reconciliation in the future, it lies with the younger generation. Anzor Bagov, leader of the Abazin Youth Movement, said most young people were eager to resolve their ethnic differences. "We've been able to mix with the Karachai in the past," he said. "Why shouldn't we be able to mix in the future?"


Certainly, there are signs that, tired of all the unrest, society at large is attempting to return to normality. While the leaders trumpet moral victories, there is a sense that honour has been satisfied on all sides.


Zarina Kanukova is a press, TV and radio journalist from Nalchik