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Mayoral Conflict Spells Trouble for Karachai-Cherkessia

Battle over leadership of capital city bodes badly for province’s long-term stability.
By Murat Gukemukhov

Conflict over who will be the mayor of Karachai-Cherkessia’s capital Cherkessk has led observers to believe a bitter power struggle is raging between executive and judicial branches in this North Caucasus republic.


Two men, Mikhail Yakush, who served as mayor up until this point, and his onetime deputy Pyotr Korotchenko, claim to be Cherkessk’s rightful head after elections for the post were suddenly cancelled.


Both occupied Cherkessk’s city hall and refused to move. Administrative work in the capital was paralysed for three weeks. Law enforcement officials ultimately forced Yakush to leave, however.


Yakush, who also heads the local branch of the Russian communist party, is widely believed to enjoy the support of some officials within President Mustafa Batdyev’s administration.


Korotchenko for his part is a protégée and former running mate of Supreme Court chairman Islam Burlakov, another powerbroker and one of Batdyev’s main rivals.


Although analysts do not think that the struggle in Karachai-Cherkessia will lead to violence, competition between two branches of government bodes badly for the province’s long-term stability.


The fight over the mayor’s chair in Chekessk - one of the republic’s most powerful positions - began in October, last year, when the Karachai-Cherkessian parliament voted to prolong the terms of municipal heads, including Yakush’s, which was set to run out in December of that year, until September, 2005.


City council members decided to hold elections for a new mayor, as well as other municipal posts, on September 25.


The election campaign went ahead as planned. Five candidates competed for the mayor’s post, including Yakush and deputy mayor Korotchenko. No one was favoured to win.


As the election date neared, however, Korotchenko, who had fallen out with Yakush and was dismissed from his post, filed suit with the Cherkessk city court in August, demanding that the elections be cancelled. He claimed the city council had exceeded its authority in re-scheduling the elections.


The court agreed with Korotchenko, saying that the city council decided too late when re-scheduling the election – that is, not 65 days before the mayor’s term expired, as was required by law.


Moreover, because a change in Cherkessk’s municipal status, the court said that the republic’s parliament, not the city council, should have made the decision.


The plot thickened considerably, however, when the republic’s Supreme Court, chaired by Islam Burlakov, reviewed the case.


Burlakov and Korotchenko campaigned as running mates for the presidency in 2003 against Batdyev. Burlakov failed to make it past the first round of voting, however, but then accused Batdyev of bribing voters and filed a suit with the Supreme Court.


The case against Batdyev in 2003 was halted under pressure from Moscow, but observers note that since then, Batdyev’s administration has not won a single case in the republic’s courts.


The case of Korotchenko against the city council was no exception. With only 19 days left before voting, Burlakov’s Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision and cancelled the vote.


Furthermore, the court found Yakush to be illegally serving as mayor, restored Korotchenko to his old post and appointed him acting mayor.


The court’s decision unleashed a political firestorm.


Both Korotchenko and Yakush arrived at city hall and announced that he was the rightful mayor.


Korotchenko seized the city’s stamps and documents needed for official business and declared that anyone who did not recognise his right to be mayor risked prosecution for ignoring the high court’s decision.


Yakush for his part occupied his usual room, had new stamps made and locked city hall employees’ records in his office. He declared to the press that he would remain mayor until a new one was elected.


Many city hall workers, finding themselves between a rock and hard place, took indefinite sick leave. All administrative work stopped.


Representatives from the two opposing branches of government, the executive and judiciary, lined up to support their man and condemn the other side’s actions.


Ruslan Kochkarov, Karachai-Cherkessia’s deputy prime minister, arrived at city hall to demand that the staff follow Yakush’s orders and not Korotchenko’s.


Opinion is likewise sharply split in the republic whether the Supreme Court was justified in canceling the elections.


The local communist party, which is headed by Yakush, called the judiciary’s decision “a seizure of power”.


Central Election Commission chairman Safar Geryugov believes that although the original decision to prolong Yakush’s term in office was not entirely legal, the court’s decision was nevertheless very suspect.


“You have to agree that any court hearing that begins nine months after the fact leads one to believe that this was motivated for political reasons, not just the desire to uphold the law,” said Geryugov.


Others, however, believe that Yakush’s term as mayor was questionable.


“Yakush was more convenient for the republic’s authorities and therefore they decided to postpone the election for a year,” said political analyst Aslan Abkashev. “That is why the judiciary was right when it lanced this abscess - it should have been done sooner or later.”


In the end, however, Akbashev believes Russian law that allows judges to run for office to be at fault.


“Imagine that I am a president or deputy and I go to court and find my former opponent there,” he said. “This is nonsense. I will always say then that the court was biased.”


The Supreme Court eventually forced Yakush to vacate the city hall building, but the political crisis is far from over.


So far the court has not set a new date to for the mayor’s election, although by law the vote should be held within three months of the end of the previous mayor’s term.


President Batdyev, though viewed by many observers as the driving force behind Yakush’s candidacy, has so far been silent on the matter.


Observers suggest that the local authorities lack the political will to intervene. They point out that Ali Kaitov, Batdyev’s son-in-law, is facing murder charges in a case at the Burlakov-headed Supreme Court.


There’s now concern over how the political situation in Karachaevo-Cherkessia will develop. “The political vacuum that has emerged will be filled on the principle of force, not law,” said Akbashev.


Others speak ominously of an ongoing division in the republic’s power structure that could lead to continued instability.


Marat Gukemukhov is a correspondent for the Regnum news agency in Karachai-Cherkessia.