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

Military Cabal Takes Reins of Power

Once again, the North Caucasus republics are falling under the sway of Russia's generals
By Yuri Akbashev

For more than two centuries, the North Caucasus have stood as a kind of Bermuda Triangle for Russia's general staff. The endless campaigns against mutinous tribesmen have offered generations of military leaders equal opportunities for glory and disgrace. And, now there is a sense that history is repeating itself.


In the days of Paskevich, Yermolov and Vorontsev, Moscow sent her generals to the Caucasus at the head of invading armies. Today, such crude tactics are only evident in Chechnya - elsewhere the generals lead armies of bureaucrats and solemnly assume the trappings of state.


The Kremlin has been manoeuvring soldiers into the governments of the North Caucasus since 1993 when the airforce general Dzhokhar Dudaev was appointed president of Chechnya. Soon afterwards, Ruslan Aushev, hero of the war in Afghanistan, swept to power in neighbouring Ingushetia and a new pattern was set.


The next Moscow-approved candidate was Lieutenant-General Sufyan Beppaev, deputy commander of the North Caucasus Military District, who was to play a pivotal role in the planned secession of Balkaria from the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic. This process, however, was interrupted by the 1994-1996 Chechen war when the first phase of military expansion in the North Caucasus came to an ignominious end.


By mid-1999, however, the Kremlin was back to its old tricks. Vladimir Semenov, former commander-in-chief of the Russian land forces, won the presidential elections in Karachaevo-Cherkessia amid widespread accusations of voter intimidation and ballot-rigging. Ignoring the righteous indignation of the republic's ethnic minorities, the Kremlin confirmed Semenov's election victory in October that year.


Then the second Chechen campaign ushered in a new cabal of conquering heroes. With almost indecent haste, General Victor Kazantsev was named Governor-General of the North Caucasus - despite his appalling human rights record in Chechnya which has provoked an international outcry.


General Gennady Troshev soon emerged as the lynchpin of the military junta, effectively serving as head of the temporary administration - even though this role has officially been handed over to Akhmed Kadyrov, the Chechen mufti. Troshev was born in Chechnya and later lived in Nalchik, so his knowledge of the North Caucasian peoples made him an obvious candidate for the job.


Meanwhile, Lt.-Gen. Mukhamed Batyrov, commander of the ground forces in Northern Russia, announced his intention to run for presidency of Kabardino-Balkaria in 2002. Born in the village of Psykhurei and an ethnic Kabardinian, Batyrov can count on a significant following amongst local voters.


Only North Ossetia has escaped the militarisation process - but here Moscow has little to fear. The Ossetians have always been loyal Russian subjects, furnishing the ranks of the Imperial and Soviet armies with some of their most capable generals. Furthermore, the civilian president, Alexander Dzasokhov, has shown few signs of resisting Kremlin policy in the North Caucasus.


But, if the Caucasus offers the generals the chance to cover themselves in glory, it claims its victims with equal determination. Dudaev was killed in the first Chechen war - unless, as some believe, he is currently in hiding in some Arab state. Aushev has incurred President Vladimir Putin's wrath over his apparent sympathy for the Chechen cause: without Moscow support, his presidency is looking increasingly unstable.


The fact is that a new cabal is rising to power in the North Caucasus. Kazantsev, Troshev and Batyrov are all ground force generals and proteges of General Semenov, the president of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The stage has already been set. Batyrov's bid for the Balkarian presidency throws down a clear gauntlet to the incumbent, Valery Kokov. And Kokov, aware of the power of the Semenov brotherhood, promptly offered Batyrov the post of interior minister. But the general, confident of his military support, has refused the olive branch and Kokov's days are clearly numbered.


The long-term implications of the "generalisation" of the North Caucasus give some cause for concern. There is little hope, for example, that the generals can tell the difference between a tank and a tractor - in other words, their experience gives them few qualifications for the pressing task of improving living standards.


The development of democracy will undoubtedly be stunted - to say nothing of progress in the field of human rights. Ingush, Karachai, Dagestanis, Cherkess and Kabardinians alike have witnessed Victor Kazantsev's brutal repression of the Chechen people. There is no reason to suppose that he and his former comrades-in-arms will not resort to the same terror tactics elsewhere.


However, there are factions within the local governments who view the rise of the generals with cautious optimism. They are confident that the military leaders will oust the venal and corrupt politicians who have brought many of the republics to the brink of bankruptcy. Appalled by the luxurious lifestyle practised by the ruling elite, they have faith in the generals as the trumpet-bearers of new and upstanding values.


And the generals? They have an indomitable faith in themselves.


Yuri Akbashev is an independent journalist in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria


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