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President Kokov Justifies his Existence

Comment. In a bid to prove its worth to Russia's new leadership, the ruling regime in Kabardino-Balkaria launches an energetic campaign against mythical enemies
By Musa Alibekov

Political opposition in Kabardino-Balkaria is officially dead. Adyge Khase - the only party to have made a stand against the ruling regime - has effectively been discredited, divided and brought to its knees. Any further semblance of democracy in the North Caucasian republic is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.


For most of the summer, President Valery Kokov's government has been on the offensive - spurred into action by the bitter winds blowing down from the Kremlin.


Russia's new leader, Vladimir Putin, has shown every sign of wanting to assert his control over the North Caucasian republics. He seems determined to devolve power to the newly created Southern Federal Okrug by undermining the authority of regional leaders.


Kokov has reacted to this threat with machiavellian guile, awakening the spectres of nationalism and separatism which continue to haunt the Russian psyche. Adyge Khase was putty in his hands.


First, the president made concerted efforts to portray the opposition as a hotbed of Chechen sympathisers and a threat to the stability of the region. Then he set about neutralising the party, demonstratively bringing the wayward flock to heel while the state media applauded his every move.


His aim was to prove to Moscow that he alone could guarantee peace in Kabardino-Balkaria and that any interference from the federal government was superfluous to requirements. A crisis, claimed Kokov, had been averted.


Adyge Khase - literally "The Adygean Assembly" -- came to the fore in the mid 1980s, one of several political and social organisations formed with a view to preserving ethnic and cultural identities. The movements were bitterly opposed to what they saw as an ongoing process of ethnic assimilation in the North Caucasus.


Although such groups never openly defied the state, they were subjected to growing pressure from the authorities. They gradually united into a single opposition party which became known collectively as Adyge Khase.


The Kabardino-Balkarian government was stung into action during the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia when volunteers from Adyge Khase openly supported the rebel cause. The public prosecutor ordered the arrest of leading Kabardinian politician Musa Shanibov sparking a mass demonstration in the capital, Nalchik


A detachment of OMON special police was sent to defend Government House from the protestors but the violence escalated and the troops opened fire on the crowd, killing one woman and wounding several others.


Adyge Khase leaders were forced to intercede when the angry mob prepared to launch an armed attack against the government buildings. All-out conflict was only narrowly averted.


Since then, the Adyge Khase leaders have used only constitutional means to achieve their goals, publishing their political agenda in the opposition newspaper, Adyge Psal ("The Adygean Word"). However, the party consistently failed to win the confidence of the population at large and suffered a humiliating defeat in last year's parliamentary elections.


By the time Vladimir Putin came to power and made his intentions known, Adyge Khase had lost much of its following. It was therefore incumbent on President Kokov to provoke his traditional rivals into action and lure the sleeping Hydra from its lair. So that he, a modern-day St George, could kill the dragon.


The party's Sixth Congress on May 28 provided the ideal opportunity for the government to step up its campaign. Adyge Khase delegates from rural areas complained that they had been threatened by government agents. Buses scheduled to ferry delegates to Nalchik were reportedly stopped and impounded.


On the day of the congress, the House of Children's Creative Arts - the only venue made available to Adyge Khase -- was surrounded by police, interior ministry troops and FSB officers who openly harassed and intimidated party activists.


Adyge Khase leaders claim this harassment continued long after the congress was over with the interior ministry putting increasing pressure on the party to hand over a full list of its members.


An elite police detachment was later dispatched to the party's offices in Nalchik with orders to clear the building and break open any safes they found there. In an action which was apparently approved by the public prosecutor of Kabardino-Balkaria, Yuri Ketov, Adyge Khase officials were barred from entering the building for three days.


However, in the wake of the police raid, the movement's leaders remained defiant, releasing a public statement which concluded, "No repressive measures can force us to withdraw from our position or drive us underground. Our activities are founded on democratic principles and the observance of existing legislature."


A subsequent party meeting on June 31 had all the hallmarks of vaudeville. Proposed and sanctioned by Valery Kokov himself, the meeting was purportedly aimed at setting up a Nalchik branch of the opposition party. However, the organisers announced the plan just days before the event was due to take place and many leading Adyge Khase figures were unable to attend.


Consequently, the assembled delegates - some of whom boasted top posts in the official regime - seized the opportunity to vote a cabal of pro-government candidates into the new presidium. These included Khazretali Berdov, head of the Nalchik administration, the writer, Boris Utizhev, and the chairman of the Russian Society, Konstantin Efendiev. The most prominent party stalwarts were conspicuous by their absence with the exception of Valery Khatazhukov, the Adyge Khase chairman, and the Abkhazian war hero, Ibragim Yaganov.


Khatazhukov immediately voiced suspicions that the branch was actually being created in a bid to form an alternative pro-Kokov faction, masquerading under the same name. "I'm not against an alternative to the existing Adyge Khase but, in that case, it should have a different name," he said.


During the ensuing debate, both Khatazhukov and Yaganov stormed out of the conference, leaving Berdov to explain that the party's existing leaders were sadly incapable of compromise.


Efendiev was promptly elected head of the Nalchik branch. "I am not trying to gain power, popularity or material prosperity," he assured the delegates. "My only wish is to help my long-suffering people."


In mid July, Adyge Khase launched an extraordinary congress during which it elected a senior council and a new chairman -- Muhamed Khafitse, editor of Adyge Psal.


The event went practically unreported in the republic's press which is exclusively controlled by the government. But subsequent Psal editorials volubly protested that the congress was dominated by representatives from the executive and legislative authorities.


Threatened with closure on several occasions, Psal is still tolerated because it serves to fuel claims that separatist movements in Kabardino-Balkaria are alive and well. We can safely assume that, once it has outlived its usefulness, Psal will cease to exist. As indeed will the political party which it has chosen to serve - a party which even today survives in name only.


Musa Alibekov and Islam Ibragimov are both political commentators based in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria


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