Rival Groups Come to Blows

Widespread unemployment is fuelling ethnic tensions in the Stavropolsky Kray

Rival Groups Come to Blows

Widespread unemployment is fuelling ethnic tensions in the Stavropolsky Kray

Growing resentment between Russian Cossacks in the Stavropolsky Kray and local ethnic minorities has erupted into a spate of vicious street battles and angry demonstrations.

Dozens of people have been injured in the clashes between Russian Cossacks, Turkmen and Nogai Tartars but the local authorities have shown little sign of taking decisive action.

Last month saw running battles between Cossacks and Turkmen in the town of Kendzhe-Kulaki. Local police say a dispute broke out between two groups of youths in a beer shop before fighting spilled out into the street.

The Turkmen were joined by ethnic kin from a nearby cafe where wedding celebrations were in progress. Seven Cossacks were later treated for severe injuries in a nearby hospital.

General Vasily Belchenko, chairman of the Stavropol Security Council, was quick to apportion the blame. "This was an organised attack on the Russian population," he said.

On the following day, local Cossacks staged angry protest meetings in Kendzhe-Kulaki, calling on the police to round up suspected "rabble-rousers".

Governor Chernogorov promptly called an emergency session of the Security Council at which General Belchenko criticised the regional authorities and the police department for failing to take appropriate action.

But Vladimir Dolin, head of the regional administration, argued, "Seventy per cent of the population here are Russians, the rest are Turkmen and Tartars. We have lived in harmony for more than 100 years and will continue to do so. I think this conflict will fizzle out and there's nothing to be gained by whipping up local passions."

However a spate of similar incidents across the region points at a deeper dissatisfaction in Stavropol society. In the Uch-Tyube settlement of the Neftekumsky region, a young Nogai villager was accused of horse-stealing and severely beaten by a crowd of local Dagestanis.

The victim's relatives immediately recruited a posse of Nogai from neighbouring settlements and declared an oath of blood vengeance against the Dagestanis.

Around 400 police officers were sent to the district to quell the ensuing violence which raged for three days and left more than 30 people seriously injured.

In the wake of the fighting, Nogai elders called a meeting in the Kayasulinsky region and demanded retaliatory measures against all Dagestani settlers.

However, most experts agree that the roots of the unrest lie in economic depression rather than ethnic jealousies. Since perestroika, the Turkmen region of the Stavropolsky Kray, for example, has seen a rapid decline in local agriculture and a corresponding rise in unemployment.

Residents see the arrival of Dagestanis in the region as a major threat, since jobs are scarce and outside competition is unwelcome.

The official reaction has been to blame the influence of Wahhabi extremists in the area - and Moscow has devoted considerable efforts to keeping this myth alive.

As a result, the Stavropol authorities have demanded tougher controls on the border with Karachaevo-Cherkessia, where they say the Wahhabis are based.

However, these calls have incensed local Karachai and Cherkess minorities who point out that the Cossacks only arrived in the region in the 19th century and forced the indigenous peoples to decamp to the Caucasus foothills.

Guria Murlinskaya is a regular IWPR contributor

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