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Stars and Stripes Lure Young Kabardinians

Disillusioned young men in Kabardino-Balkaria are flocking to join the ranks of the security forces which promise them easy money and self-respect.
By A. Azamatov

Kabardino-Balkaria is rapidly becoming a nation of policemen. Thousands of young men from impoverished rural communities are answering the Kremlin's call for stability in the Caucasus. Today, the streets are full of uniforms -- stripes, stars, epaulettes and the officious manner that goes with them.


There's an ironic joke doing the rounds in Nalchik these days. A boy comes home from school and says to his father, "Tomorrow the president is visiting our school and our headmaster has told us to wear the national dress." His father replies, "And where am I supposed to get a police uniform in your size?"


In the old days, stripes and epaulettes were associated with the hated Tsarist empire, then with the equally despicable Soviet regime. Young Kabardinians shared a passion for martial arts and hunting. They had a reputation for taking risks. But military service with the Russian army was always considered a penance to be avoided at all costs.


However, 15 years of perestroika and post-Soviet economic realities have created a new social phenomenon - the Kabardinian in stripes.


I see them on every street corner, proud in their uniforms, vicious expressions on their faces. Their voices are lazy and insolent, full of their own self-importance.


A young sergeant stops my car and makes a show of checking my documents. He plays the role of an unbending state functionary, a defender of law and order. But he is already bored by his act - he is keeping up appearances and using the thinnest of formal pretexts to relieve me of a few roubles.


I drop into our native language, hoping to break down the barrier between us. But he insists on addressing me in his stumbling Russian, the language of the authorities. As always, he emerges victorious from our encounter. The bribe is equivalent to my daily income. And he refuses to look me in the eye, stuffing the crumpled notes casually into his pocket-book.


It is hard to remember that these are the descendants of the Cossack horsemen whose code of honour was legendary across the Russian empire. The epaulettes and the stripes are chains -- symbols of their loyalty to an alien authority, of their willingness to punish in its name.


Their ranks are growing steadily. Against the backdrop of the Chechen war, Moscow is eager to ensure security across the North Caucasus region. Federal funds are being spent on reinforcing the local authorities rather than on the economy. And when any complaints are voiced, the security forces themselves mutter darkly about Wahhabism and the Chechen Syndrome.


Already, there are 10,000 Kabardinians in stripes - one in every 15 adult males in a republic where unemployment levels have topped 30 per cent. There are far too many for the sole task of keeping the peace - consequently they soon start to indulge their personal interests.


Kabardino-Balkaria has no mineral resources, gas or oil. In the rural settlements especially, youngsters find themselves in an impossible position. Local industry has shut down; the peasant way of life is little more than a daily struggle for survival.


So thousands of young men choose stripes. Many are tempted by the prospect of easy pickings, others simply prefer to be the oppressors rather than the victims. And they set off to work every day as if setting off on a campaign, determined to terrify their fellow countrymen into submission.


As a result, the old values of trust and friendship are limited to family or clan circles. On the streets of Nalchik, Terek or Prokhladny, there is fear and loathing. Ordinary people have lost their faith in simple, warm, brotherly feelings shared by people of the same blood. Society is rapidly becoming divided into those who wear uniforms and those who don't.


A. Azamatov is a political commentator in Nalchik