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

TROUBLE BREWING IN THE NORTH

Pork barrel politics in the isolated the North Caucausian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria is fermenting serious opposition to the government as well as unrest among the ethnic groups.
By Khasen Laipanov

Storm clouds are gathering over Kabardino-Balkaria. Often dismissed as a sleepy corner of the Northern Caucasus, the remote "banana republic" is currently seething with rumours of corruption and widespread misappropriation of the national wealth. Meanwhile, inter-tribal rivalries between ethnic Kabardinians, Balkars and Russians are heating up markedly.


The roots of the conflict are lodged deep in the economic and social make-up of the Kabardino-Balkarian republic. Here a rigid hierarchy continues to dominate the status quo: the Kabardinian elite, headed by President Valery Kokov, remains the most powerful social cabal while the Balkars consider they have preferred status over the Russian Cossacks. Each national group has its own agenda and spheres of interest, both commercial and political.


The legitimacy of Valery Kokov's presidency is still disputed by various sectors of the population. The Balkars claim that they were barred from the democratic election process and never actually voted for a presidential candidate. Many consider the existing government to be little more than a sanctuary for indigenous criminal elements.


Speculation reached fever pitch when a brewery director, Maremukov, was arrested in connection with the murder of his wife, who had been gunned down at point-blank range. Maremukov - a personal friend of leading Kabardinian political figures - was released several days later and charges against him were mysteriously dropped.


A similar outcry erupted over the assassination of businessman Takhir Uyanaev in the centre of Nalchik, the republic's capital. The police's chief suspect, Betrozov, was released from custody after members of the Kabardinian cabal intervened on his behalf. Uyanaev's mother, Marzhan Ulbasheva, has been campaigning for justice for the past three years. However, in October, her 17-year-old son, Renat Nasretdinov, the youngest imam in the republic, was arrested on suspicion of Wahhabism (Islamic fundamentalism) and detained indefinitely in a special investigation cell.


Much of the anti-government invective is pointed at Violetta Kokova, the president's wife, who allegedly holds the republic's purse strings. Kokova's admirers refer to her as Evita, after the wife of Argentinian premier Juan Peron, whilst her detractors have dubbed her "starukha" - "the old battle-axe" - which was Stalin's nickname for Lenin's wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya. Opposition factions are demanding an investigation into Kokova's alleged involvement in a network of petrol stations scattered across the Caucasian republic which police believe to be dealing in contraband Chechen oil.


However, the region has proven unusually resistant to the depredations of Caucasian mafia cartels. In the past year, Kabardino-Balkaria has witnessed a succession of brutal hire-killings which are thought to be gang-related. One mafia boss was shot in his barber's chair whilst another was gunned down outside his apartment block. A suspected gang leader was seriously injured by a mortar shell which was fired through the window of his prison cell. As a result, the criminal landscape has changed dramatically. Most observers agree that the majority of small-time traders are now paying state law-enforcement bodies for protection.


Meanwhile, leaders of the Balkar clan have donned sheep's clothing in a bid to secure seats in the republic's Parliament. Lieutenant-General Sufyan Veppaev, once a prominent campaigner for Balkar independence and an associate of the late Chechen premier Djokhar Dudaev, now occupies an office in the presidential palace. A former colleague, Hussein Chechenov, was recently appointed prime-minister despite disturbing revelations that he had accepted a large house in Nalchik's most prestigious district as a gift from the ruling party.


At the same time, Balkar nationalists claim that the government has effectively privatised the republic's tourist industry - largely located in traditional Balkar enclaves - despite assurances that it would remain in state hands. Responsibility for local tourism has been entrusted to Balkar Kuanch Babaev, whom nationalists have dubbed a renegade.


Vice-president Gennady Gubin is the acknowledged leader of the ethnic Russian minority. The Russian heartland, spread across the Maisky and Prokhladnensky regions, boasts the bulk of the republic's industrial infrastructure. Nationalist factions within the Russian community are campaigning to break away from the Kabardino-Balkarian republic and secede to the Stavropol Region. On several occasions, Gubin has been called upon to deal with outbreaks of civil violence amongst his compatriots.


The disparate nationalist movements within Kabardino-Balkaria pose the single greatest threat to the Kokov regime. Members of the international Islamic movement have proved to be the most militant: a number of activists have been seized from local mosques and sentenced to lengthy jail terms. Other groups include Kabardinian nationalist organisation Adige Khasa, led by Valery Khatazhukov, and the Balkar nationalists represented by Tere Bagautdin Etezov.


However, much of the discontent simmering in Kabardino-Balkaria has far more prosaic origins. People feel betrayed by a government which, they believe, has appropriated millions of rubles paid by Moscow into local coffers. Earlier this year, the Russian state TV channel ORT broadcast a meeting between President Kokov and Boris Yeltsin during which the Russian leader stated, "We've given you everything you have asked for. And you pledged to stabilise your economy within two years. I want to know why you've broken your promises." For once, Valery Kokov seemed lost for words.


Khasen Laipanov is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist based in Nachik.