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United by Suffering

The Karachai and the Balkars stage a landmark conference aimed at highlighting their mutual grievances
By Murat Kuliev

Two North Caucasian peoples, linked by common ethnic roots and an enduring sense of social injustice, are set to join forces in bid to preserve their cultural legacy.

Last week, 140 delegates attended a conference organised by Alan, the Inter-regional Association of the Karachai People, and Malkar Auazy, the Republican Social Organisation of the Balkars. The event focused on their shared grievances and plans for mutual support.

One speaker, the well-known mountain-climber Khusey Zalikhanov, told delegates, "The Karachai and the Balkars have one Elbrus and one homeland. We are brothers." The pronouncement set the tone for the landmark event.

The Karachai make up just over 30 per cent of the population of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, where they are the second largest ethnic group after the Russians (42 per cent).

In 1999, their influence on local politics was given a dramatic boost when General Vladimir Semenov, an ethnic Karachai, won the presidential elections.

However, this development has seriously strained relations with the Cherkess and the Abazins, both minority groups which share ethnic roots with the Adygeans.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Kabardino-Balkaria, the Balkars find the shoe is on the other foot. President Valery Kokov is a member of the Kabardinian clan which is also an Adygean people. In 1993, the Balkars, under the leadership of Lieutenant-General Sufyan Beppaev, made a failed attempt to secede to the neighbouring Krasnodar Region.

Last week's conference was chaired by Akhmat Katchiev, a Karachai, who described the two peoples as "a single ethnic group geographically divided by historical events in the region".

The two republics were artificially created by Stalin in the 1920s as part of a bid to divide and rule the peoples of the North Caucasus.

In 1944, both the Karachai and the Balkars were accused of collaborating with the Nazis and were deported en masse to Central Asia. According to some estimates, over 50 per cent of the deportees died en route.

Recent history has brought further mutual suffering. The Balkars and the Karachai have the highest death rate of any ethnic group in the Russian Federation as well as the highest figures for unemployment.

Both peoples claim they have been the victims of ongoing discrimination from the Adygeans and, in particular, from nationalist organisations such as the International Cherkess Association and the Adyge Khase.

At the conference in Cherkessk, the capital of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, delegates agreed that both the Alan and the Malkar Auazy should join forces to "ensure the economic and cultural development of the Karachai and Balkar peoples".

One pivotal demand was the complete rehabilitation of all Karachai and Balkars who had been deported by Stalin and had yet to return to their ethnic homeland.

In this context, Katchiev poured scorn on a recent "quasi-scientific" work written by Professor Gonov, an Adygean, who went to great lengths to whitewash Stalin's ethnic-cleansing policies.

Katchiev said it was an outrage that Gonov had subsequently been made rector of the law faculty at the university and given the rank of colonel in the local police force.

Delegates voted to form a committee representing a political and social organisation of both peoples, to draw up a manifesto and hold a founding session.

The Alan chairman concluded that the two peoples should fight for a single and indivisible North Caucasus under the aegis of the Russian Federation.

This last comment was addressed to Gennady Shishkanov, representative from the Southern Federal Okrug, who attended the event.

After the conference, Shishkanov told IWPR, "We understand the pain of the elders over the future of the Karachai and Balkar ethnic groups and we share their concern. We will support them in their efforts to get full rehabilitation. This issue must be decided as soon as possible."

Murat Kuliev is an independent journalist based in Karachaevo-Cherkessia

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