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On February 14, the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) authorities convened a roundtable discussion in Nalchik under the rubric "For Peace, Stability and Interethnic Accord."

According to regnum.ru on February 10, that roundtable was intended as a substitute for a congress of Kabardian public organizations scheduled for February 15 that has been postponed indefinitely as a result of talks between the organizers and both republican and federal officials, including Russian presidential-administration member Renat Karchaa. But on February 17, Gumar Murzakanov, chairman of the public organization Dje Mak (Appeal) and one of the congress organizers, described the roundtable as a necessary interim stage preceding the planned congress.

The planned congress was organized in response to the passage by the republic's parliament in the first reading on November 25 of a draft law amending legislation passed in 2005 On the Status and Borders of Municipal Formations. That law effectively deprived municipalities of much of the land under their jurisdiction; it evoked a particularly bitter response from the republic's Balkar minority, who live mostly in mountain villages and who were thereby deprived of access to grazing lands for the sheep on which they depend for their livelihood.

Participants at the February 14 roundtable "harshly condemned" the public organizations that lobbied for amending the law, in particular the Council of Elders of the Balkar People (SSBN). A KBR Supreme Court ruling in January 2008 calling for the dissolution of SSBN on the grounds of its allegedly extremist agenda was overridden by the Russian Federation Supreme Court two months later, but SSBN members continue to be subjected to harassment and physical violence.

Pyotr Ivanov, who heads the KBR affiliate of the Russian Academy of Sciences and chaired the roundtable, accused "certain forces both within the KBR and beyond" of seeking to provoke an interethnic conflict between the KBR's two titular ethnic groups, with the aim of destabilizing southern Russia. Retired General Supyan Beppayev, who in the 1990s spearheaded a campaign for a separate Balkar republic but now heads the pro-government Balkar organization Alan, warned against tarring all Balkars with the same extremist brush, but at the same time implicitly accused the SSBN of simply seeking to seize power.

Speaking after the roundtable, Murzakanov lambasted the republican authorities. He commented that "we very much hoped that the new republican leadership [meaning KBR President Arsen Kanokov, whom then-Russian President Vladimir Putin named in September 2005 to succeed the dying Valery Kokov] would manage to improve socioeconomic conditions. How could the republican parliament pass in the first reading a draft law that is incompetent and that promotes the business interests of a very small circle of people?"

But Murzakanov was no less critical of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, one of whose members, Academician Mikhail Zalikhanov, represents the KBR in the Russian State Duma. In December, Zalikhanov wrote to the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office and Constitutional Court protesting that the draft amendments are unconstitutional. Kabardian organizations responded by appealing to State Duma Chairman Boris Gryzlov to strip Zalikhanov of his deputy's mandate and expel him from Unified Russia.

Criticism of the KBR parliament is misplaced insofar as new parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 1. The new legislature will have only 72 deputies (down from 110), and they will be elected exclusively under the proportional system. Four parties have been registered to participate in the ballot: Unified Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the Communist Party, and the A Just Russia/Rodina/Pensioners/Party of Life alliance.

Valery Kardanov of the majority Unified Russia faction in the outgoing KBR parliament argued during the debate last June that culminated in those changes that they will inevitably lead to the election of a one-party parliament dominated by Unified Russia, given that if one party polls over 50 percent of the vote, and none of the others surpasses the new 7 percent minimum, all mandates automatically go to that one party. But Kanokov told a Unified Russia conference in Nalchik on December 26 that "it would be wrong for one party to garner all the mandates and assume responsibility for everything that happens."

How the authorities plan to ensure the required optimum balance, with token representation from rival parties, remains unclear. The apparent collective Kabardian resentment at Unified Russia as a party may, however, result in it polling a significantly lower percentage of the vote than it did during the State Duma elections in December 2007. On that occasion, voter turnout was estimated at 94 percent, of whom over 96 percent voted for Unified Russia.

Russian press coverage of the February 14 roundtable did not indicate whether the KBR media were faulted either for their coverage of the passage of the controversial legislative amendments, or in general terms. But at a meeting with KBR journalists that took place several days before the roundtable, KBR Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Nechayev criticized the overall lack of both "good journalists" and "objective analysis of events and facts."

He went on to stress the role of the media in preserving political stability, adding that "today the dialogue between the authorities and society should be exclusively constructive. And we must take a systematic approach to organizing that dialogue."

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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