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Russia: Balkars Launch New Campaign For Own Republic

31 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The ongoing process of revising and formalizing the internal territorial-administrative composition of Russia's North Caucasus republics, which triggered protests in Ingushetia in March, has now served as the catalyst for the reemergence of demands by the Balkar minority for the division of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) into two units to give that group an autonomous republic of its own.

The republic's leadership responded in 1996 to analogous demands with mass arrests and reprisals and the closure of political parties and organizations that had campaigned for the Balkar cause.

On 28 May, some 1,000 Balkars congregated in Nalchik, the republican capital, to protest the new law on the internal administrative-territorial structure of the republic, which redesignates as suburbs of Nalchik two Balkar-populated villages that previously had the status of separate municipalities. The Balkars argued that the territorial downgrading of the two villages constitutes one of numerous examples of discrimination by the Kabardian majority against the Balkars. Unemployment among Balkars, especially in the republic's mountainous regions, is as high as 80-90 percent in some areas.

Stalin's Legacy

The Balkars -- a Turkic-speaking people whose ethnogenesis remains unclear -- currently constitute approximately 10 percent of the total 786,200 population of the KBR; the Kabardians account for 50 percent and the Russians some 32 percent. The Balkars are closely related to the Karachais, who also speak a Turkic language, and may be descended from the Kipchak group of tribes. The Karachais constitute some 33.7 percent of the population of the neighboring Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic, which has a total population of 433,700. By contrast, the Cherkess, who are related to the Kabardians, constitute just 11 percent. The present-day territorial-administrative division of the North Caucasus to include two composite republics, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, each of which brings together a Turkic and a Circassian ethnic group, dates back to a policy embraced in the 1920s by Soviet leader Josef Stalin. That policy was intended to split up ethnic groups between artificially created multiethnic polities, rather than try to create territorial units for those groups within which they would constitute a majority and thus might develop a powerful sense of national identity.
The resolution adopted at a 28 May meeting will be sent to Russian President Putin, the Federation Council, and the Council of Europe. The Khasanya local council members who apparently form the nucleus of the renewed campaign for a Balkar republic plan to launch an indefinite hunger strike if their demands are not met.

Like the Chechens and Ingush, the Karachais and Balkars were both deported en masse to Central Asia in 1943 and 1944 on suspicion of having collaborated with the Nazi German forces that occupied the Karachai Autonomous Oblast in August 1942 and Nalchik in October of that year. Following that deportation, the Karachai Autonomous Oblast was literally wiped off the map: Its territory was divided between Stavropol and Krasnodar krais, the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Cherkess Autonomous Oblast. The Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) was renamed simply the Kabardian ASSR. The Balkars had enjoyed the status of an autonomous okrug (district) for only a very brief period from 1918 to 1922 prior to the formation in January 1922 of the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Oblast, which was upgraded to an ASSR in 1936.

'Rehabilitating Oppressed Peoples'

Again, like the Chechens and Ingush, the Karachais and Balkars were exonerated in 1956 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev of the charge of collaborating with Nazi Germany and allowed to return to the North Caucasus the following year. In January 1957, the Kabardian ASSR reverted to its previous title of Kabardino-Balkar ASSR. The outer boundaries of that republic remained the same, but the inner border was altered in such a way that four Balkar villages fell under Kabardian jurisdiction. The former Karachai Autonomous Oblast was not reconstituted; its territory was incorporated into a new, expanded Karachaevo-Cherkess ASSR.

In April 1991, the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic's (RSFSR) Supreme Soviet adopted a law "On the Rehabilitation of the Oppressed Peoples," which many representatives of those ethnic groups construed as heralding the righting of decades-old wrongs. The Karachais launched a campaign for autonomy, and in February 1992 Russian President Boris Yeltsin presented a draft bill to the Russian Supreme Soviet that would have resurrected a Karachai Autonomous Republic within the Russian Federation. But the overwhelmingly Cherkess leadership of the Karachaevo-Cherkess Republic sabotaged that legislative initiative by scheduling a referendum in March 1992 in which a majority of the republic's voters endorsed the status quo.

Balkar Demands

Similarly, in November 1991 an unofficial Balkar National Congress formed in March of that year appealed to the republic's Communist leadership to support its demands for a Balkar autonomous region within the Russian Federation. That appeal was ignored, after which most Balkar voters boycotted the 22 December 1991 election of the republic's first president. The Balkars did, however, vote overwhelmingly one week later in an unofficial referendum in favor of "national sovereignty" within the Russian Federation, but newly elected President (and former republican Communist Party first secretary) Valerii Kokov dismissed that plebiscite as unconstitutional.

In 1996, the Balkar National Congress, by then headed by a retired General Supyan Beppaev, former commander of the Transcaucasus Military District, resumed its activities. The congress met in November 1996 to consider two separate sets of demands. The first was for the return to Balkar control of the four districts transferred to Kabardia in 1957, and for the creation of the post of republican vice president, which was to go to a Balkar; the second was for the creation of a separate Balkar republic. Delegates opted for the second demand and on 17 November unilaterally declared a Balkar Republic within the Russian Federation, selected a republican government, and appealed to President Yeltsin to support what they termed their legitimate demands. The republic's authorities responded, however, with mass arrests and reprisals; Beppaev resigned from the Balkar National Congress and, on 28 November, appealed to other delegates to rescind the demand for a Balkar republic, which the majority refused to do. The Balkar national party Tere was banned and some of its leaders brought to trial; others were bought off with the offer of influential government posts. Many other Balkar national organizations were also forced to close. Kokov was reelected president in January 1997 and again in 2002.

In 2001, hard-line Tere members again accused the republic's Kabardian leadership of discrimination and demanded a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss their grievances, according to an Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) report dated 16 March 2001, but that demand was ignored.

New Catalyst

As noted above, the catalyst for the 28 May protest in Nalchik was the entry into force in March of republican legislation that subsumed four small municipalities, including the Balkar-populated villages of Khasanya and Belaya Rechka, into Nalchik. Khasanya Mayor Artur Zokaev filed suit with the republic's Supreme Court, arguing that the law violates the constitutions of both the KBR and the Russian Federation. Zokaev was killed in the yard of his house during the night of 14-15 May; 10 days later the Supreme Court dismissed his objections as unsubstantiated. On 23 May, the Nalchik City Court satisfied a request by the republic's prosecutor-general to ban as illegal a planned referendum in which the residents of Khasanya would have been asked whether or not they approved of the village's incorporation into Nalchik.

Participants in the 28 May meeting in Nalchik initially focused on a four-stage plan that called for the creation of an initiative group centered in Khasanya; the return to Balkar jurisdiction of the four villages transferred to Kabardian control in 1957; the convening of a new Balkar National Congress; and the creation of a Balkar republic. The resolution adopted at the end of the meeting did not include the latter demand, although it did call for the suspension of the new legislation on municipalities. In addition, participants voted to rename a street and school in Khasanya after Zokaev. They also voted no confidence in Beppaev, whom they accused of serving the interests of the republic's Kabardian leadership, and in the ethnic Balkar deputies to the republic's parliament.

The resolution adopted at the 28 May meeting will be sent to Russian President Putin, the Federation Council, and the Council of Europe. The Khasanya local council members who apparently form the nucleus of the renewed campaign for a Balkar republic plan to launch an indefinite hunger strike if their demands are not met.

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