Senior Russian officials and human rights activists alike have predicted in recent weeks that Kabardino-Balkaria, with a total population of some 800,000, could become the next North Caucasus federation subject to descend into chaos, following Chechnya and Daghestan. Periodic reports in the Russian media of the "neutralization" of individual, or groups of, Islamic militants would seem to substantiate the comparison with Chechnya and Daghestan. But armed Islamic militants are not the only threat to stability in the Kabardino-Balkarskaya Republic (KBR) -- and might not even pose the most serious danger.
Other contributing factors include tensions between Kabardians, who constitute half the population, and Balkars, who account for just 10 percent; widespread official corruption that has concentrated wealth and power in the hands of President Valerii Kokov and his family and close associates; socioeconomic problems, including high unemployment (20 percent average, reaching 70 percent in some mountain villages) and the lack of basic amenities in many mountain districts; spillover from the war in Chechnya in the form of Chechen displaced persons; and popular resentment at recent redistricting legislation.
This is not to say that radical Islam has not gained in strength in Kabardino-Balkaria in recent years. (Both the Kabardians and the Balkars are Sunni Muslims.) The problem, however, lies in assessing the relative strength of, and degree of overlap and interaction between, the Islamic factor and two other key determinants: interethnic rivalry and political alienation fueled by official corruption and economic stagnation.
The first two waves of destabilization to hit Kabardino-Balkaria in the 1990s resulted from demands by the Balkars for the restoration of the separate Balkar Autonomous Okrug (district) that existed briefly between 1918 and 1922 prior to the formation in January 1922 of the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Oblast, which was upgraded in 1936 to an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). That ASSR was renamed simply the Kabardian ASSR in the wake of the 1944 deportation to Central Asia on orders from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin of the entire Balkar people, who like the Karachais, to whom they are related, were accused of collaborating with advancing Nazi German forces. Both the Karachais and the 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.
In April 1991, the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic's (RSFSR) Supreme Soviet adopted a law on the rehabilitation of oppressed peoples, which many representatives of those ethnic groups construed as heralding the righting of decades-old wrongs. Accordingly, the Balkars formed an unofficial National Congress that launched two successive campaigns, first in November 1991 and the second five years later, to demand a Balkar autonomous region within the Russian Federation. Both campaigns were unsuccessful, and the suppression of the second was accompanied by mass arrests and reprisals.
After several years of comparative calm, the Kremlin's redistricting plans for the North Caucasus republics, which entailed the transfer to Kabardian control of two predominantly Balkar villages, triggered mass protests by Balkars in late May in Nalchik, the republican capital. But rather than negotiate with the angry villagers, the republic's authorities chose to discuss the issue with Alan, a "public organization" claiming to represent the Balkar people and headed by the former leader of the Balkar National Congress, retired General Supyan Beppaev, according to "Gazeta Yuga" on 28 July as quoted by kavkazweb.net. During that discussion, Alan Executive Committee Chairman Mukhtar Gazaev accused unspecified "forces" of seeking to destabilize the situation on the republic. He presumably had in mind the Balkar villagers who launched the protest two months earlier and who at that time voted no confidence in Alan, which they perceived as colluding with the KBR leadership, according to adygeanatpress.net on 30 May.
Russian media have devoted less coverage to this summer's Balkar protests, and to the tensions between the KBR's two titular ethnic groups, than to the second potentially destabilizing trend: militant Islam. KBR police claimed to have destroyed most members of one armed Islamic "djamaat," Yarmuk, in late January, and to have killed or apprehended members of a second such group in a shootout three months later. Since then, a major "antiterrorist" operation has resulted in the arrest of several dozen suspected militants, Interfax-Yug reported on 30 July.
But an in-depth analysis of the situation in the North Caucasus posted by kavkazweb.net on 10 August makes the point that not all Islamic djamaats in the region are the armed fighting units they are portrayed as by local officials. Rather, that analysis suggests, they are "rapidly developing parallel power structures" that do not seek to perpetrate terrorist atrocities but "to create a separate social space where Russian social and legal norms no longer obtain": a description reminiscent of Chechnya under its then-President Djokhar Dudaev in the period 1992-94 and under Dudaev's successor Aslan Maskhadov in 1997-99.
The appeal of what is variously dubbed "radical" or "conservative" Islam is fueled by widespread dissatisfaction with socioeconomic conditions in Kabardino-Balkaria, according to a brief comment posted on kavkazweb.net on 4 February. The author, whose name suggests he is Kabardian, suggests that people are turning increasingly to "conservative" Islam as a form of protest as the political opposition is perceived as marginalized and ineffective. Moreover, the appeal of "conservative" Islam is reportedly particularly strong among the younger generation: Nalchik police chief Beslan Mukozhev was quoted in late June as saying that there are currently 22 Islamic youth groups in the KBR that are not subordinate to the government-backed Muslim Spiritual Board (DUM).
At a roundtable discussion convened on 12 July by the KBR government, an official from the Muslim Spiritual Board identified the lack of qualified Muslim clergymen and the neglect to which they are subjected by the republican government as one of the main reasons for the drift away from officially sponsored Islam. That official noted that imams are entitled to a monthly stipend of 400 rubles ($14) from the presidential fund, but that stipend has not been paid since the beginning of the year.
What is unclear is whether radical Islam is being embraced equally by Kabardians and Balkars, or primarily by just one of those ethnic groups. (In the neighboring Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic, whose ethnic composition is the reverse of that in the KBR, it is the Turkic Karachais, who make up approximately 34 percent of the population, who identify with radical Islam, rather than the minority Cherkess, who account for just 11 percent.) Are alienated Balkars, having given up on the dream of a separate republic, turning increasingly to Islam? Is a predominantly Kabardian police force adducing Islamic extremism as a pretext to target Balkars? Even if police are not doing so now, might they act in that way in the future if the "Islamic threat" is perceived (or portayed in Russian media) as becoming more acute? Alternatively, are the tensions between Kabardians and Balkars totally unrelated to the surge in popularity of "conservative" Islam? Whatever the underlying trends may be, some residents of the KBR fear that relentless media coverage of the perceived threats to stability in that republic might prove counterproductive, according to kavkazweb.net on 29 July. The website posted a letter from a resident of Nalchik who took issue with statements by prominent Russian human rights activists who visited Nalchik in late July. The writer rejected Moscow Helsinki Group Dhairwoman Lyudmila Alekseeva's observation that "the Balkars have accumulated numerous grudges against the authorities resulting from the failure to resolve the problems they encountered after their return from deportation." He claimed that, on the contrary, the Balkars have received far greater privileges than some other deported and rehabilitated peoples, such as the Ingush and the Crimean Tatars. He similarly condemned Memorial head Lev Ponamarev's prediction that "Kabardino-Balkaria is heading for an explosion and spreading violence." Warning that "you don't extinguish a fire by pouring oil on it," the author of the letter appealed to Russian human rights activists not to allow themselves to be used by "those who have far-reaching plans that run counter to the interests of the other peoples of the republic and of the state as a whole."