Prague, 4 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Following the 13-14 October raids on Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria's newly elected leader Arsen Kanokov indicated that he was willing to amend the heavy-handed policy of his predecessor.
Ailing Soviet-era president Valery Kokov stepped down in September after 15 years of repressive rule. He died a week ago, leaving the small Northern Caucasus republic in a state of alarming instability.
In comments to Russia's "Kommersant" newspaper on the day that followed the Nalchik bloodshed, Kanokov implicitly blamed Kokov for ruthlessly banning all forms of religious life that did not fit into the framework of the government-controlled Spiritual Board of Muslims.
In particular, Kanokov criticized the closure of nearly all of the republic's mosques, saying it only contributed to driving young Muslims underground. Most of the mosques were closed in the last two years.
In subsequent remarks to Russian media, Kanokov has announced a string of measures he said would help keep religious life under control. He has mentioned a possible reshuffle among the leadership of the Spiritual Board of Muslims and starting religious courses in schools.
Addressing Nalchik university students on 3 November, Kanokov called for restraint in the struggle against non-official Islam.
"We must make a clear distinction between believers and those who take radical steps. We must separate the terrorist from the believer," Kanokov said. "I've repeatedly told Interior Minister [Khashim Shogenov] and Prosecutor-General [Yuri Ketov] that if we continue taking such tough measures we will end up turning even those people who just want to pray and worship against us."
Kabardino-Balkaria's residents have greeted Kanokov's statements with optimism. Yet, whether the new president will be able to stop the republic's cycle of violence remains uncertain.
In the days that immediately followed the Nalchik raids, Russian state-controlled media reported that security forces were combing the republic in search of militants suspected of links with the attackers.
Larisa Dorogova, an independent lawyer who has been defending the rights of Kabardino-Balkaria's young Muslim dissidents for many years, told RFE/RL that the arrests are continuing unabated.
"It continues. People are being arrested every day. In some cases, the detainees are beaten up. Some of them died in custody and their bodies have been put into wagons, where there are bodies [of the militants killed on October 13-14]. According to our, unofficial, estimates, nearly 2,000 people have gone through these mop-up operations. Some are being released after being beaten up. But they are being replaced by others in a kind of rotation," Dorogova said.
Kabardino-Balkaria's government officials were not immediately available for comment as 4 November was a national holiday in Russia.
Dorogova said she has been able to identify "several" detainees who reportedly died in custody. She did not elaborate further.
She also said that, as in the past, the arrests are primarily targeting those young Muslims who are opposed to the Spiritual Board of Muslims.
"They are forcibly hauled away from their homes. They are being tortured. Some of them are in hospital in a very serious condition, but there have been cases when people left the [Interior Ministry's Anti-Religious Extremism] Department on stretchers and hospitals refused to admit them for treatment," Dorogova said. "But these people [Muslim dissidents] are not complaining. They're not turning to private doctors for help, they're simply staying home."
Ismail Boziyev is a representative of Kabardino-Balkaria's Balkar ethnic minority and a parliamentarian from Khasanya, a Balkar village located on the edge of Nalchik.
In comments made this week to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, he confirmed that the Nalchik raids have triggered a new wave of repression against young Muslims dissidents. But he said other people feared being arrested and taken away to Nalchik.
"There are relatively few [of these young Muslims] in our village. However, some people have been arrested. People are afraid. They've heard a lot about the torture that is awaiting those who are being taken there [Interior Ministry's Anti-Religious Extremism Department]. Many people, for fear of finding themselves in such a situation, for fear of torture, are hiding outside the village," Boziyev said. "Personally, if I were to end up there, I would prefer death. Not anyone can endure such humiliations and tortures."
Under Kokov's iron-fisted rule, Kabardino-Balkaria's police have gained a reputation of ruthlessness that reportedly surpasses that of law-enforcement agencies in other North Caucasus republics.
Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya, a researcher for Russia's Memorial rights group based in Ingushetia's main city of Nazran, says police brutality has certainly contributed to the recent upsurge of violence in Nalchik.
"Police arbitrariness has reached fantastic proportions [in Kabardino-Balkaria]. The Interior Ministry in general, and the interior minister in particular, have gained a frightening reputation, not only among those Muslims who are being continuously detained, tortured, and have fabricated criminal charges brought against them, but also among non-Muslims. No one feels safe against this arbitrariness and that, certainly, contributed to heightening the tension," Sokiryanskaya said.
Yuri Shanibov, a lecturer in political science at Nalchik University, says Kokov's heavy-handed religious policy has antagonized young Muslims to such an extent that many of them chose to commit what he calls a "collective suicide" by raiding Nalchik.
"We've lost an entire generation. Many young people, aged between 14 and 20, would prefer a horrible death to the endless sufferings [Interior Minister] Shogenov is promising them. This is why they decided to fight unto the death and got killed [on 13-14 October]," Shanibov said.
In a statement carried a few days ago by Russia's Regnum news agency, the Nalchik-based Human Rights Center of Kabardino-Balkariya expressed concern at the new wave of repression directed against young Muslims.
The group said it feared the situation in Kabardino-Balkaria might develop according to a scenario similar to that which has been taking place in Ingushetia, or Daghestan.
In those two republics, the statement read, "innocent people are being persecuted, 'death squadrons' have appeared, and extra-judicial executions are taking place."
It continued: "We must state that, today, events in Kabardino-Balkaria are threatening to develop according to an Ingush or Daghestani scenario, where explosions, killings, and abductions of people have long become a reality -- just like in Chechnya."
A slideshow look at the October 13-14 violence in Nalchik, capital of the Russian North Caucasus Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.