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Russia: Fears Of Fresh Tension Emerge In Northern Caucasus

Moscow, 21 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Tension is still high in Russia's northern Caucasus republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, nearly one week after a disputed vote for the region's presidency.

Thousands of supporters of the candidate said to have lost the vote protested all week in the regional capital, Cherkessk, disputing the preliminary results.

Rising tension had been reported during the presidential race between the two main republican ethnic communities, the Karachai and the Cherkes. The republic has a population of less than 500,000 people. Some 50 percent are Karachai, while the other 50 percent is formed by Cherkes and Russians, together with a number of smaller ethnic minorities.

According to preliminary results, former army General Vladimir Semenov won the presidential election last Sunday, defeating Stanislav Derev, an ethnic Cherkes who is the mayor of Cherkessk.

The preliminary results indicated that Semenov obtained some 75 percent of the vote in the second round, while Derev won less than 20 percent. Turnout was reported at 63 percent.

In the first round of voting last month (April 25), Derev led. His supporters have accused Semenov of staging a large-scale vote fraud in the runoff and have demanded that the republican parliament declare the election results invalid.

Parliament is expected to rule today and Russian observers in Cherkessk say its decision could trigger even more destabilizing consequences in the republic, one of Russia's poorest.

Karachayevo-Cherkessia is one of the last of Russia's 89 regions to move to a popular election of its president. Until now, the republic has been led by Vladimir Khubiyev, a former Soviet-era official who had been appointed by President Boris Yeltsin.

An RFE/RL Russian service correspondent in Cherkessk reported that there are accusations that both sides engaged in flagrant violations of voting procedures during the runoff.

According to electoral commission officials, some 61,000 people cast ballots in the two days ahead of the vote. The early vote was allegedly organized by Semenov's supporters.

In protest to the move, Cherkessk's local Duma, controlled by Derev, called on local electoral commissions to avoid going on with electoral procedures.

On Sunday, when voting was supposed to begin, 66 polling stations were closed. Some of them opened only in the second half of the day. According to the national daily "Izvestiya," one-third of the population was unable to cast ballots.

Thousands of Derev's supporters started rallying in Cherkessk's main square, demanding that the runoff be declared invalid. Regional authorities said the situation was under control, but additional police units were called in from neighboring republics.

According to reports, starting from Monday between 15,000 and 25,000 people have been protesting in the square, day and night.

The protest seems extremely well organized. Russian television stations broadcast footage showing buses where protesters can rest. NTV commercial television said hot meals are served to the protesters, who are shown films and information programs on a big screen located in the square.

Derev, a former businessman, is considered a very powerful figure in the republic. His family runs one of the few efficient industries there, a vodka distillery. Last year the distillery reportedly counted for half of the tax revenues of the city of Cerkessk, as well as for one-quarter of the entire republic's tax revenues.

Protesters have urged Moscow to establish its authority in the republic. They say that if the election results are not cancelled, it will be clear that Cherkes and Karachai people cannot live in the same republic. They threaten that the Cherkes territories could join neighboring Stavropol Krai.

This week (Tuesday), one day before being approved by the federal parliament, then-acting Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin met with Semenov and Derev, in a mediation attempt.

Both men agreed to refrain from organizing public demonstrations and calling for the revision of the region's borders.

The same day, President Yeltsin appointed then-acting Deputy Interior Minister Ivan Golubev his acting plenipotentiary in the republic. Derev himself, speaking to RFE/RL, repeated the Cherkes' secession threat if the election issue was not decided soon. There are, he said, two possibilities.

"One of the two possibilities will take place if [the Cherkes population] will join the Stavropol Krai, where we lived before. Basically, Cherkes, Russians, and other ethnic minorities [could do that].... There is a second option. The presidential representative could be approved by the local parliament, to confirm his legitimacy. My supporters would accept either of these two options."

Semenov seems to be in favor of a temporary federal administration, too. This, according to observers, could be the only way to avoid a new, dangerous confrontation in the volatile northern Caucasus region.