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Russia: Unrest Threatens Karachaevo-Cherkessia

While the fighting continues in Dagestan between Russian forces and Islamic guerrillas, Moscow is trying to prevent another of its North Caucasus republics from exploding into violence. Protesters in Karachaevo-Cherkessia are threatening to secede from Russia if the republic's recently elected president is confirmed in office. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports from Moscow.

Moscow, 2 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Tensions between ethnic groups are threatening to break up another of the poorly drawn republics that were inherited from Soviet times. In Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Moscow is calling for a "time-out" in the dispute between the Karachays and the Cherkess.

But many observers see the move as merely a delay of an inevitable conflict. Even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hinted that violence may be expected. In an interview (Aug. 31) with the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Putin said that he hoped "that the measures will be political."

Since last Friday, as many as 5,000 Cherkess have been demonstrating in the republic's capital, Cherkessk. They want this North Caucasus republic of some 400,000 people to secede from the Russian Federation.

The conflict erupted last May over accusations that the election of Vladimir Semyonov as the republic's president was tainted with fraud. Semyonov is ethnically half Russian and half Karachay, and he was running against an ethnic Cherkess, Stanislav Derev. A temporary appointee has acted as president while Semyonov awaits the courts' ruling. When the regional Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the election was valid, upholding an earlier court ruling, the Cherkess took to the streets. Several Cherkess members of the local government and parliament have signed a resolution threatening to secede if Semyonov assumes his office.

Russian media have accused the Kremlin of letting the conflict deteriorate through inaction. But a meeting yesterday between Semyonov and Prime Minister Putin ended in another decision to wait.

Still, in a sign of compromise, Semyonov agreed not to assume office until the conflicting sides work out an agreement. He told the Russian daily Kommersant that he was ready to consider a compromise with his Cherkess opponents on constitutional amendments and a new structure for the parliament.

Aleksei Malashenko is a Caucasus expert with the Moscow branch of the Carnegie Fund. He told RFE/RL that even though, in his words, "all three actors in this conflict, Moscow, Derev and Semyonov are showing a lot of calm and are avoiding any radicalism, a division of Karachaevo-Cherkessia seems inevitable." He said: "It is an artificial entity that was held together by force, and not by a consensus, as in Dagestan."

Malashenko warns that the Karachay-Cherkess conflict may spill over into other regions. The Cherkess originally belonged to a larger Circassian group that includes the neighboring Adygey and Kabard peoples. They are also related to the Abkhaz, who waged a bloody independence war from Georgia in 1992 and 1993. In the northwest Caucasus, he says, the dream of a single Greater Cherkessia resurfaces regularly.

The Cherkess are Karachaevo-Cherkessia's smallest ethnic group, making up just 11 percent of the population. In comparison, the Karachays make up 30 percent and the Russians 40 percent. Dominant in only two districts, the Cherkess say they are victims of discrimination.

Earlier this century, the Cherkess were indeed victims -- victims of Stalin's policy of breaking up ethnic minorities to prevent organized resistance against the central government. In the 1920s, the Circassian peoples were divided up, and the Cherkess were later combined with the ethnically distinct Karachay. The Turkic Karachay people, like the Chechens, were deported en masse in 1944 for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. In 1991, after official rehabilitation, the Karachay-Cherkess republic was re-established under the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Khubiyev. He remained head of the republic until this year.

According to the Carnegie Fund's Malashenko, "the question is really how the division will take place -- peacefully or not -- and how soon."

But the future of the two peoples may be partly determined by the actions of their neighbors. A spokesman for the guerrillas' self-proclaimed Islamic government in Dagestan told RFE/RL last week that "unrest will be unleashed everywhere in the North Caucasus." The spokesman, Mogamed Rassul-Musaev, said the aim would be to "separate the region from Moscow under an Islamic rule."

And a Russian daily, Vremya MN, reported yesterday that a congress of Kabards has announced that if Cherkessia were to become independent, the Kabard people would leave the Kabardino-Balkarya republic and join the Cherkess. The newspaper, however, did not name the congress.