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Balkars In North Caucasus Air Grievances

President Kanokov denies discriminating against the Balkars.
President Kanokov denies discriminating against the Balkars.
On October 8, Arsen Kanokov met for the first time since his appointment as president of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) three years ago with representatives of the Balkar minority, who have long alleged discrimination at the hands of the Kabardian majority, to which Kanokov belongs.

Despite Kanokov's insistence that allegations of deliberate discrimination are spurious, the public organization Council of Elders of the Balkar People (SSBN) was denied permission three days later to hold its annual congress in a theater in Nalchik. Instead, the congress took place on a square opposite the theater building that was cordoned off by police and security forces.

Although nominally one of the two titular nationalities of the KBR, the Balkars, a Turkic people who account for only some 11-12 percent of the republic's 901,000 population, have for decades harbored multiple grievances against the Kabardians, the republic's largest ethnic group (55.3 percent). Those grievances derive from the abolition in January 1922 of the autonomous status the Balkars were granted three years earlier; their mass deportation to Central Asia in March 1944 on orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin; the redrawing of the internal border following their rehabilitation and return home in 1956 to transfer four Balkar-populated villages to Kabardian control; and the suppression in the first half of the 1990s of successive campaigns to divide the republic between Kabardians and Balkars, on the lines of the 1992 split of the then-Checheno-Ingush ASSR into two separate republics, and create a separate Balkar republic.

An opinion poll conducted among 400 Balkars in early January 2007, the findings of which were summarized by the Prague-based "Caucasus Times," determined that 60 percent of respondents thought the KBR authorities routinely fail to take the Balkars' interests into consideration and 58 percent were ready to participate in public demonstrations and pickets to defend their national interests.

Silencing The Council Of Elders

At present at least three informal organizations exist to defend the Balkars' interests: the opposition Interregional Public Organization Balkaria, which unites Balkar communities in several North Caucasus republics; the pro-government regional organization Alan that represents not only Balkars, but their Karachai ethnic kin and the Ossetians; and the Nalchik-based SSBN.

The SSBN was founded in May 2006, and over the next 12 months convened several public meetings. Participants at one such meeting in May 2007 proposed that Kabardians and Balkars should be equally represented in state structures, and that a Kabardian and a Balkar should alternate as republican president. The SSBN fell afoul of the authorities in the late summer of 2007 after one of its leaders addressed to then-presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak an evaluation of the situation in the republic that was interpreted as criticism of Kanokov personally and branded "extremist" -- even though its author, SSBN Executive Committee Chairman Oyus Gurtuyev, protested that all the formulations in that assessment were quotations from official government documents.

In January 2008, the KBR Supreme Court ruled that the council had violated Russian legislation banning extremist organizations and should be dissolved. The council appealed that ruling to the Russian Federation's Supreme Court, which on March 18 ordered the KBR Supreme Court to reconsider the case. Meanwhile the KBR Supreme Court brought charges of slander against Gurtuyev, 67, who over the past three months has twice been assaulted and beaten by unidentified perpetrators, on July 24 and October 2.

Seven leading members quit the SSBN in September, arguing that it should focus on the most crucial problems facing the Balkars. It identified those problems as obtaining equal representation for the Balkar minority in government and repealing the controversial 2005 legislation re-delineating the boundaries between local communities. That legislation effectively deprived many impoverished rural Balkars of access to grazing grounds for their sheep; it also subsumed into the Nalchik municipality, and thus dissolved the local councils of, two Balkar communities, Khasanya and Belaya Rechka, on the southwestern outskirts of the city.

Ethnic Tensions

The simmering animosity between Kabardians and Balkars erupted into an open confrontation last month when residents of the Balkar-populated village of Kendelen blocked the main road through their village on September 15 to the 30 participants in a weeklong horseback trek across the North Caucasus to mark the 300th anniversary of a battle in which Kabardian forces defeated those of the Crimean Tatar Khanate. The confrontation lasted for two days and was defused only by the intervention of unnamed Balkar elders and of presidential-administration head Albert Kadjarov and KBR parliament Chairman Ilyas Bechelov.

Kanokov convened a government session on September 18 at which he condemned the standoff in Kendelen as a "provocation" aimed at undermining interethnic harmony and political stability within the republic. And representatives of all three Balkar organizations jointly condemned it on September 24, reported. But it was only after Mikheil Zalikhanov, who represents Kabardino-Balkaria in the Russian State Duma, drew the attention of unspecified Russian government agencies to the incident that Kanokov scheduled his meeting with the Balkar representatives.

Neither side pulled any punches in the course of that meeting, SSBN member Vyacheslav Zanibekov told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. Zanibekov said Kanokov warned unambiguously that neither he personally nor the Russian leadership will ever allow Balkaria "to separate from Kabarda," and that he has enough forces at his disposal to crush any manifestations of dissent by the Balkars.

At the same time, Kanokov sought to defend himself and the republic's government against any charges of discrimination against the Balkar community. Kanokov assured his interlocutors that the investigation into the May 2005 murder of Artur Zokayev, the Balkar mayor of Khasanya, is continuing and pointed out that the killings of 12 Kabardian police officers similarly remain unsolved. Kanokov criticized the police for failing to apprehend those responsible for the two attacks on Gurtuyev, and implied that the inhabitants of the republic's Balkar villages should be more grateful for recent improvements to local infrastructure, including the building of roads and schools.

At the same time, Kanokov appealed to the Balkars to exercise extreme caution in their public statements in order to avoid fuelling interethnic tensions. "Heaven forbid that something happens that it will take us centuries to try to put right," quoted him as saying.

The Balkars for their part told Kanokov that they are no longer prepared to tolerate being treated as second-class citizens, Zanibekov said. "The Balkars will no longer tolerate being made a mockery of," he told RFE/RL. "We have no intention of tolerating the lack of rights; we will not permit the rewriting of the history of the region."

But that message apparently made no impression on Kanokov, Zanibekov continued. "He didn't understand us; he doesn't want to understand," he said. "He simply wants to ignore the laws of the Russian Federation and the ruling of the Russian Federation's Constitutional Court."

Three days after the October 8 meeting, Kanokov's adviser Zalim Kashirokov (also a Kabardian) tried to persuade the SSBN representatives to abandon their planned congress in Nalchik on the grounds that the republic's Supreme Court has still not handed down a new ruling after the Russian Supreme Court overturned its January demand that the council be disbanded.

Would-be participants construed the refusal to allow them to hold their congress in the theater building as yet another violation of their national rights. At the same time, they affirmed that they have no interest in yielding to "provocations" intended to exacerbate tensions between themselves and the Kabardians.