The draft law was intended to put an end to the long-standing dispute between the Kabardians and Balkars over access to the grazing grounds that until 2005 were public property. But while the Balkars have hailed the draft law as the first step to righting a historic injustice, it has triggered a storm of protest by Kabardian public organizations.
"We found ourselves in a very odd situation. Most key positions in the parliament and the government are held by Kabardians, and the president too is one of ours, but they still adopt laws that blatantly infringe on our rights," Ruslan Keshev, head of the Circassian Congress of Kabardino-Balkaria, said at a meeting of Kabardian groups in Nalchik on November 17. "If the authorities ignore the demands put forward at the meeting, we shall convene larger-scale protest actions."
In an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Ibragim Yaganov, chairman of the recently founded public organization Khase (Council) in Nalchik, similarly stressed that the meeting participants will not back down. "If our demands are not taken into account and the draft is not annulled, we shall declare an open-ended protest and demand that the president, the government and the parliament all resign."
The Balkars by contrast consider the parliament decision fair, if belated. "That decision could have been taken earlier. The present conflict would not have arisen if the local authorities had implemented the relevant federal and republican laws in a timely fashion," Ruslan Babayev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. Babayev is deputy head of Balkaria, a public organization that unites Balkars from various North Caucasus republics, and one of the leaders of the unofficial Council of Elders of the Balkar People, which over the past two years has been subjected to systematic pressure by the republic's authorities.
Babayev cited as an example the 1991 Soviet law on the rehabilitation of those ethnic groups, including the Balkars, the Chechens, the Crimean Tatars and the Ingush, who were deported to Central Asia on Stalin's orders in 1943-44. He pointed out that in line with that law, the Balkars should have had restored to them everything that they lost at the time of the forced deportation, including the lands historically populated by Balkars that are the focus of the current dispute.
Those grazing grounds on the lower slopes of the Caucasus mountains lie right on the border with Karachayevo-Cherkessia. This is what makes the Kabardians so nervous, given that the Karachais and Balkars are ethnic cousins. Some participants at the November 17 protest meeting even went so far as to argue that "the Balkars want that land so they can secede and create a Karachayevo-Balkar republic."
The Balkars dismiss that alarmist reasoning as unserious, to say the least. "Not a single Balkar has ever dreamed of creating such a republic, and none of us ever will," Babayev told RFE/RL. "The Balkars and the Karachais are separate ethnic groups, each with its own culture and mentality. It would be a case of 'out of the frying pan into the fire,' and no one wants that."
The pastures that are to be handed over to Balkar villages in line with the parliament decision used to be freely accessible to all village communities, both Kabardian and Balkar, until the new law on municipalities was passed in 2005. Some observers had anticipated that KBR President Arsen Kanokov would either sign it into law or veto it as early as November 24. But parliament first deputy speaker Ruslan Zhanimov said on November 20 the draft will be discussed again in detail and revised to take into account comments by "all public organizations," meaning Kabardians and Balkars alike, before it is passed in the second and final reading.
-- Ramazan Ashinov and Liz Fuller