In his annual address pegged to the anniversary on March 8 of the deportation of the entire Balkar people to Central Asia in 1944 on Stalin's orders, Kabardino-Balkaria Republic President Arsen Kanokov -- a Kabardian -- referred to that deportation as "genocide"
of the "fraternal Balkar people."
The use of the term genocide is noteworthy for two reasons. It is far stronger than anything Kanokov has said in the past. Last year, for example, he described the deportation as "a monstrous crime."
And no other incumbent head of a North Caucasus republic whose population was similarly deported en masse by Stalin has used that term.
Why Kanokov should have been so outspoken this year can only be guessed at. Relations between the Kabardian/Circassian majority and the Balkar minority have been strained for years, and Kanokov himself has shown little understanding of, or sympathy for the Balkars' grievances. One Balkar activist who met with Kanokov in October 2008 subsequently told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service
"He didn't understand us, and he doesn't want to understand."
Over the past 12 months, those tensions have intensified, fuelled by the republican parliament's efforts to draft legislation on access to upland pastures that would satisfy both the Kabardians and the Balkars. The former are currently demanding the annulment of the draft law adopted by the parliament in the first reading on October 30, which transfers some 200,000 hectares of mountain grazing grounds
to 16 Balkar-populated villages.
Kanokov is reported to have met in mid-January with representatives of Circassian NGOs and informed them that the law on ownership of land will not been amended. Challenged to explain why, Kanokov claimed that Balkar organizations lobby more effectively than Circassians, and consequently, he personally is under intense pressure. The Balkars have, Kanokov said, even secured the support
of the soon-to-be former president of Tatarstan, Mintimer Shaimiyev, arguably the most influential Turkic politician in Russia. The ethno-genesis of the Balkars is unclear, but their language is Turkic, as is that of the Karachais, the majority ethnic group in neighboring Karachayevo-Cherkessia.
Over the past 12-15 months, Circassian public organizations across the North Caucasus have begun to work more closely together. One of the foci of that cooperation is their demand -- formalized in a recent open letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
-- that the Russian Federation should publicly acknowledge that Sochi -- the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics -- is historic Circassian territory in the same way as the Canadian government acknowledged the indigenous population of the site of the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The question thus arises: assuming that Kanokov's claim that Shaimiyev is supporting the Balkars is true, does Moscow see a new role for Shaimiyev in exerting pressure on the presidents of those North Caucasus republics with a sizeable Circassian population to quash those inconvenient demands?
Or is Kanokov, whose presidential term expires in September, simply trying desperately to mollify the Balkars in order to prevent a new escalation of tension between the republic's two titular ethnic groups that might cost him renomination for a second term?