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Kabardino-Balkaria President Looks For Scapegoats

Arsen Kanokov's claims that he is under pressure are open to question.
Arsen Kanokov's claims that he is under pressure are open to question.
With less than three months to go before his presidential term expires, Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) President Arsen Kanokov has complained he is under pressure from unnamed rivals who, he claims, do not shrink from using "dirty methods" to discredit him.

Meeting with journalists in Nalchik on July 9, Kanokov linked both the upsurge in militant attacks over the past couple of months and the hunger strikes launched last week by representatives of the republic's Balkar minority to the imminent end of his first term in office. He implied that both trends are being artificially orchestrated with the aim of thwarting his chances of a second term.

At the same time, in a seeming contradiction, Kanokov said the intensification of militant activity is part of a broader effort by "certain international circles" to fuel instability in southern Russia. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and regional leaders including Ramzan Kadyrov and Yunus-Bek Yevkurov have similarly blamed the Islamic insurgency on foreign powers out to weaken Russia. None of them has ever explained why the West would covertly support the Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus at a time when it is simultaneously battling the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Kanokov's claims that he is under pressure are open to question, however. Analysts are at a loss to identify a single serious challenger who is either qualified to replace him, or has expressed an interest in doing so. And Kanokov appears to enjoy the trust and support of Medvedev, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and North Caucasus Federal District head Aleksandr Khloponin, whose conviction that the region's problems can largely be solved through judicious investment he shares.

It was Putin, then Russian president, who in September 2005 selected Kanokov, a highly successful Moscow-based businessman, to succeed ailing KBR President Valery Kokov. Just weeks later, young Muslim fighters staged multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik, killing 35 police and security officials and 14 civilians.

Most of those poorly trained fighters were either killed or captured, and for the next several years the incidence of militant attacks in Kabardino-Balkaria was far lower than in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghestan. At the same time, Kanokov launched a concerted effort to promote dialogue between the KBR government and the population, especially the younger generation. To that end, he has established a permanent youth forum and a youth chamber of the KBR parliament, which comprises 33 deputies under the age of 30.

But the threat posed by the Islamic insurgency has not gone away. On the contrary, over the past few months, since the appointment of Asker Jappuyev (aka Emir Abdullakh) to head the Kabardino-Balkaria-Karachai jamaat, that group has perpetrated dozens of attacks, mostly targeting police and security personnel or infrastructure (gas-distribution stations and mobile-phone relay facilities).

Economic Malaise

On June 30, Kanokov convened a special joint session of the Council for Economic and Social Security and the republican Counterterrorism Committee to assess the situation in Baksan, the town 10-15 kilometers north of Nalchik where most of the recent attacks took place. Since then, militants have killed three police officers (in separate incidents on July 5-6) and shot and wounded a fourth (on July 14). An additional 200 police have been sent to Baksan, and the head of the republican subsidiary of the Federal Security Service (FSB) has been replaced.

The other major problems facing Kanokov -- the economy, and the long-standing tensions between the Kabardian majority and the Balkars, a Turkophone people who account for just 11-12 percent of the republic's population of more than 901,000 -- have proven equally intractable. True, under Kanokov's stewardship the republic's financial dependence on federal subsidies has decreased. Whereas in 2005 such subsidies accounted for 64.7 percent of the republic's annual budget, the figure is now just 45 percent.

But Kanokov has done nothing to roll back the results of the privatization process of the 1990s that transferred total control of the economy to a small group of local elites, a process that was facilitated by the lack of legislation protecting the interests of small-business owners. Moreover, the privatization "from the top down" placed Balkars and other minorities at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the Kabardian majority.

And Kanokov's hopes of attracting foreign investment on a large scale and of boosting ownership of small businesses have fallen victim to the global economic downturn.

Ethnic Tensions

Meanwhile, the animosity between the Kabardians and the Balkars has worsened over the past year. The Balkars' simmering resentment derives from their deportation in March 1944 to Central Asia on Stalin's orders; the suppression of two successive campaigns in the 1990s to force a division of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic to give the Balkars a republic of their own; and controversial legislation that deprives the predominantly rural Balkars of access to grazing grounds for their livestock.

An unofficial Council of Elders of the Balkar People (SSBN) established in 2006 has campaigned persistently to defend the Balkars' interests, despite efforts by the KBR Supreme Court in 2007-08 to have it banned as "extremist." But SSBN members who met with Kanokov in October 2008 complained that "he does not understand us, and he does not want to understand."

Last July, the Balkars threatened to lobby President Medvedev to replace Kanokov as KBR president if Constitutional Court rulings that address long-standing Balkar grievances were not implemented within one month. The KBR authorities responded by staging a mass meeting at which speakers proceeded to demonize the Balkars for allegedly seeking to destabilize the political situation.

Then in March, on the anniversary of the 1944 deportation, some 300-500 Balkars called on the SSBN to initiate the process of "self-determination" of the Balkar people. The KBR Supreme Court has adduced that demand as grounds for banning the SSBN.

While Balkar activists may be angry enough to petition Moscow for Kanokov's replacement, their chances of success appear minimal. Despite concerted efforts, they have not yet secured a meeting with any Kremlin officials, and no Russian State Duma deputy is reported to have met with those Balkars who began a hunger strike outside the Duma building in Moscow last week.

It is therefore not inconceivable that Kanokov deliberately overstated the threats posed by the insurgency on the one hand, and the Balkars on the other, to create the pretext for a major government reshuffle. At the same July 9 press conference, he expressed praise for Aleksandr Merkulov, who was named KBR prime minister in September 2009, but added that only half the members of the previous cabinet that Merkulov inherited discharge their duties "effectively." He warned that some of them may be replaced in September.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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