Within weeks of his appointment as president of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) in September 2008, Boris Ebzeyev managed to antagonize the republic's Circassian minority by naming a Greek, rather than a Circassian, to head the republic's new government.
That perceived slight was instrumental in fuelling Circassian demands that the existing borders between the North Caucasus republics be redrawn to create a Circassian republic
comprising the territories where Circssians currently constitute a majority of the population.
In an attempt to defuse mounting tensions between the republic's two titular ethnic groups, North Caucasus Federal District head Aleksandr Khloponin yesterday gave Ebzeyev until May 1
to name a Circassian as the new prime minister.
The Karachais are the largest ethnic group in Karachayevo-Cherkessia (38 percent of the total population of 427,500), followed by the Russians (33.6 percent); the Circassians account for just 11.3 percent.
The unwritten agreement on the allocation of senior positions within the republic's leadership dates back to the disputed presidential elections in the summer of 1999
, in which retired General Vladimir Semenov, who was half Karachai, defeated Cherkess Stanislav Derev. It envisages that if the president is a Karachai (as Ebzeyev is), the prime minister should be a Circassian, and the posts of vice president and parliament speaker should go to Russians.
Developments over the past six months have only served to antagonize the Circassians -- especially members of the youth wing of the Circassian NGO Adyghe Khase -- even further. Angered by the choice of parliament speaker Zurab Dokshokov in November to represent Karachayevo-Cherkessia on the Federation Council, the youth wing of the KChR chapter of the Circassian public organization Adyghe Khase (Circassian Council) warned Russian presidential-administration head Sergei Naryshkin and presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Vladimir Ustinov in a statement that the "provocative" and "insulting" actions of the republic's leadership risk exacerbating ethnic tensions
. The Circassians had backed
another of their co-ethnics, Vyacheslav Derev, for that post.
The parliament in February elected
a Russian, Aleksandr Ivanov, to succeed Dokshokov (a Circassian) as speaker.
Following four mass brawls between young Karachais and Circassians during the first two months of this year, KChR Interior Minister Sergei Skripka warned in early March that any further such disturbances would result in prosecutions
Adyghe Khase's youth wing responded to the murder (still unsolved) in mid-March of one of its members, Aslan Zhukov, by picketing the government building to demand a meeting with Ebzeyev. The angry protesters initially demanded the convening of an emergency congress
of the Circassian people "before they shoot us all one by one," but then agreed to postpone that gathering until May.
Days later, an open letter to Khloponin purportedly signed by the heads of organizations representing the Russian, Circassian, Nogai, and Ossetian communities of the KChR, was posted to the Internet criticizing Ebzeyev and calling
for his replacement by a Russian.
Reports of Khloponin's meetings in Cherkessk on April 21 contain no allusion to that demand. He did, however, stress the need to galvanize the region's stagnating economy and reduce unemployment, and advocated the priority development of tourism and agriculture. The officially registered unemployment figure is just 3 percent, but a disproportionately high number of those out of work are Circassians, reportedly because Karachai employees discriminate against them.
At the same time, Khloponin warned that neither the federal government, nor major banks, nor foreign investors, will show any readiness to finance development projects until the threat of political instability, including clashes between ethnic groups, is removed.
Khloponin therefore proposed three measures intended to promote the harmonious co-existence of the two titular ethnic groups and the more effective functioning of the economy.
The first was the appointment of a Circassian as prime minister. The second was unspecified cabinet changes to ensure that the ministers with whom Khloponin has dealings will be "professionals." The third proposal was the creation of a coordinating council on which all the republic's various ethnic groups would be represented, and that would "work with the president' to address the problems the republic faces.