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Russia's Balkars Present New Grievances

The Inter-Regional Public Organization Balkariya, which unites Balkar communities in several North Caucasus republics, convened a rally on June 29 in Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), to protest the failure of the predominantly Kabardian republican leadership to comply with federal legislation protecting the rights of the Balkar minority.

Although 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 900,000 population, have for decades harbored multiple grievances against the Kabardians, the republic's largest ethnic group. 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 then-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.

Addressing the June 29 rally, Balkariya's first deputy chairman, Ruslan Babayev, enumerated more recent developments that have compounded the Balkars' collective enmity and alienation, including the KBR leadership's violation of federal legislation on the rehabilitation of the deported peoples, local government, and redistricting, and the refusal to accept the rejection in March by the Russian Constitutional Court of the KBR Supreme Court ruling designating the Council of Elders of the Balkar People an extremist organization and ordering its closure.

Babayev further criticized the recent substitution of Kabardian for Balkar place names, the high level of unemployment in Balkar-populated villages, and also the law passed in the second and final reading by the KBR parliament last week under which future parliaments will be elected exclusively on the basis of party lists. (The present parliament's term expires in December, and new elections are scheduled for March 2009.)

Just two months earlier, on April 24, the parliament had voted to amend the republic's constitution to reduce the number of parliament mandates from 110 to 72, of which 36 would be elected in single-mandate constituencies and 36 on the basis of party lists. In addition, the new law raises the threshold for parliamentary representation from 5 to 7 percent, according to on June 22. Babayev argued that the new procedure will deprive "many people" of the right either to run for election or to vote for a candidate of their choosing.

During the debate on that draft law, some deputies, including Valery Kardanov of the majority Unified Russia faction, argued those changes would inevitably lead to the election of a one-party parliament dominated by Unified Russia, given that if one party polled over 50 percent of the vote, and none of the others surpassed the new 7 percent minimum, all mandates would go to the one party, reported on June 22.

"You are forcing all those who are not with you to unite, and that is what they will do. We risk the prospect of a real political struggle," Kardanov warned, noting that "the fragile inter-ethnic balance based -- there's no point in denying it -- on a compact between elites has been totally destroyed in recent years."

But within days, KBR presidential administration head Albert Kadjarov published an article in the official newspaper "Kabardino-Balkarskaya pravda" taking Kadjarov to task and defending Kanokov's track record in promoting democratization, according to on June 30.

Balkariya announced at a press conference on May 31 its intention to convene a congress of the Balkar people, but the reports of the June 29 rally in Nalchik did not specify whether a date has been set for that gathering. did note, however, that KBR Interior Minister Major General Yury Tomchak and one of his deputies, Sergei Kasumov, personally attended the June 29 protest, an indication that the KBR authorities are taking the Balkars' collective discontent and its potential impact on domestic political stability seriously.