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No Reenactment: Tensions Simmer In North Caucasus After Controversial Battle Commemoration

A screen-grab from a YouTube video posted on an account under the name of Oleg Dotsenko apparently showing scenes from a demonstration in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, during which Kabardians demanded that authorities open a probe into what they contend was a brutal crackdown targeting them.

It took place more than 300 years ago, but a famous battle is being fought over in Kabardino-Balkaria, a small republic in the multiethnic patchwork that is Russia's North Caucasus region.

When sides squared off there recently, it was no historical reenactment of the Battle of Kanzhal in 1708.

Hundreds of special Russian police and National Guard forces were bused in to quell unrest between Kabardians and Balkars in and around the village of Kendelen on September 19. The clashes left 45 injured and led to the arrest of more than 100 protesters.

Residents of Kendelen, mainly ethnic Balkars, were trying to prevent Kabardian horsemen from riding through the village to mark the 310th anniversary of the Battle of Kanzhai.

Over the coming days protests spread elsewhere, including the regional capital, Nalchik, culminating with the resignation of the regional leader, Yury Kokov, on September 26.

According to Interfax, Kokov had requested that President Vladimir Putin "transfer him to Moscow for a number of circumstances, including a family situation."

Putin named Kazbek Kokov acting head of Kabardino-Balkaria later that same day. (It's unclear if the two men are related, although the Kokov clan is considered to be prominent in the area.)

Regional analysts say that while protests have stopped, tensions remain high between the two Muslim ethnic groups, as evidenced by posts on social media, a key tool in organizing the protests and marches.

"If we monitor the comments on social media we see there's still a lot of hostility out there," Aleksandre Kvakhadze, an expert on the region at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview on September 26.

The Horsemen March

On September 17, only 30 Kabardian horsemen set off to climb Mount Kanzhal, after 170 abandoned the plan, including the leader, Aslan Kudayev, following a request from local authorities.

The mountain sits at the foothills of Mt. Elbrus, Europe's highest peak, in Kabardino-Balkaria.

The 1708 Battle of Kanzhal is important to many Kabardians because it marked the end of incursions by the Crimean Khanate, a Turkic vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, into Kabardians' historic state, Kabardia. However, the event is controversial among Balkars, with some arguing not only specifics but whether it even happened at all.

The horsemen changed course on September 17 after their path was blocked in Kendelen by several dozen protesters.

On September 18, several hundred Kabardians arrived in Kendelen, where they were met by cordons of OMON riot police, as video uploaded to Instagram indicated.

With tensions mounting between ethnic Balkars and Kabardians, OMON special police and National Guard forces were deployed in the region as skirmishes broke out in the nearby village of Zayukovo and a police check point at Baksan on September 19.

Clashes, including between police and protesters, left 45 people hospitalized. According to activists, 120 people were detained by police.

Following the violence on September 19, Kabardians demonstrated outside the government building in the regional capital, Nalchik, demanding that authorities open a probe into what they contend was a brutal crackdown targeting them.

They were also demanding to know why National Guard forces were bused in from neighboring regions -- Kalmykia, Stavropol, Daghestan, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia.

Calls For Calm

Former Kabardino-Balkaria head Arsen Kanokov wrote on his Facebook page that, "for some," the conflict was "a pretext for aggravating the situation in the region in order to drive a wedge between two friendly nations […] There must be a thorough trial and those guilty of creating the conflict must be brought to justice."

There were similar disturbances in Kabardino-Balkaria 10 years ago. On the 300th anniversary of the battle, residents of Kendelen also refused to allow a mounted procession pass, resulting in clashes. The dispute was resolved quickly.

This time around, according Kvakhadze, the rise of social media has changed the equation, and may have played a role in stoking tensions in Kabardino-Balkaria.

"A new trend in the North Caucasus is the role of social media has dramatically increased," he said. "Also, we see social media plays an important mobilization role in this clash. In the North Caucasus, it is likely that the role of social media will increase."

Kvakhadze notes that the controversy over celebrations of the Battle of Kanzhal is intertwined with a land dispute.

"The thing is the Kanzhal mountain itself is located in the middle of so-called disputed pasture lands that are disputed between the [Balkars] and Kabardians," Kvakhadze explains, noting the contested land amounts to 200,000 hectares.

"The [Balkars] saw these horsemen as an attempt by Kabardians to occupy and take this land. So, this was the main reason why these two ethnic groups have clashed in Kendelen village," he said.

There has been long-term friction between the Kabardins and Turkic-speaking Balkars. In 1992, the Balkars voted to secede from the republic.