As widely anticipated, the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) parliament elected last month has unanimously elected as republic head Yury Kokov, 59, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin named acting republic head in December 2013 after Arsen Kanokov stepped down halfway through his second term.
Kokov's initial moves as acting republic head earned him widespread respect. In early April, Strategia Institute head Aslan Beshto opined that so far, Kokov had not set a foot wrong, to the point that he would easily win a popular election for the post of republic head. But the parliament amended the KBR Constitution to abolish such direct elections.
As required by the constitution, the government resigned immediately after Kokov's election on October 9, whereupon he signaled his desire for improved relations with the republic's largely embittered and alienated Balkar community by proposing one of their number to head the new republican government. The parliament duly approved as prime minister Aly Musukov, 45, who has served since 2004 as economic development minister.
Until now, it has been accepted practice that the post of republican leader is reserved for a Kabardian, with a Russian serving as prime minister and a Balkar as parliament speaker. Those three nationalities account for 57.2 percent, 22.5 percent, and 12.7 percent, respectively, of the republic's total population of 859,000.
That unwritten law exemplified what the Balkars, who on paper enjoy equal rights with the Kabardians as one of the republics two titular nationalities, consider a long-standing policy of deliberate discrimination against them. The Balkars and their ethnic cousins the Karachais, but not the Kabardians, were deported en masse by Soviet leader Josef Stalin to Central Asia in March 1944 and November 1943, respectively, on suspicion of collaboration with the advancing Nazi German forces. They were exonerated and permitted to return to the Caucasus only in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev's "secret speech" to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1956 denouncing Stalin's crimes. They received only minimal, if any, compensation for the destruction of their homes and the suffering they underwent in exile.
Successive campaigns by the Balkars in the 1990s for the creation of a separate Balkar republic within the Russian Federation were ruthlessly suppressed. More recently, legislation on land ownership paved the way for the acquisition by Kabardian businessmen of thousands of hectares of grazing land traditionally used by rural Balkar communities to pasture the sheep on which many Balkars depend for a livelihood.
In recent years, a disproportionately large number of the members of the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai wing of the North Caucasus insurgency have been Balkars, as have at least two of its commanders (Asker Dzhappuyev and Alim Zankishiyev).
For years after his appointment in 2005, Kanokov ignored the Balkars' grievances. When he finally met with a group of them in late 2008, he was anything but sympathetic: a Balkar present at that meeting subsequently told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service "he didn't understand us, and he doesn't want to understand."
Immediately after the September election, Kokov proposed as parliament speaker, and deputies duly elected to that post, a Russian woman, Tatyana Yegorova. Yegorova, 58, a former teacher of Russian, is married to Aleksandr Khashkhozhev, a Kabardian who has for years headed the republican presidential administration.
The choice of a Russian as parliament speaker led some observers to predict that the previous speaker, Anuar Chechenov (a Balkar), was in line for the post of prime minister. Along with Kokov and KBR Deputy Prime Minister Irina Maryash, Chechenov was one of the three candidates for the post of KBR head whom the Kremlin-backed United Russia party proposed to President Putin in August. But when Putin submitted his shortlist of three candidates to the KBR parliament, he substituted Musukov, a qualified bookkeeper with degrees in law and mathematics, for Chechenov. The Russian daily "Kommersant" quoted unidentified experts as characterizing Musukov as a consummate professional.
Chechenov, who was reelected to parliament, surrendered his mandate after Mukusov was named prime minister. He has since been elected a member of the KBR Public Chamber, which is headed by another Balkar, Zhamal Attayev, the former editor of the Balkar newspaper "Zaman."
Whether the appointment of a Balkar prime minister is simply a courtesy gesture, or indeed heralds a more sympathetic approach to their grievances on the part of the republic's leadership, is difficult to predict. Balkar activist Munir Malkonduyev commented in April that "not a single Balkar parliament deputy has ever stood up to defend the rights of his people, has not said that we have problems with land, which is the reason why people are leaving [rural mountain areas.]"
Kokov has also sought to appease militant Circassian nationalists (who protested the celebration in 2007 of the 450th anniversary of Circassia's "voluntary incorporation" into the Russian Empire and have since called for redrawing the map of the North Caucasus to create a pan-Circassian republic) by instituting an annual Days of the Adygs (Circassians) holiday on September 20. Kokov stressed, however, that "this is a day of unity not just of the Circassian people, but of all the peoples of the [Kabardino-Balkaria] republic."
-- Liz Fuller