Monday, May 18, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Could Kabardino-Balkaria Become the Kosovo of the Caucasus?

Paul Goble

Baku, May 18 – Kabardino-Balkarian President Arsen Kanokov is pursuing policies which are boosting the status of his own branch of the Circassian nation and threaten to transform that hitherto relatively peaceful republic into a Kosovo of the Caucasus, according to leaders of the Balkar minority from that republic and academic specialists on the region.
Interethnic tensions have been on the rise in that North Caucasus republic since 2005 when the local parliament stripped the Balkars of their status as “a subject forming” nation, Mikhail Zalikhanov, a Duma deputy and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told a roundtable session in Moscow on Friday (
The scholar added that Kanokov had also been an active supporter of “Greater Circassia,” a project which would re-unite all the Circassian peoples into a single republic in the north Caucasus and ultimately seek its independence, a project which Zalikhanov somewhat incongruously called “a pan-Turkic formation.”
(What makes that formulation strange is that the Balkars are a Turkic-speaking group while the Circassians of whom the Kabards are but one branch are not.)
But Kanokov’s actions have not been limited to this ideological sphere. Ismail Sanchiyev, the chairman of the Council of Elders of the Balkar People, told the Moscow session that Kanokov was pursuing the creation of a “mono-ethnic” republic by confiscating land and thus changing the balance of power there.
According to the Kabardino-Balkaria constitution, republic laws take precedence over federal ones, and the parliament has put a 40 year moratorium on the privatization of land lest such actions remove from the use of one ethnic community territories it has occupied in the past and sharpen ethnic feelings.
But following Moscow which insists on the supremacy of federal laws and ignoring his republic constitution, Kanokov has run roughshod over that limitation and privatized enormous amounts of land, thus effectively confiscating it from the population as a whole and the Balkars and ethnic Russian minorities in particular.
One of the reasons Kanokov has been able to do this, Sanchiyev said, is because he has packed the republic parliament with his relatives: 43 of the 70 deputies are related to the president or his personal friends. And in Balkar regions, there are no people of power who do not fall into that category.
In the past, the Balkar leader said, there were no tensions between Kabards and Balkars, but now they “artificially” exist as a result of the actions of Kanokov. Such actions include, in addition to land grabs and intimidation, efforts by the republic president and attacks to bring charges of extremism against his Balkar opponents.
Like Zalikhanov, Sanchiyev also accused Kanokov of “separatist tendencies” and support for Greater Circassia. And also like the Duma deputy, he said that there is a growing risk of clashes between the Circassian (Adygey-Abkhaz) and Turkic (including Balkar) groups of peoples in the North Caucasus.
At least three aspects of this meeting merit close attention. First, Moscow’s effort to create a common legal space across the country is creating serious problems in places like Kabardino-Balkaria where land, power and ethnic status are so tightly interwoven and where incautious efforts to cut this knot can lead to violence.
Second, increasing activism by Circassians in recent months is rapidly generating a reaction among groups like the Balkars who live among them because they feel genuinely threatened and because they clearly believe that they can gain allies in Moscow against local leaders who may be inclined to support the Circassian national cause.
And third – and far and away the most important – to the extent that the Balkars are right that there is a rift developing between Turkic and Caucasic speaking groups (among whom the Circassians are prominent) in the North Caucasus, that could indeed presage a North Caucasus Kosovo, perhaps even more violent than the original Balkan one.

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