Thursday, 29 July 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russian Supreme Court Ruling Likely to Exacerbate Ethnic Tensions in Kabardino-Balkaria

Paul Goble

Staunton, July 28 – Tensions between the Kabardin majority and the Balkar minority in the bi-national North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria are likely to be exacerbated by the decision of the Russian Supreme Court to set aside the decision of KBR’s highest court to ban the activity of the Council of Elders of the Balkar People as “extremist.”

Leaders of the Council of Elders celebrated yesterday’s decision which set aside the May 31st ruling by the Kabardino-Balkaria republic supreme court. One of their number, Oyus Gurtuyev, said that the Moscow decision shows “that [the Balkars] have acted within the law and that the law defends us” (

Gurtuyev’s comments are more significant than a first glance might suggest. On the one hand, the leaders of Kabardino-Balkaria, where 55 percent of the population is Circassian Kabardins and 12 percent consists of the Turkic Balkars, have pursued the Balkars on charges of extremism for several years.

In 2007, republic prosecutors warned the organization against “extremist” activity and brought criminal charges against Gurtuyev, the head of the council, for disseminating “intentionally false reports which attacked the honor and director of the President of the KBR and stained his reputation.”

Moreover, earlier this year, KBR prosecutors charged that the Council of Elders of the Balkar People had engaged in extremist activity by disseminating a report entitled “The Status of the Balkar People in the KBR: Sources of Problems and Paths of Overcoming Them” which pointed to anti-Balkar actions by the Kabardin majority.

And on the other, the Kabardins and Balkars are currently locked in a struggle over the control of pastureland, a struggle in which the Kabardins are seeking to overturn a Russian law on territorial arrangements of municipal administrations and the Balkars are demanding that Moscow insist on its full enforcement.

That measure, Federal Law 131 “On the organization of local self-administration” specifies that there must not be any un-administered space between settlements in heavily populated areas, a requirement that would seem to be ethnically neutral but in the case of the KBR, it is anything but.

The Balkars, despite being minorities, dominate many of the villages in the mountains, and if the law is in fact imposed, it would give them control over pastures between them, pastures that in the past ethnic Kabardins have traditionally made use of. Not surprisingly, some Kabardins are seeking to have the law overturned or at least ignored.

The struggle has been heating up, with Balkars staging demonstrations and hunger strikes both in the KBR and in Moscow, but the outcome of a meeting in Nalchik over the weekend suggests that tensions are continuing to rise and that there may soon be a major confrontation between the two nations in that already troubled republic (

On Saturday, Balkar activists assembled in the republic capital to consider both how to continue the fight to ensure that the municipality land law will not be changed and what Balkars should do in the face of rising activism among the Kabardins, a subgroup of the Circassians who are seeking the formation of a single Circassian Republic in the North Caucasus.

One Balkar leader, Dalkhat Baydayev, told those in attendance that Balkars have been “the first who have raised [their] heads for the fulfillment of laws in order that Russia should be a legal state.” Consequently, it seems certain that those who share his perspective will be encouraged by the Russian Supreme Court decision this week.

But it is clear that they face an uphill battle. KBR President Arsen Kanokov, a Kabardin, supports changing the law or even eliminating it altogether, other speakers at the session said, and he has built alliances both with Aleksandr Khloponin, the Presidential plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus, and Moscow officials to push that agenda.

The Balkars, however, think they have succeeded in “blocking” these efforts so far. They feel, Dzhambulat Etteyev, another of their leaders, said, that “this law has already been working for five years” and that there is “no basis” for changing it. Nonetheless, the Balkars continue to be worried.

Bakhautdin Etezov, a third Balkar speaker, said that something was not right in Moscow and in Nalchik, and he speculated that “all this means either a crisis among the powers that be or a conspiracy against the Balkar people or even that someone very much wants to divide up Russia into pieces.”

The Balkars say they are very much against all of that, and at Saturday’s session, several speakers called for the creating of a Coordinating Council of Balkar Social Organizations” so that there will be a single organization capable of speaking on behalf of the entire Balkar people, something they currently feel they lack.

. And at the conclusion of the session, Ruslan Babayev, another of their leaders, declared that the Balkars now have only “a single way out” of their problems – “self-determination,” even though he insisted that the Balkars remain “supporters of resolving all [their] problems on the basis of the Constitution and Federal Laws.”

This new upsurge of Balkar activism could presage a concerted drive to end the bi-national KBR, something that in turn could trigger not only an expanded effort to move toward a united Circassian Republic but spark greater activism among other Turkic groups across the North Caucasus, including the Karachays of Karachayevo-Cherkessia.

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