The North Caucasus between Corruption and Arbitrariness

 

Prague, 2 October, Caucasus Times. Increased social tensions in the North Caucasus caused by a wind range of issues ranging from socio-economic problems, failing security, land disputes, and suppression of civil liberties led to a sharp decline in public trust in the federal and regional authorities and consequent increase in influence of various social groups and traditional societal structures like kins and teips. [1]

 

This trend is clearly demonstrated in the public opinion polls carried out by Medium Orient in May-June of 2017. The total of 1,119 respondents from Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria participated in the survey.

 

Thus, the poll findings indicate the level of public trust in Islamic communities and traditional social structures significantly exceeds that in the federal and regional authorities. According to the polls, 49.5 percent of respondents trust teips and kins and 39.1 percent trust informal Islamic communities. In contrast, only 7.6 percent of respondents expressed their trust in the federal and an even smaller 5.9 percent in regional authorities.[2]

 

Overall negative social sentiment is fueling several pockets of tension in the North Caucasus in 2017. These include land disputes in Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria, interreligious discord in Ingusehtia, and the Cherkessian issue in Adygeya, Kabardino-Balkaria and Krasnodar region.

Land Disputes

In January 2017 after a long period of silence, an influential Balkar NGO, the Council of the Elders of the Balkar People, presented their territorial claims to the Kabardino-Balkarian government.

The Council of the Elders called for a referendum on Balkar succession from Kabardino-Balkaria and its autonomous status in the Russian Federation in case republican authorities fail to satisfy the territorial claims.

The Council has made additional requests. First, it asked to revisit the Kabardino-Balkarian constitution, specifically the Article on equality of its two subjects – Kabarda and Balkaria. Second, in the framework of the rehabilitation program of the repressed Balkar people, the Council reclaimed “four Balkar regions that had existed prior to March, 1944 and asked to return four residential areas Khabaz, Kichmalka, Tashty-Tala, Zhankhoteko, and Zaragizh to Balkar regions.” These areas have been partially incorporated into the neighboring Baksan region which is dominated by the Kabardian population.

To this effect, the territorial conflict in Kabardino-Balkaria that originated after the Stalin repressions, resurfaced 70 years later.

In the North Caucasus where ethnic bonds between its subjects are still of significant influence in the 21st century, increased social tensions in one region often lead to territorial conflicts among various ethnic groups. This, in turn, can cause similar hotbeds of tension in neighboring regions given how inter-connected and inter-mixed the populations in the region are. This is manifested in occasional ethnic disputes between groups in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria.

Reciprocating Disputes

The existence of such similar territorial units like Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachevo-Cherkessia, both populated by similar ethnicities – kabardians and balkars in one and karachay and cherkess in another – inevitably presents a challenge of reciprocating conflicts. In such value-based disputes each side will aim to protect their ethnic legacy beyond its borders – exactly what has been observed in the two republics since the beginning of June, 2017.

In the beginning of 2017 two NGOs on both sides of Mountain Elbrus – the Council of the Elders of the Balkar People and the Council of the Elders of the Cherkessian People – almost simultaneously accused their respective regional authorities of ethnic discrimination.

On March 17, 2017, the Council of the Elders of the Cherkessian People expressed serious concern regarding the hiring policy of the Karachaevo-Cherkeessian authorities. Earlier on January 18, 2017 a similar claim was made by the Council of the Elders of the Balkar People. The only difference was that the Balkar threatened succession while the Cherkessians in Karachaevo-Cherkessia rallied for public protests.

Notably, in Kabardino-Balkaria key government positions, including presidential chair, are reserved for the Kabardian (Cherkessian) majority. Reciprocal situation exists in Karachaevo-Cherkessia for the Karachai (Turkik) majority. Cherkessian elites in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, in general hold secondary positions.

However, in the past ethnic disputes were contained within each republics. With the pervasive influence of social networks, contentious issues between different ethnicities have spilled beyond the administrative borders. The disputes range from national symbols such as national costumes and ethnic cuisine to more serious political issues.

Historical claims of each ethnic group to cultural heritage, national symbols and territories have been ongoing for a number of years in the North Caucasus. Each year these disputes are adding fuel to ethnic tensions, and social networks play a considerable role of mediators.

Dagestan’s Soviet Heritage  

On June 25, 2017 a land dispute between the Chechen and Avar communities in Kazbek district of Dagestan developed into an open inter-ethnic conflict.

The protests among the Chechens were sparked by the decision of the Kazbek district authorities to distribute previously collectively owned land to the Avars for personal use. The Chechens considered this decision a breach of their territorial rights and immediately demanded to cease all land distribution and restore the Aukhovsky district which had existed prior to the Chechen deportation to the Central Asia.

In a matter of day the dispute grew into an inter-regional conflict between hundreds of youth on both sides of the border between Chechnya and Dagestan, in no small part thanks to social media. Concerned about more violent manifestations of the conflict, the Chechen authorities had to, for the first time, openly engage in the Aukhov dispute.[3]

 

 

Ingush Knot

Ingushetia has not been spared social tensions in 2017. In the beginning of the year, several issues emerged as potential conflicts.

On the one hand, the longstanding conflict between Ingushetia’s President and the elders of the most influential teips (clans) has aggravated. On the other hand, a rather recent (from 2015) latent clash between the President and Islamic scholars spilled into an open conflict between the government and traditional social structures.

The religious dispute led to the government’s attempts to abolish the Spiritual Board of Muslims in the republic. Clashes between Yunusbek Evkurov, Ingushetia’s President, and Isa Khamkhoev, the Head of the Muslims in Ingushetia, intensified and the government tried to remove Mr. Khamkoev from his post by force. Instead, Ingushetia’s President wanted to appoint his loyalist Yakhya Khadziev as the leading Islamic scholar. However, the Spiritual Board’s supporters rallied massive demonstrations and prevented the overturn.

Essentially, Ingush authorities created an alternative Islamic organization staffed with scholars loyal to the President. The authorities even introduced a new government office – the Office for Religious Affairs – to be led by Mr. Khadziev.

Notably, Ingushetia’s President doesn’t enjoy wide support of the 12 Islamic communities in the republic. These communities profess various schools of thought and often engage in open religious debates in Ingushetia and beyond. The neighboring Chechen Spiritual Board of Muslims, for example, strongly disapproves of one of Ingushetia’s most influential religious leaders Khamzat Chumokov. The Board lobbied to have his name included in the “precautionary” list of individuals by the government.

Another alarming dispute in Ingushetia attests to the eroding authority of the government and relates to the conflict between Ingushetia’s President and the Teip (Clan) Council (the organization had been created by Mr. Evkurov himself once he took office in 2009). At the time of the Council’s foundation in 2009, similar entity had already been registered in the Republic and was led by Mr. Daskiev.

The new Council had been opposing several recent developments. On the one hand, it faced certain restrictions from the President’s Office in resolving important community issues. On the other hand, the Council had been subject to unnecessary restructuring at the will of the President without due consultative process. These developments have outraged several members of the Council who initiated the alternative, independent council. The dissatisfied factions joined another organization the Council of the Teips of the Ingush People.[4]

According to the Research Associate at the Ethnology and Anthropology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences Tanzila Chabieva, in 2017 the Ingush government gained another political opponent – the Council of the Teips (Clans). History is repeating itself from 2008 when the alternative parliament was created including representatives of the 22 most influential teips in the Republic.

According to Ms. Chabieva, such tendencies in the Republic can be traced to historic examples. They emerge in the times of specifically challenging socio-political dynamics known for high corruption, clan policies and plunging government approval ratings.

The Cherkessian Issue in Russia

The Cherkessian issue has been another contentious point for the South of Russia in 2017. This year, the Cherkessian national movement has seen unprecedented rise. Annual events to mark the end of the Russian-Caucasian war on May 21st gathered wide participation in Adygeya, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia in 2017.

Key drivers of the national Cherkessian revival in 2017 have been, on the one hand, Syrian conflict which exposed the grievances of the divided Cherkessian nation, and on the other hand, persecution of the Cherkessian activists by the Russian law enforcement authorities.

Rise in National Identity

Islamization of the Cherkessian community, spread of Wahhabi ideology in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and engagement in the military resistance under the Caucasus Emirate brand have significantly transformed the identity of the Cherkessian youth in the 21st century. Islamic influence has for some time subdued the sway of nationalistic ideologies over the Cherkessian youth. This became most evident in 2014 when religious militants from the Caucasus Emirate persecuted Cherkessian national leaders for alleged infidelity.

On December 29, 2010 one of the respected Cherkessian scholars, anthropologist Aslan Tsipinov, was killed by the Islamic radicals.

However, the demise of the terrorist organization Caucasus Emirate precipitated both by internal divide and elimination of its key leaders, completely undermined the influence of radical Islamic ideology in the region. This, in turn, gave rise to influential nationalistic movements and communities, including the Cherkessian.

Already in 2017 the Cherkessian national movement demonstrated unprecedented rise. The leaders rallied exceptionally large crowds in several Russian regions for the May 21st memorial activities.

Despite the rough weather conditions on that day, tens of thousands of Cherkessians in Adygeya, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia participated in commemoration ceremonies marking 153rd anniversary of the end of the Russian-Cherkessian war. And while in Abkhazia this date marks a different event, people in Sukhumi also commemorated mass exodus of Abkhazians to Anatolia. The commemorations were joined by a multi-million Cherkessian diaspora in Turkey who marched with the Cherkessian banners in several cities.

After being suppressed by ruling elites in the 1990s and Islamic fundamentalists in the 2000s, the Cherkessian national movement is truly seeing its golden years now. This rise has several underlying drivers.

First, the Sochi Olympic Games spurred the recognition of the Cherkessian genocide by Georgia and gave way to the unification of the Cherkessians around historic memory of the war that led to mass exodus of its population to Turkey.

The Sochi Olympic Games have, thus, not only united Russian people around sportsmanship and the sense of national pride, but gave rise to mass protests by the Cherkessian community. These protests served as a mobilizing factor around the historic memory.

Second, modern Syrian conflict exposed the problem around Cherkessian refugees and contributed to the rise of the national sentiment. Kremlin’s unwillingness to acknowledge Cherkessian refugees from Syria as Russian citizens heightened the discontent of the Cherkessian community. This came particularly strongly against the fact that millions of citizens from the former post-Soviet countries were issued Russian passports with no problems.

The Cherkessian community deeply felt Russia’s discriminatory policies and unconditional refusal to adopt a repatriation program towards the Syrian Cherkessians dying in the Middle East.

The Syrian Issue

Syrian conflict created another driver of the national Cherkessian revival. It is connected with the demonstrative refusal of the Russian authorities to accept Cherkessian refugees as fellow citizens.

Since the war broke out in Syria, over 750 ethnic Cherkessians have fled to Adygeya. However, dozens of families did not find home in Russia – they either returned back to Syria or fled to European countries. The highest number of Cherkessians left Adygeya in 2016 mainly because they could not receive a refugee status from the Russian Federation. The Russian constitution does not recognize Syrian Cherkessians as compatriots and thus, offers no special status.

Persecution of the Cherkessian Activists

A number of factors – ranging from the Sochi Olympic Games, recognition of the Cherkessian genocide by the Georgian parliament, Syrian conflict, decreased presence and influence of the radical Islamic groups in the North Caucasus to social networks that connected thousands of Cherkessian communities around the world – have led to a marked rise in the Cherkessian national movement. This tendency has been particularly noticeable among the Cherkessian youth who are overall more active on social media. Naturally, these developments have been picked up by the Russian authorities who are constantly worried about another hotbed of tension in the South of Russia.

Russian law enforcement establishment as well as a number of pro-Kremlin experts have been loud critics of the Cherkessian national revival thus creating a negative sentiment around the movement that led to a number of attempts to suppress it.

In 2017 the Russian government sanctioned a number of arrests and court hearings against the most active public figures in the South of Russia. For example, in the spring of 2017 Lazarevsky Court in Krasnodar region convicted a 70-year old Cherkessian activist Ruslan Gvashev for taking part in the Russian-Cherkessian war commemoration events on May 21, 2017.[5] Ruslan Gvashev is a renowned regional activist, leader of the Cherkessian Council, Chairman of the Cherkessian Congress in the Black Sea region and Vice-President of the Caucasus Confederation of People.[6]

The court found him guilty of organizing an unauthorized rally and ordered a 10,000 Rubles fine. The prosecutor was asking an additional 8-day jail sentence, but the court gave a lighter sentence due to Mr. Gvashev’s disability (he had previously lost a leg). Mr. Gvashev has turned to the Kabardino-Balkarian Human Rights Center to help him reopen the case and get justice.

The Head of the Kabardino-Balkarian Human Rights Center Valery Khatazhukov shared with the Caucasus Times that it is the first registered case when commemorative events have been treated as unauthorized rallies.

These commemorations take place every year across the Cherkessian world, including in the Cherkess-Shapsug community in Krasnodar region, to honor the victims of the Russian-Cherkessian war. This year marks the first time the government is cracking down on such activities. This, in turn, puts all human rights activists on alert that if it becomes wide-spread, it can lead to increased tensions in the Cherkessian communities.

Similar incident happened to the Cherkessian activist from Kabardino-Balkaria Anzor Akhokhov. Mr. Akhokhov was detained by the authorities in Krasnodar region as he was entering Sochi for a meeting with the activists there. Mr. Akhokhov was turned back home after his personal data had been registered.

Earlier, on June 30, 2014 Anzor Akhokhov was convicted by the Nalchik City Court of organizing an authorized activity during the Sochi Olympic Games 2014. Mr. Akhokhov was accused of unlawful possession of ammunition and sentenced (conditionally) to six months in jail. Mr. Akhokhov was forced into the admission of guilt and the matter had been reviewed under a special protocol.

Earlier, the European Court for Human Rights received a number of claims from the Cherkessian activists who were wrongly accused of extremism in Russia. For four years the activists were fighting extremism charges in the Russian courts without success, and in the end had to turn to the European Court for justice.

During the four years, the activists from the Cherkessian Congress and their families were under pressure from the Russian security services and law enforcement agents.

The incident with the Cherkessian Congress activists is not a singular case – ethnic minorities and NGOs protecting them in the North Caucasus have been facing unprecedented pressure from the Russian law enforcement agencies.

Amendments to the Russian Criminal Code have been made to specifically include civic movements such as the Cherkessian national movement in Articles 282 on extremism, Articles 280 and 280-1 on public calls to extremism and separatism, Articles 275–284.1 on crimes against the constitutional order and state security, as well as Article 20.29 of the Civil Code on the dissemination of extremist materials.

These amendments allow Russian security services and other law enforcement agents to prosecute civic activists under the criminal code and dole out long sentences for publications on social networks.

According to the Caucasus Times records from 2012 to 2017, several dozens of the Cherkessian activists were convicted of “inciting hatred or enmity” and “public calls to extremism and separatism.” Among them, civic activists Khuade Adnan and Zaurbiy Chundyshko from Maikop, Adygeya; Zaur Dzeukozhev and Murat Berzegov from the Cherkessian Congress in Adygeya; and Rima Gukova, a bloger from Kabardino-Balkaria, for her publications on social networks.

However, legislative action is not the only type of persecution faced by the Cherkessian activists – several leaders have been secretly murdered, which brought about the rumors that the Russian authorities are using extra-judicial killings to silence the Cherkessian nationalists. Such tactics are also allegedly used by the Russian authorities to hunt down radical Muslisms, suspected of terrorism.

In June 2016 a 26-year old Cherkessian journalist and activist Timur Kuashev was found dead, and the murder case had been quickly dismissed for lack of evidence. Timur had disappeared on July 31, 2015 and his body was found near Nalchik on August 1st. Forensic analysis did not reveal signs of violent death, but identified an injection mark on Timur’s body. The official cause of death was heart failure. However, Timur’s colleagues are convinced he was killed for his civic activities.

In May 2013, Timur Kuashev had organized a rally against abuse of power by the law enforcement authorities in Nalchik. On May 21, 2014 he was arrested during the commemoratory events but let go without any charges. Later, Timur had reported receiving vague threats regarding his publications in social media. The young man filed a complaint in court against policemen who arrested him without any evidence in 2014.

On March 14, 2010 36-year old Aslan Zhukov had been shot dead in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Aslan was a youth leader, a member of the Cherkessian Council.

The Ministries of Publishing and Information in the North Caucasus republics established special “working groups” that monitor Islamic and Cherkessian forums on social media, including Facebook. They are tasked with identifying the most active leaders whose activities can fall under extremism and incitement of hatred and enmity. The Ministries are engaging journalists, lawyers and pro-Kremlin NGOs in such working groups. They sign up to all Cherkessian and Islamic forums, monitor the content of all discussions, and create lists of users which are then shared with the Russian security and law enforcement authorities. A number of bloggers and civic activists were subject to criminal allegations based on these lists. Overall, the targeted prosecution of the Cherkessian activists aims at discrediting the national movement. Just during December of 2013, 11 Cherkessian activists were detained and sent to Krasnodar on extremism charges.

Russian security services see the threat of the Cherkessian national movement in its divided disbursement – Cherkessians are dominant ethnicities in three North Caucasus republic – Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygeya. Moreover, Cherkessians represent a multi-million diaspora in Middle Eastern countries, including Syria. The conflict in Syria demonstrated the repatriation potential of such diasporas.

Human rights experts note a marked uptake in the pressure and prosecution of the Cherkessian activists in all three republics.[7]

 

[1] Ingushetia: From the authority of the government to the authority of the strongmen. Caucasus Times, March 3 2017.

[2] Islam Tekushev: To Flee the Caucasus, Radio Liberty, July 17 2017

[3] How Many Men, How Many Guns: Disputes between the Chechens and Dagestanis, BBC http://www.bbc.com/russian/features-40557232

[4] Tanzila Chabieva, The Teip Council: To Be or Not to Be, Caucasus Times. 14.03.2017. http://caucasustimes.com/ru/sovet-tejpov-byt-ili-ne-byt/

[5] Ruslan Gvashev, Caucasus Times, June 2 2017, http://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/303679/

[6] Conviction of a Cherkessian activist: the government considered commemorative activities as unsanctioned rally, Caucasus Times, June 2 2017 https://caucasustimes.com/ru/prigovor-cherkesskomu-aktivistu-vlasti-priravnjali-traurnye-meroprijatija-k-nesankcionirovannym-mitingam

[7] Not the time of the Cherkessians, Caucasus Times, February 6 2017

 

Islam Tekushev, Editor in Chief of The Caucasus Times

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