On December 29, 2010, a prominent Circassian ethnographer, Arsen Tsipinov, was gunned down at the doorsteps of his home in a suburb of Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. Tsipinov was known for his active role in promoting Circassian ethnic identity and culture. The ethnographer’s killing came just two weeks after Kabardino-Balkaria’s mufti, Anas Pshikhachev, was killed also at the doorsteps of his home on December 15 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 29). On December 18, seven hunters from Stavropol region were found dead in Kabardino-Balkaria reportedly in what appeared to be an insurgents’ hideout. Later another person that had been kidnapped in the same incident was also found dead, which brought the total number of the victims up to eight (www.regnum.ru, December 18, 2010).
On January 2, 2011, the leadership of the insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria released a video taking responsibility for the killing of Anas Pshikhachev, accusing him of having fought “against Islam.” The insurgents claimed responsibility for the killing of the eight hunters, accusing them of having been Russian spies, and warned that the forest areas in the republic are “war zones” urging civilians to stay out of them. The insurgents also detailed several other recent attacks on policemen and otherwise “morally corrupt people” in the republic. They made no mention of Tsipinov’s death, most likely, because the video was shot before December 29. The rebels vowed not to attack ordinary civilians, saying they were fighting on behalf of their own people (www.islamdin.com, January 2).
Aslan Tsipinov was known as a devoted advocate of Circassian traditions and beliefs who did not hesitate to criticize the Muslim part of Circassian identity. The authorities and observers blamed his murder on Kabardino-Balkaria’s Islamic insurgents. “No doubt the actions of the extremists are designed to terrorize the population, to destabilize the situation in the republic,” said the President of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, following this attack. Kanokov called on the republic’s youth “not to give in to fear” and expressed confidence there would be retaliation against the republic’s Islamic insurgents (www.regnum.ru, December 30, 2010). Along with bold statements, the government also offered up to $16,000 in compensation to each of the families of the victims of several recent attacks (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 31, 2010).
Some observers detected in the latest killings in Kabardino-Balkaria an attempt by Moscow to play off Circassian nationalists against the Islamists. An Israeli researcher on the Circassians, Avraam Shmulevich, noted the fact that insurgent sources described Tsipinov’s killing quite impartially without taking responsibility for it. At the same time, the authorities called on the population to close ranks and fight the Islamists. According to Shmulevich, the authorities may be trying to engineer a collision between “the two ideas, the nationalist one and the Islamist one, so that the Islamic insurgents have less support among the general public and thereby the military and the security services decrease their losses.” Instead of standing up to the Islamist threat, the police, according to Shmulevich, appear to be primarily concerned with keeping its staffers safe. Thus, the republic’s highways are not patrolled after midnight and even police outposts are reportedly evacuated to avoid attacks and casualties (www.caucasustimes.com, December 31, 2010).
Indeed, by the end of 2010 Kabardino-Balkaria officially was recognized by Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev as one of the two most violent republics in the North Caucasus, sharing this ignominious title with Dagestan (http://www.rian.ru/defense_safety/20101118/297968385.html ). Kabardino-Balkaria was considered a relatively quiet republic up until March 2010, when the police killed Anzor Astemirov, the leader of the local jamaat. In the ensuing period, incidents of armed violence multiplied in the republic, including a landmark insurgent attack on the Baksan hydroelectric plant, which rendered it unusable and required a whopping $50 million in repairs. President Kanokov initially theorized that the rise in violence in Kabardino-Balkaria was due to the end of his first presidential term in September 2010. “Some forces” back then, according to Kanokov, wanted to show Moscow that he was not able to manage the republic. However, the violence in Kabardino-Balkaria showed little correlation with the republic’s political cycle, extending far beyond Kanokov’s appointment to his second presidential term in September 2010.
The Islamists’ dislike of Arsen Tsipinov may have been quite genuine, without the need for a third party to fuel conflict between them. On May 29, 2009, Tsipinov was criticized for attempts to reintroduce Circassian “pagan” rituals (http://www.djamaattakbir.com/2009/05/blog-post_6929.html). In a statement by the Islamists issued on August 2, 2009, Tsipinov was described as a typical “pagan” supporter of the “infidel” authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria (www.islamdin.com, August 2, 2009). An insurgency-related website claimed that by killing Tsipinov, the attackers had carried out the order of a “Sharia court” (http://ummanews.com/news/kavkaz/191-2010-12-30-15-28-08.html, December 30, 2010). The article, however, provided no further details.
Kabardino-Balkaria’s rebels may have been settling their own scores with the ethnologist Aslan Tsipinov and the republican mufti Anas Pshikhachev, or may have done so as a result of a clever plot by the Russian security services to put the insurgents at loggerheads with Circassian nationalists. Whatever the case, the bottom line is that Moscow cannot control the situation in the republic using conventional means. It is worth noting that if Moscow is really trying to play off the nationalists against the Islamists, then it must be particularly desperate about its grip on this region.
Besides, if Islamic militants are fighting for certain goals, it is unclear what the nationalists will fight for. Nationalists in similar situations normally fight for national liberation, or for separatist causes. Unless Moscow endows the Circassian nationalists with the ability to advertise a separatist political agenda, they will hardly have any central idea with which to fight the Islamists. But if the Circassian nationalists receive permission to use separatist ideas to rally mass support against the Islamists, then Moscow’s purpose will become meaningless. Not only will Moscow forbid the open articulation of separatism in the North Caucasus –something it has expended great energy to suppress– but it will also not allow a conflation of nationalist and Islamist ideas.