A most unusual event took place in Kabardino-Balkaria in June 2012, when a group of 100 Russian special forces servicemen and investigators descended on the republic’s capital Nalchik. The investigators arrested the head of the republican president’s administration, Vladimir Zhamborov, several other top Kabardino-Balkarian officials and a businesswoman. The primary accusation brought against the arrested officials was that they sold government property worth $600,000 to the businesswoman for $30,000. A Russian website known for its regular information leaks from the security agencies published audio materials that implicated the head of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, in pushing for the illegal scheme personally (http://lifenews.ru/news/95144).
The relative pettiness of the accusations contrasted with Moscow’s unusually harsh response. It was clear immediately that Kanokov was under attack for reasons other than a deal involving a mere $600,000. Although no one exactly knows what happened between Kanokov and the Kremlin, several plausible explanations subsequently emerged. Moscow may have disliked Kanokov’s support for repatriating Syrian Circassians and tried to signal to the republican leader that he had crossed a red line. With Kanokov’s tacit assistance, over 1,000 Syrian Circassians were relocated to Kabardino-Balkaria in 2012. Most of them received help, including assistance with housing, from local businesses, but this would not have been possible had the head of the republic not supported the actions of those businesses.
The official position of Moscow on the Syrian Circassians was best described as absence of any definite position. On the one hand, Moscow did not want to allow any significant inflow of non-Russians to the North Caucasus. On the other hand, Moscow certainly wanted to avoid marring its public image by an ostensible refusal to help people who are in trouble in Syria. As a result of this double-dealing, Moscow became constrained in devising signals for the Circassian elites in the North Caucasus; and instead of openly ordering them to stop supporting the repatriation of Syrian Circassians, the Russian authorities had to revert to equivocal gestures.
Circassian observers in Kabardino-Balkaria also widely discussed an alternative explanation for Moscow’s exertion of pressure on Kanokov, one which is connected to business interests. The Russian state company that is involved in ski resorts project in the North Caucasus, including the Elbrus area in Kabardino-Balkaria, reportedly clashed with Kanokov over lucrative future profits, which prompted the incursion of investigators from Moscow. In November 2012, the deputy Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the OJSC Northern Caucasus Resorts, Vladimir Yevdokimov, went public, complaining about obstruction from some local deputies in Kabardino-Balkaria (http://www.ncrc.ru/ru/news/ksk-prizyvaet-vlasti-kabardino-balkarii-ne-politizirovat-proekt-turisticheskogo-klastera). Again, knowing the power structure of the republic, obstruction by “some deputies” is in practice obstruction by the republican government. Moscow may have been annoyed by both Kanokov’s support for Syrian Circassians and his financial interests in the lucrative tourist area around Mount Elbrus. In general, Moscow’s objective may have been to restrain Kanokov, who was showing overly assertive signs of political autonomy.
The conflict between Moscow and Nalchik is important because it shows not only that some forces in Kabardino-Balkarian society are now opposed to Russia, but that even the republican government may become antagonized by Moscow. It is also worth noting that Moscow did not simply replace Kanokov with somebody else. Apparently, there are some constraints on Moscow’s actions due to the formidability of local elites in the republic and Russia’s sensitivity about the Sochi Olympics. After the local branches of the Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service spied on the leadership of Kabardino-Balkaria, relations between the two will probably be strained well into 2013. This may have an adverse impact on the security situation in the republic ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the nearby Krasnodar region.
Even though the insurgency in Kabardino-Balkaria did not acquire nearly the same magnitude as it had in 2010 and part of 2011, the level of violence in the republic last year remained significant. In December 2012, insurgent attacks appeared to take yet another turn. On December 5, a Russian state TV anchorperson, Kazbek Gekkiev, was gunned down in Nalchik. It appeared the journalist was targeted for spreading the government’s biased version of events in the republic—in particular, the ongoing confrontation between government forces and the insurgency. On December 25, the principal of the agrarian educational institution in Nalchik, Boris Zherukov, was killed in his office by unknown attackers in broad daylight. Zherukov also headed United Russia’s faction in the republican parliament (http://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=992908&tid=101354). On December 6, the deputy minister for transportation, Vladislav Dyadchenko, survived an attempt on his life (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2083957).
The spree of attacks on public figures in Kabardino-Balkaria may indicate that the tactics of the insurgents in Kabardino-Balkaria have shifted once again. Instead of attacking well-entrenched military and police facilities, they chose to target public figures who are civilians but also directly or indirectly associated with the government. The insurgents thereby avoid dangers to themselves while at the same time receiving wide publicity for their attacks.
The trends in the conflict in Kabardino-Balkaria in 2012 are likely to continue in 2013. This means the tensions between the Kremlin and Nalchik will intersect with the low-grade insurgency and the Circassian public’s muted opposition to the Olympics in Sochi. The fissure points will feed and reinforce each other, contributing to the growth of instability and unpredictability in the republic.