|A Dispute Over Land Rights in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria Has Added Color to the Moscow Protest Scene |
Since July a small group of men from the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria have been protesting by camping out on the Manezhnaya Square in central Moscow. The ethnic Balkars sit in front of the Kremlin, keeping an eye on the State Duma and waiting for a response from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the petition they lodged on land rights. While authorities have given the protestors little credence, their discontent raises new questions about governance in the mountainous North Caucasus republic.
“It’s the most prestigious hotel in Moscow – look at our view of the Kremlin,” said Muradin Rahayev, the director of the Balkar protest, referring to the bench his group occupies on the Manezhnaya Square. Of the 12 protestors who first came to occupy the bench on July 7 only six remain, and Rahayev is one of them. He said that the protest was conceived as an attempt to combat discrimination at home, particularly over the distribution of land, in a peaceful way. “We want to show the president that not all people from the Caucasus resolve their issues with arms. We also want to show that this issue can be resolved peacefully, that no issue is worth even a single life,” he said.
So what exactly are the Balkars concerned about? Ostensibly, they want to see Russian Federal Law 131, which governs the organization of local self-government within the country, properly implemented in the republic. This would involve designating land, which had been common property, to each ethnic group. But the republic’s government has not complied with this law so far.
In an interview with Kommersant at the beginning of October, Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria President Arsen Kanonov defended his administration’s decision not to implement the law. “I think the fact that we didn’t implement this law in the way it was presented to us saved the republic from further problems,” he said. Kanonov added that land, which both Kabardins and Balkars have a claim to, has been put under the republic’s authority and classified as “distant pasture land” to prevent inter-ethnic tension.
Earlier this summer Kanonov told Interfax news agency that implementing Federal Law 131 would lead to a disparity in the amount of land each ethnic group owns: “Russian settlements house approximately 40 people per square kilometer; Kabardin settlements 78 people per square kilometer; and Balkar settlements 14 people per square kilometer,” Kanonov said.
Rahayev said the failure to implement Law 131 was illegal. “The republic’s decision doesn’t correspond to the laws of the Russian Federation and the Russian Constitution,” he said. The protestors cite a Constitutional Court ruling that states that the republic’s authorities must find a solution to satisfy all parties.
However, Djamila Khagarova, Kanonov’s press secretary, described the protest as a public relations campaign. “Colorful mountain men in white sheepskin hats and cloaks amaze Muscovites and particularly foreigners. The protestors understand that this is going to evoke interest and attract attention.”
Khagarova said that a timetable to resolve the land question has already been established, and is being overseen by the Presidential Envoy to the North Caucasus Alexander Khloponin. “Balkars from Kabardino-Balkaria met the protestors in Moscow and tried to explain to them that the issue is being resolved. In the areas of Khasanya and Belaya Rechka voting is taking place on whether they will remain part of Nalchik,” Khagarova said, adding that the protestors “didn’t want to leave the place where they are conducting their PR campaign under any circumstances.” Furthermore, Khagarova said that the Balkar protestors were earlier invited to sit on the Kabardino-Balkaria parliamentary committee established to resolve the land issue.
While Rahayev said that the group protesting in Moscow had not been contacted by the authorities since the protest began, their counterparts in Essentuki in Kabardino-Balkaria have. The group, which went on a hunger strike on July 10, has intermittent contact with Khloponin’s representatives. “The hunger strikers in Essentukui told us that Khloponin doesn’t understand what we’re doing. Of course he lives on a different level, if he came and saw what we were doing, saw where we lived, he would understand us,” Rahayev said.
Rahayev also alleged that Balkars, who account for 11 percent of the republic’s population (compared to the Kabardin community’s 55 percent), are suffering from wider discrimination. “Our people are losing their land, their identity, culture, we can’t develop our sports. If this continues in 15 years we will have passed the point of no return,” Rahayev said.
Rahayev compared the situation at home with that in the neighboring Republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia. “The Karachay have the majority in their republic. The Kabardin dominate us in Kabardino-Balkaria. But Khloponin appointed a Cherkess as prime minister in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, so why didn’t he appoint a minority prime minister in Kabardino-Balkaria? Why isn’t there a Kabardin prime minister? We have had no answer to this question yet,” Rahayev said.
The protestors are also angry about the lack of Balkar representation in the wrestling federation. “Wrestling is the most popular sport in the Caucasus and our federation is run by Kabardins,” Rahayev said to murmurs of agreement from his fellow protestors.
For the time being Rahayev and his fellow protestors have no plans to go home. The Balkar and the ethnically-related Karachay diasporas have equipped them for the winter ahead. Rahayev pointed to the matching ski jackets that they are all wearing underneath their distinctive black cloaks and sheepskin hats, saying they were sent by their diaspora in Germany.
The police have also helped and protected the protestors during their time in the Russian capital. This surprised the group, not least because the Balkars have no formal permission to protest there. “We didn’t receive any permits to be here, we just lodged our petition with the president and came and sat here,” Rahayev said. “We have to stay here until the issue is resolved, otherwise young people will take it into their own hands, which would not be good for us, for the country, or for any of the Turkic peoples of Russia. We are prepared to stand here until the question is resolved and protect our people.”
The protest hasn’t gone entirely smoothly, however. Of the 12 protestors who arrived in the Russian capital in July, only six remain in Moscow. This is largely due to health problems arising from a hunger strike held early on in the protest. “We were on a hunger strike for a month. During that time nine of us ended up in the hospital, some came back, others had to go home,” Rahayev said, adding that they subsequently abandoned this extreme measure due to the cold weather and are now eating one meal per day.
Rahayev also told a story about one of the many people who took an interest in the protestors since they arrived. “A man came to see us one day and asked us what we were doing here. We explained, and he said we were like the old men in Vladimir Serov’s painting ‘Peasant Petitioners Visiting Lenin,’ but without the beards. He joked about how it may now be the information age, but they probably had easier access to the authorities. Walking away laughing, he said we could grow beards down to the ground before we would get a response. So we decided to be like those peasant petitioners and grow our beards, and they’ve already come on quite a bit.”