Nalchik Nerves Still Jangling
Kabardino-Balkaria experiences a thaw one year after Islamist attack but fears renewed violence
By Dana Tsei in Nalchik
Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, on October 13 marked the first anniversary of the militant attacks on the town that left more than 140 dead. Just as one year ago, the day was dull and overcast. Around two thousand people held an officially sponsored rally on Abkhazia Square, carrying banners of the United Russia governing party and slogans such as “We are against terror!”
Officials and leaders of public organisations delivered speeches. The rally broke up quickly, as most of the people had been ordered to attend by their bosses, while students had been brought in directly from their classes.
At the same time, another group was holding a meeting in front of the local prosecutor’s office, just one block away. These were silent men and women clad in black, who had in their hands portraits of young smiling people and home-made placards bearing awkward inscriptions, such as “Our children fell victims to the authorities’ repression”, “Give our sons back to us!” and “They killed [Anna] Politkovskaya because they were afraid of the truth”. They also had sheaves of photocopied articles from Russian and international publications, which they handed out to passers-by.
These were relatives of the dozens of members of Kabardino-Balkaria’s “jamaat” (Islamic organisation), who were killed in last year’s attack and who are still being refused the right to bury their loved ones, despite repeated protests and requests.
Around 200 militants attacked 18 offices belonging to security officials on the evening of October 13 and held them until the following afternoon, when troops were sent into the city. According to official data, 12 civilians, 35 security personnel and 98 attackers were killed. The leaders of the jamaat said that the number of armed militants who died was only 35 and most of the others listed killed were actually civilians. Sixty-nine people were arrested, but their trials have yet to begin and have been postponed until next year.
Many in the autonomous republic say it is moving towards better times, in large part due to the young and wealthy president, Arsen Kanokov, who took up his post two weeks before the October raids. Kanokov said recently, “Many people are calling the present period in Kabardino-Balkaria as a thaw. We will do our utmost to make the thaw a real spring.”
Kabardino-Balkaria has indeed undergone many changes. For example, Valery Khatazhukov, a staunch oppositionist and human rights defender, now has his own office in the centre of Nalchik, where he holds conferences whenever he wants. Khatazhukov was the first person to use the word “thaw” in reference to the changes.
Relatives of the dead attackers are allowed to hold rallies, without them being broken up by the police – who do however still videotape the proceedings.
In the past year, the local government has also paid off enormous debts to Russian giant energy companies Gazprom and UES – by handing over a number of assets – as well as a huge volume of wage arrears. The local football team – personally owned by the president – is now playing in the Russian premier league. On President Putin’s birthday, Nalchik’s newly repaired hippodrome stadium hosted a horse race with a total prize fund of 600,000 US dollars. Chechen prime minister Ramzan Kadyrov, who had marked his 30th birthday two days before, was among the guests at the event and received as a birthday present from Kanokov – a thoroughbred Kabardinian stallion.
Despite having had some of the worst socio-economic indicators in Russia, Nalchik is beginning to look prosperous and foreign investors have begun to visit on the invitation of the president.
However, the investors are nervous that violence could still erupt. Writer Vladimir Terekhov sums up Kanokov’s dilemma – that although he is making great strides to improve the socio-economic situation in Kabardino-Balkaria, he is not fully in control of his own security apparatus.
Not only is the local interior ministry not wholly obedient to the president, but Nalchik is also home to the North Caucasian Anti-Terrorist Centre, which reports directly to Moscow.
Over the last few weeks, there have been new reports of arrests, searches and violence in the republic.
Well-known lawyer Larisa Dorogova has been barred from defending participants in October 13 events along with two other lawyers. She said she had recently received a threatening telephone call from someone she was able to identify as an interior ministry official. “What are they provoking us for?” she said. “This is exactly how they tortured our boys, morally and physically. Everybody knows what tragedy this led to!”
Ramazan Tembotov, who is not only a human rights activist but also a member of the pro-presidential United Russia party, was recently searched and briefly detained, after he had called for an investigation into the murder of village head Artur Zokayev.
Local resident Raja Bulatov says he was abducted and badly beaten by the police last month and then denied medical treatment. He was not allowed to choose his own lawyer, but had one imposed on him against his will.
His mother Nafisat Bulatova wrote to the prosecutor’s office, “On September 27 my son was kidnapped from the vicinity of our house by masked people. I spent a whole night searching for him. In the morning, masked people broke into our house without producing any documents. One of them struck me in the stomach with the butt of his automatic weapon. After wrecking my house, they called an ambulance for me and left,” she wrote.
Relatives of another detainee Magomed Dambekov say he was snatched near his own house too by the anti-terrorism centre. Only two days later did the family get a notification that he’d been arrested and accused of possessing weapons.
“The methods have been well tested in Chechnya,” said Ruslan Badalov, head of the Chechen National Salvation Committee human rights group. “The usual method of the Russian security services is to give themselves one day to make a man confess and sign. If the man does not confess within a day of his kidnapping, he is likely to disappear without a trace forever.”
In the mean time, the actual planners of last year’s raids are still at large but lying low, making statements on the Islamist rebel website Kavkaz-Center. And they still have support, judging by the fact that an estimated 300 young men have left their homes in the last year, apparently to join up with the Islamists. Many in the republic are still living in fear of what happens next.
Dana Tsei is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist in Nalchik.