BACKGROUND: A court trial that was unprecedented in Russia concluded in the city of Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria on December 23, 2014. The republic’s Supreme Court sentenced 57 people to various prison terms, including 5 for life. The authorities are still looking for another 14 suspects that were reportedly involved in the crime. The trial lasted for nine years and despite its conclusion did not end the controversy over the process. The convicts, radical Islamists, were charged with staging a massive attack on Nalchik in October, 2005, when scores of militants attempted to take over government buildings in the city by a surprise attack. According to official information, 35 servicemen, 95 rebels and 12 civilians died in the assault. The officials assert that the notorious rebel commanders Shamil Basaev, Anzor Astemirov and Ilyas Gorchkhanov, orchestrated the attack. Kabardino-Balkaria has never regained the status of a “quiet” republic since the attack in 2005 and it is unlikely to do so after the controversial verdict.
Many peculiarities and outright breaches of the law prompted Amnesty International to condemn the court ruling. “The guilty verdicts and harsh sentences against 57 defendants accused of participating in an armed attack in the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria in 2005 are a huge miscarriage of justice,” Amnesty International said on December 23, 2014. The authorities routinely refused to investigate multiple allegations of torture, according to the human rights activists.
At least one detained individual, Valery Bolov, died of beatings in custody and photographic evidence suggests that all of the suspects experienced harsh treatment in detention. Many of the suspects disavowed their confessions, saying that they were extorted from them by torture. The case of former Guantanamo detainee Ruslan Kudaev is especially well known. Kudaev was captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and spent 2.5 years in Guantanamo, but was subsequently released. Kudaev was briefly detained in Russia upon his arrival but then released, eventually becoming a local “celebrity” in Kabardino-Balkaria. Multiple witnesses said that Kudaev was not in Nalchik during the attack in 2005, but he was still sentenced to life in prison. Even some pro-Kremlin journalists, like Maksim Shevchenko, were outraged at Kudaev’s prison sentence, saying that the authorities sentenced him only for his refusal to provide false evidence against other people. “All charges were based only on confessions. All confessions were extorted by torture,” Shevchenko wrote. Shevchenko compared the trial with those during the Stalin era that were designed to intimidate the public and strengthen the repressive foundations of the state.
The unusually long and traumatic trial reverberated in all layers of Kabardino-Balkarian society and even across the Russian judicial system, prompting the government to tighten legal procedures. For example, a special law on suspending jury trials in some cases was passed and was applied to this case ex ante, against the ruling of Russia’s own Constitutional Court.
IMPLICATIONS: On the day of the verdict reading, the security in the city of Nalchik was stepped up. Police with machineguns controlled the area around the courtroom and far beyond. Security in Kabardino-Balkaria deteriorated rapidly after the attack of 2005 and hundreds of people have since then been killed in the republic. The security situation shows few signs of improvement even now. In the period January-November, 2014, Kabardino-Balkaria came as the second most violent republic in the North Caucasus after Dagestan, according to an analysis of open sources by the Caucasian Knot website. 42 people were killed and 17 injured in insurgency-related attacks in the republic.
The trial may well have convinced all Muslim radicals in the republic that surrendering to the authorities is not an option. The Russian government not only failed to guarantee a fair trial, but even personal survival in detention. This does not leave many avenues for a peaceful settlement in Kabardino-Balkaria. In preparation for difficult times, the government announced in December 2014 the opening of two more federal militarized checkpoints in the republic. Police officers from other regions of Russia serve at the checkpoints, reflecting the Russian government’s distrust in the local police and an increasing resemblance to colonial rule over an alien population.
A survey among young people conducted in Kabardino-Balkaria in 2014 indicated that material inequality was one of the major factors in the radicalization of the youth. The growing rift between North Caucasians and ethnic Russians also appeared to be an important driver of radicalism. The current political and economic situation in Kabardino-Balkaria does not appear to favor positive changes in public attitudes. Direct elections of the regional governor were abolished. The republic’s economy under the conditions of economic sanctions against Russia is projected to deteriorate further as it heavily depends on budgetary injections from Moscow. About 55 percent of budget revenues in the republic come from the central government. Unemployment, which is cited as one of the primary drivers of radicalization among young people, is likely to soar from the estimated 10 percent in 2014.
Kabardino-Balkaria, or more specifically the Circassians/Kabardins, also have a specific sore that make them stand out in comparison to other North Caucasian republics: Russia’s unwillingness to admit ethnic Circassians from war-torn Syria. An estimated 100,000 ethnic Circassians resided in Syria prior to the outbreak of civil war. Many of these people were stranded in the war zone. Slightly over 1,000 Syrian Circassians made it to Kabardino-Balkaria and the other Circassian populated republics of Adygea and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Moscow has refused to admit any more Circassians from Syria, apparently regarding them as a security threat. At the same time, the Russian government has opened the door to ethnic Russian emigrants, thereby sparking accusations of double standards and fueling ethnic tensions in the republic.
Russia’s propagandist campaign in support of ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine had unintended consequences in the North Caucasus, including in Kabardino-Balkaria, where some refugees from Ukraine ended up. Comparing the Russian state’s favorable attitude toward ethnic Russians from Ukraine to a far less generous treatment of Syrian Circassian refugees, some Circassians have bitterly criticized the authorities.
CONCLUSIONS: The controversy over the attack on Nalchik and the subsequent trial did not bring a sense of closure to Kabardino-Balkaria. Rather, the end of the trial and the long prison sentences it entailed may have a radicalizing effect on the republic’s Muslim community. Even if the security situation does not deteriorate immediately, the rift between the authorities and the population is likely to grow. The Kabardino-Balkarian population’s alienation from Russia could be further exacerbated by Moscow’s differential treatment of ethnic Russians and ethnic Circassians. As Russia faces recession and its ability to fund its North Caucasian periphery is projected to decline, the allegiance of local rulers may also be called into question.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons)