Analysis | Divide and rule: the ‘clans’ of Kabardino-Balkaria

22 February 2018
The Parliament of Kabardino-Balkaria (kbrria.ru)

Despite the appearance of antiquity in Kabardino-Balkaria’s clan system, they are less a part of Circassian culture than a product of imperialism.

Around seven years ago, speaking to a large young audience, Boris Pashtov, Kabardino-Balkaria’s then–Minister of Youth Policy and a loyal member of United Russia (the party of President Putin), proclaimed that the leaders of the Russian Federation, and of Kabardino-Balkaria, should seriously concern themselves with the upbringing of their successors.

This ‘youth policy’ in Kabardino-Balkaria is an extension of a centuries old process of consolidating Russian rule. Collaborators among the native aristocracy and later native Bolsheviks have now been succeeded by an artificial system of clans.

Their fathers’ sons

Murtaz Pachev, a now retired employee at the republic’s state-run radio, is known for his oppositional views. ‘For the past 10–30 years, the republic has been controlled by the same 10–12 clans, while people with any other surname have not been allowed into any executive or legislative structures’, Pachev told OC Media.

Even among the highest state officials, parents, unconcerned by rumours, openly and persistently give their fledgling children a leg up the career ladder. You don’t need to go far to find examples of names familiar to everyone in Kabardino-Balkaria.

For instance, Astemir Firov occupies the post of Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for Energy, Tariffs, and Housing Supervision. He is also the son of the former Minister of Culture of Kabardino-Balkaria, Ruslan Firov.

Mariya Cherkesova, the daughter of former Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources of Kabardino-Balkaria, Georgy Cherkesov, holds the post of Deputy Head of the Civil Registry Office.


Asker Bifov is the Deputy Finance Minister. He is the son of ‘Vodka King’ restaurateur and Russian MP from the Communist Party Anatoly Bifov. His son, in his current position, will be responsible for covering up his father’s business activities, and will continue to climb the ladder as a politician.

Another example of political continuity is Sultan Gekkiyev, the son of United Russia MP Zaur Gekkiyev. Sultan is currently serving as Kabardino-Balkaria’s First Deputy Minister of Education, Science, and Youth Affairs.

Another successor to his father is Ratmir Atskanov, the son of Ruslan Atskanov, director of the state-owned publishing house in the republic, Elbrus. Ratmir is the Deputy Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Protection.

We indicated just a few of the offspring of former and existing state officials who carry the names of their fathers. In fact, in both Kabardino-Balkaria’s government and parliament, there are many others populating the most important offices in the republic who, for example, are daughters of ministers and deputies, having married and taken their husband’s names. There are also brothers, nephews, grandchildren, and wives who have deliberately kept their maiden names.

Artificial feudalism

Since the end of the 1950s, a social order was established in many of the North Caucasus subjects, including in Kabardino-Balkaria, which could be called ‘artificial feudalism’ with its own ‘lords’ and ‘taxable estates’.

‘Clans’ appeared in Kabardino-Balkaria, and in other subjects of the North Caucasus with large Circassian populations, after the establishment of Soviet power and on the wishes of Moscow. Their ancestors were the first party activists and Soviet managers, who filled the ranks of the special services (the NKVD, Ministry of State Security) and who proved their loyalty to the Soviets during WWII and in the post-war period.

‘Clan’ is written here in quotation marks precisely because this form of association is alien to traditional Circassian society, and was formed not just from representatives of single tribes, but also on the basis of corporate, economic, and political interests.

The clan system assumed its final shape in the 1950–1960s, when Moscow, in its economic policy and ideology, came to rely on the children and grandchildren of those first Soviet activists.

Murat Gukemukhov, a correspondent at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, says that unlike subjects of the Eastern Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghestan), where clans (teips) are traditional forms of social order, people in Circassian societies (now concentrated in Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Adygea, and the historic Shapsugia, in the villages of Big Kichmay and Small Kichmay in Krasnodar Krai) were judged not by their belonging to a particular clan, but rather by their personal qualities and authority among their compatriots.

Gukemukhov claims Moscow ‘deliberately’ encourages this clan society, because it ‘prevents social initiatives that come from below’. This strategy, according to Gukemukhov, allowed the central authorities to reverse the unofficial ban on nepotism.

According to him, within the framework of this logic the clan aspires to expand, drawing ‘the right’ members into its orbit, because its influence increases with the size. As a result, ‘clan structure’ has penetrated into spheres hitherto free of it, such as education, health, culture, science, and even sports.

Divide et impera

Moscow, perfectly aware of the incessant competition between different clans inside Kabardino-Balkaria, tries to alternate those at the top.

For example, the first president of Kabardino-Balkaria, Kabardian Valery Kokov, was replaced by Kabardian Arsen Kanokov. The latter, in turn, was replaced by the current head of the republic, Yury Kokov, a distant relative of the first president. Yury Kovov also belongs to the Balkar clan of the Babayevs.

Thanks to this policy, the authorities in Moscow kill two birds with one stone. Firstly, none of the clans are allowed to achieve absolute domination, which might have unpredictable consequences for the central authorities. Secondly, this creates the impression of ‘fairness’ in the eyes of the local population.

Alim Pshibiyev, founder of oppositional YouTube channel Another Nalchik, says that ‘along with competition between the clans there is a need to observe inter-clan parities as one of the main conditions for the stability of local regimes, in particular Kabardino-Balkarian’.

Consequently, any appointment to this or that prestigious post is considered from the point of view of keeping these parities. Thus, belonging to a particular clan (or, as it is customary to say in the Kabardino-Balkaria, ‘magazine’) is more important than the professional qualities of an individual.

Pshibiyev and Gukemukhov are unanimous in the opinion that this policy tore to shreds the national intelligentsia, which even in the early 1990s had a sense of independence and dignity. Its representatives either left to other regions or abroad, or turned into a stratum serving the clans.