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Trial begins in Kabardino-Balkaria over ‘extremism’ in Balkar newspaper

11 September 2019
(OC Media)

A court in the Russian Republic of Kabardino–Balkaria has begun hearing extremism charges against a Balkar newspaper over an article about ethnic clashes between Kabardians and Balkars.

The Nalchik City Court in the republic’s capital began hearing the case on 5 September.

The article, entitled ‘On the 10th anniversary of the Kyondelen confrontation’, appeared in Vestnik Balkarskogo Naroda (‘bulletin of the Balkar people’) in September 2018 and was written by Anatoliy Alafayev, a doctor of historical sciences.

The paper is produced by the Council of Elders of the Balkar People, of which Alafayev is a member.

The Prosecutor’s Office argued that the article contained ‘extremist statements’, and asked the court to confiscate all copies of the newspaper containing it and to include the issue in the federal list of extremist materials.

The article referred to clashes near the village of Kyondelen in September 2008 and 2018, as well as the history of the 1708 Battle of Kanzhal and the formation of the Kabardino–Balkarian Republic.

Attempts by Circassians to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Kanzhal in both 2008 and 2018 led to interethnic confrontations between the two indigenous peoples of the republic — the Balkars and Kabardians. 

[Read more on OC Media: Dispute over history ignites ethnic clashes in Kabardino-Balkaria]

Kabardians — a subgroup of Circassians — make up 57% of Kabardino-Balkaria’s population. The republic’s other eponymous ethnic group, the Balkars, constitute a minority of 13%. While Kabardians speak an indigenous Caucasian language — Circassian — Balkars speak a Turkic language and have cultural ties with other Turkic-speaking groups in the Caucasus, such as Karachays and Kumyks.

The 1708 Battle of Kanzhal — the victory of Kabardian troops over the Crimean Khanate near Kanzhal — is important for many Kabardians as it marked the end of incursions by the Crimean Khanate, a Turkic vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, into Kabardians’ historic state, Kabardia. Some Balkars argue that the battle never happened. Kabardia was fully annexed by the Russian Empire in the early 19th century during the Russian conquest of the Caucasus.

According to documents from the Prosecutor’s Office seen by OC Media, the author and the newspaper’s editors violated Russia’s law ‘On Countering Extremist Activities’.

They have claimed that a ‘psychological and linguistic study’ conducted in February revealed that the article contained ‘statements containing signs of incitement of hatred and hatred on a national basis [and] calls for the division of the Kabardino–Balkarian Republic into independent entities’.

‘Warnings’ of the prosecutor’s office to activists

Tamara Geriyeva, the editor-in-chief of the Vestnik Balkarskogo Naroda, told OC Media that she was detained by the police on 1 August in the newspaper’s editorial office.

‘They almost forced me out of the office, pushed me into a car, and took me to the Prosecutor’s Office’, Geriyeva said.

According to her, prosecutors warned her that, as editor-in-chief, she ‘would not allow further publications containing calls for the division of the republic into Kabarda and Balkaria and for ethnic hatred’.

She said Alafayev’s article dealt with real historical upheavals during the formation of Kabardino-Balkaria, in which he argued Balkaria had a historic chance to separate from Kabardia.

‘It was probably this statement that provoked the increased interest from the Prosecutor’s Office towards the article, but here the author refers to archival documents’, Geriyeva insisted.

‘Each statement in his article […] is accompanied by a reference to published sources and documents’, she added.

She said she believed that pressure on the Council of Elders was a show of force before the appointment of a new head of Kabardino-Balkaria, scheduled for 3 October.

‘It is unlikely that the Prosecutor’s Office was just so interested in this text published a year ago’, Geriyeva said. ‘I think the current interim head of the republic, Kazbek Kokov, is using this to demonstrate to Moscow his determination in fighting against opposition and nationalist movements’.

Pressure on the Council of Elders

The article’s author, Anatoliy Alafayev, agreed that that case was an attempt to pressure the newspaper and the Council of Elders of the Balkarian People.

Alafayev told OC Media that in early August, he and the chairman of the council, Ismail Sabanchiyev, were summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office and warned to refrain ‘from nationalistic and anti-state statements and excessive social activity’. Alafayev insisted they ‘did not allow such things before’.

Sabanchiyev agreed that the parliamentary elections in Kabardino-Balkaria, which took place on 8 September, and the upcoming appointment of the head of the republic were behind this ‘seasonal pressure’ on Vestnik Balkarskogo Naroda.

Sabanchiyev told OC Media that the council’s activities had always been at odds with the authorities, adding that they stood for direct elections for the head of the republic and ‘the satisfaction of the interests of workers [and] rural residents’.

‘The council does not put forward any nationalist slogans. We know that not only the Balkars suffer from the arbitrariness of the authorities’, Sabanchiyev said.

A ‘crackdown on dissent’ in the North Caucasus

The federal list of extremist materials is updated annually. Additions in recent years have included bulletins from Jehovah’s Witnesses’, Islamic periodicals, and publications criticising Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to Marat Tlepshev, a journalist for RFE/RL Ekho Kavkaza in Karachay-Cherkessia, regional authorities throughout the North Caucasus frequently prosecute government critics.

‘The ruling government is trying to crush any protests, regardless of the political and confessional coloring of opponents, and the heads of subjects naturally seek to please Moscow by looking for more and more enemies’,Tlepshev told OC Media.

Recent high-profile prosecutions have included that of Abdulmumin Gadzhiyev, a journalist from Daghestani newspaper Chernovik on trial for ‘extremism’. On 10 September, the Sovetskiy District Court of Makhachkala extended his pre-trial detention by two months.

In July, Rashid Maysigov, an Ingush activist protesting the Chechen-Ingush land-deal was detained. Ingush activist Zarifa Sautiyeva and other participants of spring protests in Ingushetia still remain in custody.

In Kabardino-Balkaria, Circassian activist Martin Kochesoko was arrested on drug charges; after public outcry, the charges were dropped and Kochesoko was released on 23 August.

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