End of Part One? By Liz Fuller

Liz Fuller | Special to Circassian World

Ratmir Shameyev (nom de guerre Zakaria), the poster boy for the Kabardino-Balkar-Karachai wing of the North Caucasus Islamic insurgency and the man behind some of its most audacious (and brutal) exploits over the past year, is dead and a legend at the age of 22. Shameyev and nine fellow fighters, including insurgency commander Asker Jappuyev (Amir Abdullakh), together with two women, were killed on April 29 in a pre-dawn attack by security forces on a deserted school in the settlement of Progress on Kabardino-Balkaria's northern border with Stavropol Krai that they were using as a hideout. They had reportedly been betrayed -- whether by an informer infiltrated into their ranks or by one of several members of their support personnel arrested last month who may have disclosed their whereabouts under torture is not clear.

Several more jamaat members were killed during a counter-terror operation early on May 10 that targeted an apartment in Nalchik they had reportedly been using to store explosives and assemble bombs.

Over a period of just 10 months, since the abortive attempt on May 9, 2010 to kill former Kabardino-Balkaria Interior Minister Khachim Shogenov, the KBK jamaat had emerged as arguably the most consistently deadly and effective fighting force in the North Caucasus. Between June 2010-February 2011 they undertook 125 separate attacks and operations, killing over 50 police and security personnel, plus republican mufti Anas Pshikhachev and respected ethnographer Aslan Tsipinov.
The deaths of Zakaria, Jappuyev and Abdul-Jabbar (Kazbek Tashuyev) may herald a lull in that violence, but only in the short- to medium term. As one blogger wrote on Islamdin.com, the KBK jamaat's website, "this means a hiatus of two, three years, nothing more." The jamaat now is incomparably stronger, more disciplined and more professional than in the aftermath of the October 2005 Nalchik debacle, after which Jappuyev's predecessor Anzor Astemirov and Musa Mukozhev together spent several years building up an impressive network of fighters, intelligence, and support personnel largely financed by donations, voluntary or involuntary, from local businessmen. Much of that network remains in place, even though the reliability of individual members will need to be carefully reassessed.

The Kabardino-Balkaria leadership's muted response to the counter-terror operation in Progress suggests an awareness that while they may have won a battle, they have not necessarily won the war.

If the Chechen security services had managed to kill the republic's three most senior field commanders in a single operation without themselves sustaining any casualties, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov would, at the least, have convened a press conference to crow over his success. Arsen Kanokov, to give him credit, did not indulge in any such public self-congratulation. Nor was the April 29 operation even mentioned in the account posted to Kanokov's webpage of a meeting the following day of the KBR Anti-Terror Committee.

The republic still plans to spend 35 million rubles ($1.25 million, 873,624 euros) on making police posts less vulnerable to attack. At present, police posts still constitute a relatively "soft" target for fighters, together with the strip clubs and liquor stores that the insurgents destroy in their role as Taliban-style morality police.

The counter-terror regime imposed in early March remains in force, and there is no indication when it will be lifted. Instead, the republican authorities have moved to quell public resentment by providing financial compensation to people in Elbrus district whose incomes have plummeted since the region was declared off-limits to tourists. And the arbitrary killings by police of practicing Muslims, who are subsequently branded militants, has not stopped.

In addition, Kanokov and his recently reshuffled cabinet are still widely perceived as corrupt, venal, self-seeking, and either unwilling or incapable of resolving the most pressing political, ideological, social and economic problems the republic faces. Kanokov himself admitted in a recent interview with the Russian daily "Kommersant" that the republic's leadership has no idea how to undercut, and provide an attractive ideological alternative to, the lure of Salafi Islam. A poll conducted across the republic early last year by the Prague-based "Caucasus Times" found that 68 percent of those questioned identified themselves as Muslims, and up to 39 percent took a positive view of Salafism.

By contrast, one anonymous Nalchik blogger in January estimated that up to 10,000 people (of total population of approximately 850,000) sympathize with the insurgents' aims. He too identified the absence of any ideology that could compete with Islam, together with endemic corruption, as key factors behind young Circassians' espousal of a "Taliban-style Islamic dictatorship" that, he claims, is alien to the national mentality.

Speaking at the end of the chilling video footage of executions posted last November on Islamdin.com, footage that was sub-titled "Part One" of what was apparently intended to be an ongoing catalogue of horrors, Ubaydullakh, the Balkar commander of the KBK Central Sector, warned that "the war is only just beginning." But there is still a chance -- possibly the last --  for the Kabardino-Balkaria leadership to reverse the downward spiral of violence and counter-violence.

Speaking at a hearing last month in Moscow  on Kabardino-Balkaria organized by the Russian Federation Public Chamber, Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya of the human rights watchdog Memorial noted that much will hinge on the verdicts handed down to the 58 young men currently on trial for their putative participation in the October 2005 Nalchik attacks. If those verdicts are perceived as fair, Sokiryanskaya said, that will create a chance "to restore civic peace" -- assuming Kanokov recognizes that opportunity as such and grabs it with both hands. If, on the contrary, the verdicts are regarded as too harsh, they could trigger a new wave of violence, one that may come to eclipse Part One in terms of bloodshed and grief.

Liz Fuller studied Russian and Georgian at the University of London. She then spent a summer in Tbilisi clandestinely translating samizdat at the request of Zviad Gamsakhurdia (then a Soviet dissident) before joining Radio Liberty Research in Munich as Transcaucasus analyst. She is currently an editor with RFE/RL in Prague.

The views expressed here are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.