The eastern half of the North Caucasus (see EDM, January 14, 2020) has been more restive in the last 12 months than the western half—indeed, one recent survey of the entire region during 2019 ignored the Northwest Caucasus altogether (Ekho Kavkaza, January 5, 2020). But this sub-region—which includes the Adygei Republic, two bi-national federal subjects, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, as well as Stavropol Krai, a Russian-majority region with rapidly expanding non-Russian diaspora communities and a border dispute with Chechnya (Paragraphs.online, February 5, 2019)—may present more problems for Moscow in the coming year than even the restive east.
For one thing, each of the five federal subjects of the Northwest Caucasus is wrestling with poverty and the loss of local native-language educational facilities (Kavkazsky Uzel, September 21, 2019; Zapravakbr.ru, August 9, 2019). Additionally, all five struggle with maintaining an ethnic balance among the various groups living there (Caucasus Times, November 12, 2019) as well as open conflicts among those groups over historical issues (such as the clash between Balkars and Circassian Kabardins over a long-ago battle) (Caucasus Times, October 21, 2019). Another challenge Moscow must contend with in this seemingly pacified sub-region relates to the continued rise of the Circassian national movement. Against Moscow’s interests or policy preferences, the Circassian national movement has focused on efforts to secure the return of members of the Circassian diaspora from the Middle East. Moreover, it has pushed the various nationalities of the overarching Circassian nation, which Moscow has long subdivided (Adygeans, Cherkess, Kabardins, Shapsugs), to declare themselves “Circassians” in the Russian census in September 2020. And increasingly, it extends public arguments in favor of restoring a single Circassian republic in the region.
Had Russia’s central government adopted a more sophisticated approach toward the region, these issues might not have taken off. But recently, including throughout 2019, the Kremlin dug in across the board in ways that set the stage for serious conflicts in the coming months. Indicative of that danger is perhaps Moscow’s most thoughtless and counter-productive move yet on the Circassian issue—a plan, backed by President Vladimir Putin, to relocate a railroad in Sochi along a route that will destroy the traditional homelands of the Shapsugs. The proposed railroad project is now radicalizing Circassian opinion in much the same way the Kremlin leader’s decision to host the Olympics there did five years ago. Importantly, Sochi was the place from which the tsarist authorities deported hundreds of thousands of Circassians in 1864 (Kavkazr.com, January 9, 2020; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, January 14, 2020).
Against that background, the past year was actually quite a remarkable one for the Circassian national movement: key developments during 2019 have given new confidence to the hard-pressed members of this 750,000-strong community within the current borders of the Russian Federation and expanded its ties with the more than 7 million diaspora Circassians living in Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Iraq (see EDM, May 21, 2019). Among the achievements of the movement were:
- a new representative office in Istanbul;
- Circassian candidate victories in Turkish elections;
- an expansion of the Circassian representative office in Georgia (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 27, 2019);
- new studies and conferences suggesting that the Circassians were perhaps the most punished nation not only in tsarist but in Soviet and post-Soviet times (info, April 12, 2019);
- the formation of a new pan-regional movement to promote unity (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 7, 12, 2019);
- new efforts by Circassians in the North Caucasus to help their co-ethnics return, efforts that Moscow has tried ever less successfully to counter (org, May 15, 2019; see EDM, September 24, 2019); and
- a dramatic expansion in the use of the Internet as a tool to organize and mobilize the nation, linking those in the homeland with those abroad in new and tighter ways (net, April 18, 2019).
The Russian government might have been able to live with these moves, if not all of their implications. But two additional ones have presented challenges to the regime that—if they gain traction—will, at a minimum, put Moscow on the defensive and potentially put its control over this region in question. The first of these potentially dangerous (for the center) developments has been the drive to have all members of the Circassian nation, now subdivided into the Adygeans, the Kabardins, the Cherkess and the Shapsugs, to declare themselves “Circassians” in the upcoming census. And building on the first has been the Circassian national movement’s demand for the formation of a Circassian Republic, which would require the wholesale redrawing of borders in the Northwest Caucasus and, likely, make it impossible for Moscow to maintain its control over this territory.
Many members of the Circassian nation, long subdivided in order to better enable Moscow to control the North Caucasus, have decided to declare a common ethnonym in the upcoming 2020 Russian census, a major step in their national revival and the basis for renewed demands for the creation of a single Circassian Republic there. That plan, which first surfaced before the 2010 census, has acquired new urgency in recent months, in advance of the new one (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, February 8, 28, March 8, 11, November 18, 2019). And at least judging from the enthusiastic comments on Circassian portals online, the idea appears to be taking off.
Moscow is worried and seeking to prevent the Circassians from making such declarations; alternatively, it may simply allow census takers to ignore “Circassian” as an ethnic self-identity (Segodnia.ru, December 11, 2019). Circassian activists are countering by identifying districts in which they can do their own count. If the official figures depart in significant ways from theirs, that in and of itself may radicalize Circassian opinion against Moscow enough to spark protests. To forestall that, the Russian authorities have adopted some of the same tactics they have used against protesters elsewhere, planting drugs on Circassian activists, arresting them, and thus introducing disorder into their ranks (Ekho Kavkaza, January 9, 2020).
But those efforts may already be backfiring. Ever more Circassians are now talking about the need not just to proclaim their common identity but to form a Circassian Republic or, as a transition stage, a North Caucasus confederation in which the Circassians would be a dominant element. Among those making such suggestions is Kabardin activist Sofiya Kodzova, who heads St. Petersburg’s Olma Media Group. She argues that such a structure is needed to protect both the ethnic rights of the Circassians and their human rights as well (Liberal.ru, December 16, 2019). Others have taken up her call, insisting that Circassians must have the right to elect their own officials rather than put up with Moscow’s appointees. Relatedly, they have been calling for their own territorially based electoral districts, which would require the redrawing of the entire political map in the region (Habze.org, May 18, 2019).
In the past, Moscow has been dismissive of such demands, but now it recognizes that they are taking on new strength, in part at least because of the success of the Abkhazian opposition in overthrowing a Moscow appointee as president of that breakaway republic (Kavkazr.com, January 4, 2020). But the major reason is a new self-confidence among the Circassians themselves. They increasingly believe that Moscow may have ignored them in the past but that the center will have no choice but to pay attention to them in the future (Novaya Gazeta, June 28, 2019).
Thus, the stage is set for a serious clash in 2020, perhaps more profound than those in the eastern half of the North Caucasus. And if the situation in the western half explodes, it could have more unpredictable results precisely because, for many, it will appear to have come out of nowhere.