Activists Demand Greater Rights for Native Languages of Kabardino-Balkaria

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 6

Civil activists in Kabardino-Balkaria have launched a campaign to improve the status of the regional languages of the Kabardins (a.k.a. Circassians) and the Balkars. The activists say that with the republican parliament in the process of adopting new legislation about languages, it has ignored many proposals from the local intelligentsia. “In breach of the direct constitutional norms of the Russian Federation and the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, the Kabardin and Balkar languages have long been excluded from the main areas of Kabardino-Balkarian society’s life,” the appeal said. Many people in the republic appear to be concerned about the increasing encroachment of the Russian language and limited rights of the regional languages. UNESCO has included both languages, Kabardin and Balkar, among the world’s “disappearing” languages (

One of the organizers of the campaign, the head of the organization Kabardian Congress, Muazin Khachetlov, told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website: “I finished school in 1955. We were taught school subjects in our mother tongue until the fourth grade. We had the Russian language as a discipline, while all disciplines were taught in our mother tongue. Now the language of instruction is Russian and there is only a class of mother tongue. This is extremely little for retaining our languages. We insist that the upbringing and education of children in kindergarten and first grade be in Kabardin in the Kabardin villages and in Balkar in the Balkar ones. Currently, the language of instruction starting from the age of two is in Russian” (

Article 72 of the constitution of Kabardino-Balkaria indeed declares that Kabardin, Balkar and Russian are all state languages of the republic. The Kabardino-Balkarian Republic officially takes responsibility for “providing equal rights of state languages for retention, usage, development and improvement” and mandates that “the state languages of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic are used on an equal basis by government authorities, municipal authorities and public offices of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic” (

In reality, of course, neither Kabardin nor Balkar are used in public offices, as both are supplanted by Russian. Although both minority tongues are still fairly widely used as spoken languages. While the official policies of the Russian Federation still declare support for minority languages, Moscow has gradually restricted the areas of public life where regional languages can be used. In particular, the new legislation on education in public schools that was adopted in 2012–2013 pushed for giving the Russian language the status of a mandatory language and the regional languages as electives, which essentially made their study less desirable for parents. The issue with minority languages is part of the general trend in a culturally highly diverse country that regards cultural diversity not as an asset, but rather as a security threat to national unity.

The Circassian language issue is amplified by political cleavages. The Kabardins comprise the majority of the Kabardino-Balkarian population. The Cherkess, who also speak Circassian, live in neighboring Karachaevo-Cherkessia, where they are in a minority. Circassian-speaking Adygeans live in Adygea and a handful of Circassian-speaking Shapsugs live in Krasnodar region. So, essentially the same group of people—Circassians—is divided among four neighboring regions of Russia and only in one of them, Kabardino-Balkaria, do they comprise a majority. Some Circassians believe that Moscow intentionally divided their people among several regions to disempower them politically and accelerate their assimilation.  

Many Circassian activists tried to draw the attention of the world community to their problems in the North Caucasus at the time of the Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi, but with limited success. Circassians populated the area around Sochi in the 19th century, but were expelled from their homeland after the Russian conquest. The Russian government failed to provide much compensation to the Circassians and even did not include a Circassian cultural element in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics.

Moreover, the authorities cracked down on Circassian protesters in the North Caucasus. On February 7, the first day of the Sochi Olympics, a small group of Circassians staged a peaceful protest in Nalchik. The protesters were violently dispersed, and some of them were arrested and allegedly tortured. One of them, Andzor Akhokhov, complained publicly about his treatment in police custody and was reportedly subsequently threatened by police (

The work of the Circassian activists was not entirely in vain. Russia allowed scores of Syrian Circassians to immigrate to their historical homeland in the North Caucasus, escaping the civil war in Syria. However, this effort was relatively small in scope and halfhearted: only about 1,000 Circassians were resettled in the North Caucasus, primarily in Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea. The Circassian diaspora in Syria is estimated to number approximately 100,000. One of the Syrian refugees was present at the Circassian protests in Nalchik on February 7, and the authorities there decided to deport him back to Syria, even though he tried to prove he was only a bystander. The Supreme Court of Kabardino-Balkaria eventually overturned the decision of the lower court to deport him, showing that Circassian activists there have had some impact (

While Circassian activists failed to win many concessions from Russia, the campaign connected with the Sochi Olympics raised Circassian national self-consciousness. This activism now appears to be taking other forms, including the demand for greater language rights for the Circassians and other minorities in the region.