Advocates Across North Caucasus Demand Reclassifications of Local Ethnic Groups

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 174

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Activists in the North Caucasus called on compatriots to use the ongoing Russian census to advance the interests of their ethnic groups. The Russian census took place over the span of a month, from October 15 to November 14, 2021 (delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Dagestani activists from among the Karatins, Kubachins, and Kaytags asked fellow ethnic kin to indicate their precise ethnic affiliation during the census. The activists said this would help draw the attention of the Russian government to the problems of small ethnic groups and preserve their languages, traditions and culture.

For example, the residents of the village of Karata reached an agreement among themselves that all villagers should indicate themselves as Karatins rather than Avars during the census, according to local sources. Locals contend that the language spoken by Karata villagers differs from the classical Avar language. By registering in the census as Karatins, residents of Karata and surrounding settlements are hoping to acquire the status of a “small indigenous nation” in Dagestan. This legal status will help the Karatins secure financial aid from Moscow. Their number in Dagestan is estimated at 8,000 (Kavkazsky Uzel, November 9).

Likewise, Kubachis and Kaitags called on their ethnic kin to indicate their ethnic identities instead of subscribing to the official Dargin label. Their numbers are respectively about 4,000 and 25,000. Kubachis are particularly well-known for the ancient traditions of making original pottery, silverware and swords (Kavkazsky Uzel, November 9). In previous censuses, Karatins were counted as Avars, while Kaitags and Kubachins were counted as Dargins. Linguists hold varying opinions about many small ethnic groups in Dagestan: whether their languages comprise separate tongues or if they are dialects of larger languages.

While in the Northeastern Caucasus Dagestani ethnic groups are trying to secede from larger entities, in the Northwestern Caucasus, Circassians scattered across several administrative units seek to unite under the same ethnic name. Currently, Circassians in Kabardino-Balkaria are known in Russian as Kabardins. Circassians in Karachaevo-Cherkessia are known as Cherkes. And Circassians in Adygea are known as Adygeans. The small group of indigenous Circassians remaining in the Krasnodar region after the expulsion of the majority of Circassians by Russia in the 19th century is known as Shapsugs. Circassian activists argue that they were artificially divided by the Russian government after the conquest. Eight civil organizations in Kabardino-Balkaria called on compatriots to adopt a common ethnic name of Cherkes and indicate it during the Russian census. The move, according to Circassian activists, will help the Circassians preserve their distinct ethnic identity and culture (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 5).

Circassian activists count as many as 12 Circassian ethnic groups presently in existence, which makes it harder to speak to the Russian government with a single voice. The largest group of Circassians (a.k.a. the Kabardins) reside in Kabardino-Balkaria, where they comprise 57 percent of the total population, or about 490,000 people. Apart from Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygea, where Circassians are titular ethnic groups, they also live in substantial numbers in the neighboring territories of Krasnodar and Stavropol regions as well as North Ossetia. Some Circassians have retained their more local, tribal identities, too; and they do not want to shed them.

Local officials in Kabardino-Balkaria evidently did not support the idea of adopting a single ethnic name. The chairperson of the International Circassian Association, Hauti Sokhrokov, condemned the initiative, arguing that it violates the right to self-determination of small Circassian sub-ethnic groups. The governor of Kabardino-Balkaria, Kazbek Kokov, declared that he took part in the census and entered his nationality as Kabardin. The Public Chamber of Kabardino-Balkaria even declared the call for Circassian unity a “provocation.” Some Circassian activists say that Moscow is opposed to the unification of Circassians even in name. They assert that from the Kremlin’s point of view, the growing self-awareness of the Circassians is fraught with implications for public policy as pursued by Russia and its agents on the ground. Other Circassian activists regard regional authorities as the primary obstacle to unifying the Circassians because that could entail administrative reshuffles and material losses for local bureaucrats (Caucasus Times, October 25).

It will soon become clear if the Circassian activists’ idea took hold among the population. More likely, however, the authorities will determine the outcome of the census without considering people’s responses, as habitually happens during elections. The idea of adopting a common ethnic name by Circassians dates back at least to the 1990s. The attempt failed during the previous 2010 Russian census. Even Moscow loyalists among Circassian activists, such as Asker Sokht, advocated for a common ethnic name back in 2010. At the same time, they tried to assuage the fears that after adopting a common ethnic name, Circassians will demand the unification of their territories into a single unit. Nonetheless, some Circassian activists openly advocated for uniting all Circassian-populated lands into the same administrative unit within the Russian Federation (Regnum, September 2, 2010).

The Russian census has spurred a wave of activism among large and small ethnic groups in the North Caucasus. Many activists appear to believe that administrative changes are the way forward for the groups they purport to represent. But Moscow is unlikely to accept any of the proposed changes, instead endeavoring to indicate ethnic groups according to how they were classified in previous censuses. Still, ethnic activism in the North Caucasus shows growing impatience in the region with the social and political status quo. Sooner or later, at least some reforms will have to be implemented to account for the developing situation.