Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 7

Another group in the Caucasus–the Adygey–challenge Moscow’s control there

by David Nissman

When the residents of the Adygey autonomous oblast voted to becomethe Adygey Soviet Socialist Republic on July 1, 1991, no one whohad followed developments in the North Caucasus was surprised. And when the government of the region converted the Adygey SSRinto the Republic of Adygeya after the collapse of the USSR, mostpeople saw that as both natural and inevitable. But this latterstep was hardly unambiguous: the Adygey Republic is on the territoryalso claimed by the Krasnodar kray government, the Adygey capitalcity Maikop was and remains a Slavic city, and a variety of ethnicgroups claim various parts of the Adygey republic. In addition,some of the Adygey are in favor of the creation of a Greater Adygeya,embracing all the Adygey peoples: the Abaza, the Abkhaz, the Cherkess,the Karbardins, the Mozdok, and the Shapsug as well as the smallertribes of the Abadzekh, Belsen, Bzhedukh, Nutkhuadzh and Termigoy.

These ambiguities and internal contradictions continue to powerpolitical developments in the Adygey Republic and threaten tospill over into other North Caucasian regions both directly andas a model for what can happen elsewhere.

In March 1992 this new nationality challenge to the Russian Federationbegan in earnest. At that time, the Nal’chik conference of Adygeypeoples voted to establish a national region for the Shapsug people,also within the Krasnodar kray. Although little noticed at thetime, this challenge to the existing federal borders in the Russianstate had enormous implications. A Moscow policy paper dismissedit at the time as simply a struggle over resources, a copycatphenomenon of national self-determination, and the consequencesof the return of peoples deported by Stalin in the 1940s. Inshort, an effort to right old wrongs rather than to change theexisting system of borders.

Some in Moscow clearly understood that this was a danger, however. The policy paper just mentioned refers to the broader Adygeygoals as expressed in the programmatic documents of the variousAdygey political organizations–the Adygey National Congress,the Congress of Kabardin People, and the "Adyge Khase"–eachof which talked about a revision of borders. Even more significantfor subsequent events, the Moscow white paper ignored the relationshipof these developments to the Abkhaz republic within Georgia. All these issues seemed trivial to Moscow until the advent ofthe war in Chechnya in December 1994.

The Krasnodar Experiment

Krasnodar city (formerly Yekaterinodar), the center of Krasnodarkray, was established by the Zaprozhian Cossacks at the end ofthe seventeenth century. The cossacks remain a power in the krayand city and are, politically and administratively, a force tobe reckoned with. The kray, run by a Moscow-appointed administrator,has used the cossacks as adjuncts to the local police force sincelast year.

That has thrown a bomb of sorts into the ethnic mix of the region. According to official figures for 1994, there are more than 120different ethnic communities in the Krasnodar kray. Sixty national-culturalassociations are located in Krasnodar itself, and the police havelinks with some 22 of them. Crime, a major problem in the region,has been made worse by Krasnodar’s attractiveness to others fromthroughout the North Caucasus. Local officials report that during1994 some 43,000 people arrived in the region from areas of ethnicconflict and many of them are now involved in organized crime.

Because there are so many refugees in the region, it is difficulteven to estimate the population. In 1994, there were some 121,600registered refugees from the "near abroad" and an additional71,700 living in the region without permission. Among the mostimportant are the Kurds, who chose to hold their 1992 conferencein that city, a meeting also attended by the radical PKK organization. In addition, Krasnodar is a center for Greeks and Armenians. V.V. Remler, the chief of the kray’s Office of Nationalities,Migration and Regional policy, said recently that "every12th migrant who arrives in Russia ends up in Krasnodar kray." He added that the people of the kray, traditionally open to outsiders,are beginning to worry about whether they can absorb the new andvery different migrants. Taking all this into account, one canconclude that the population is probably near six million in all.

Politically, the regional administration includes both hardcoreRussian nationalist groups from the cossacks to Vladimir Zhirinovsky’ssupporters and Yeltsin loyalists with their own agendas. Bothsides accept the continued existence of the Adygey Republic–ithas been part of the kray since both the kray and the Adygey autonomousoblast were formed in 1922–as long as the Adygey know their placeand do not participate in the sovereignization process that hasaffected others.

The Adygey Challenge

But during the last year, the Adygey parliament (khase) has takenthree steps which threaten to disturb Krasnodar’s existing equilibrium. First, the parliament has formally proposed to the Krasnodarauthorities that they set aside a special territory for the Shapsugs. Second, it has proposed an exchange of territory with the krayso that Adgyey can be contiguous to both Krachai-Cherkessia, onthe one hand, and Abkhazia, on the other. And third, the parliamentadopted its own constitution.

Ye.M. Kharitonov, the administrative head of Krasnodar kray,told Kubanskie novosti April 15 that Moscow, not Krasnodar, wouldmake a decision on autonomy for the Shapsugs. But two monthsearlier, the Congress of Patriots of the Kuban, a leading Cossackgroup in the kray, came out against any exchange of territorywith the Adygeya republic. In its resolution, the congress saidthat "the issue concerned the highly dangerous idea of thecreation in the North Caucasus of a belt of Muslim states or evena single Islamic state from the Black Sea to the Caspian."This suggestion of more far-reaching goals by the Adygey refersto the latter’s membership in the Confederation of the Peoplesof the Caucasus, a grouping that includes Cherkessia, Kabarda,North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Daghestan, as well asAbkhazia, South Ossetia and possibly portions of Azerbaijan occupiedby the Lezghins. For the Adygey, of course, their proposal wassimply a first step toward a Greater Adygeya.

But the Cossacks went further in their criticism–and it is fromthis reported criticism that we can see where the Adygey are thoughtto be going–denouncing the Adygey constitution as "illegal,anti-state, anti-Russian and anti-popular. Until that document’slast draft, the Cossacks said, the Adygey had referred to theirterritory as a sovereign state and reserved for themselves theright of secession. Krasnodar kray administrators objected tothat and also the lack of any reference to the Russian Federation. The Adygey backed down, dropping the most objectionable–to theRussians–portions, but the fact that they were included in earlierdrafts points to where the Adygey want to go.

Sovereignization and Shifting Borders

The idea of declaring various entities sovereign was launchedby Gorbachev and embraced by most regions of the former USSR. The then Soviet president obviously hoped that this declarationwould help generate support for his reforms and himself, but heand Moscow quickly lost control of both the term and the process. The result was the end of the USSR and continuing pressure bypeoples still lacking statehood to get it or at least to get somegreater autonomy for themselves. Worse, in the Caucasus at least,the Yeltsin regime has adopted a policy that A.A. Popov, a consultantto Yeltsin’s analytic center, calls "ethnocratism" asa result of Moscow’s indulging in "ethnostatophilia."

Exhibit A for Popov is Moscow’s involvement in Abkhazia, a regionthat is trying to break away from Georgia. Writing in the April7, 1995 Segodnya, Popov notes that "having secured the inviolabilityof the ethnocratic regime which by force of arms detached Abkhaziafrom the Georgian state and ‘cleansed’ it of the 200,000-strongGeorgian population, Moscow convinced everyone in the Caucasusthat separatist rebellions are a good thing and that a referenceto the sanctity of the ‘struggle for national liberation’ justifiesall actions."

The Adygey appear to have learned this lesson and will continueto push, setting up a conflict between themselves and the Krasnodarauthorities in the first instance and between themselves and theirco-ethnics outside existing state borders and Moscow in a laterperiod. Yeltsin may believe as he said last week that the warin Chechnya shows that Russia will survive as a single entity. In fact, the Chechen war may lead others–especially groups likethe Adygey–to pursue their dreams of greater autonomy. Suchpursuits will in more and more respects look like independence,further opening the Pandora’s box of border changes in a regionwhere all the borders are matters of dispute. For the past 150years, the North Caucasus has been a geopolitical backwater underRussian occupation. Now, it is Russia’ s frontier with challengeslike the Adygey waiting in the wings even if Moscow succeeds–anunlikely prospect–in quickly pacifying the Chechens. .

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.