On May 12, the Circassian politician, Fral Shebzukhov, an advisor to President Ebzeyev of Karachay-Cherkessia was murdered in the republic’s capital of Cherkessk. Two men armed with AK-47 assault rifles and pistols approached him on the street shooting Shebzukhov at point blank range several times. Shebzukhov was most recently identified as a possible candidate for the post of prime minister of the Karachay-Cherkessia Republic (www.lifenews.ru, May 12).
Shebzukhov’s assassination is only the most recent in a series of attacks committed against Circassian (Adighe) leaders in Karachay-Cherkessia. In the two other Circassian republics of Adyghea and Kabardino-Balkaria, political leaders have been assaulted and hospitalized, but rarely has a murder taken place so openly and demonstratively. For example, on November 30, 2009, Circassian activist Ruslan Keshev was attacked (http://www.kavkaz-news.info/portal/cnid_40434/scom_1/alias__Caucasus-Info/lang__en/tabid__2434/default.aspx), followed by the brutal murder on March 14 earlier this year of Aslan Zhukov another prominent Circassian political leader in Cherkessek (EDM, March 17 and http://www.kavkaz-news.info/portal/cnid_81274/alias__Caucasus-Info/lang__en/tabid__2434/default.aspx).
With the continuation of these killings, Circassian activists are beginning to wonder if Moscow might be deliberately inciting inter-ethnic strife in the North Caucasus republic as part of a plan to deliberately destabilize one of its very own republics in a bid to redraw the ethnic map of the Northwest Caucasus.
At the hands of Stalin Circassian territory in the Northwest Caucasus was deliberately divided into six distinct Russian territories. As a people the Circassians are officially and involuntarily separated into 4 different ethnicities, while they continue to acknowledge their ethnic unity and inhabit their historical land. The remaining 80 percent of Circassians live overseas, primarily in Turkey and in Jordan.
Since 2005, the Circassian nationalist movement has been moving in a new direction as Circassians around the world have begun to mobilize demanding greater rights and international recognition of the nineteenth century atrocities committed by Tsarist Russia in its conquest of the Northwest Caucasus. In 1864 over a million Circassians were forcibly deported from the Caucasus and exiled to Turkey, Albania, and other parts of the world.
Appeals for recognition of their suffering as genocide have been rejected twice by the Russian Duma. Unlike the Chechens, who at least received an apology from the Soviet regime, the Circassians remain the only ethnic group in the North Caucasus omitted from any sort of apology from Soviet or Russian authorities for the historical injustices they experienced at the hands of Tsarist Russia in the nineteenth century.
Recently, Circassians from six different countries participated in a major international conference organized in Tbilisi, Georgia from March 19-21 entitled: “Hidden Nations, Enduring Crimes: The Circassians and the Peoples of the Caucasus Between Past and Future.” The conference offered an unprecedented opportunity to examine the Circassian sufferings at the hands of Tsarist Russia as the Georgian parliament has begun to examine evidence from historians and experts as to whether the nineteenth century atrocities committed against the Circassians constitute genocide. Consequently, the Circassian factor is beginning to make Kremlin officials extremely uneasy about their plans for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
In light of these developments the murder of Shebzukhov may not seem quite relevant. However, given that this was the second assassination of a major Circassian political figure in Karachai-Cherkessek since March there could be far a darker agenda at work in the North Caucasus republic.
Shebzukhov’s recent assassination in Karachaevo-Cherkessia might be part of an elaborate plan by the Kremlin to inspire an inter-ethnic conflict between the Circassians and Karachays. To better understand the scenario, it is appropriate to understand what happened when Moscow backed the 1992 Ossetian-Ingush clashes in Prigorodony Raion that led to the massive ethnic cleansing of the Ingush from North Ossetia that virtually transformed the ethnic identity of that republic overnight.
This time around Moscow hopes that the Karachays will play the role of Ossetians and correspondingly Circassians (Cherkess of KChR) will be the Ingush. Currently, the Turkic speaking Karachays (and Balkars) make up about 300,000 people and the Circassian populations represents about 700,000 for the entire North Caucasus, with the majority residing in Kabardino-Balkaria and another 100,000 in Karachay-Cherkessia.
The Kremlin’s potential endgame in stoking unrest between the Circassians and Karachay is controlled chaos. Moscow hopes that any outbreak of fighting between the two groups would quickly end before the international community could understand what was happening. By stoking inter-ethnic clashes between the two groups the Kremlin hopes that the Karachay would ethnically cleanse the Circassian element from Karachay-Cherkessia creating a cordon sanitaire for the region surrounding Sochi in the form of a strategic buffer zone free of Circassians. Such a safeguard would guarantee Moscow that the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games would be free of Circassian interference with the bulk of the Circassian population being relegated to the inner land-locked portions of Kabardino-Balkaria.
Clashes between the two ethnic groups would likely force Russia to militarily intervene on behalf of the Karachays as was done with the Ossetians against the Ingush in the 1990’s. As always Moscow will of course portray itself as a “neutral peacekeeper” in the event of a conflict between the two ethnic groups.
Kremlin planners also likely foresee that there would be ethnic repercussions in Kabardino-Balkaria where ethnic Balkhars make up part of the population. Any exodus of the Cherkess population fleeing strife from Karacahi-Cherkessek would likely spark the Circassian Kabardinians to retaliate by driving out the Balkars from the KBR creating a major population exchange between the Cherkess and Balkars similar to the population swaps that frequently occurred in nineteenth century Europe. Such a population transfer between the two republics would resemble the classic castling move frequently used in chess. Once completed Moscow could then join Karachays and possibly Balkar refugees into a single republic of Karachay-Alania free of Circassians that would essentially squash the demands of Circassian activists to unite the three Circassian regions into a single Circassian republic in the North Caucasus (EDM, January 21, 2010). Thus, Moscow would have a supposedly pro-Russian Turkic republic of Karachay (or Alania if the Balkars join them) creating a buffer zone in the Northwest Caucasus cutting off the Circassians from their ancestral homeland located along Black Sea coast.
The Republic of Adyghea is already well on its way to being liquidated, and now Moscow could be implementing a second plan to eliminate the other Circassian bastion in the Northwest Caucasus leaving only one land-locked region of Circassians in Kabardinia-Balkharia.
Moscow also may have another ulterior motive. With the Sochi Olympics on the horizon, the Kremlin could be gambling that a short-lived civil war in Karachai-Cherkessk would dampen the activity of the Circassian nationalist movement (both in the Caucasus and among its 7 million strong overseas diaspora) by diverting the attention of Circassian nationalists away from their plans of opposing the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Thousands of Circassians around the world are currently mobilizing to protest against the Sochi Olympics as they prepare to mark Circassian Memorial Day on May 21. The eruption of inter-ethnic strife in Karachai-Cherkessek in effect could neutralize the Circassian movement and be Moscow’s first step to redrawing the map of the Northwest Caucasus.