An extraordinary congress of Circassian people took place on Sunday, November 23, in Cherkessk, the capital of the North Caucasus republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The congress date had been announced and rescheduled several times. Several days before the event, the leader of the republic’s Circassians, Mukhamed Cherkesov, was summoned by the Russian president’s administration for consultations and negotiations. Cherkesov declined to comment on the substance of his Kremlin meetings, stating it would be premature to do so (https://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-south/kar-cher/1087817.html).
Cherkesov also told the news media about the meetings he had shortly before the congress with the administration of Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s president and one of the republic’s law-enforcement agencies. Cherkesov reported that after the discussion of a draft resolution to be adopted by the congress, he was told about the specific issues that could not be included in the text of the resolution and informed that failure to cooperate would result in criminal prosecution.
According to Cherkesov, an issue that had to be kept away from discussion at the congress and could not be included in the text of the resolution had to do with the proposed merger of Circassian lands to form a single Russian Federation subject. Yet, despite the warnings, it was a proposal to reunify Circassia that became the key outcome of the Circassian congress (https://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-south/kar-cher/1087949.html).
The essence of the reunification project is the administrative merger of three republics and one region of the North Caucasus where Circassians are the dominant ethnic majority. Moving eastward, these include the Shapsug district of Sochi, Adygeya, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. In the latter two republics, which the Circassians share with the Turkic-speaking Karachais and Balkars, the project envisages the separation of Karachai and Balkaria from Cherkessia and their merger into a single republic.
Notably, it was the first time that this proposal, branded “Greater Circassia” during the Soviet period and usually linked to extremist and separatist movements, was openly discussed by the Circassian community in Russia (https://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-south/kar-cher/1087196.html).
Evidently, the older generation of the Circassian leaders planned to limit the agenda of the congress to a discussion of the problems of Circassians in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The republic’s Kremlin-appointed president, Boris Ebzeyev, has frustrated Circassians by denying them the prime minister position, which is traditionally reserved for an ethnic Circassian.
The general content of the congress’ keynote address, which was delivered by former Communist party functionary Umar Temirov, was limited to internal issues faced by Circassians in Karachaevo-Cherkessia.
However, these attempts to limit the agenda of the congress were thwarted by the younger attendees. Approximately 1,500 young Circassians from a number of republics came to the congress uninvited and with no approvals granted by their elders. An independent youth forum they organized was held prior to the congress commencement.
The young attendees entered the congress hall decked out in national garb and carrying Circassian banners. Following the ancestral tradition of blowing the horn to call people to assembly in times of great danger, the youth Khasa, or council, opened the congress with the call of the horn.
After Umar Temirov’s address, the floor went to Ruslan Keshev, the leader of the Circassian Congress youth movement from Nalchik. Keshev read out a resolution of the Circassian Youth Congress that called for forming a united republic of Circassia. “The proposal put forward by Circassian youth does not contradict the Russian constitution; on the contrary, it follows the strategy of regional consolidation launched by the administration of former President Putin and continued by the current president Medvedev,” Keshev said. He added that “it is not acceptable to reduce the challenges faced by our people to a handful of ministerial portfolios, and we won’t allow it. If Moscow does not respond, then it should be aware that we, the Circassians, can no longer put up with such a situation for our people in Russia” (https://www.regnum.ru/news/1088089.html).
The youth leader’s address received a standing ovation.
It is difficult to predict the Kremlin’s reaction to the burgeoning nationalistic sentiment of the Circassian community. Two opposite scenarios come to mind.
The first option is a traditional one. It can be expected that a wave of anti-Circassian sentiment stoked by Russia will rise up inside the republics that Circassians share with other ethnic groups. It is quite possible that the Karachai, Balkars, and Cossacks will announce their opposition to the project of unifying Circassia. In the best-case scenario, this will end with only threatening rhetoric from the different parties; in the worst-case scenario, Moscow will have to deal with a second Ingushetia. If, on this occasion, Moscow has no interest in seeing an outbreak of local inter-ethnic strife, one might see a repeat of 1993–1994, when the Circassians, Karachais, Balkars and Cossacks reached an agreement and announced the establishment of three independent republics: the Circassian, Karachai-Balkar and Cossack republics. The Kremlin then rejected the program, but the parties’ potential for negotiation has not been exhausted.
The second option that the Kremlin may consider is the actual establishment of a Circassian republic as its stronghold in the North Caucasus. The factors weighing in favor of this solution are several high-priority issues faced by the Russian government, including the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi; the Georgia, NATO and the Black Sea issues; the Caucasus Emirate and the growing separatist trends in Dagestan and Ingushetia; and the relationships with Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, where Circassian communities have an influence on foreign policy.
Several objective signs point to the possibility that Moscow may be inclined to consider potential concessions to the Circassians in exchange for their loyalty and support from their political elites. Diaspora sources report that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has had several meetings with members of the Circassian communities in Turkey, Jordan and a number of other countries. While the substance of these meetings has not been made public, soon after the meeting, an ethnic Circassian, Jambulat Khatuov, was appointed mayor of the Olympic host city Sochi. This appointment is an extraordinary step, given that the migration policy of Krasnodar Krai, which includes Sochi, has until now been aimed at limiting the presence of Circassians in the Black Sea cities as much as possible. Perhaps Moscow is hopeful that Khatuov’s appointment will generate investment by Circassians in Olympic construction in Sochi, which is currently being boycotted by Turkey’s construction industry because Circassians view the area as a site of the 19th century genocide.
Russian news media occasionally report that there is a group inside the Kremlin working in conjunction with leaders of Circassian communities abroad on a Circassia unification project. In particular, the Political News Agency (PNA) has written about this (see https://www.apn.ru/column/comments20886.htm#comments).
If one believes that Moscow, faced with a weakening influence in the Caucasus, really wants to make the Circassians a reliable ally, not a dangerous enemy, then the idea of Circassian unification does not seem so unrealistic. At the same time, the proposal has obvious risks, for instance, the issue of control. How long will a new republic that has access to the Black Sea, kinship links with Abkhazia, a five-million strong overseas community, and an area bigger than Switzerland want to stay within Russia? It is possible that Moscow might even consider the option of a federation treaty with Circassia, which would give the Circassians relative independence while remaining loyal to Moscow? There is certainly a precedent—Chechnya and its pro-Kremlin leader Ramzan Kadyrov.