Circassians in the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia have called for a national demonstration to protest against the denial of their civil, political and ethnic rights. Two demonstrations are set to take place on November 26 –the first in the town of Habez, located 18 miles to the south of Cherkessk, the capital city of KCHR, then in Lenin square in Cherkessk, in front of the republican administrational building (the local newspaper “Cherkessk,” November 17).
The initiative group for the protest sent an application for a license to hold the demonstration to the Cherkessk mayor’s office on November 4. The application was denied on the basis of a governmental decree issued on November 12 announcing a national emergency in the republic because of the H1N1 virus pandemic and banning any public gatherings for an indefinite period (www.09biz.ru, November 19).
The head of the Circassian youth movement, Timur Jujuev, told Kavkazsky Uzel that the government’s decree on the swine flu emergency was issued not because of the virus pandemic but to prevent Circassians from mass public protests. In his interview, the youth leader said: “All the public markets continue working on a regular basis, so where is the emergency? We are going to organize the demonstration even if we will need to wear surgical masks and even if we do not have a license from the government. This is not the will of one or two men; it is the will of a nation, and we have right to say what we think” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 19).
The Circassians, who are an ethnic minority in KCHR and constitute approximately 11 percent of the population, have given three major reasons for being unhappy with their status in relation with the Turkic speaking Karachai ethnic majority.
The first involves political rank: Circassians claim that their right to have a presence on the decision-making level is being constantly violated by the dominant Karachais. Evidence for the claim is based on the fact that during the last 30 years, no ethnic Circassian has been allowed to hold the highest post in the republic: since the Soviet period Moscow has appointed men of ethnic Karachai background for the top level position. In 2008, the Circassians lost another position –that of prime minister. Over the last seven months, the Karachai majority in the KCHR parliament have repeatedly banned the Circassian candidate Vyacheslav Derev from taking a position in the Russian Federation Council (NTR local television channel, November 12).
The second reason is historical heritage: Circassians accuse the Karachai political elite of falsifying history. The most scandalous case involves conflicting claims about the ethnic background of the first conqueror of Mt. Elbrus, Khashir Chilar. According to a number of historical sources, such as the testimony of scholars and military members of the expedition to Elbrus, Chilar was a Circassian from Nalchik. The Turkic-speaking Karachais claim that the scholars misunderstood the ethnicity of Chilar, who was an ethnic Karachai. This competition has had tremendous influence on the current political situation in the republic. For example, on November 20, an outdoor poster celebrating the Great Karachai Hilar Hakirov (the Karachai-language version of the name of the first conqueror of Elbrus) was burned in the city of Cherkessk by unknown perpetrators (“Cherkessk,” November 21).
Finally, Circassians declared that they were gravely offended when the local newspaper Express-Post published an article denying the fact from the history of World War II that the Circassian village of Belseney saved dozens of Jewish children from the Nazis. This led to a spontaneous protest demonstration in Besleney in which local Jews who had been saved took to the streets to show “the deep oppression” they felt after “such an unjust and false” newspaper article. Although the editor of the Express-Post apologized publicly for the article, it was during the Besleney demonstration that Circassians called for a national protest demonstration (www.09biz.ru, November 19).
The situation in Karachaevo-Cherkessia cannot be understood without reference to the other two Circassian republics –Kabardino-Balkaria (KBR) and Adygeya. On November 17, a demonstration to defend the rights of Circassians in KBR occurred in the republic’s capital Nalchik that was attended by approximately 3,000 people. In a video posted on Facebook, Ibragim Yagan, the leader of the Circassian NGO, speaks in Circassian to the youth who are a majority of demonstrators. Standing under the flags of the Russian Federation and Circassia, Yagan called upon the youth to wake up and claim their rights and their land. “We have been constantly watched, followed, blackmailed for our political activities,” he said. “But we cannot lose anymore, because we have already lost everything.” Yagans’ voice from the stage is accompanied by a chorus of supporting voices from the auditorium.
Unlike in KCHR, Circassians constitute the majority in KBR. They say, however, that their civil and ethnic rights are constantly being violated there. “After the parliament of KBR ratified the bill ‘On land and territory’ earlier this month, each Balkar living in KBR in turn has received 10.6 hectares of the land while only 1.6 hectares belong to each Circassian,” said Jelyabi Kalmykov, the head of a local Circassian coordination committee. “We have lost more than 200,000 hectares of our land since the occupation,” Kalmykov noted. The meeting sent a protest statement to the KBR government demanding the abolition of the bill on land and territory (Gazeta Yuga, November 19).
The leader of the Circassian Congress of KBR, Ruslan Keshev, declared at the end of his speech: “If the government does not listen to us we are ready for radical actions. This is the only homeland we have” (Gazeta Yuga, November 19). Despite the aggressive public rhetoric between the Turkic speaking Karachai-Balkars and Circassians, both ethnic groups share a clear understanding that the conflict is not natural, but created with a particular political goal. The leaders of the initiative for the Circassian world sport games, Sufian Jemukhov and Alexei Bekshokov, released a statement in which they attributed the current “unnatural interethnic escalation” to the upcoming 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi and the related protests by Circassians both at home and in the Diaspora.
According to Jemukhov and Bekshokov, the conflict has the potential to blow up the whole Caucasus into a bloody mess with the mass civilian casualties and therefore keep the Circassians from opposing the Sochi Winter Olympics. “Moscow plays the conflict scenario when the participants do not have the ability to solve the conflict, but the conflict is absolutely manageable and can be easily solved by its rulers from the Kremlin,” they said in their statement (Adygeya Natpress, November 14).
The role of the Kremlin in fanning the flames of local ethnic conflicts due to political interests was underscored in Adygeya, where the local newspaper published a letter from the most famous Russian leader in Adygeya, Nina Konovalova of the Soyuz Slavyan Adygeyi (the Union of Slavs of Adygeya), to the leaders of the Narodnaya Partia Rossii (the People’s Party of Russia). In the letter, dated October 18, 2005, Konovalova asks for support in the upcoming republican parliament election. While describing the potential of her organization, she writes: “Escalation through our propaganda and agitation of the social and interethnic situation in the republic can lead to a notable increase in the number of people who are unhappy with the current government. If we build our election campaign on the base of uniting Adygeya with Krasnodarski Krai… we can leave all our opponents far behind.”
The letter has a handwritten note on it, stating: “1. We do not have money. 2. Try to create a bloc with the Promyshlennaya Partia [the Industrial Party] – they have money.”
Konovala and her unified bloc of the Soyuz Slavyan Adygeyi and Promyshlennaya Partia won the election under the slogans of unifying Adygeya with Krasnodar Krai, and she is now in the parliament of Adygeya representing the rights of the republic’s Russian population. During the election, Adygeya and other Circassian republics and Circassians in the Diaspora held a number of mass demonstrations, hunger strikes and political actions protesting against the possibility of Adygeya losing its autonomy.