Circassians Propose New Independent Cross-Regional Group in the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 17 Issue: 7

On March 17, Circassian organizations in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia unveiled plans to establish a new independent cross-regional organization. The move by Circassian activists followed an announcement by the government of Karachaevo-Cherkessia that it would shut down the republic’s Circassian organization, the Adyge Khase–Circassian Parliament. “The Circassians from different regions perceived the government attempt to shut down the organization with extreme pain,” said Timur Zhuzhuev, the head of the Adyge Khase youth group. “Many people wanted to come to Karachaevo-Cherkessia from Adygea and Kabardino-Balkaria, but the reasonable decision of the court has reduced the degree of tension, so only the delegation from Kabardino-Balkaria arrived.” Previously, the Adyge Khase–Circassian Parliament received an extension period to allow it to correct the alleged violations of the law. Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s justice ministry asked the organization to present, before April 7, documents proving the organization had corrected the infractions (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 19).

According to the Circassian activists, the government put pressure on the organization in Karachaevo-Cherkessia for political reasons. Last year, Circassian organizations in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygea denounced the reelection of Khauti Sokhrokov as head of the International Circassian Association. Many Circassian activists criticized Sokhrokov for his complacency and reluctance to defend Circassian interests. A critic of Sokhrokov in Adygea, Adam Bogus, was forced to resign from his position in the republican Circassian organization. According to the Circassian activists, the authorities in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, decided to disband the organization altogether. The government accused the Adyge Khase–Circassian Parliament in Karachaevo-Cherkessia of “violations of the statutes of the organization,” “violations of the equality of the rights of members of the organization,” and so on. Further, an official from Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s justice ministry claimed that the package they received from the organization contained “blank sheets of paper.” The leader of the organization, Mukhamed Cherkesov, has denied any wrongdoing and claimed that the organization fully complied with government requirements. According to Cherkesov, the republican authorities have disliked the Adyge Khase of Karachaevo-Cherkessia since it was established in 2002; but this is the first time they have tried to shut it down (, March 11).

Regional governments in the North Caucasus tend to control civic organizations quite tightly, and Circassian organizations are no exception. The administration of Karachaevo-Cherkessia is reportedly weighing its options in appointing the leader of the ethnic Abaza, while activists of the organization argue that only the Abaza should decide who will lead it (, March 22). The Abaza are another minority in Karachaevo-Cherkessia who have autonomy within the republic. The Abaza are linguistically related to the Circassians and the Abkhaz. However, unlike most of the other republics in the North Caucasus, Karachaevo-Cherkessia is politically fragmented. It is one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the North Caucasus. Besides ethnic Karachays, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, the republic is home to the Circassians (a.k.a. Cherkes), Abaza, Nogais and ethnic Russians. The republic’s political fragmentation allows civic organizations to operate slightly more freely than elsewhere in the region.

Many Circassian activists have expressed their disappointment with the activities of the International Circassian Association for its “betrayal” of Circassian interests. For example, the ICA supported the Sochi Olympics in 2014, contrary to the expectations of many Circassians, who fiercely opposed the event on the land where the Russian armies exterminated their ancestors in the 19th century.

Since the protests did not succeed in changing the ICA’s leadership, Circassian activists across the North Caucasus are now committed to establishing another network organization. Circassian organizations from Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Krasnodar region and other areas will be part of the new organization. The organizers say that Circassians across these regions share the same language and culture—which, in the words of one activist, Aslan Beshto, makes it only natural to unite “for the common growth of culture in a united cultural space.” The organizers are careful not to offend the ICA, which apparently has powerful allies in the government. Instead, Beshto emphasized that the ICA is a “higher level” organization while the new organization that the Circassian activists propose establishing will work at the grassroots level (Kavkazsky Uzel, March 19).

Many Circassian activists have lamented the fact that the Russian government’s “divide-and-rule” policy has prevailed in their areas. Ethnic Circassians currently live in at least five neighboring regions and only comprise a majority in one of them—Kabardino-Balkaria. The new organization, if successful, will help to coordinate the efforts of the Circassians across the administrative borders of the North Caucasian regions. It is highly likely, however, that the government will try either to prevent such an organization from forming or heavily infiltrate it with government agents.

Paradoxically, while Moscow often talks about friendship between different groups and peace in the North Caucasus, which is rife with interethnic tensions, it dislikes horizontal ties between the regions. Thus, there are practically no cross-regional independent newspapers or organizations. The political structure of the Russian state is built on the premise of a single political center, Moscow, which centrally manages each region and does not allow the formation of regional groups that could potentially challenge the central state. If it is formed, the Circassian interregional organization may become the first of its kind in the North Caucasus, which is bound to have a significant impact on the situation in the region.