Circassians See Russian Census as Real Chance to Unite Their Nation

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 156

Circassians protesting the Circassian genocide (Source: Flickr)

The Circassians, whom the Soviet and Russian states have subdivided into twelve different nations in order to control the North Caucasus, see the upcoming Russian census as their best chance in a long time to unite as one people by declaring a common nationality. Many specialists on the region say that most of those labeled as one of the twelve nations will this time choose to identify as Circassians. Previous Russian censuses have listed Kabards, Abdzakh, Shapsug, and Ubykh, which are Circassian subgroups, along with the all-encompassing Adyghe, meaning Circassians in their native language and sometimes its Russian translation Cherkess (Census 2010).

Potential consolidation under a common nationality will increase Circassian political demands, including the return of Circassians from abroad and the formation of a single Circassian republic in place of the three republics and additional regions they are divided into now. In addition to unsettling the North Caucasus, such development could also serve as a model of ethnic mobilization for other peoples within the current borders of the Russian Federation, inspiring them to declare their preferred identities and challenge current ethno-territorial arrangements elsewhere (, October 5; October 8). The effort to enlist the Circassians under one nationality began before the 2010 Russian census and has grown in 2019 and 2020 as the census has been delayed (see EDM, February 16; WindowOnEurasia, December 10, 2019).

Because the stakes are so high, it is quite probable that some Russian census takers will not enter the declarations of the Circassians correctly and that, even if they do, those who process the census results will falsify them in order to suggest that the Circassians have failed in their attempt and that the existing divisions remain the ones on which the Russian state can rely. In case it becomes evident that the gap between what Circassians know they have declared and what the Russian census says is significant, a new wave of Circassian activism could unfold, perhaps even larger than the one preceding the Sochi Olympics in 2014. The winter Olympics took place on the spot from which Circassians were expelled in 1864 by tsarist forces, which the Circassians and many others view as an act of genocide (see EDM, October 5).

The most active center behind this drive appears to be among the Kabards, one of the subgroups Moscow has divided the Circassians, and the dominant titular nationality in the binational Kabardino-Balkar Republic. On October 3, the leaders of eight Circassian groups there issued an appeal to Circassians in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic and across the North Caucasus (, October 3). The appeal says that the twelve groups Moscow has divided the nation into “are one people, the Circassians (Adyghe).”

The appeal continues, “Many peoples have a self-designator and a name used by others. The former is used when its members speak among themselves; the latter when others refer to it. In the international community, peoples are typically known by the latter name.” In the case of all such subgroups, that common name is Circassian, a reflection of history and the fact that more than five million Circassians live outside of the North Caucasus homeland, beyond the borders of the Russian Federation.

The appeal points out that, unfortunately, “the officially recognized list of indigenous non-Russian peoples in Russia does not include self-designation” and “the census will be carried out not in our native language but in a foreign one, Russian.” Because of these factors, “it is a matter of fundamental importance that we consolidate our nation under a single name for statistical purposes. “Each of us, concerned about the fate and future of the nation, must register as a Circassian in the census. We are all Adyghe (in our native language); we are all Circassians (in other languages). We have one Motherland and one Fatherland!”

Kabard activists and academic specialists like Beslan Khagazhey, Aslan Beshtoyev, and Madina Khakuasheva are confident that many Kabards and other subethnic groups will respond positively to this appeal. They say support for such declarations has grown. Earlier, many Circassians were prepared to declare they were Kabards or Cherkess to support the existing republics, but now they see that these are thin reeds on which they cannot rely. And so, having long felt themselves to be one people and one nation, they are ready to declare themselves Circassians (Adyghe).

Fatima Ozova, a specialist at the Karachay-Cherkess Institutes for Research on the Humanities, agrees. She says that declaring oneself a Circassian now has “few opponents.” Local republic leaders may not want people to do so lest their own power be compromised, and Moscow certainly does not wish the Circassians to unite. But the influence of these two groups on Circassians is far less than it used to be, or many imagine it now to be. Timur Aloyev, an expert at the Kabardino-Balkar Institute for the Humanities, agrees. He says declaring oneself a Circassian is now very popular. And Akhmet Yarlykapov, a Caucasus specialist at MGIMO, says that members of small groups carved out of larger ones by the Soviets want to reunite to have more influence and ensure that their groups will survive.

At this point, Moscow’s opposition is most likely to take the form of outright falsification. Its efforts to get local officials to speak out against such a change in one’s declared nationality have failed. Its earlier move to conduct a separate “Circassian” census five years ago backfired, attracting more attention to this possibility than causing people to flee from it (EDM, October 25, 2016). The Kremlin has to decide which will hurt it more: a massive falsification on an issue that most Circassians care about, which could spark protests not only among them in Russia, but among other nations and abroad as well, or allowing the Circassians to make this change in the census, which will undercut current territorial arrangements in the North Caucasus and potentially present Moscow with an even more difficult situation.

The answer to this dilemma will be coming soon: Moscow is slated to release preliminary census results early next year and complete ones by the end of 2022.