Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 168

On September 9 Russian President Vladimir Putin signed three decrees that could deepen the crisis in the volatile North Caucasus. Putin issued the decrees to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the voluntary unification of Adygeya, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria with Russia.

In the 16th century, a large ethnic group, known as Circassians or Adygeis, populated the western section of the North Caucasus. At that time the Adygeis were divided into three groups, including those who lived near the Black Sea coast, those who lived in what is now Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Abkhazia, and those who lived in present day Kabardino-Balkaria. These tribes faced strong pressure from the Turks and their vassals, the Crimean Tatars. Prince Timruk, a Kabardinian leader, appealed to Russia’s leader, Ivan the Terrible, proposing an anti-Tatar and anti-Turk union between Russia and Kabarda. This union was strengthened by the marriage of Timruk’s daughter, Maria, to the Russian tsar in 1557.

However, genuine unification never occurred. Only a temporary military union was formed between some Kabardinian princes and Russia against Turkey in 1557. At that time Russia’s borders were too far from the North Caucasus to fully incorporate this distant region. Three centuries later, as the borders of the Russian empire neared the Caucasus, the Russian army met strong resistance. According to Tarkho, a famous Adygei historian, “There are old Russian maps marking 1822 or 1825 as the dates when Kabarda was incorporated into Russia. There are other such dates like 1846 or 1812, for example. These differences are understandable, because in reality there was never any voluntarily unification.”

Instead, there was a bloody war that ended in 1864 with the mass deportation of Circassians to Turkey and Russian colonization of their lands.

Ironically, the idea to celebrate the controversial anniversary was first initiated by the government of Adygeya, yet of the three republics slated for the celebration, the strongest popular resistance comes from Adygeya. This contradiction can be explained by the current political and economic situation in the republic.

Adygeya has fended off several recent attempts by Moscow to eliminate its autonomy and to merge it with Krasnodar krai (see EDM, April 6). Last April Khasret Sovmen, the Adygei president, won a serious standoff with the Russian authorities, who wanted him to resign because he resisted the incorporation plans (see EDM, April 10). Although Sovmen remained in power, he found himself in a difficult position as Adygeya’s share of the federal budget was slashed after the standoff between Sovmen and the Kremlin. For example, Adygeya reportedly did not receive any of the 400 million rubles that Moscow was supposed to invest in local agriculture (Regnum, July 15).

In addition to funding problems, Adygei factories like Maykop Beer Brewery or Giagin Sugar are finding it difficult to sell their products outside the republic. At the same time, all attempts by the Circassian diaspora to invest in Adygeya have met firm resistance from the Russian authorities. On May 30 immigration guards at Krasnodar airport stopped and sent back to Turkey a famous Turkish businessman of Adygei origin, Muzaffar Avdzhi (Dzyiba), who was exploring local investment opportunities (Regnum, June 1). The Kremlin apparently believes that causing more trouble for the local economy will weaken Sovmen’s influence. It may also accelerate the region’s incorporation into Krasnodar krai, since Adygeya’s reputed “economic bankruptcy” is a favorite Kremlin excuse for the unification. Moreover, the Kremlin is not interested at all in investments from Adygeis who live abroad, especially in the Middle East.

Sovmen evidently has decided to use the upcoming anniversary to demonstrate his loyalty to the federal government. According to Jamestown sources in Adygeya, some time ago people from the republican government got in touch with Murat Khapsirokov, an Adygei who is an aide of Igor Sechin, a deputy head of the Russian Presidential Administration, and asked for money to spend to celebrate the anniversary in 2007. The governments of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia later supported the request, as both regions wanted to share any funding, rumored to be as much as $100 million. Since the decrees to celebrate the anniversary were issued by Putin, the Adygei government must finally have Moscow’s full support.

Yet Adygei society was enraged when the commemoration plans became public. The Executive Committee of the Adigeysk town branch of the Adige Khase, an organization that is very influential in Adygeya, issued a special statement saying, “To hold such a celebration means partly to justify the actions of the Russian empire in the territory of Circassia in the 19th century. It will look [as though] during the Russian-Caucasian war Adygeis did not defend their freedom, but were ‘separatists’ who revolted against legitimate authorities. This celebration means that there was no war of free Cherkessia against the aggressor, but it was [redefined as] a ‘counterterrorist operation’ ” (Regnum, August 8).

The Circassian Congress, a more radical Adygei organization, supported this statement. Murat Berzegov, chairman of the Circassian Congress, told Kavkazky Uzel, “Our stand is clear on this issue; one should not celebrate a date that does not exist in history” (Kavkazky Uzel, September 10).

The interests of the governments of Adygeya, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria are clear — they need money from the federal center, while the Kremlin wants to demonstrate its firm control over the North Caucasus. However, it is clear that both the Russian authorities and the local governments are playing with fire, especially the government of Adygeya. While portions of Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria appear to already have Islamic, anti-Russian sentiments, Adygeya is still relatively calm, but continuing with this questionable celebration could easily spark a conflict.