Public figures rarely speak out against the existing political order in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, so the open letter from Nikolai Khokhlachyov, an ethnic-Russian activist in the republic, to Sergei Ivanov, the head of President Vladimir Putin’s administration, was surprising. Khokhlachyov called on Ivanov to appoint an ethnic Russian to the vacant position of chairman of the republican Supreme Court to “further strengthen inter-ethnic harmony and tranquility in Karachaevo-Cherkessia.” According to Khokhlachyov, who heads the ethnic-Russian organization Rus, ethnic Karachays are increasingly gaining the upper hand in the republic to the detriment of other ethnic groups, especially ethnic Russians (Politika09.com, June 8).
At a recent conference held by Rus in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, activists sounded the alarm about the status of ethnic Russians in the republic. In particular, Khokhlachyov complained about the outflow of ethnic Russians from the republic, suggesting they are being pressured to leave. The activist also said ethnic Russians are discriminated against when government jobs are filled. In an interview with the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Khokhlachyov said the exodus of ethnic Russians from Karachaevo-Cherkessia is primarily connected to the deep socio-economic crisis in the republic. Many industries were shut down, and ethnic Russians moved to other parts of the Russian Federation in pursuit of opportunities. The republic’s capital, Cherkessk, alone accounted for the loss of 25,000 jobs in industries. But more importantly, Khokhlachyov alleged that the authorities recruit employees along clan lines. “For example, no ethnic Russians are represented in the management of the ministries of education, healthcare, and agriculture; in other government agencies, only four out of 20 chiefs are ethnic Russians,” he said. “We have mono-ethnic authorities in Karachaevo-Cherkessia.” He added that not only are ethnic Russians not represented in the republican leadership, but there are still fewer in positions at lower levels (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 2).
Karachaevo-Cherkessia is a small republic in the northwestern Caucasus with a population of under a half million people. Despite its small size, it is also one of the most ethnically diverse republics in the North Caucasus. The Turkic-speaking ethnic Karachays comprise about 41 percent of its population, while ethnic Russians rank second with about 31 percent of the population. The Cherkess, better known as ethnic Circassians, comprise about 12 percent of the population. Abazins, who are related to both the Circassians and the Abkhaz, make up about 8 percent, while another Turkic-speaking ethnic group, the Nogais, comprise another 3 percent of the total population. Back in 1989, the year of the last Soviet census, ethnic Russians made up 42 percent of the republican population, while ethnic Karachays comprised only 31 percent of the total. In addition, Karachaevo-Cherkessia was part of the ethnic-Russian-majority Stavropol region. So the Karachays and other non-Russian ethnic groups comprised overall a small minority in the large Stavropol region. In 1990, Karachaevo-Cherkessia became a separate republic within the Russian Federation, exiting the Stavropol region.
While the Russian activist’s complaints may seem justified and plausible, the situation is far more complicated than it seems. For example, ethnic Karachays may have an advantage in being appointed to regional government positions in the republic, but Russian federal agencies in the republic invariably are headed and dominated by ethnic Russians. Moreover, ethnic non-Russians, including Karachays, are routinely discriminated against when they move to predominately ethnic-Russian regions of the country. Russian media regularly cover the mistreatment of ethnic Russians in the North Caucasus, but practically never cover discrimination against North Caucasians, both in ethnic-Russian-dominated regions of the country and in their own republics. Khokhlachyov flatly denied that ethnic non-Russians in Karachaevo-Cherkessia have the ability to serve as impartial judges. “I believe that such institutions as courts should be headed by the representatives of Russian nationality, who should be invited from other regions [of Russia],” he said. “And I think that the representatives of all the peoples of the republic will agree with me. This will help avoid cronyism within the judiciary because human lives depend on court decisions” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 2).
There is no scientific evidence that ethnic Russians make better judges than ethnic Karachays or ethnic Circassians. Ethnic Russians are also not devoid of cronyism. A counter-argument could also be made that judges from the same ethnic group may be more respected by the community than judges who are dispatched from other regions of Russia. That is not to say that there are no corrupt judges in the republic. In fact, it may well be a significant problem, and bringing in a corpus of impartial well-trained judges would probably be helpful. However, in the current political circumstances, ethnic republics would regard such “help” as yet another infringement on their rights. To start improving the situation in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and other republics of the North Caucasus, Moscow could stop treating North Caucasians like second-class citizens and give them more self-governance rights and responsibilities. Instead, the North Caucasus republics are progressively deprived of such basic rights as voting for their governors. Ironically, the republics that are supposed to have greater autonomy in their internal affairs than ethnic Russian regions have fewer voting rights. So, the public space increasingly is becoming a space of adversarial competition between the republics and Moscow. The republics are practically excluded from power at the federal level, so they are trying to gain as much power as possible at the regional level.