At a recent conference of the International Circassian Association (ICA), the governor of Kabardino-Balkaria, Yuri Kokov, proposed to create a unified writing script for all Circassians. Although the idea is not new, this marked the first time that the political leadership of one of the Circassian republics in the Russian Federation has come out in support of it. Circassian activists have raised the issue numerous times since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is particularly topical for the Circassians due to this ethnic group’s multiple divisions (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 23).
Circassians in the North Caucasus are divided among four main territories, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Adygea and Krasnodar region. A large part of the Circassian population also resides outside the Circassian homeland in the North Caucasus, mostly in Turkey. Thus, creating a unified medium of communication would greatly facilitate the coordination of this divided people. Many Circassian activists outside Russia have advocated for the adoption of the Latin alphabet for the Circassian language. Currently, Circassians in the North Caucasus use the Cyrillic alphabet. Some Circassians have even proposed to return to the ancient Circassian alphabet that was in use prior to Arabic, Cyrillic and Latin scripts. Even though all Circassians in the North Caucasus use alphabets based on Cyrillic, they are not identical. Moreover, Circassians across the four territories speak different dialects, which sometimes prevents them from understanding each other (Onkavkaz.com, June 16, 2015).
The governor of Kabardino-Balkaria proposed not only to provide the same writing script for all Circassians, based on the Cyrillic alphabet, but also to create a unified literary language, which Circassians across administrative and interstate borders still do not have. According to the Circassian activist Asker Sokht, devising a common alphabet is a relatively straightforward task; a well-known professor of linguistics, Muhadin Kumakhov, has already provided a foundation for such work. Yet, the authorities will face an uphill battle if they decide to implement a common literary language for all Circassians, Sokht says. At the same time, since Sokht comes from Adygea, he advocates for the Adygean dialect to become the “literary Circassian” for all Circassians (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 23). The problem with that is that the majority of Circassians in the North Caucasus currently reside in Kabardino-Balkaria and speak the Kabardin dialect. Why do the Circassians then not adopt Kabardin, as the common literary language? This is also problematic because the majority of the Circassians in the diaspora speak other dialects than Kabardin.
Although the Russian Empire targeted all Circassian tribes in the 19th century, those tribes that lived near the Black Sea coast, such as Shapsugs, were hit especially hard. The Russian tsars wanted to clear out the Black Sea coastal areas of “unwanted people” completely, while the landlocked territories were of somewhat less strategic importance to Moscow. Hence, more Circassians from the historical Circassia on the Black Sea coast can now be found in the diaspora than from inner parts of Circassia in the Central North Caucasus, where Kabardino-Balkaria is located.
Kabardino-Balkaria is currently de-facto the largest republic with a Circassian population and is trying to secure its top position. About 0.5 million Circassians live in the republic, which is much larger than the estimated 60,000 Circassians residing in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and the little over 100,000 Circassians inhabiting Adygea. The number of Circassians in Krasnodar region is negligibly small—about 4,000. Following Governor Kokov’s statement, Kabardino-Balkarian State University announced it would include the Circassian language in the mandatory curriculum for students from the diaspora who study at the university (Kbrria.ru, October 7).
Why did the government of Kabardino-Balkaria suddenly become concerned with the Circassian language? Part of the reason appears to be the government’s strategy to improve its tarnished reputation. The aforementioned International Circassian Association (ICA), where Kokov made his announcement regarding a common Circassian writing script, has been harshly criticized by many independent Circassian activists for the organization’s ostensibly pro-Moscow leanings. Now, in using the platform of the ICA, Kokov is apparently trying to help the organization regain its credibility among Circassians at home and abroad. Apart from the language initiative, the governor of Kabardino-Balkaria proposed to celebrate Circassian Day (Den Adyga) in September, which was reportedly invented to undermine the influence of the Circassian diaspora and of the Islamists in the republic (Onkavkaz.com, September 21).
As usually happens, Moscow’s support for various projects pursued by Kabardino-Balkarian officialdom are being accompanied by quiet, but effective pressure on independent Circassian activists. Thus, the head of the Circassian organization in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and an outspoken critic of the authorities, Muhamed Cherkesov, has recently been replaced with a more obedient activist, Ali Aslanov. Earlier, several overly active Circassian leaders such as Adam Bogus were also forced to resign from their positions in Adygea (Natpressru.info, October 9).
Moscow’s strategy in the Circassian lands in the North Caucasus seems to be the tried-and-true strategy of taking over the Circassian movement and destroying it from within. To do so, Moscow endows certain official figures, such as Governor Yuri Kokov, with money and power to make bold promises about the rebirth of the Circassian nation. At the same time, independent civil activists are undermined, removed or co-opted. Informal and more-or-less independent Circassian organizations routinely come under pressure from the government and are destroyed after “losing the agenda” to the authorities and their puppet organizations. But once the official agents of Moscow are the only organizations left, they end up toning down their promises and eventually forget them. The strategy has worked for Moscow in the North Caucasus fairly well, and there is no reason to suggest that it will not be used again and again. Furthermore, it is a win-win situation for the regional authorities, who receive additional funds for their role, and for Moscow, which is thus able to rid itself of independent Circassian activists at a relatively low price. The Kabardino-Balkarian authorities’ sudden activism and Moscow’s willingness to pay for it also indicate that Moscow is taking the Circassian question quite seriously and is prepared to finance regional actors willing to suppress and mislead the Circassians.