Invasion of Ukraine Has Unintended Consequences for Russian Ethnic Minorities
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 105
On July 2, Russian police detained Tahir Sozaev, head of the village Belaya Rechka in Kabardino-Balkaria. Sozaev is suspected of fomenting interethnic discord between the Balkars and other ethnic groups. In December 2021, the municipal official reportedly posted a controversial audio message in a village group chat. Sozaev demanded that all trade in Belaya Rechka be conducted only in the Balkar language (Karachay-Balkar). The official warned shop owners to refrain from serving customers who spoke Russian. According to preliminary information, Sozaev also wanted to ban the sale of land in Belaya Rechka to ethnic Russians and Kabardians (i.e., Circassians) (Sovsekretno.ru, July 4).
According to sources, the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation for the North Caucasus Federal District carried out Sozaev’s arrest (Kavkazsky uzel, July 4). This likely indicates the importance of the arrest and a keen interest in the case for Moscow authorities. Belaya Rechka, with a population around 3,000, is a suburb of Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. Turkic-speaking Balkars make up about 91 percent of the village population, with ethnic Russians and Circassians each comprising about 2 percent.
Balkars and Kabardians are both titular ethnic groups in Kabardino-Balkaria. Ethnic Russians are the second-largest ethnic group in the republic. Normally, the power-sharing scheme in the republic favors Kabardians as the majority of the population (57 percent), followed by Balkars (13 percent) as a nominal ethnic group and finally ethnic Russians (23 percent). However, the arrest of a Balkar official on what appear to be vexatious charges undermines the existing political status quo in Kabardino-Balkaria. Moreover, it is highly unusual to accuse an official of inciting interethnic discord, especially invoking discrimination against the Russian language.
A similar case recently made waves in neighboring North Ossetia. On May 11, a well-known ethnic Ossetian blogger from North Ossetia, Batraz Sidamon (Misikov), was accused of spreading propaganda regarding the superiority of ethnic Russians over Ossetians and incitement of hatred toward the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the Kremlin. The reason for the administrative case was an internet post by Sidamon commenting on an initiative by activists to rename Lenin Street in Vladikavkaz after Ossetian World War II hero Kaurbek Toguzov. After the communists in North Ossetia and Moscow indignantly rejected the idea, Sidamon ironically noted: “Russians can rename the whole city of Leningrad in honor of their tsar and his heavenly patron [Saint Petersburg], but Ossetians cannot rename one street in honor of their hero.”
The regional branch of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) launched an investigation into Sidamon’s statements, accusing him of propagating ethnic Russians’ superiority over Ossetians (Vedomosti.ru, July 6). It is interesting that the FSB accused the blogger of “Russian nationalism” rather than Ossetian nationalism. It indicates that the security services want to avoid provoking Ossetian nationalists while disparaging Sidamon’s purported Ossetian nationalist credentials.
The two cases involving the incitement of ethnic discord in Kabardino-Balkaria and North Ossetia do not seem to be connected directly. However, they come together as a vivid illustration of changes in the Russian Federation and the North Caucasus in the wake of Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine. First, these cases reflect the overall increase in the Russian state’s repressiveness. Second, the “minority nationalism” cases eerily resemble a Stalinist era subset of repressions against the nascent intelligentsia of peripheral minorities who were accused of “bourgeois nationalism.”
Russia’s vigorous propaganda campaign accompanying the war in Ukraine has emphasized various sides of nationalism, from “de-Nazification” (i.e., de-Ukrainization) of Ukraine to propagating and supporting the Russian language and culture. The federation’s own minorities, including the North Caucasians, have no place in the Kremlin’s view of the war—it is all about ethnic Russians. Moscow, of course, is happy to employ ethnic minorities to fight on behalf of the Russkiy Mir (Russian World), but the war’s aims focus decidedly on ethnic Russians. Partly, this discrepancy is reflected in the relatively low popularity of the war in Ukraine among North Caucasians (see EDM, June 27).
The war rhetoric infused with Russian nationalism inevitably leads to the rise of other nationalist movements, including those in the North Caucasus. Moreover, most perceptive activists in the region increasingly realize that Russia’s purported policies of de-Ukrainization in Ukraine were previously applied to other ethnic groups closer to home. Moscow pressed ahead with drastic cuts for the study of native languages in schools across the Russian Federation; Russian news organizations, orchestrated by the government, invented new types of crime, such as “ethnic criminal gangs”; religious freedoms outside the Russian Orthodox Church have remained elusive and so on.
In response to Moscow’s resolve to fight for the Russkiy Mir and expand the influence of the Russian culture and language through conquest, North Caucasian activists reevaluate where their languages and cultures fit into the picture. Russian officialdom leaves little, if any, space for minority languages and cultures. The cynicism of Moscow’s “de-Nazification” of Ukraine policy, which involves suppressing Ukrainian culture and propping up Russian culture, is not lost on North Caucasian activists. As the Kremlin openly floats Russian nationalist ideas about spreading Russian culture in Ukraine, non-Russian nationalist movements are further awakened and will carefully try to carve out a public space for themselves.