On June 27, the Circassian organization Adyge Khase held a conference in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Participants accused the republic’s authorities of neglecting Circassian villages and putting pressure on Circassian businesses, calling for an extraordinary conference of the Circassian people. Circassians in Karachaevo-Cherkessia accuse the republican authorities of habitually neglecting the needs of the Circassian-populated areas, discriminating against Circassian businesses and handing out government jobs on the basis of clan membership. As a result, activists say, the republic’s Circassian-populated areas suffer chronic unemployment, forcing young people to seek opportunities in other parts of the country (onkavkaz.com, June 30).
Karachaevo-Cherkessia is a small but ethnically diverse republic in the northwestern Caucasus. The Turkic-speaking Karachays comprise a plurality in the republic. Ethnic Russians are the second largest group and Circassians (also known as Cherkes) the third. Other politically important groups include Abaza and Nogais. Both the Karachays and Circassians are the so-called “titular group in the republic, but the former hold leading positions in Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s political life. Ethnic Russians, despite comprising nearly one-third of the republic’s population, are politically inert, while the numerically small ethnic Abaza and Nogais have their own autonomies within Karachaevo-Cherkessia. As a result of the largely dual ethnic make-up of the republic, the main political battles are between the Karachays and the Circassians. Such tensions came to a head during the republican presidential election campaign in 1999, when Karachaevo-Cherkessia was on the brink of civil war. Now some experts are warning Karachaevo-Cherkessia may again be headed in the direction of ethnic conflict.
It appears that the authorities’ pressure on the Derevs, a prominent Circassian family that includes a member of the Federation Council (the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament), prompted the latest spike in tensions. Vyacheslav Derev, is also a member of the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament) who has tried to rally support among the wider public (politika09.com, June 29). The head of the youth wing of Adyge Khase, Timur Zhuzhuev, warned the governor of the republic, Rashid Temrezov, to respect Circassian leaders. “At first glance, elite conflicts are not related to ordinary people but, on the other hand, elites express the interests of their respective peoples, and if the elites’ businesses crumble and the affected business is associated with a particular nationality, common people will be unemployed,” Zhuzhuev said. “Therefore, we will defend our elites.” According to the Circassian youth leader, apart from tensions between the Karachay-dominated authorities and Circassian businesses, a struggle for resources may unfold among the Karachay clans themselves (Kavkazskaya Politika, June 3).
The political economy of ethnic relations in the republic is much more complex than the Derevs’ relations with the Karachay elites. Circassian businesses complain that government contracts are handed out to people in the government who then subcontract Circassian enterprises. But even this is not new in the republic and unlikely to have caused the latest spike of tensions. Adyge Khase leader Muhamed Cherkesov said: “Under the conditions of a global crisis and war of sanctions, many companies have been weakened so much that they have realized that surviving on their own will be quite difficult.” According to Cherkesov, not only small enterprises are running into problems–large businesses used to feeling secure have started to experience extreme pressure as a result of the changing economic conditions. At the same time, Muhamedov says, the crisis has dramatically worsened corruption. Thus, the unresolved problems of corruption and cronyism, along with Russia’s growing economic crisis, is forcing all business players, as well as ordinary families, into a fierce competition for resources (onkavkaz.com, June 30).
The economic crisis in the North Caucasus has its own peculiarities compared to other parts of the country. One is that economic stagnation is raising tensions between various ethnic groups. The other is that the North Caucasus republics high dependence on government handouts from Moscow means that the government is virtually the only significant source of revenue. This makes the struggle for control over the regional government and its budget vital for the survival of competing ethnic groups.
Moscow’s attempt to mask the absence of government funding by finding new creative ways to distribute them (Jamestown, June 30) does not address the existing conflicts or the actual needs of the country’s regions. Instead of openly discussing the problems related to the economic crisis, Moscow has resorted to propaganda warfare. However, as the situation in Karachaevo-Cherkessia shows, demands for economic fairness quickly turn into ethnic and political demands that are hard to address without significant changes to how the region is currently run. Economic pressure and related ethnic tensions in Karachaevo-Cherkessia show how and why the economic crisis may potentially drive political reforms.