Moscow’s Delay of 2020 Census Opens Way for Circassian Promotion of Common Identity

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 26

(Source: Circassia Times)

For the second time, ostensibly out of concern that census takers might further spread the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian government has postponed the 2020 all-Russian enumeration, this time until September 2021 (Natsionalnyy Aktsent, February 9). That decision may, indeed, reduce the epidemiological dangers, but it carries with it new political risks. Circassians have long been calling on fellow members of their nation, which Moscow had consciously divided into several distinct subgroups, to declare a common ethnonym in the census. During the pandemic year, they had fewer opportunities to mobilize support for such a campaign; but now, these activists have an extra nine months. And they are stepping up their efforts, both online and in person, to have the Cherkess, Kabards, Adygs and Shapsugs all declare they are Circassians (Adygs) (NatPress, February 10; AdygPlus, February 14).

The Circassians still face an uphill battle; yet if they succeed in encouraging a large share of these communities to identify as members of a single nationality, they will upend the existing territorial arrangements in the North Caucasus and cast doubt on Moscow’s ability to maintain the Soviet-era ethno-national divisions that have allowed the Russian government to maintain control. If members of the Cherkess minority in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, the Kabard majority in Kabardino-Balkaria, the Adyg minority in the Republic of Adygea, and the Shapsug minority in the Sochi region declare themselves members of a single nation in the upcoming census, that will further empower the drive for the return of Circassians in the Middle East to their North Caucasus homeland. Moreover, it will lead to more activism against the erection of Russian memorials in Circassian areas. And finally, a greater proportion of this nation may then seek the restoration of a single Circassian state—perhaps first within the Russian Federation but likely with an ultimate goal of independence. And the Circassians’ agitation can be expected to inspire the two Turkic nations in the Northwest Caucasus’ binational republics, the Balkars in Kabardino-Balkaria and the Karachais in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, to themselves become more active (see EDM, September 24, 2019, July 9, 2020, June 16, 2020, August 11, 2020).

Circassian efforts to persuade members of their national subgroups to declare a common ethnonym began before the 2010 census but had relatively little impact until now. In the months before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, however, the campaign resumed and looked set to achieve a great deal more this time around (NatPress, November 16, 2019; Habze, March 10, 2019; Kavkavsky Uzel, February 7, 2019, March 7, 2019;, February 26, 2019).

Rustam Guelykue, a 38-year-old Circassian from Krasnodar, has become one of the most outspoken of such activists; and he has gone online to reaffirm the arguments Circassians made before the last Russian census, in 2010. In advance of the 2010 enumeration, Guelykue writes, “a group of Circassian young people from Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Krasnodar and Stavropol krais launched an initiative calling for Circassians to restore to the Circassian (Adyg) people a single ethnic name.” In an essay, “One People-One Name-One Future,” he reports, the activists laid out the reasons for their position. And all those remain valid for the 2020 census, now set to take place in September 2021 (, December 16, 2019;, December 10, 2019).

The activist reiterates that “we are again approaching [the census] in the position of a divided people,” split among the Adygeis, the Kabardins and the Cherkess, “who today form three republics.” Recently, it was pointed out, a fourth group, the Adygei-Shapsugs, a numerically small group, was added to their number. As a result, “today in the Russian Federation, officially live four ‘Adyg’ peoples,” who, in fact, are one people speaking one language with one past and one desired future. These divisions have given rise to “absurdities” like “when in one family, the father is declared a Cherkess, the mother an Adygei, and the children Shapsugs, although all are Circassians.”

“Brothers and sisters!” Guelykue writes, repeating the earlier activist appeals, “the locomotive of history is rapidly flying forward. If we do not want to remain behind but rather to occupy a worthy place among the peoples of the world, then we cannot allow ourselves to remain inactive for years and decades. We should have acted earlier; we must act today! Let us restore historical justice, correct the mistakes of the past, and overcome the divisions among us” by returning to our people “its single historical name.” All Circassians, regardless of where they live, can do that in the upcoming census. “The Constitution gives us that right; history means we must act on it,” Guelykue’s post concludes.

The Circassians nonetheless face an uphill battle because the pandemic has limited their opportunities to generate support and because, even more than a decade ago, Russian census takers are likely to code their responses on the basis of where individuals live: If someone resides in Kabardino-Balkaria but says he is a Circassian rather than a Kabardin, for example, the census taker will simply put down Kabardin regardless. And so, too, for the Adygs, Cherkess, Shapsugs and others (, February 12, 2019).

Nonetheless, as ever more prominent Circassians—such as the well-known historian Naima Neflyasheva (Kavkavsky Uzel, accessed February 16)—say that they no longer accept the Soviet-imposed divisions and will declare themselves to be Circassians, any Russian falsification carries with it its own dangers. If large numbers of Circassians conclude that their responses are being ignored and Soviet-Russian divisions fraudulently maintained, they are likely to go into the streets to protest, adding their voices to opposition groups certain to be doing the same thing during the Duma elections now scheduled to take place at the same time.

Before the pandemic, Moscow clearly thought that its ability to control what the 2020 census would show was being challenged; but the central authorities still believed they could prevent a disaster (, December 15, 2019). Now, with yet another delay in the enumeration to the fall of 2021, Russian officials are probably less certain. Whereas, the Circassians will surely be using the coming months to advance their cause.