Murder of Circassian Activist Unsettles Multi-Ethnic Karachaevo-Cherkessia

On March 15, the funeral of a Circassian activist killed the previous day turned into an impromptu protest rally. An estimated 200 Circassian demonstrators gathered at the central square, next to the republican government building in Cherkessk, the capital of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, to protest against the murder of Aslan Zhukov and demand a proper investigation of the crime. The police were mobilized to protect the government (, March 15).
On March 14, an unknown gunman killed Aslan Zhukov near his home in Cherkessk. The 36-year-old father of three was a small-time businessman and popular with the politically active Circassian youth (, March 14). The president of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Boris Ebzeyev, made a special statement following Zhukov’s murder, conveying condolences to his relatives and calling on the people to avoid “coloring the murder in ethnic tones,” before an investigation was conducted (, March 15).
President Ebzeyev visited the murdered activist’s family within an hour after the killing, since the incident quickly drew a large crowd. This is probably just an indication of how precarious the situation is within this multi-ethnic republic. Investigators said they were looking into Zhukov’s business-related activities, hoping to find leads in the murder case. However, Zhukov’s relatives and friends received this explanation with indignation, saying that small-time business activities like the victim’s could not have led to his murder. Zhukov was known for speaking out and warning about increased ethnic-related violence in the republic (Kommersant, March 16).
On March 1, the Karachaevo-Cherkessian police, after months of silence on the issue, held a special event on the ethnic clashes between Karachay youth, on one side, and Circassian and Abaza youth, on the other, that had taken place in the republic. Massive street fights between the young people, involving dozens of participants, reportedly started in October 2009 and continued into 2010, with the latest large clash reportedly taking place on February 19. Some civil activists accused the authorities of passivity, while the interior ministry of Karachaevo-Cherkessia asked not to dramatize the situation (, March 2).
Karachaevo-Cherkessia witnessed a large-scale upheaval during local presidential elections in 1999. The Karachay and Circassian communities struggled to prop up their candidates for the presidential position (Vladimir Semenov and Stanislav Derev, respectively). The political struggle turned violent, as both sides accused each other of rigging the ballot and used small arms to defend their interests. A compromise in the form of a power-sharing scheme was eventually reached, but the situation seems to be spiraling out of control once again as the Circassian elites feel excluded from political power. Given the high dependency of business activities on politics in the region, this means that the elites who are deprived of access to political governance also find their business interests threatened.
Karachaevo-Cherkessia, with a population of a little less than 500,000, is one of the most ethnically diverse republics of the North Caucasus, second only to Dagestan. The four major indigenous ethnic groups in the republic include the Karachays, Circassian, Nogais and the Abaza people. The Karachays, who are closely related to the Balkars who live in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria, speak a Turkic language and comprise about 40 percent of the population and occupy the commanding positions in the government of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Ethnic Russians comprise about 30 percent of the population, but are largely politically inactive and reportedly have been leaving the region in large numbers. The Circassian and the Abaza people are related to each other and to the Kabardins and Adygeis in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea. The Circassian and the Abaza, combined, comprise less than 20 percent of the republic’s population, but are nevertheless prone to challenging the otherwise almost unchecked political power of the Karachays in Karachaevo-Cherkessia.
Meanwhile, Aslan Zhukov’s associates are preparing for further demonstrations to achieve the political goal of separating the Circassian part from Karachaevo-Cherkessia and creating a separate autonomous republic. The head of the Circassian organization Adyge Khase, Mukhamed Cherkesov, said he would press for more demonstrations and public events to advance the goal of an autonomous republic for the Circassian of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, as they “had no other alternative” (, March 16).
President Dmitry Medvedev paid a surprise visit to Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria on February 27. Medvedev named extremism, corruption and the poor socio-economic development of Karachaevo-Cherkessia among the main problems that plague the republic (, March 2).
Besides the ethnically complex composition of Karachaevo-Cherkessia and the related rivalries, there is another important trend that may attract the attention of observers to this republic: namely, the growing movement among the Circassians living in the North Caucasus and abroad demanding that the Russian government recognize the Russian empire’s genocidal practices during the conquest of the Circassian lands in the nineteenth century. The protests and rising awareness of the public come at an especially sensitive moment for the Kremlin, as the Olympics in Sochi in 2014 will be held in lands that were owned by Circassians in the past and where the alleged genocide took place. It is also widely assumed that the Sochi Olympics are “Putin’s personal project.”
It is unsurprising that Russian government officials react warily to any attempt by the Circassians to organize themselves to advance their interests, which does nothing but further alienate them from the Russian government. On the day of Medvedev’s visit, the International Circassian Association in Nalchik appealed to the Russian president “to incorporate the Circassian element into the Sochi Olympics.” The organization resented the fact that while a Native American Indian theme was incorporated into the most recent winter Olympics in Canada, the Circassian subject has not received nearly the same amount of consideration in the planning for the Sochi games (, February 28).