Rising Circassian Activism Fuels Resentment Among Other North Caucasian Peoples

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 9

On April 26, the parliament of Kabardino-Balkaria addressed Moscow’s envoy to the North Caucasus, Alexander Khloponin to facilitate an increase in the republican police force. Earlier in March at a parliament hearing, the Interior Minister of Kabardino-Balkaria, Sergei Vasiliev, complained about a shortage of manpower in the republican police force. “Despite the adopted measures in the past year, the situation with curbing terrorist and extremist activities did not change substantially. The number of terrorist and extremist crimes, including those against the government officials, municipal authorities, law enforcement agents and the military servicemen, was not reduced,” the parliament’s press-service stated (https://www.parlament-kbr.ru/index.php?Page=news&id=771&idp=20, April 26).

The Kabardino-Balkarian parliament’s statement has become the strongest signal yet in 2012 that the situation in this North Caucasian republic is still highly unpredictable, despite a number of successful operations of the Russian security services in 2011. Although virtually the entire leadership of the Kabardino-Balkarian insurgency was wiped out in the spring of 2011, the situation never fully calmed down in the republic, and by the end of 2011 several high profile attacks once again had renewed tensions.

The parliament of Kabadino-Balkaria requested the Russian Interior Ministry to boost the local police force by an additional 1,419 persons. This number would include 494 patrol and check-point police officers, 730 road police officers and 195 other police personnel. Since 2005, Kabardino-Balkaria has maintained 220 police officers dedicated to the defense of the republican border in the areas adjacent to Chechnya (https://www.parlament-kbr.ru/index.php?Page=news&id=771&idp=20, April 20). Kabardino-Balkaria technically has no border with Chechnya or even with Ingushetia, as North Ossetia is situated between Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia. However, the thin strip of North Ossetia’s land between Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria in the north makes Kabardino-Balkaria easily accessible directly from Ingushetia and nearby Chechnya.

Kabardino-Balkaria’s request for local police reinforcement may not be as straightforward as it may seem at first. By boosting the local police force, the republican authorities essentially will decrease their dependence on policemen from outside the republic, which normally come from ethnic Russian regions. It is unclear whether Moscow will find this development beneficial to its interests in the region. On April 27, Caucasian Knot website unveiled scandalous behavior by two police officers, one of them a local and the other from Perm region in the Ural mountains. The police officers attacked and beat up a driver of a car with his wife in the capital city of the republic, Nalchik, on April 3 (https://kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/205711/, April 27). On April 27, a local police officer from Baksan district was arrested for alleged possession of explosive materials and components for making IEDs (https://kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/205772/, April 29). More policemen may not necessarily improve the situation in Kabardino-Balkaria since there are numerous underlying social, political and economic causes of the insurgency.

Circassian populated republics in the North Caucasus that include Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygea have acquired special importance in the region in the past several years. This is due to the opposition of the Circassians to the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Circassian activists claim that since the Russian Empire committed the crimes of “genocide” against their ancestors who lived in Sochi area, the Olympics should be moved to another site and Russia should officially recognize the mass atrocities that were committed against the Circassians in the 19th century. The Circassians are uniquely positioned to influence Russian policies, since they have the most numerous and organized diaspora among the North Caucasian peoples outside of Russia. Neighboring Georgia’s move to recognize the Circassian “genocide” in 2011 was hailed by the Circassians activists in the North Caucasus and beyond.

However, the rise of Circassian activism in the North Caucasus sends waves that already seem to produce rumblings among other North Caucasian peoples. On April 25, the Circassian activists celebrated the Day of the Circassian Flag worldwide. In Karachay-Cherkessia the celebrations went wrong as the local police prevented the horse riding activists from entering the capital city of the republic, Cherkessk. Circassian Flag Day came into being only in 2010, but it quickly produced significant rallies among Circassian activists in the North Caucasus. The festivities are often accompanied by a horse procession, since the Circassians traditionally were excellent horsemen (https://karachaevo-cherkesia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/205584/, April 25).

In Karachaevo-Cherkessia, however, the Circassians comprise a minority, while the Turkic-speaking Karachays occupy the commanding positions in the republic. It is not surprising that the Karachays have watched the rise of Circassians’ activism with a certain degree of wariness. Moscow in its turn may try to capitalize on these conflicts in an effort to check the rise of Circassian nationalism. At the same time, however, Moscow can hardly afford to have an open ethnic conflict in a republic that is so close to the future site of the 2014 Sochi Olympics – now only two years away.

Karachay-Cherkessian police fired warning shots over the heads of the Circassians’ horse procession, as the authorities stated horses were not allowed in the city. Critics pointed out that it is normal for horses to be occasionally found in the city streets, while the police said the procession threatened the safety of the local citizens (https://karachaevo-cherkesia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/205807/, April 30).  Undeterred by the actions of the police, the organizers vowed to be better prepared for next year’s horse procession. This ceremony may well become a contentious issue in the regions where Circassians comprise a minority, especially in Karachay-Cherkessia.

The situation in the Circassian-populated republics of the North Caucasus is developing in ways that contain several possible scenarios for future conflict. Insurgency is only one of the possible problems that may arise as inter ethnic tensions also appear to possess salience. Since the Sochi Olympics will attract more international attention to the North Caucasus, chances are quite high that the old and dormant conflicts will reemerge once again, making the region an even hotter cauldron of instability.