A court in Adygea has unexpectedly, and probably inadvertently, endorsed Circassian aspirations for a unified republic in the North Caucasus. On April 3, it was announced that the court in Maikop had ruled that the ethnic Cherkess living in Adygea were not an ethnicity separate from ethnic Adygeans and therefore were not entitled to the status of cultural autonomy in the republic (https://adygeia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/204195/, April 3).
Ethnic Circassians are scattered across three North Caucasus republics – Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. In Adygea, the Circassians are known officially as Adygeans, in Kabardino-Balkaria as Kabardins and in Karachaevo-Cherkessia as Cherkess. In Kabardino-Balkaria, ethnic Kabardins comprise the majority – 55 percent of the total population. In Karachaevo-Cherkessia, ethnic Cherkess comprise only 11 percent, while ethnic Abaza, who are related to both the Circassians and the Abkhaz, comprise an additional 7 percent of the republic’s total population. In Adygea, ethnic Adygeans comprise 24 percent of the republican population. Ethnic Shapsugs, who live in historical Circassian lands that are currently part of the Russian-speaking Krasnodar region, comprise a tiny fraction of the region’s population, far below one percent (www.perepis2002.ru, 2002 census results).
It is not surprising, therefore, that Circassian activists have advocated that all lands where Circassians live be merged into one republic. Moscow has been reluctant to take the Circassians’ views into account, saying that the Adygeans, Cherkess and Kabardins are separate ethnicities, while in fact these groups have only minor linguistic differences and speak virtually the same language. The applicant for Cherkess cultural autonomy status in Adygea, Aslan Bezrukov, told Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) that if a Russian court either granted the Cherkess cultural autonomy status in Adygea or admitted that all Circassian ethnicities are one people, it would be acceptable to him either way. Bezrukov said he would appeal to higher Russian courts to receive a more authoritative and binding ruling. In the words of Aslan Shazzo, the editor of the Maikop-based Natpress news agency, the delicacy of the situation is that the court now appears to support what the Circassian activists had advocated for the previous 20 years. The constitutions of each of the republics in the northwestern Caucasus specify that the Adygeans, Cherkess and Kabardins are separate ethnicities (https://adygeia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/204195/, April 3).
The crisis in Syria has put the return of the Circassians to their historical homeland in the North Caucasus back on the agenda. Dozens of Circassian families caught in the ongoing fighting in Syria have appealed to the Russian authorities to permit their repatriation to the North Caucasus. No formal decision has been made, but an official delegation of the Russian Federation Council visited Syria in March and concluded there were about 200 Circassian families wanting to relocate to the North Caucasus. Although there does not appear to be a large-scale government program for the Syrian Circassians, local governments have provided assistance to Syrian Circassians who have been arriving in small groups. On April 13, another nine Syrian Circassians arrived in Kabardino-Balkaria (https://kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/204895/, April 14).
Moscow is unlikely to allow any mass relocation of Circassians from Syria to the North Caucasus, but it is also limited in its ability to expressly forbid any emigration. The most likely scenario is that insignificant numbers of Syrian Circassians will be allowed to go to the North Caucasus, but the bulk of the estimated 60,000-100,000 Syrian Circassians are likely to be barred from doing so. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a press conference on April 10 that apart from the Circassians, there are 100,000 actual Russian citizens living in Syria (https://www.kommersant.ru/news/1912665, April 10). Most of the Syrian Circassians do not have Russian citizenship, as they were driven out of their homeland in the 19th century by the Russian Empire and then were cut off from the North Caucasus by Soviet-era isolation.
Some Circassian activists say that the repatriation of Syrian Circassians is changing Circassian attitudes to the issue of the Olympics set to be held in Sochi in 2014. Many Circassian activists have been opposed to holding the Olympics in the Russian Black Sea resort city, claiming that it was where the Circassian genocide took place in 1860s. Aslan Beshto, a Circassian activist in Kabardino-Balkaria, told Ogonyok magazine: “The fact that Russia at least did not close the way [to the North Caucasus] for the Syrian Circassians is a great gesture toward the Circassian world and a good response to all of Russia’s detractors in the region.” Still, it is significant that Beshto referred to Russia as an external force that acts independently of its Circassian citizens. An estimated 2,000 Syrian Circassians are currently living in Kabardino-Balkaria. These people relocated to the North Caucasus during the past 20 years, during which border controls became looser (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/1912689, April 16).
Meanwhile, the security situation in Kabardino-Balkaria remains precarious. In the first quarter of 2012, the republic experienced a significant spike in insurgency-related violence, which resulted in 32 deaths and 11 injuries (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/204657/, April 11). Kabardino-Balkaria ranked third in terms of insurgency-related violence, after Dagestan – in first place – and still conflict-ridden Chechnya.
Future developments in the Circassian parts of the North Caucasus are likely to be linked to the rise of nationalism or Islamism. Neither of those scenarios is beneficial to Moscow, but having experienced an insurgency under Islamic slogans, Russia might opt for the nationalists as a seemingly easier problem to tackle. However, today’s nationalists are likely to be much more reliant on Islam than they were in the 1990s. The situation in the northwestern Caucasus appears set to become much more fluid over a short period of time, as various competing trends in the society emerge.