The Circassian Question is Driving Change in the Northwest Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 85

On April 28, the President of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Boris Ebzeyev, accepted the resignation of the republican government. The main reason for the government’s replacement was the ethnic imbalance of power, as Moscow’s envoy to the region Aleksandr Khloponin has demanded that an ethnic Circassian be appointed as head of the local government (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 28). Khloponin made this stunningly sharp statement during his visit to Karachaevo-Cherkessia on April 22: “Before May 1, a [new] head of Karachaevo-Cherkessian government should be appointed. It should be a representative of the Cherkess (Circassian) ethnicity, full stop. I look forward to hearing your proposals as soon as possible, but, of course it should be a professional person” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 22).

The intrigue was further exacerbated when May 2 passed without the head of Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s government being appointed and it was unknown when the decision would be announced. Some observers already called it “an act of open disobedience to Moscow by the local authorities.” The extraordinary session of the republican parliament that would approve the new head of government was supposed to take place on April 28, but for unknown reasons it was postponed. It is unclear whether President Boris Ebzeyev, formerly a judge on Russia’s constitutional court who made his career outside Karachaevo-Cherkessia, lost control over the situation or is quietly orchestrating the parliament’s dissent from behind the scenes (www.forum-msk.org, May 2).

The Karachay dissenters may also have some support from circles in Moscow which are somewhat opposed to Khloponin achieving success in the North Caucasus. In any event, Moscow’s authority seems to have been undermined in a profound way.

Russia has been forced to listen to the Circassian voices, as they have elevated the issue of the Russian empire’s brutal conquest of their homeland to the attention of an international audience. Given that the Circassians view Sochi, the site of the 2014 Olympics, as the “land of genocide,” Moscow’s sensitivity to the Circassians’ plight has significantly increased and it is trying both to exert pressure and appease them.

According to a political tradition in Karachaevo-Cherkessia dating back more than two decades, the head of this small republic of 500,000 people should be an ethnic Karachay, its prime minister should be an ethnic Circassian and the speaker of its parliament should be an ethnic Russian. President Ebzeyev broke the tradition by appointing an ethnic Greek, Vladimir Kaishev, to the position that was supposed to have been reserved for the Circassian. The Karachay comprise nearly 40 percent of the republican population. The ethnic Russians, at 34 percent, are the second largest ethnicity, but their share is steadily decreasing. The combined Circassian and Abaza people make up about 19 percent of the population (www.perepis2002.ru). The Karachay are Turkic-speaking people who are related to several other groups in the North Caucasus, like the Balkar in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria. The Circassian Cherkess, along with the Kabardins in Kabardino-Balkaria and the Adygeans in Adygea, speak a common Circassian language that is native to the Northwest Caucasus.

Khloponin bluntly accused external forces, namely the US, of creating tension in the North Caucasus through raising the Circassian “genocide” issue. “I will personally perceive all [unwarranted] actions here [in Karachaevo-Cherkessia] as a threat to stability in the North Caucasus,” Khloponin said menacingly during his visit to the republic (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 22). It is remarkable that despite attributing practically any local dissent to foreign hostile forces, the Karachaevo-Cherkessian parliament did not bother to speedily approve a Circassian candidate for prime minister, as Khloponin had requested. This simply shows that the long-used rhetoric about foreign enemies destabilizing the North Caucasus does not resonate even among the political elites themselves.

Several analysts focusing on the North Caucasus expressed a sense of urgency about Circassian “genocide” issue following the conference organized by the Jamestown Foundation and Ilia State University in Tbilisi on March 19-21. The noted Russian blogger in Israel, Avraam Shmulevich called it “a likely turning point” in the history of this region. According to Shmulevich, the deepening socio-economic crisis, inadequacy of the Kremlin and progressing decay of the local authorities is increasingly convincing the population that “unless they start solving their problems themselves, the problems will bury them” (www.caucasustimes.com, April 27). The well-known Russian political scientist, Sergei Markedonov, expressed doubts about Khloponin’s understanding of the political situation in the North Caucasus. Referring to the Russian reaction to the conference in Tbilisi, he warned that if the Russians perceived every conference on the North Caucasus held abroad as a plan to break up Russia, then similar events held in Russia on the US or European problems could be perceived as a cunning plan to strategically weaken the West (www.politcom.ru, April 27). Despite his initially condescending tone, Markedonov called on the Russian government to pay closer attention to the Circassian issue following the surge of interest in the issue on the part of Georgia, Circassian activists and other organizations (www.politcom.ru, April 29).

The leader of the Circassian Congress in Kabardino-Balkaria, Ruslan Keshev, formulated several key issues that the Circassian activists would try to convey to Moscow. Keshev said the Circassians would ask Russia to recognize the Circassian “genocide,” to create the necessary conditions for return of the exiled Circassians, to unite all former Circassian territories within the boundaries of the same federal district and to end falsifications of history (www.caucasustimes.com, April 27).

An estimated 90 percent of the Circassian population of the North Caucasus was forcibly deported to the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century following the defeat of the Circassians by the Russian empire. The war itself was described in numerous reports, including Russian generals’ own diaries, as extremely cruel, involving mass killings of civilians and other forms of terror. Despite that, in 2007, Moscow forced the three republics of the northwestern Caucasus, where Circassians traditionally live, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of “voluntarily joining Russia.”

Moscow’s traditional approach of wielding force and buying the local elites’ support seems to have failed so far to pacify the Northwest Caucasus. Instead, Circassian activism is gradually becoming the agent of change, to which Moscow has yet to come up with a coherent response, given that the Circassian issue drags along with it numerous other local problems that have been neglected for a long time.<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>