This article asks two questions: who is behind the proposed annexation of Adygeia by its neighbor, Krasnodar Krai, and what would be the likely consequences of the liquidation of Adygeia’s republic status? To the first question, I answer that the impetus for annexation comes primarily from the Kremlin, not from the local population, and the goal is the consolidation of Putin’s control in the North Caucasus. To the second, I answer that the proposed merger would be unlikely to solve any genuine problems facing the people of Adygeia, such as corruption and economic stagnation, and would most likely create serious new problems for Russia in the North Caucasus.
Part I: Who Wants the Merger and Why?
There are no generally accepted data on the support for the proposed merger within Adygeia. During my two months of field research in Maikop in summer 2006, I conducted interviews with many representatives of political parties, ethnic communities, and other organizations and asked for their evaluation of the merger. I also conducted many informal conversations with the residents of the city. Based on my observations, I would make the following general statements:
Mass support for the merger among the Slavic population of Adygeia is broad but shallow. Undoubtedly, when asked, most Slavic residents of Adygeia voice support for the merger (RFE/RL, March 9, 2006). However, when pressed, their position turns out to be primarily based on concerns about the republic’s economic backwardness and poor governance, rather than on (say) concern about ethnic discrimination. In other words, annexation by Krasnodar is appealing as a means of addressing Adygeia’s economic problems, rather than as a goal in itself, and support for the union with Krasnodar is tepid rather than passionate. In this respect, activists such as Nina Konovalova of the Union of Slavs of Adygeia, who voice an unapologetically nationalistic justification for the merger, represent a clear minority.
Elite support for the merger among the politicians serving the Slavic population is quite low. With only a few exceptions, politicians from the local branch of the major parties all voiced extreme skepticisms about the merger proposal. Both the United Russia and Communist Parties, for example, are opposed to the merger, on the grounds that it would needlessly enflame Adyg opinion and would not solve Adygeia’s real problems (Regnum, December 10, 2006).
Opposition to the merger among ethnic Adygs, while not total, is intense. Many people whom I interviewed noted the extreme discrimination to which they and members of other Caucasian ethnic groups are subject to in Russia, and argued that the preservation of the autonomous republic status is the only way for their small ethnic group to maintain some degree of protection from chauvinism and xenophobia in contemporary Russia. Others noted that, less than 20 years after the granting of republic status, its withdrawal would be received as a betrayal by the central government. In other words, support for annexation among Russians is shallow, while opposition to it among Adygs is intense.
Members of minority ethnic groups are probably mostly opposed. Such minorities (such as Armenians and Azerbaijanis) often voice the opinion that ethnic relations are much better in Adygeia than in Krasnodar, which is ruled by a notoriously chauvinistic governor, Aleksandr Tkachov. Most notably, based on my own observations, I was able to confirm that the harsh imposition of passport and registration rules characteristic of Krasnodar is totally absent in Adygeia. People of different ethnic backgrounds obtain residential registration with relative ease and walk and drive in public places without fear of the ubiquitous document checks found in Krasnodar Krai. In other words, ethnic minorities are probably better off in an autonomous Adygeia than they are in Krasnodar Krai, and most members of such minorities seem to recognize this fact.
Thus, to summarize: there appears to be overwhelming opposition to the merger among Adygs, tepid support for it among most ethnic Russians, quiet opposition to it among ethnic minorities, and public opposition to it among political elites. Based on these observations, it is highly unlikely that the actual impetus for annexation comes from within the republic. Rather, the merger proposal should be understood as being part of the Putin administration’s plans to solidify control over the North Caucasus by means of strategic alliances with selected local politicians, such as Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya, and in this case, Aleksandr Tkachev of Krasnodar (Regnum, April 18, 2006; World Politics Review, March 28). The Russian press has reported that both Putin and his deputy in the North Caucasus, Dmitry Kozak, found the immediate past president of Adygeia, Khazret Sovmen, to be unduly independent (EDM, April 10, 2006; Regnum, April 20, 2006). His replacement by the former academic Aslan Tkhakushinov signals a desire to impose a more pliant leader on Adygeia (Kavkazky Uzel, May 1). In particular, Sovmen’s departure and his replacement by Tkhakushinov limits the republic’s capacity to oppose the ongoing quiet transfer of powers from the republican government to the government in Krasnodar, as in the case of the abolition of Adygeia’s customs and transport ministries (EDM, May 17). In passing, one might note that there appears to be some tension between President Putin’s stated objective of creating uniform rights between subjects of the federation and these proposals, which in effect give Krasnodar’s government power over the people of another region.
Part II: Consequences of the Merger
For the moment, the overt merger of Krasnodar and Adygeia appears to be off the table. However, there is no guarantee that the question will not be revisited, perhaps under Putin’s successor. What would be the consequences of such a merger? Here I would like to make a few observations.
1. It would inflame the ethnic situation in one of the few peaceful regions of the North Caucasus. At the moment, Adygeia is notable for its relatively harmonious ethnic relations and the complete absence of political violence. It seems highly imprudent for the Russian government to take the one step – abolition of republic status – most calculated to alienate the Adyg population of the region. Moreover, one could envision that the merger would have repercussions in other regions of the North Caucasus, as regional elites reevaluate their allegiance to the Russian Federation.
It would not solve Adygeia’s real problems. Adygeia has serious problems of corruption, poor governance and economic stagnation. It is not clear how the merger would address these issues, nor has the Russian government explained why they cannot be addressed without the merger. Control over roads and customs already gives Tkachev substantial (and probably undue) power over the economic destiny of Adygeia. If the republic’s own development (and not advantaging Tkachev) is the federal government’s genuine goal, surely there are other ways to achieve it than by abolishing the republic’s autonomy.
Tkachev would receive unwilling subjects. Tkachev is already notorious for his numerous xenophobic statements and his sometimes-brutal mistreatment of the Armenian and Meskhetian Turkish communities in Krasnodar Krai. The non-Russian population of Adygeia is well aware of Tkachev’s poor record as the governor of a multiethnic region, and they have good reason to fear for their own position in a Tkachev-governed Adygeia (Kavkazky Uzel, February 12, 2006). Given their opposition to Tkachev, it is unlikely that merger would create a cohesive, stable greater Krasnodar Krai.
In closing, some Russian observers have argued that Russia’s ethno-federal structure is an anachronism that should be eliminated. This claim is questionable. Russia is not really very much like the United States, a federation based on the assimilation of immigrant groups into a dominant American culture. It is more similar to Canada, a predominantly Anglophone country with a large Francophone province, or Switzerland, a predominantly German-speaking country with large linguistic minorities. Eliminating Adygeia’s republic status against the will of its indigenous population would be a serious departure from more than 70 years of Soviet and Russian policy aimed at accommodating the aspirations of Russia’s historic minorities by giving them political autonomy. Such a move would have serious ramifications for other regions of Russia, and indeed for the position of all non-ethnic Russians within Russia. Finally, the fact that mergers have taken place in other regions of Russia (such as the new Perm Krai) is no indication that they would go smoothly in the North Caucasus, the most unstable and ethnically fragmented region of the country.