Western North Caucasus: Moscow’s Choices

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 158

Director of the Department for Problems of Ethnic Relations at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow Sergei Markedonov

Recent changes to the federal laws in Kabardin-Balkaria concerning education in schools have provoked controversy. "Representatives of minorities will be able to teach their children their mother tongues only at home," – lamented Muazin Khachetlov, the head of the Kabardin Congress in Kabardin-Balkaria. Khachetlov said that because of the absence of a "coherent policy" in Russia the number of Kabardin speakers among children is decreasing every year (Gazeta Yuga, August 13).

While the head of the Kabardin Congress blamed the decline of the language on the absence of appropriate federal policies, the opposite is much more likely: as there is a set of consistent policies at the federal level to limit as much as possible the languages used by minorities. In particular federal law 309, which was passed in December 2007, envisaged the gradual decline of minority languages across Russia -especially after December 2009 (www.consultant.ru, December 1, 2007). It may seem too much of a luxury if minorities in Russia have their own languages taught at school. However, minorities such as the peoples of the North Caucasus are not minorities in the sense of being immigrant minorities; they live on their own historical land and feel that they have a right to preserve their languages in Russia.

One compensatory bargaining chip that Moscow is offering the Circassians is to increase quotas for ethnic Circassians’ repatriation to their homeland in the North Caucasus. Following the brutal war in the nineteenth century during the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, the Russian empire expelled or induced the Circassian peoples to emigrate to Turkey and Middle Eastern countries. The majority of Circassians now live in those countries, numbering up to six million. In the North Caucasus the Circassians mainly live in the western part of the region, in Adygeya, Karachai-Cherkessia and Kabardin-Balkaria, with only the latter having a Circassian majority in its population.

Adygeya was allowed to increase its quota for repatriation from 50 to 1,400 annually in 2009. The quota was increased due to the insistent pressure of the Circassian nationalist organization Adygeya Khase. The main demand of the Circassian diaspora is to be legally recognized as compatriots, which would allow them to resettle in their historical lands and receive significant government assistance. The leader of Circassians in Turkey, Dzhikhan Dzhandemir communicated this demand to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov soon after the war in Georgia in 2008 (www.regnum.ru, August 4). Circassians comprise only one quarter of Adygeya’s tiny population of 500,000, yet they occupy key positions in the republican government and Adygeya has been the front-runner of Circassian nationalism in the North Caucasus in recent years.

The Director of the Department for Problems of Ethnic Relations at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow Sergei Markedonov argues that the mass repatriation of the Circassians has failed to happen not as a result of Russian policies to keep them out of the country, but because they evolved separate identities and cannot easily leave their current home countries. Despite the relatively low numbers of Circassians who managed to return to the North Caucasus since the beginning of 1990’s, according to Markedonov their overall number does not exceed 3,000, he states that "it would be a big mistake to yield the theme of Circassian unity into the hands of those who want to weaken the Russian position in the Greater Caucasus" (www.polit.ru, August 11). The thinking of this influential analyst might signify that Moscow will try to accommodate Circassian nationalist interests to a certain extent, while also putting them in check by other means.

One of those checks might be the other native peoples of the Caucasus that live side by side with the Circassians and have numerous unsettled disputes with them. For example in Kabardin-Balkaria the debate about the ethnic ownership of land is resurfacing as a hot issue. Members of the Kabardin Congress claim that if the Balkar proposed changes to legislation are adopted by the parliament, "twenty Balkar villages with a population of 45,000 will be granted around 37 percent of the whole territory of Kabardin-Balkaria" (Gazeta Yuga, August 13).

Divisive issues are becoming more apparent not only between the Circassians and the other indigenous peoples of North Caucasus, but also between Circassians and Russians. When Adygeya celebrated Repatriation Day on August 1, officials and civil organizations paid tribute to the victims of the Caucasus war in the nineteenth century at the place where a monument will be erected. Meanwhile, those very Russian officers that led the conquest of the Caucasus, such as General Alexei Ermolov, have had their monuments erected in the neighboring Russian regions of Stavropol and Krasnodar (Stavropolskaya Pravda, October 10, 2008). Russians and Circassians in particular seem to have not only distinctly different heroes, but ones that are manifestly opposed each other. However, those in the Russian government, which according to Markedonov do not want to "yield the theme of Circassian unity," will face an uphill battle in trying to prove that the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus was somehow beneficial to the Circassians.