Youth Activists Unravel Kremlin Status-Quo in the Circassian Heartland: “The Wind of Freedom is Approaching!”
Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 10 Issue: 15
Is the conflict between youth and elders in the Circassian national movements just a generational dispute or is it the beginning of a revolutionary change in the Circassian regions of the North Caucasus? The generational conflict between these groups is now becoming quite obvious, as is the rising distrust on the part of Circassian youth toward anyone or anything that can be associated with the Russian state.
The chain of events in historical Circassia over the past six months strongly indicates that the political landscape in the Circassian region of the North Caucasus is dramatically changing. Political activity in the republics of the North Caucasus where Circassian ethnic groups are present is no longer following its historical pattern: although the pro-Russian rhetoric that is traditional for this region is still at the forefront, the behaviour of young Circassian activists is changing. The events and initiatives in which Circassian youth is coming out in opposition and declaring its desire to act as an independent political force represent a completely new type of social activity in this region. What we saw before was a petrified traditional hierarchy with the traditional Russian-installed elders making up the decision-making layer and the Circassian youth making up the underlying layers.
On the evening of April 4, a report appeared on Regnum.ru, the website of the Regnum News Agency, with the headline, “They want to label Circassian activists as separatists.” The article was about an event called The Circassian National Forum that took place on April 4 in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, and was deleted from the website after about an hour. During the one hour that the report was on the Regnum website, it was copied extensively by local on-line forums (e.g. https://www.elot.ru/forum/viewtopic.php?t=5629) as well as several international websites (e.g. https://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=20003).
Two days later a heavily edited version of the report reappeared on Regnum.ru. Most official information about the Forum—such as the presence of the official state or ‘very-loyal-to-state’ society representatives, what topics they talked about and quotes of their remarks—remained in the edited report. Yet, the part about a group of youth from the suburbs who came to attend the April 4 Forum but were prevented by local police from entering the building where the event was being held because of so-called “security concerns” was deleted.
A group of approximately 150 Circassian youth activists refused to give up and instead remained on the street waiting for the forum’s resolutions. The Circassian youth activists told local journalists that they were not going to “tolerate exclusion from the decision-making when the fate of the nation is on table [sic],” adding: “We do not trust the old leaders from the state directed charity ‘Adyge Hase’.” Later the students announced: “We plan to establish our own organization and will stand [up] for our rights” (Regnum.ru, April 4).
The fact that the students declared that they were not going to tolerate the decision of Adyge Hase is a remarkable development, and for those Western analysts who are not familiar with this organization it should be noted that since ancient times Adyge Hase has served as the traditional Circassian People’s Parliament and was authorized by the Circassians to make decisions on behalf of the Circassian people. Moreover, the stance taken by the youth activists indicates that there is a growing number of Circassians who feel that the organization has simply lost its independence. Many of the members of Adyge Hase are believed to actively collaborate with the Kremlin or in some cases are active agents of the FSB.
The outcry over the developments with the Circassian National Forum also extended to Abkhazia as well. It also turns out that among those who were not allowed to attend the Nalchik Forum on April 4 were not only local Circassian youth but also members of the NGO Adyghe Khase Republic of Abkhazia (AKhRA). The organization represents thousands of Abkhaz Circassians, most of whom are former combatants in the 1992 Abkhaz-Georgian war, their families and relatives. Members of the AKhRA described the forum in Nalchik as a "shameful" act in their statement and was widely published on local websites where they also underlined their expression on the Kabarda Adyge Hase, leaders who in the eyes of the Abkhaz Circassians "betrayed the idea of Circassian Nationalism and became the servants of the regime" (https://www.elot.ru/main/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1204&Itemid=1).
Ibrahim Yaganov, the leader of the Federation of Horse Riding in Kabardino-Balkaria, does not belong to the youth activists but expressed his public support for their activities. Yaganov told reporters that every movement in the KBR that denies accepting direct control from the secret services suffers from “unprecedented pressure.” Yaganov’s statement is important; even though he is not an elected official, Yaganov is popular among Circassian groups and the general public because he holds the Hero of Abkhazia medal for his military accomplishments against Georgia in the 1992 Georgia-Abkhazia War. “Members of our group were continuously called to the MVD [Interior Ministry] and FSB [Federal Security Service],” he said. “They watch us closely, they listen to our phones, they use the same methods that KGB used” (https://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=20003).
Yaganov said he is certain that “the Russian secret services plan to receive the same financial and career benefits from the government for fighting against Circassian non-violent, non-radical organizations as they now receive for the ‘war on terror in the Caucasus’.” He added: “But we are much easier for the secret services because in contrast to the rebels, we do not physically endanger the safety of the members of secret services. That is the main reason to charge us with separatism.”
The rise of an independent youth movement in the heartland of Circassia also erupted in November 2008, when the Circassian Congress announced a National Congress in Cherkessk, the capital of Karachaevo-Cherkessia (KCHR), where the Circassians are an ethnic minority together with the related Abaza people.
Every single member of the movement was summoned by the FSB for questioning. According to articles that appeared in the local press, some of the leaders of the Circassian Congress made it clear that they received orders from the FSB as to what could be discussed during the National Congress. Unfortunately, this is exactly the same tactic used by the Russian FSB in its work with social movements around the entire country.
Yet, the FSB system was not effective in Cherkessk. In the middle of several well-prepared state-loyal speeches given at the Forum, youth leaders came onto the stage. Two members of Adyge Hase blocked Ruslan Keshev, the leader of the independent young Circassian Congress, from taking the podium and tried to prevent him from delivering his speech. It even reached the point where the officials physically pushed Keshev from the stage in the presence of the 2,000 people present in the auditorium. Keshev’s persistence eventually prevailed and he presented the project of a unified Circassia, which is a plan to reunite the divided three Circassian republics in the North Caucasus. The Circassian region has experienced 101 years of resistance against Russian colonialism—a war that ended up becoming a massive exodus and period of ethnic cleansing viewed by contemporary scholars as the Circassian genocide, or the first genocide of the 19th century.
The project plan presented in Cherkessk does not presume the creation of an independent state but is limited in its goal and only seeks to unite the Circassian territories of Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Keshev underscored that the Circassians are not asking the Kremlin for something exceptional and that their request can be fitted into the Russian government’s project called Enlarging the Regions (ukrupneniye regionov), which is the basis for the Kremlin’s plan on administrative reforms unveiled by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin’s plan significantly differs from the Circassians proposal. According to the Kremlin’s project, each of the three Circassian republics will be incorporated into different regions of Russia. Adygea will become part of Krasnodar Krai, while the KCHR will be swallowed up by Stavropol Krai and the KBR will be made into a mega-region together with Dagestan and possibly even Ossetia.
In the eyes of Circassian nationalists, the Kremlin’s plan could lead to the complete assimilation or the death of Circassian nation.
When the project of a united Circassia was announced in Cherkessk, people in the auditorium gave Keshev a standing ovation and then broke into the Circassian anthem—this is according to a young member of the Circassian Congress who has since publicly resigned from his position. He added that he cannot continue working openly: “No one can. You have chains on your hands and legs. They can do with you whatever they want, whenever they want; in the end, kill you, which for them is no more difficult than to blink; that is why I am not associated with Circassian movements anymore.”
The project and the idea of a unified Circassia have been widely discussed since the events of last November. The topic is being actively discussed by Circassian websites and is receiving large numbers of responses (https://www.adygi.ru/index.php?link=newsanons&action=show&id=569).
On April 6, the Circassian Youth Initiative announced a new project called “One Nation—One Future,” the main goal is to change the official ethnic identification of the nation to “Circassian,” which will include all the Circassian tribes [i.e. Kabardins, Cherkess, Adyge, Shapsug, among others] (https://www.elot.ru/main/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1186&Itemid=1).
The Circassian Youth Initiative has gained widespread popularity, even though there is very limited access to the Internet in the Circassian republics. Instead, the young activists—all volunteers—printed thousands of leaflets and dropped them into the mailboxes of every single household.
Among the other slogans under the project there are some very characteristic ones, such as the one quoted at the top of this article: “The Wind of Freedom is Approaching!”
What will happen to the Circassian Youth Initiative in the near future is not a simple issue of only local significance, but an issue concerning the condition of democracy in Russia. Will the Russian state listen to the non-violent democratic movement or simply repress them which will lead to further radicalization? Russian ethnic policy, however, cannot be considered to be on the side of democracy; therefore, pessimistic expectations are closer to the reality.