Thursday, June 20, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Demographic Shifts Undermining Stability in Northwestern Caucasus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 20 – The ethnic and religious structure of the populations of the republics of the Northwestern Caucasus have been dramatically changed over the last two decades by the emigration of ethnic Russians, differences in fertility among the traditional ethnic communities of the region, and the influx of representatives of other non-traditional groups.

            Those changes, Anton Averyanov, a researcher at the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, says, have “violated the ethno-demographic balance” that had existed there previously and threaten to transform the region and adjoining areas “into a zone of ethno-political instability” (

            That should not surprise anyone, he continues, as “the strengthening of one ethnic group and the weakening of another almost always leads to the sharpening of inter-ethnic relations and the creation of the conditions for ethnic conflict as a result of the struggle for access to limited resources, financial, political, land and so on.”

            Drawing on data from the 1989, 2002 and 2010 Russian censuses, Averyanov says that demographic shifts in the Northeastern Caucasus have had “a more radical character” than those in the North Central or Northwestern regions, even though the latter too have experienced Russian flight and growth in the proportion of the titular nationalities in the population.

            This pattern of declines in the number and share of ethnic Russians and an increase in the number and share of the titular nationalities was especially striking in the 1990s and in the capital cities, he continues. In rural areas where ethnic Russians had long predominated, it was less marked given that Russians did not feel under the same pressure to leave.

             But despite the smaller number of Russians who have chosen to leave those enclaves and thus the relative stability of the ethnic mix in them, the potential for conflicts in them has continued to rise both because of ethnic changes in the republics as a whole and because of the influx of new groups like the Meskhetian Turks.

            The annual growth of the titular nationalities in the republics of the Northwestern Caucasus has been high, especially in the 1990s. The Balkars grew 3.7 percent a year between 1989 and 2002, the Kabards 2.8 percent, the Osetins 2.3 percent, and the Karachays 2.3 percent, rates that allowed them to increase their numbers by a third over 13 years.

            These rates fell in the 2002-2010 intercensal period both because of increased urbanization among most groups and the consequent decline in birthrates and because Moscow officials took greater care to adjust census numbers which in the region suffered earlier from significant overcounts ranging from 10-15,000 among the Karachays to 65,000 to 75,000 among the Kabards.

            The only region of the North Caucasus Federal District which has been taking in immigrants from other regions since 1991 has been Stavropol kray, Averyanov points out. The total population of that kray has grown by 15.6 percent even as the share of ethnic Russians there has declined from 84 to 81 percent.

            Most of the in-migration took place in the first decade after the end of the USSR, the researcher says, when an influx of Armenians, Meskhetian Turks, and other peoples of the Caucasus created diaspora communities where they had never existed before and which contribute to an increase in inter-ethnic tensions in the kray.


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