Saturday, August 6, 2016

Ethnic Mix Changing Dramatically among North Caucasians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 6 -- When analysts talk about changes in the ethnic mix in the North Caucasus, they usually point to the flight of ethnic Russians from the region or declining fertility rates among the peoples there, trends that mean that region is more non-Russian today than it has been in more than a century but won’t be growing as fast as it did a generation ago.

            Those vectors may have the most to say about the long-term development of the region, but another trend, one less commented upon, may have dramatic consequences in the short term: the shifting balance in the relative size of the major national groups because of differences in birth rates.

            Given that almost all the republics of the North Caucasus are multi-national and that political relationships in them are predicated on the maintenance of an ethnic balance in the population, such changes in relative size are likely to lead to demands for shifts in power arrangements and other challenges to the republic governments and thus Moscow as well.

            The OnKavkaz portal presents a diagram showing that in the post-Soviet decades, “the growth in the number of Chechens, Avars and Ingush has been explosive while that of Osetins and Kabardins has stopped” (

            In presenting this data, the portal suggests that the nations of the North Caucasus have passed through four demographic periods. From the early 20th century to 1940, “the population of the Caucasus grew more or less equally. The rates of growth in general were within the limits of worldwide trends of that time.”

            From the beginning of the 1940s, OnKavkaz says, “growth among almost all of these peoples stopped,” either because of deportations and deaths from that or because among those peoples not deported, there had been such a significant loss of life among men during World War II.

            In the third period, from the 1950s through the 1980s, there was a post-war “’baby boom’” in the region, with populations of almost all nations there increasing dramatically in number. But since 1991, growth among some like the Chechens and Avars has continued to be high while that among Osetins and Kabardins has fallen to zero or even less.

            The portal suggests that the causes of these trends can be found “above all in nearly complete collapse of institutions of traditional society, which under conditions of political and economic instability have played a role in the social defense of the population in less urbanized mono-ethnic republics.”

            Thus, the Chechens and Ingush have both become more dominant in their respective republics and larger relative to their neighbors.  But the more interesting developments are to be found in the bi-national or multi-national republics where any change in the relative size of the ethnic groups has political consequences.

            Thus, in Kabardino-Balkaria, the relatively flat growth of the Circassian Kabards means that the Turkic Balkars, historically the second people in that republic are likely to demand more power, and the growth of the Avars, the ever more dominant nation in Daghestan, are likely to do the same.

            Such demands will generate counter-demands that the existing arrangements and balance of power be preserved, triggering new disputes that Moscow will find it ever more difficult to manage given the absence of the ethnic Russian communities on which it had earlier relied as a buffer.


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