Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Debate on Planned Russian Nation Law Provoking Ethnic Separatism in North Caucasus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 4 – Vladimir Putin’s plans for the adoption of a law on the Russian nation is already producing exactly the opposite of the all-Russian unity he seeks: in the North Caucasus, Anton Chablin says, it has already led the Balkars to demand that they be allowed to exit Kabardino-Balkaria and may provoke “similar outbreaks of ethnic separatism” this year.

            Although the Svobodnaya pressa commentator does not say so, the clear fear of the Turkic-speaking Kabard minority in KBR is that if Moscow adopts a civic Russian law and hands over its implementation to the force structures, the republics will copy those moves and impose a civic republic identity thereby undercutting the rights of ethnic minorities.

            Undoubtedly, some in that republic and elsewhere remember efforts in the 1970s during the time of the discussion of the Brezhnev constitution with its stress on the formation of a Soviet people that several republics, Kazakhstan most prominently, proposed identifying their residents not in ethnic terms like Kazakh but as a civic unit, Kazakhstantsy.

            But what Chablin does suggest is that the appearance of the Balkar demands could have a domino effect on the North Caucasus, given that while the Balkars are a minority in Kabardino-Balkaria, they could form, together with the Turkic-speaking Karachays a supermajority in an expanded Karachay-Cherkessia (KChR).

            And that in turn could trigger what Moscow is most fearful of in the western portions of the North Caucasus: serious moves by the Circassians, now subdivided by Moscow into six nations and split into several republics, to try to restore a single Greater Circassia and attract back some of the millions of Circassians now living in Middle Eastern exile.

            Of course, this scenario speaks to what the peoples of the region are likely to want given what they see as Moscow’s policies and does not take into account how the Russian powers that be will react, but it does highlight the dangers inherent in ethnic relations in that country and the way in which they can be exacerbated by incautious actions or even discussions in the center.

            And that makes Chablin’s article worthy of note, given that this is a subject that many in Moscow at least prefer to ignore and that many elsewhere do not understand how dangerous even the most apparently innocuous actions or even proposals can be.

            On the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal today, the journalist notes that “not long before the New Year a congress of the Balkar people took place in Kabardino-Balkara and issued an ultimatum to the regional authorities by threatening the exit of Balkaria out of the republic” if their demands were not met (

                “Such outbursts of ethnic separatism, the North Caucasus specialist says, will arise ever more frequently in the coming year as the federal law ‘On the Russian Nation’ is being drafted.” Discussions of the draft law’s implications have already sparked “stormy discussions.” And that puts front and center the question: how will the authorities react to such challenges?

            Moscow has given a signal already, Chablin suggests. With the exception of ethnographer Abdulgamid Bulatov, who is in charge of promoting national unity at the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs, almost all the top officials of that institution are either former military or special forces personnel.

            Thus it appears, he suggests, that in Moscow there is the view that “for the solution of ethnic issues in Russia, a harsh hand is needed.” Balkar demands for the restoration of four Balkar districts in KBR that existed before the 1944 deportation and for a new program for reviving the Balkar nation as the price of their remaining in the republic may put that to the test.

            Ismail Sabachiyev, the newly-re-elected head of the Balkar Council of Elders declared at the congress that “if the powers that be of KBR don’t improve the socio-economic situation in the Balkar villages in the mountains, then the elders will raise the question of the exit of Balkaria from the republic.”

            Individual Balkar activists have often made such threats, but now they have been raised to a new level by the actions of the Council of Elders, an authoritative if not entirely representative body of the Balkar population that has generally focused on issues of control of land and reached accords on that with the current republic head to the dismay of the Kabards.

            Chablin spoke with three experts on their visions about the directions events may go next. Konstantin Kazenin of the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service says that the idea of “dividing the republic is absolutely unrealistic,” and that talk about it is only intended to win support for the Balkar Council of Elders.

            Rostislav Turovsky, the vice president of the Moscow Center for Political Technologies, suggests that what all this shows is that both the Balkars and the Kabards need to do a better job lobbying for their rights not only within their own republic but in Moscow as well given their lack of such lobbies at the center now.

            And Timur Tenov, the head of the KBR regional section of the Russian Society of Political Analysts, says that a compromise ought to be found. There is no reason why the four Balkar regions can’t be restored, he argues; and there is also no reason why more money can’t be found to solve Balkar problems.

            While all three are dismissive of the Balkar demand at one level, their words suggest that there really are powerful forces at work in that republic and across the North Caucasus that Moscow by its incautious decision to raise the specter of a new civic Russian nation has set in motion with potentially fateful consequences.

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