Saturday, October 26, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Counting on Karachay ‘Wedge’ to Keep Circassia from Uniting

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 26 – Given Circassian activism, Georgian recognition of the Circassian genocide in 1864, and calls for “sabotage” of the Sochi Olympics, the Kremlin now views even “the theoretical possibility of the creation of an ‘Adyg’ [Circassian] republic as a direct threat to the territorial integrity of Russia,” according to a analyst

            In a commentary published on Thursday, Nikolay Kucherov says that Moscow is counting on the Karachays, who now dominate Karachay-Cherkessia, to “play the role of a wedge driven between the Adyg-Abkhaz peoples” that will “block the realization of the ‘Greater Circassia’ project” (

            That explains why Moscow is so supportive of projects like “the ally of friendship of the peoples” in Cherkessk, Kucherov says, and why the center is so frightened by the extent to which young people there are, given high unemployment, corruption, and the lack of prospects, increasingly receptive to “radical religious and nationalist ideas.”

            Moreover, that North Caucasus republic is especially problematic because it was created as a bi-national one but includes many more groups as well, and “the absence of a common identification, in lace of the Soviet one, has cast doubts not only on the individual republic but on the entire south of the Russian Federation.”

            Karachayevo-Cherkessia has existed only since 1957 when the Turkic Karachays were allowed to return to the North Caucasus from their Central Asian exile.  Prior to that time, there had been a Cherkess Autonomous Oblast and a Karachay Autonomous oblast, but Khrushchev combined the two into a single republic.

            Intended to allow Moscow to serve as the arbiter between the two titular nationalities and thus control the situation, the central authorities have had to confront not only a rising tide of ethno-nationalism among the ethnic communities but learn to live with a system of rule in which the top positions must be allocated strictly according to ethnicity.

            Thus, after much controversy in the early 1990s and the attempt to create four distinct republics in place of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, a step Moscow refused to recognize, the Russian government had to accept a regime in which the president is always a Karachay, the head of government a Circassian, and so on. That has profoundly limited Moscow’s freedom of action.

            In addition to the titular nationalities, there are compact settlements of Abazas Nogays, and Russians. The Karachays are dominant, but other groups and especially the Circassians (Cherkess) and the closely related Abaza “view this situation as threatening and regularly seek to challenge Karachay ‘primacy,” Kucherov continues.

            Sometimes this takes the form of demonstrations and fights, but more often it occurs during elections and within parliament.  People in the republic tend to vote for their co-ethnics, and it is no accident that the republic parliament was “the first in Russia to demand” that the Duma make the denial of genocides a criminal offense.

            The republic government with Moscow’s acquiescence and help has been able to keep things manageable for most of the last decade, but increasingly, Cherkessk’s “friendship of the peoples” propaganda has not been enough to compensate for economic problems, corruption, and weak governance generally.

            And that has meant both more ethno-nationalism and religious extremism and severe limits on Moscow’s freedom of action. The central government, for example, will not be able to build a road between Cherkessk and Sukhumi because of “inter-ethnic tension” in KChR and will build one between Cherkessk and Adler instead.

            “The dividing up of a small communal apartment into micro-apartments really looks to be the simplest and most correct way out of the existing situation,” at least if one listens to the Karachay and Circassian national elites.  But such a move or even the strengthening of Circassians in the KChR, “from Moscow’s point of view,” looks “dangerous.”

            “The Kabardinians from Kabardino-Balkaria which is next to the KChR, the Adygs, the Cherkess, and the Shapsugs are closely related ethnoses with the self-designator ‘Adyg,’ and among their national movements is popular the assertion that they are a single people,” the Circassians.

            Moscow opposes such unity, Kucherov says, and thus hopes that the Karachays will serve as its key ally. It thus supports the Karachays, but because the Karachays know this, they often can decide what happens, thereby exacerbating relations between the Karachays and the Circassians and rendering this “wedge” less effective than the Kremlin hopes.

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