Staunton, April 18 – Historians have often observed that the North Caucasus can unite only on the basis of Islam or a mountaineer identity, otherwise its peoples will fight among themselves, and that Moscow has traditionally worked hard to keep them divided lest any unity emerge as the basis for a challenge to Russian rule.
But now, under Vladimir Putin, the Russian authorities are taking steps in two key areas that undercut all of that past strategy either because of a failure to understand what is at stake or because of a focus on short-term tactical outcomes rather than longer-term goals and thus make Russia’s control of the region at the very least more problematic in the future.
The first concerns the Circassians, a nation tsarist forces expelled, the Soviets divided into more than five parts, and the current Russian government refuses to recognize as compatriots those Circassians seeking to return to their homeland because of conflicts in Syria where many have been living.
Valery Khatazhukov, head of the Kabardino-Balkar Regional Human Rights Center, says that the Circassians of Syria and elsewhere should be granted that status because they speak one of the state languages– their language is official in the Adygey Republic – but that Moscow hasn’t been willing to do so (kavkazr.com/a/cherkesy-dobivayutsa-priznania/28435551.html).
Instead, it has set up quotas for each of the north Caucasus republics and neighboring Russian kray where most Circassians now live and thrown up obstacles, including the payment of high fees for visas and resident permits, that have prevented Syria’s Circassians from filling even these quotas.
Moreover, in one infamous case, the Russian authorities expelled Syrian refugees from sanatoriums in Kabardino-Balkaria in order to provide housing for refugees from Ukraine following the Russian invasion of that country and the Crimean Anschluss, Khatzhukov continues.
Had the Russian authorities simply given Circassians from Syria the status of compatriots and allowed them to return, there would have been an increase in the Circassian peoples in the North Caucasus, something that Moscow has always feared. But by denying them that status and restricting their entry, the Russian authorities have produced an outcome even worse for them.
Just as was the case in the run-up to the Sochi Olympiad, when Moscow’s refusal to respect what had been the 1864 killing fields in which Circassians were murdered or expelled served to radicalize the Circassian community around the world, now, its actions or rather refusal to act is not only further radicalizing them but unifying them.
Indeed, it is striking that both Russians and members of the Moscow-sponsored subgroups of Circassians now talk exclusively about the Circassians, something that encourages them to think of themselves as a nation rather than a congeries of smaller peoples and possibly to act on the basis of that communality. If so, Moscow will have only itself to blame
The second case involves the Alan identity. In 1994, the North Ossetian Republic within the Russian Federation added Alania to its name, thus linking it to the medieval kingdom of that name which ruled over much of the North Caucasus. A few days ago, South Ossetia, which Soviet forces helped to break away from Georgia, voted to rename itself the State of Alania.
That latter decision, especially in combination with the first, has been viewed critically or sympathetically as an indication that South Ossetia will soon fuse with North Ossetia within the borders of the Russian Federation. That seems to be Moscow’s intention, but the renaming tactic is already having some unintended consequences.
That is because, as Alikhan Kharsiyev, a Duma deputy from Ingushetia, points out, the Ossetians are not the only nation with roots in Alania. Almost all the peoples of the central North Caucasus do, a fact scholars from the region could have told Moscow had they not been suppressed as “enemies of the people” (mk.ru/politics/2017/04/13/alanskaya-golovolomka.html).
Now, he says, there is every chance to talk about this common Alan identity, to focus on what “unites” rather than “divides” the peoples of the North Caucasus, something that is especially important because alone, “we are small peoples, and little depends on us.” But together, far more can be done.
As far as the Ossetian decisions to call themselves Alania, this is their own affair; but they should remember that there are Alan symbols and identities in Ingushetia, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia as well, and all these peoples should be uniting on the basis of this earlier and not forgotten identity, Kharsiyev says.
“We are obligated to begin a civilized discussion on all these controversial questions. We do not have the right to suggest that everything is normal and be silent,” poses that will open the way for “irresponsible and illiterate people and simply provocateurs to fill this vacuum” especially among the young.
And he concludes with questions: “the longer politicians put off the resolution of this issue, the greater the harm, for the Caucasus and for Russia. Clearly, sooner or later the leadership of the country will have to take up this issue. But what about us? Will we act like always and complain to one another about Moscow?” Or will be finally act on our own?
The Duma deputy clearly believes that moving from ethnic identities to an historically based one will be a stepping stone toward integration of the people of the North Caucasus into the Russian political nation. But there is every likelihood that the result will be just the reverse, that a larger Alan nation will be more ready to resist Moscow than even its smaller components.