Tallinn, November 8 – By recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow has sparked new calls by the Circassians and Turks of the North Caucasus for their own unified republics, demands that threaten the divide and rule strategy the Russian government has pursued in that region for almost a century.
Since the war in Georgia, the Circassians at a congress in Karachayevo-Cherkessia and the Balkars, a Turkic group, in a series of statements have called for the establishment of a unified Circassia and a unified Turkic state in the North Caucasus, projects that would redraw the map of that region, lead to new conflicts and reduce Russia’s role there.
Indeed, Sergey Markedonov, one of Moscow’s most thoughtful commentators on ethnic politics in the Caucasus, said in an interview posted online yesterday, these demands, even if not realized, may constitute the most dangerous consequences of the Kremlin’s decision to recognize the two breakaway republics in Georgia (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=18148).
Moscow should have anticipated this because both the Circassians and the Turkic groups have asked for their own republics in the past. “In 1991-92,” Markedonov points out, “ideas about the division of Karachayevo-Cherkessia and of Kabardino-Balkaria already existed. In both republics, plebiscites took place” and border changes were discussed.
Moreover, in 1996, the Moscow analyst continues, some Turkic groups attempted to proclaim a self-standing Balkaria, and in 1999, during elections in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, it became obvious that the two communities were becoming increasingly alienated, a trend that has been exacerbated by more recent events, including international attention.
According to Markedonov, “Moscow is not interested” in such changes: First, any shift would challenge existing borders and lead to violence. Second, it could become a model for others, particularly in Daghestan. And third, it would lead to the departure of the few remaining ethnic Russians in the region, further lessening the central government’s control.
And he argues that more thoughtful people among the Circassians and Turkic groups ought not to be interested either. On the one hand, neither group will live better if such changes take place, he says, because the new bureaucracies that will arise will eat up whatever resources may be available.
On the other, the borders of these new entities would likely be just as problematic as the existing ones, given both the complicated histories of these peoples and the ways in which the ethnic communities are intermixed. Drawing new lines would thus either require new movements of people or simply change the ethnic hierarchies in particular locations.
But changing ethnic hierarchies may be exactly what these peoples want to do. The Soviet system created one kind of ethnic hierarchy in which Russians were at the top over all, the titular nationalities at the top in their republics, and the larger or largest nationalities at the top in republics combining two or more ethnic communities.
As Sergey Arutyunov, the head of the Caucasus department of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, has observed, “In Daghestan, the Avars and the Dargins, the largest peoples, lived well. In Kabardino-Balkaria, the Kabards did the same, and in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, the Karachays, and so on.”
And having learned from their experience under the Soviets the importance of being at the top of whatever heap they could be, members of those nationalities who are now lower in these hierarchies want to rise, inspired by slogans like Gamsakhurdia’s “Georgia for the Georgians” and Moscow’s justification of its moves in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Members of groups motivated either by past discrimination or by such desires to dominate rather than be dominated by others may not care that much about whether they might suffer economically if they achieved a new arrangement – especially if, as is the case in many parts of the North Caucasus now their current economic situation is anything but wonderful.
As a result, Moscow’s policies based on the ancient imperial principle of “divide and rule” are being challenged in ways that threaten Russia’s positions in the Caucasus, and in this instance, they are under attack more because of Moscow’s own policies in Georgia than because of the work of outside agitators or local nationalists.