Friday, January 8, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Circassians Using Internet to End Soviet-Imposed Divisions in Advance of 2010 Census

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 8 – A new website is calling on Adygeys, Adygs, Cherkess, Kabards, and Shapsugs, the five peoples into which the Soviet government divided the Circassian nation, to declare themselves Circassians in the upcoming October 2010 Russian Federation census, another step toward the restoration of a common Circassian Republic in the North Caucasus.
The site,, was launched today by activities from a group of other Circassian sites as part of the campaign by Circassian Youth for “One People – One Name.” Its organizers say their effort is protected by the provisions of Article 26 of the Russian Constitution which specifies that everyone has the right to declare his or her national identity.
Judging by comments already posted on various news sites, Circassians are pleased by this step. On the one hand, they say, “the numbers of Circassians … has always been lowered by 10-15 percent by officials.” And on the other, they see it as a step forward in the Circassian rebirth (
Indeed, one post, by someone identified as “Zapadny cherkes” [“Western Circassian’], said that the impact of this site should be multiplied by putting notices about it “on the back windows of our cars, on streets, buses and taxis” because “now almost all young men and women have computers and Internet connections.”
But some members of the various Circassian communities into which the Soviets divided this long-suffering nation as part of Moscow’s “divide and rule” policies are concerned that it could backfire, if some members of the five peoples declare themselves Circassians while others do not.
That could lead officials in some of these republics to reduce the support they give to some of these communities, arguing on the basis of the census returns that there are now two peoples – the Circassians and Kabards – rather than one and thus reducing assistance to and the representation of these groups.
But many officials, both those in the republics of the North Caucasus where there are significant Circassian populations – particularly Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, where there are two titular nationalities -- and those in Moscow concerned about stability in that region, are certain to be angry about this effort.
The former are likely to view this effort as a threat to their control because any shift in ethnic declarations in the North Caucasus could provoke more challenges to the powers that be, cost them assistance from the central Russian government, or threaten their jobs if republic borders were redrawn on the basis of the historical Circassian identity.
And the latter are likely to be even more upset for three reasons. First, this upsurge in Circassian identity will promote expanded ties between the half-million-plus Circassians in the North Caucasus and the six million Circassians abroad, thus limiting Moscow’s freedom of action.
Second, such strengthening of Circassian identity will represent yet another obstacle to Vladimir Putin’s push for the Sochi Olympics, where his plans call for building venues over cemeteries where many Circassians lie and displacing the Shapsugs, one of the smaller Circassian peoples who will as a result of this effort gain new allies.
And third, any success by the Circassians in overcoming Soviet-imposed identities will call into question other Soviet efforts at ethnic engineering, possibly triggering the division or recombination of other communities in ways that will threaten stability by leading to demands for changes in the territorial arrangements not only in the North Caucasus but elsewhere as well.
But in addition to these political consequences of what the Circassians are trying to do, this latest Internet effort highlights something else that many analysts often forget: ethnic identities of all groups are not a given but rather as Ernst Renan classically observed, “a daily referendum” in which various groups fight over who is a member and who is not.

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