Monday, February 22, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Ethnic Tensions Threaten Another Bi-National Republic in the North Caucasus

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 22 – Last Thursday, a group of 20 Karachay young people beat three ethnic Circassians, an action that triggered a fight between more representatives of more than 100 of the two groups in Karachay-Cherkessia, actions that a Circassian group blames on the “ethnocratic” rule of Karachay officials in that bi-national republic in the North Caucasus.
Such clashes “are not a rarity,” Circassian groups say, but the situation is clearly becoming worse and “the patience of the Circassians is running out,” Timur Zhuzhuyev, the leader of the Circassian Adyge Khase movement in Karachay-Cherkessia says, with clashes taking place “everywhere” (
What makes these clashes and the statement that the Circassian Congress released on those in the last week potentially so important is that they could point to the breakup of another bi-national republic in the region, something that because the Circassians are involved could lead to a wholesale redrawing of borders there and even the formation of a Circassian republic.
In its statement, the Circassian Congress of Kabardino-Balkaria said that “the ethnocratic powers that be” were behind the fights. Republic officials, it said, “are conducting a policy of openly ignoring the interests of the Circassian people and supporting propaganda on the national exceptionalness of the Karachay people, based on intentional lies, inventions, and falsifications.”
“In the republic,” the February 20th statement continued, “materials sowing international hostility and containing slanders against other peoples are freely published” and “nationalistic myths” are inculcated into the Karachay population to the point that the issue of the possibility of the Karachays and Circassians living together within “a single federation subject” is now open.
Like the other bi-national republics of the North Caucasus, the Karachay-Cherkess Republic has had a complicated history and course of demographic development. A Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous Oblast was established in 1922 but in 1926, it was split in two. Then in 1943, the Karachay AO was abolished when the Karachays were deported.
Between then and 1957 when the Karachay-Cherkess AO was restored, the Cherkess AO absorbed what had been the Karachay territory. In 1991, the AO declared itself an Autonomous SSR, and then after the collapse of the Soviet Union later in that year, the republic acquired its current designation.
Both because of these developments and because of other trends, the ethnic mix of the republic has changed dramatically overtime, and the most recent demographic changes help to explain both the new assertiveness of the Karachay and also the new sensitivity of the Circassians to any attack on their dignity.
In 1926, the Karachays formed 52 percent of the total population of the territory now occupied by the republic, with the Circassians forming 15.9 percent, the Abaza 13.5 percent and the Russians 2.6 percent. By 1959, the Karachays were down to 24.4 percent, the Circassians to 8.7 percent, and the Russian sup to 51 percent.
At the end of the Soviet period, the Karachays had increased their share to 31.2 percent, the Circassians had fallen to 9.7 percent, and the Russians were down to 42.4 percent. According to the 2002 census, the Karachays formed 38.5 percent, the Circassians 11.3 percent, and the Russians 33.6 percent, the last the result of Russian flight.
Those trends almost certainly have continued over the last eight years, with the number of Russians falling significantly, the share of Karachays approaching 50 percent, and the Circassians at approximately the same 11.3 percent, figures that have given the Karachays the sense that the republic is theirs even though it is officially bi-national.
Since 1991, such bi-national republics, created in Soviet times as part of a divide and rule imperial strategy, have been in trouble. Chechnya and Ingushetia came apart as a result of the former’s drive for independence after the end of Soviet power, and the other officially bi-national republics, all of which include Circassians, have been tense as well.
One reason that demographic changes play such a major role is that groups which view themselves as gaining majority status are less inclined to yield to others and that those groups which see themselves on the losing end of this process are inclined to protest against their loss of status, fearful that their political or at least ethno-linguistic rights will be compromised.
If the events in Karachay-Cherkessia are an example of the former, a demonstration by 600 Kumyks in Daghestan last week is an example of the latter. There, the Kumyks met to demand that the post of republic prime minister remain a Kumyk rather than pass to a member of another nationality (

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