Monday, August 23, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Nervous about Circassians Identifying Themselves as Circassians in Upcoming Census

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 23 – If Circassians identify themselves as such, as many activists are urging, and not as the separate nationalities the Soviets divided them into, according to Russian experts cited in an article in today’s “Rossiiskaya gazeta,” that action alone could undermine the delicate ethnic balance in many republics and even spark new conflicts in the North Caucasus.
Marina Gritsyuk, one of the paper’s journalists, notes that “for example, in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic,” where a majority is made up of Kabards, one of those Circassian subgroups, any shift in identification in the upcoming census, could exacerbate the tensions which already exist with the Turkic Balkars (
This article is the clearest indication yet that the campaign by Circassians both internationally and in the North Caucasus is having an impact and that Moscow now feels compelled to try to block it, something it was loathe to do in a high profile way because of the large Circassian populations not only in the Russian Federation but in the Middle East.
(Peoples living in the North who view themselves as historically Circassian number more than 500,000, and any unity drive there would threaten Moscow’s control of the region. But those living abroad who call themselves Circassians are more than five million, with especially large and influential communities in Turkey and Jordan and an obvious foreign policy impact.)
But worried that Adygeys, Kabards, Cherkess, and other Circassian communities will tell census takers that they are Circassians and that this will at the very least further energize the Circassian campaign against the holding of the Olympics in Sochi where Circassians were expelled and killed 150 years ago, Moscow apparently has decided to take action.
That is just one of the political messages that was delivered at a recent roundtable in Nalchik devoted to the census and the nationality question, messages which collectively call into question both how much political pressure is going to be exerted on the census reports and how reliable its figures will be, especially regarding national identities.
Not all of the messages were for domestic consumption alone. Aleksandr Surinov, head of the Russian State Statistics Committee (Rosstat), noted that the census blanks will be published in more foreign languages (8) than in the languages of the Russian Federation (7) – and that Moscow is not preparing any translations into the languages of the North Caucasus.
The reason, the Rosstat head, said is that “practically all Caucasians speak Russian.” And he praised his agency for increasing the number of languages the forms are printed in from eight in 2002 to 15 this time around and for requiring census takers in non-Russian regions to know at least two languages.
More politically sensitive is the question of how declarations of nationality will be handled by the census takers and those who process their reports. According to speakers at the roundtable, census takers will record whatever those they query say, without requiring any documentation and “even if the name of the nation officially does not exist.”
In 2002, Vladimir Zorin, the deputy director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology said, census workers “received 1810 self-designations of nationality.” Many people at that time, he continued, simply gave their family name. But afterwards, “sociologists, ethnologists, and anthropologists” processed such declarations into a smaller number of nations.
This time, experts at the Nalchik meeting said, the number of self-declared nationalities will be at least as hard. “However,” Gritsyuk said, “scholars and statisticians are concerned about distortions which may have social consequences,” especially in the North Caucasus and in the case of the Circassians.
But if Moscow officials and experts are concerned about distortions, so too are the peoples of this region, who have never been provided clear information about just how census declarations are processed in order to reduce the number of nationalities and who have often suspected that Moscow introduces distortions of its own which work against their interests.

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