Adygeia: Special Status Under Threat

Furore over plans to merge a Circassian homeland with the surrounding Russian region.

Adygeia: Special Status Under Threat

Furore over plans to merge a Circassian homeland with the surrounding Russian region.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

A debate is raging within the North Caucasian autonomous republic of Adygeia as to whether it should be merged with the bigger Krasnodar region that surrounds it.

Supporters of the move to abolish the territory’s separate status is an artificial construction that benefits only a small elite. But opponents say abolishing Adygeia would deprive Circassians of a unique haven. The Adygeis, with the Kabardins and Cherkess, together make up the Circassians, one of the largest ethnic groups in the North Caucasus.

At the end of March, some 700 villagers each in the villages of Yablonovsky and Enem demonstrated against rocketing prices for utilities, against the local president Hazret Sovmen, but also in favour of a merger with Krasnodar region. More rallies are expected in late April or early May, the traditional marching season in Russia.

Timur Kalakutok, a deputy in the local parliament, has vowed to put the proposed merger with Krasnodar on the local parliament’s agenda.

The debate has sharpened political divisions within the republic with President Sovmen, a gold magnate, speaking out strongly against it. “Adygeia is an autonomous entity established so as to conserve Adygei culture, language and traditions… and create opportunities to fulfil Adygei national aspirations with the help of government institutions.”

President Sovmen is urging all those in favour of the merger to “pack up and go and live on the other side of the Kuban”, the river that separates Adygeia from Krasnodar. He vowed never to let his republic become “a colony of [Krasnodar] province again”.

Only 23 per cent of Adygeia’s population are ethnic Adygei, while the overwhelming majority are Russians. Some Russian rights groups, most notably the Slavic Union, complain of gross discrimination in local employment policies. As well as the president, they say, the prime minister and presidential chief of staff (a rank equal to minister) are all ethnic Adygei, as are six of the eight cabinet ministers. In some government institutions, such as the court bailiffs’ office in the local capital Maikop, 80 per cent of staff are Adygei.

Nina Konovalova, who chairs the Slavic Union’s board and supports the merger, told IWPR, “Russian professionals are being kicked out everywhere, or almost everywhere. Look at the faculties of Adygeia’s universities. Not only are the rectors all Adygei, the percentage of Adygei teachers on staff is disproportionately high.”

So far, however, there has been no mass exodus of Russians leaving the republic. According to official figures, the percentage of Russians in Adygeia has dropped only five per cent in the past 10 years. This is the lowest rate of Russian out-migration amongst all the North Caucasian republics.

The small republic of Adygeia is an enclave within the Krasnodar region, given the status of a republic within the Russian Federation in 1991 so as to give autonomy to the local Circassian population.

Local scholars and cultural figures have been vocal in expressing concern that the Circassian people could lose their culture and language if the one territory in the world where the titular nationality is Circassian were to be abolished (Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia are each shared with another group).

The language is already close to extinction. Recent surveys indicate that as few as five to 10 per cent of Adygei are fluent in their mother tongue.

“Adygeia’s continuity as an independent administrative unit within the Russian Federation provides a modicum of protection for its ethnic culture,” Almir Abregov, director of the Adygeia National Museum, told IWPR.

He believes that “all this fuss about the merger is completely contrived”, noting that many other regions in Northern Caucasus are no better off economically than Adygeia. “How this merger is going to change or improve anything is a mystery to me,” he said.

Taliy Beretar, the Adygeian president’s chief of staff, believes that if Adygeia becomes part of Krasnodar, the result could be rising inter-ethnic hostility.

“I am absolutely clear: I’m against the merger,” he told IWPR. “In the North Caucasus, which is home to hundreds of ethnicities, the inter-ethnic situation is already tense. There is no reason to further exacerbate tensions by unwisely changing a republic’s administrative status.”

Beretar added that Circassian emigrants in Israel have voiced concern at the proposed merger and said that they have written to the Adygei government, urging it not to let the merger happen.

“They still regard Adygeia as their historical homeland,” he said. “They were overjoyed when Circassian emigrants – the descendants of refugees who fled Russian troops in the 19th century –returned here from [a century in exile]. They don’t want the republic to be erased from the map as the homeland of Circassians everywhere in the world.”

Members of the Circassian Congress, an organisation recently established in Adygeia, are sworn opponents of the proposed merger.

“The abolition of Adygeia as a republic will anger not only the Adygei, but all North Caucasian expatriates,” said one of its leaders, Aslan Shazzo. “This may prompt some of them to take up arms and return here as freedom fighters against Russia.”

However, as the rallies in Yablonovsky and Enem showed, the idea of Adygeia joining Krasnodar has its supporters among local Adygei as well as Russians, especially those who live in parts of the republic that are economically and geographically closely linked to Krasnodar.

Kalakutok, an Adygei elected to represent one of these areas in parliament, has been lobbying for years for a union with Krasnodar.

“Both the Russians and the Adygei taking part in those rallies did so for the same reason,” he told IWPR. “They believe Adygeia is an artificial administrative formation whose sole reason for existing, as far as they can see, is to feed and clothe Adygeian ministers and nationalists, who account for between one and one-and-a-half per cent of the population.”

The Russian federal authorities have so far refrained from comment. Krasnodar governor Alexander Tkachev, speaking at a press conference in March, lent his backing to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s policy of creating larger regions, but he was evasive about the chances of Adygeia merging with his own province. “This is a complex matter. The decision to unite or stay apart should be made by our respective people,” he said.

Tkachev noted, however, that Adygeia and Krasnodar should be able to live together. Until 1991, Adygeia was an autonomous district within the Krasnodar region, before it was granted the status of a republic.

Ruslan Khanakhu, who heads a department at the Adygeian Institute of Humanities, told IWPR the idea should be abandoned altogether. “The issue of a merger is irrelevant to what the public really wants. It is only making things worse for everyone,” he said.

A taxi driver in Maikop told IWPR, “It does not matter if we do or don’t merge. Like snakes, the bureaucrats of the [Adygei] republic and Krasnodar will keep on working together and continue to suckpeople’s blood.”

Oleg Tsvetkov is an independent political scientist in Maikop, Adygeia.

Support our journalists