Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Adygeia's President Confronts Kremlin

Leader puts his future – and that of his small republic – on the line.
By Marieta Kumpilova
The president of the small North Caucasian republic of Adygeia is engaged in a showdown in which the stake is not only his own political survival, but that of Adygeia itself.



Khazret Sovmen, the metal-industry magnate who has been leader of Adygeia for the past four years, met the head of President Vladimir Putin’s administration on April 11 after publicly criticising Putin’s representative for the Southern Federal District – which includes the North Caucasus - Dmitry Kozak.



Before the meeting, Sovmen said he hoped to receive an expression of “full confidence” from the Kremlin, “if there is no negative interference from the Southern Federal District”.



Kozak has lent his support to a proposal that would see Adygeia lose its status as an autonomous republic within Russia, and merged with the Krasnodar region which entirely surrounds it.



Sovmen announced his resignation on April 3 at a meeting of the Adygeian parliament. He reportedly said he could not continue without the Moscow’s support, thanked deputies for their work, and left the building.



Two hours later, however, his press secretary Abrek Chich, said there had been a misunderstanding and dismissed the idea that the Adygeian leader had resigned.



A week later, Sovmen gave an interview to the Moscow newspaper Kommersant which shed some light on what had been going on, saying he was in fundamental disagreement with Kozak and the institution of the Southern Federal District, which he said had “outlived its usefulness.”



“Kozak appeared and, brandishing his sword, began to demand unification [with Krasnodar region],” said Sovmen.



Sovmen had told Putin in February that Adygeia was achieving major economic successes, but a review ordered by Kozak came to entirely different conclusions.



However, their major disagreement was over the merger, which would mean the end of Adygeia as a separate entity. Last year saw continued turbulence in Adygeia, with numerous demonstrations for and against the idea of a merger.



“Now the representative’s office is trying to unify Adygeia [with Krasnodar] using other people’s hands,” Sovmen told Kommersant.



“But they don’t understand that this could be tragic. Everything is very fragile here us. You have to take into account the opinion of the indigenous population of the republic – us [Adygei people] and Cossacks, and not the incomers.”



Adygeia won the status of an autonomous Russian republic in 1991, despite being entirely within Krasnodar region. It got its name from the Adygei, also known as Circassians, who are the indigenous people of the northwestern Caucasus. Adygeia won a reputation for political stability but was economically weak, requiring heavy subsidies from Moscow in common with other republics of the North Caucasus.



Advocates of re-unification said power in Adygeia was unjustly concentrated in the hands of ethnic Adygei, who comprise only a quarter of the republic’s population, and that becoming part of Krasnodar would benefit everyone in economic terms. Opponents said that abolishing Adygeia would mean an end to a historically Circassian territory.



Following the end of the Caucasian War of the 19th century, large numbers of Circassians left their homeland and went into exile. Many more live in Turkey and the Middle East than in the North Caucasus, where they are concentrated in Karachai-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygeia.



Nina Konovalova, the leader of Slavic Union of Adygeia, the principal opposition party, said, “We don’t mind in what form Adygeia joins the region – as an autonomous territory as it was before 1991 or as separate districts. The main thing is that the Slavs who live in the republic will receive the same rights as the Adygei.”



Circassian organisations such as Adyge Khase and the Circassian Congress warned of ethnic conflict if the merger was allowed to go ahead. At least 3,000 people took part in a rally in Maikop on April 6. Diaspora groups have also spoken out strongly for preserving Adygeia as it is.



“I didn’t even know before how proud people are of Adygeia’s status,” said Sovmen. “Kozak has got hold of the idea of unification and he is ignoring the opinion of the Adygei diaspora, [which] is afraid that without the status of a republic, the nation will disappear.”



Sovmen, 69, was elected leader of Adygeia in 2002 after an astonishing career, which he began as a driver and ended by becoming a multi-millionaire and Siberian gold magnate.



He has invested large amounts of his personal fortune in his home region, but has also been criticised for spending little time there and relying on a small team of local officials, who are not as popular as he is.



“The main problem with Khazret Sovmen is his rare visits to Adygeia,” said Konovalova. “Therefore he doesn’t know the people who surround him and he can’t identify ones he can trust.”



“I think Sovmen is a good man,” said a pensioner who has to work as a cleaner to make a living. “He did a lot for people. But, unfortunately, the people around him are all mafia. They rob both him and us. It would be sad if he left.”



Vladimir Karatayev, the editor-in-chief of Zakubanye, the main opposition newspaper said that Sovmen’s chief of staff Taliy Beretar was in reality more important than the president himself.



“Sovmen has never controlled the situation here, it was Beretar,” said Karatayev. “Sovmen confused the image of patron with that of politician.”



Sovmen has already succeeded in debarring one of his main opponents, Anatoly Odeichuk, the federal Russian representative in Adygeia, from politics. Odeichuk, who was reportedly close to Kozak, was dismissed after he gave an interview to Izvestia newspaper which many local Adygei said was insulting towards them.



Adygeia is now waiting nervously to see how the stand-off resolves itself.



Almir Abregov, the head of the Adygei National Museum and a leader of the Circassian Congress, said there should be a referendum to decide Adygeia’s future if Sovmen resigns.



“If the idea that Sovmen should resign is backed by the Kremlin, it will be a sign that Moscow is not planning to reject unification of Adygeia with Krasnodar region,” he said.



“Maybe Sovmen is the last obstacle in the path of unification.”



Marieta Kumpilova is a freelance journalist based in Maikop, Adygeia.