The Legacy of 'Divide and Rule'

The first in a two-part series examining the roots of conflict in the North Caucasus

The Legacy of 'Divide and Rule'

The first in a two-part series examining the roots of conflict in the North Caucasus

Friday, 13 October, 2000

It is tempting to dismiss the regional conflicts of the North Caucasus as outbursts of religious, nationalist or separatist feeling. Tempting because this approach ignores the political, ideological and economic roots which go back through the centuries. And these are roots which, to the frustration of the central authorities in Moscow, defy short-term solutions and violent acts of repression.

Standing on the border between Europe and Asia, straddling the Black and Caspian seas, the North Caucasus occupies a strategically vital position on the world map. The region is also torn between conflicting religious cultures - the Orthodox Russians to the North, Iran and Turkey to the south. Furthermore, its natural resources - such as oil, tungsten and molybdenum -- have redoubled its geopolitical significance over the past two centuries.

Consequently, successive invaders have looked on the North Caucasus as a valuable prize - the Scythians, the Arabs, the Persians and the Mongols, then the armies of Tamerlaine the Great, the Russian tsars and Adolf Hitler. And unsurprisingly the local tribes developed strong military traditions and gained a reputation for stubborn, uncompromising resistance.

This stormy history bequeathed the region a bewildering range of disparate tribes and dialects, although, by the beginning of the 19th century, the Adygeans (or Circassians) had emerged as the dominant ethnic group. At this time, they occupied the territory that extends from the shores of the Black Sea to the Terek and Sunzhi delta and were famous for their unbending code of honour.

Russia's colonial campaigns in the North Caucasus date from this time - vicious, bloody wars that set one tribe against another, playing on the old divisions and the culture of blood vengeance. With this in mind, the Imperial armies built a string of fortresses from which they could launch punitive expeditions, burning down villages and plundering arable land and livestock. They employed a scorched-earth policy, levelling forests and causing irreparable damage to the local ecology.

During this time, the North Caucasus split into two distinct halves - the Dagestanis and Chechens in the east and the Adygeans and Abkhazians in the west. By the 1830s, the eastern part was already dominated by the religious ideas of the "Gazavat" - which held holy war against the unbelievers at the centre of its ideology.

Islam enabled the legendary Imam Shamil to unite both Dagestanis and Chechens into a theocratic state which in turn allowed organised resistance to be established. However, external pressures and internal contradictions combined to bring about Shamil's downfall in 1859.

In the west, religion never played a decisive role. An attempt by Naib ("General") Shamil Mahomed-Amin to unite the Adygeans on religious grounds was doomed to failure simply because his credo conflicted with the deep-rooted traditions and customs of the Circassian tribes.

The Adygeans, however, rallied to a different banner - the ideology of war itself. The warrior's chief concern was not where he would go after death but what the bards (dzheguako) would sing about his exploits in the heroic epics. The Adygean code was governed by a love of freedom and their homeland - and this love was best expressed in the desire to fight and die for them.

Prior to the Russian invasion, the Adygean peoples were divided by internal feuding but the wars against the tsars united them - the Kabardinians, the Shapsug, the Cherkess and Ubykh - and their organised resistance continued for five years after the defeat of Imam Shamil.

Historians often overlook the fact that the aggressive policies of a Christian state (Russia) against the North Caucasus persuaded the bulk of the local population to convert to Islam - more as a symbol of resistance and defiance rather than an expression of religious conviction. By 1864 and the final defeat of the Adygean tribes, only the Ossetians, the Abkhazians and a small section of the Kabardinian peoples remained Christian.

The Russian Empire continued to oppress the North Caucasian peoples long after the fighting had ended. Hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes by special punitive detachments and, by the 1870s, only 3% of the pre-war Adygean population was left in the region. The survivors lived in tiny enclaves surrounded by Russian colonists.

The Russians went on to give the Adygeans the official status of "aliens" living within the borders of their empire. As a result, the Caucasians had no legal rights and all disputes were settled by military courts. It was a situation which caused Lenin to describe the Russian Empire as "a vast prison of its peoples".

Unsurprisingly, the ethnic minorities of the North Caucasus were ardent supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

The Soviet government made an encouraging start. Autonomous republics and oblasts were created whilst efforts were made to preserve national languages and cultures. But, under Stalin, the borders between the republics were established arbitrarily, forcing ethnically diverse peoples to share disputed territories.

The Adygeans were divided into four official groups -- the Kabardinians, the Cherkess, the Adygeans and the Shapsug -- whilst the ethnic Russians were established as the "elder brothers" of all the "smaller" peoples. Gradually, a policy of Russification was set in motion with all national traditions being declared harmful anachronisms. A levelling of peoples began, leading to a gradual erosion of national cultures.

In time, the history of the 110-year war in the North Caucasus was rewritten in a bid to persuade the Caucasian peoples that they had joined the ranks of the Russian Empire voluntarily.

But the greatest uprooting of all came in 1944 when Stalin deported millions of Chechens, Ingush, Balkars and Karachai to Central Asia for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. The deportations cost the lives of thousands of these enforced "settlers" and it was not until 1957, during the Khrushchev thaw, that the exiles were allowed to return to the Caucasus.

On their return, some fared better than others. The Balkars, for example, found their villages were unclaimed and they were given the chance to inhabit the fertile lowlands once occupied by the Adygeans. The Karachai, on the other hand, discovered their traditional territories had been taken over by the Cherkess while the Ingush had been displaced by Ossetian settlers.

The deportations effectively served to open up the old rifts which had split the Caucasian peoples in the centuries before the Russian invasions. And the resentment which was allowed to fester during the next 30 years of Soviet rule exploded into open conflict as soon as the Communist state collapsed.

Continued next week...

Shy Zakya is a historian and political commentator from Kabardino-Balkaria

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