The Lost Land of Shapsugia

A new Russian law on "ethnic minorities" has given the Shapsug people fresh hope of reclaiming their historical homeland

The Lost Land of Shapsugia

A new Russian law on "ethnic minorities" has given the Shapsug people fresh hope of reclaiming their historical homeland

The "Shapsugia" newspaper is the last remaining mouthpiece of the Shapsug people - a tiny North Caucasian tribe who claim their way of life is threatened with extinction.

"Shapsugia" may have a circulation of just 750 copies but it stands at the forefront of a stubborn movement to reclaim an ethnic homeland which was liquidated in 1945. And this, say the Shapsugs, is their last hope of preserving their ancient culture and traditions.

In the beginning of the 18th century, the Shapsugs occupied a sizeable territory stretching from the River Pshada to the Kuban. In the 1830s, the first Russian expeditions into the Caucasus recorded a Shapsug population of up to 300,000 people.

Today, there are just 10,000 Shapsugs living in scattered communities along the Black Sea coast. Isolated from their ethnic kin - the Cherkess, the Adygeans and the Balkars - they consider themselves a nation under threat.

In many ways, they have managed to preserve their culture better than most - with family life based around the patriarchal aul and Islamic beliefs diluted with ancient pagan rituals. But, in the post-Soviet wilderness, unemployment and alcoholism are taking their toll whilst local officials have little patience for their ethnic concerns.

Consequently, the "Shapsugia" newspaper is fighting a lonely battle. Deputy editor Anzor Nibo explains, "Only work and study can save a man from drink. But today there are few enough young people who can find themselves work and few enough parents who can send their children to school."

Nibo went on to say that the Shapsug language was now only taught in the family circle while local television devoted just one programme a week to ethnic issues - and this was broadcast in Russian.

The newspaper had been working closely with the Adyge Khase - a Shapsug council of elders -- to set up cultural and informational links with related ethnic groups across the North Caucasus. Approaches had been made to the International Cherkess Association, now based in Nalchik, but it soon became evident that their Adygean cousins had problems of their own...

"Shapsugia's" editor, Aslanbi Khadjibramovich, is more outspoken. He claims the Shapsug people are literally faced with extinction. Low on cash and low on self-esteem, the younger generation are increasingly loathe to marry within their own ethnic group. The birth rate has never been lower.

"If this continues," says Khadjibramovich, "we will simply disappear".

The Shapsug nationalist movement was born in the early 1990s in a bid to reinstate the Shapsug autonomous enclave - part of the Krasnodarsky Region -- which was dissolved in May 1945.

In May 1994, a Shapsug congress in the settlement of Shkhafit elected a "social parliament", the Adyge Khase, with 35 members and defined its long-term goals. Delegates called for national autonomy as well as concrete initiatives to protect the cultural identity and historical legacy of the Shapsug people.

In June 1998, the Adyge Khase received backing from the Fourth Congress of the International Cherkess Association which pledged to "support the demands of the Black Sea Shapsugs for a legal strengthening of their rights as well as full representation in the Krasnodarsky regional administration and the reinstatement of Shapsug place names which were abandoned after the Caucasian wars of the 19th century."

However, the Shapsug cause has progressed little in the last two years. The new Duma law introduced in March this year "to guarantee the rights of minority peoples in the Russian Federation" may have brought some hope. Among other privileges, it excuses members of any group numbering less than 50,000 people from military service and promises a degree of self-determination.

But M Chachukh, the president of the Adyge Khase, is philosophical. "It's pointless to demand the restoration of our ethnic homeland at this juncture," he says. "In fact, that's not our main concern at the moment. The main thing is that we've been granted the status of a 'minority people' and the rights that go with it."

And yet there are fears that the new law could prove to be a double-edged sword, isolating the Shapsugs still further from their ethnic kin in the North Caucasus and creating a "pariah enclave" on the Black Sea coast.

Even now, the locals are working hard to cash in on the tourist industry which is booming around Sochi. A resident of the Akhyntam settlement, Achmiz Aisa, has even turned his home into a tiny museum, dedicated to Shapsug culture. He tells his visitors traditional stories over a cup of tea and honey - and his guests have included Russian politicians, writers and emigres from Turkey, Syria and Jordan.

One Shapsug ‚migr‚, Utizh Mazhid, brings groups of Cherkess from Turkey to visit the Shapsug settlements. "Maybe one day some of them will want to return to Shapsugia and settle here," says Mazhid. At present, it is a very distant dream.

Zarina Kanukova is a regular contributor to IWPR

Caucasus, Turkey, Syria
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