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

New Dispute Erupts in Karachai-Cherkessia

One of Russia’s most ethnically mixed republics experiences new tensions.
By Murat Gukemukhov
The Abaza, a minority in the multi-ethnic republic of Karachai-Cherkessia, have staged a dramatic protest, taking over the local parliament building to protest at what they say is forced assimilation.

On June 29, a crowd of around 200 Abazas broke out into the assembly chamber, demanding that the deputies revoke a law which they said restricted their rights, and that parliament create a special region for the minority.

Several policemen guarding the building were lightly injured by broken glass as people forced their way in, but the crowd was unarmed and included women as well as men.

Deputies left the chamber and President Mustafa Batdyev quit his residence while the protestors said they would not leave the building until the law had been cancelled.

Outside the headquarters of the Karachai-Cherkess government, several thousand Abazas lent their support to the protest, threatening further mass protests.

After ten hours, at around midnight, the occupiers did agree to leave, after the authorities agreed to hold talks on the dispute and not to persecute protesters.

The dispute centres on a new administrative border drawn between the Abaza village of Kubina and the town of Ust-Jeguta, where the majority population is Karachai, the largest ethnic group in the republic. The protestors said that a new law had redrawn the borderline, depriving the Abazas of 600 hectares of land.

Karachai-Cherkessia, one of the most diverse regions of the Russian Federation, is home to about 16 ethnic groups. The republic's constitution accords five the status of "indigenous nationalities" - Russians, Karachais, Circassians (or Cherkess), Abazas and Nogais.

There are some 30,000 Abazas in the republic out of a total population of 400,000. They are an indigenous people of the northwestern Caucasus, related to the Abkhaz and the Circassians but quite distinct from them.

“The authorities are condemning us to forced assimilation,” said Abaza rights activist Kambiz Yevgamukov. “Our lands are being confiscated and our agriculture deliberately destroyed. We are being forced to move to the city to seek a crust of bread. In these circumstances, the Abazas are doomed to disappear.”

The authorities responded to the protest by calling in troops from the neighbouring Russian region of Stavropol, and armed patrols appeared on the streets of Cherkessk. Karachai-Cherkessia has seen persistent trouble over the past year with two seizures of the government headquarters because of the mysterious murder of a group of businessmen.

The day after the Abaza protest, a counter-demonstration was held in support of President Batdyev and the parliament. Condemned the way the Abazas had behaved, demonstrators urged them “not to destroy the friendship between the peoples of Karachai-Cherkessia”.

Asiyat Khabicheva, who heads the local branch of Russia's liberal-leaning Union of Right Forces party, said it was not surprising that a land dispute had blown up into an ethnic quarrel. “It’s inevitable,” she said. “Any territorial claims automatically lead to a clash between the interests of the ethnic groups living in the republic, in this case the Karachais and Abazas.”

After an appeal for help from Karachai-Cherkessia's leadership and parliament, President Vladimir Putin’s plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus, Dmitry Kozak, hosted a July 1 meeting in Moscow at which he mediated between President Batdyev and leaders of the Abaza movement. The result was a decision to suspend the controversial law.

“We agreed that the law was insufficiently thought through, in political terms, and that it should be quickly suspended,” Kozak told journalists after the meeting. “A special commission has already been formed and it will work out proposals to sort out the dispute before July 8.”

Kozak suggested that two new municipal regions could be formed for both the Abaza and the Nogai minority. The Turkic-speaking Nogais, who have a nomadic past, are scattered across the North Caucasus and have a community in Karachai-Cherkessia.

The Abaza called off their pickets in Cherkessk after the meeting but promised to resume them if Kozak’s promises did not materialise.

“We set ourselves the goal of getting the attention of the [Russian] federal authorities because our rights have been blindly trampled on by the local authorities,” said Shchors Chagov, a leader of the Abaza community. “We have achieved that goal. We can’t ask for anything more. People are going home but the protest hub will be continuing its work until the territorial dispute is resolved.”

Murat Khatukayev, a Cherkess ex-member of parliament, said he doubted the new commission would solve the problem, “What we have here is an extremely Soviet approach to solving the problem. The commission consists mainly of the deputies who themselves created this situation because of their own incompetence. Now they have a week to solve the problem and adopt a new law.

“Thirteen years ago a similar commission was set up to create an Abaza region but it did not lead to anything. And now the formation of a region will bring up the subject of borders, and that will bring conflict.”

Just as agreement was being reached on the Abaza dispute, another source of tension developed with the holding on July 2 of a founding Congress of the Karachai People.

Kazbek Chomayev, the main speaker and the man elected chairman of the congress, strongly criticised the idea that has been mooted to enlarge Russia’s regions, a move which could potentially lead to the abolition of Karachai-Cherkessia as a separate republic and its re-absorption into Stavropol Region, of which it was part until 1990.

“Russia is moving away from the principle of federalism and is striving to create a unitary state along the lines of the Russian Empire,” said Chomayev. “We need to defend our statehood and defend the republic in the face of the process that has begun in Russia of liquidating national territorial units.”

Within Karachai-Cherkessia, Chomayev called for the institutions of power to reflect the principle of ethnic parity, saying that only someone from the majority Karachai group could be leader of the republic.

Khatukayev believes ethnically-based movements are becoming more active because Russia lacks policies on the position and rights of ethnic minorities.

“In our country, dispute resolution through the law is very undeveloped, there are no conditions for political parties to operate properly, and there is no legal protection for the preservation of the language, culture and traditions of ethnic minorities," he said. "Given this situation, the state is unable to protect the interests of its citizens, who are forced to turn to ethnic movements as proxies for the institutions of state and political parties.”

Politician Asiyat Khabicheva agreed, and warned that the kind of trouble Karachai-Cherkessia was seeing might spread to other areas as well, with the authorities so closed off from society.

“The main principle of civic society has been trampled on – the people are no longer the source of power,” she said. “In this situation, society is turning to self-preservation mechanism which are traditional in the south and which are comprehensible and accessible – ethnic movements. And as a way of putting pressure on the authorities, people are opting for whatever attracts the most attention from the centre – protest actions, rallies, mass disorder.”

Murat Gukemukhov is a correspondent for REGNUM news agency in Karachai-Cherkessia.