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

The Slow Vanishing of the Abaza

Is it too late to save the culture and language of a North Caucasian minority?
By Fatima Tlisova

"The forest is dying along with our people." An elderly forestry worker with heavily veined hands has a contemplative and resigned expression on his face as he says these words.


The forest in question is next to the village or "aul" of Elburgan, not far from Cherkessk, the capital of Karachai-Cherkessia at the foot of the Caucasus mountains. The ancient woods are being felled for timber, while the local Abaza people are slowly losing their identity and culture.


Ramazan Kamov, the elder of Elburgan - the second largest Abaza village - laments the fact that only three children were born there over the last year. "What kind of future are we leaving for our children? I can't see the Abaza people existing in the future, and that hurts me so much! We keep waiting for someone to come and save us, but these are vain hopes.


"To survive, we must fight and set all the alarm bells ringing. But instead we are already losing heart."


The main reason the modern-day Abazas are losing their identity is because few of them speak their native language, especially in the towns. In villages, the older generation continues to speak Abaza, but for those under 30 years old, Russian is now the main means of communication.


Mukhamed Tkhaitsukhov, a well-known Abaza writer, fears it may already be too late. "In 20 years time at the most, we will cease to exist as a nation, as an ethnic group. In Abaza schools in the auls, education will be conducted entirely in Russian. There will be no more speakers of the language left, and thus no nation! Somewhere up there they are passing laws about us, but only a faint echo of that reaches us, and we see no practical action. We are knocking on the doors of various officials, but to no avail."


Albert Jandubayev, the headmaster at a school in the village of Inzhich-Chukun, 45 kilometres from Cherkessk, said that the Abaza language needs direct support from the authorities if it is to survive.


"Any changes to the curriculum on the ground require additional funding - extra jobs for teachers or at least extra pay for their overtime," he explained. "But even if a village school headmaster is prepared to bear such expenses on his meagre school budget, there is no guarantee that his initiative will get approval from the top. That's why it is such a problem for the Abazas to learn their native language."


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


Abazas have been listed in the "Red Book," a list of endangered "peoples of the Russian Empire" compiled by Estonian scholars. But this has had no practical impact on their life.


The Abaza are an indigenous people of the north-western Caucasus, related to the Abkhaz and the Circassians but quite distinct from them. Their language most resembles the tongue of the Ubykh ethnic group, the last speaker of which died in Turkey in 1992.


In the 18th century, the Abaza had a large population, according to accounts from European travellers in the Caucasus. They lived by raising livestock and were famous for their herds of pedigree horses. After the end of the devastating Caucasian wars in the 1860s, the Red Book records, the Abazas, along with their more numerous Circassian cousins, were subjected to mass deportation to the Ottoman Empire, and only 9,000 out of 50,000 remained in their homeland.


Nowadays, according to statistical data, the Abaza population in Russia numbers around 30,000, almost all of them in Karachai-Cherkessia.


Despite their small numbers, the Abazas are a strong political force in Karachai-Cherkessia and have been able to influence presidential elections there. The "Abaza question" was one of the main points in the election campaigns of both presidents of the republic to date - former president Vladimir Semenov and the incumbent Mustafa Batdyev. According to some sources, Abaza criminal networks control almost half the businesses in Cherkessk, and there are many wealthy Abaza entrepreneurs.


Yet these businessmen are reluctant to support Abaza culture and it seems there is no effective organisation raising funds on its behalf.


Anatoly Tlyabichev, an Abaza who owns one of the autonomous republic's most successful businesses, the Rezinotekhnik factory, told IWPR, "Most often people ask me for one-off help of various kinds, for medical treatment, publication of a book or self-publicity. No one has ever applied to me with a real programme to revive the Abaza language and culture. And even if such a programme appears, there is no guarantee that the money will be spent as intended. That is why I prefer to give direct assistance to specific recipients."


The state shows almost no interest in addressing the issue. Neither the federal authorities in Moscow nor the republican authorities in Cherkessk are investing money in the cultural survival of small ethnic groups.


The Abaza leaders were encouraged by a federal law in 1999 and a republican law in 2001, both of which promised to protect the rights of small indigenous peoples. But Shchors Chagov, the chairman of the Abaza society, said their initial hopes were disappointed. "Neither the budget for 2003, nor the budget for 2004 on the federal or regional level have provided funding in the framework of this law on small nations," he said.


Another problem for the Abaza is that they have no single political centre in Karachai-Cherkessia, and their villages are located in different administrative


districts.


Local parliamentary deputy Uali Evgamukov is an Abaza who spent many years in the United State and still owns a dancing school in Miami. He says he returned to his homeland to "help revive the economy, attract investment and develop links with American businesses". But he is discouraged by what he found on his return.


Evgamukov said, "I don't see any prospects for young people, they don't yet exist in our republic. Nor do they exist for our nation. We have no clearly defined administrative territorial centre."


A plan to create a single Abaza district has long been under discussion, he said, but nothing has been done. President Batdyev blamed budgetary problems for the failure to implement the change, but other officials say they are afraid of a potential spate of land claims.


In the Abaza villages, all this is barely a topic of conversation, as people worry about unemployment and earning their daily bread.


Fatima Tlisova is a freelance journalist in Karachai-Cherkessia.