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North Caucasus: In Adygeya, One Threat Recedes, Another Persists

(RFE/RL) For almost two years, Adygeya's Slavs, who currently constitute some 70 percent of that republic's population of 445,000, have been lobbying to subsume the Republic of Adygeya into Krasnodar Krai, within which it currently constitutes an enclave.

Adygeya's Adygei and Cherkess minority for its part has campaigned with equal single-mindedness against that proposed merger. In April 2005, some 10,000 people took to the streets of Maikop, Adygeya's capital, to protest the anticipated abolition of Adygeya's status as a republic. And last month, the lower chamber of Adygeya's parliament voted down a draft law on referenda that would, if enacted, have constituted the legal basis for a republic-wide vote on such a merger in which the Slav majority could have carried the day.
Russian officials say the rationale for merging Adygeya into Krasnodar Krai is first and foremost economic: Black Sea coast tourism and its famously fertile soil have created an image of Krasnodar as an economic success story.

The idea of subsuming Adygeya into Krasnodar Krai first emerged in 2004 in the context of Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans to streamline the Russian Federation by reducing the number of federation subjects by means of territorial mergers, an approach that self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky denounced in a February 28 interview with as a pretext for resurrecting "the Soviet model."

The rationale adduced by Russian officials for doing so is first and foremost economic: thanks largely to Black Sea coast tourism and the legendary fertility of its soil, Krasnodar is regarded as an economic success story, even though levels of economic development vary widely within the krai, and some districts are dirt poor and plagued with high unemployment. Adygeya, by contrast, relies heavily on subsidies from Moscow to balance its budget.

Adygeya's Slavs, however, cite political factors, including alleged discrimination, to substantiate their arguments in favor of merging the two regions. Union of Slavs of Adygeya (SSA) chairwoman Nina Konovalova recently told "Caucasus Times" that the titular nationality has "taken control of everything: personnel policy, the economy, culture." She accused the Cherkess of consistently interpreting any criticism of the leadership's policies as ethnically motivated, and she implied that the Cherkess should content themselves simply with those measures foreseen by Russian legislation to safeguard their language and culture.

(That line of argument overlooks the fact that in many small national republics, for example Mari El, such legislation is routinely violated or at best ignored.)

But an anonymous commentator who posted on February 14 on the website an essay summarizing the pros and cons of the proposed territorial merger rejected claims by Konovalova and others that Slavs in Adygeya are excluded from positions of power. That commentator referred to the ratio of Slav surnames on any list of members of the republic's government. He did not, however, cite statistical data to substantiate his rebuttal.

Only One Homeland

The Slavs further argue that, in a democracy, the preferences of the (Slav) majority should take precedence over those of the (Adygei/Cherkess) minority, even though the latter constitute the titular nationality in the Republic of Adygeya. The Adygeis and Cherkess point out that Adygeya is the only place on earth that they can call their homeland.

As a result of forced outmigration to escape extermination at the hands of tsarist Russian troops in the 19th century, there are currently an estimated 3-4 million Cherkess scattered across the face of the planet, far more than live in Russia. (In July 2005, Adygei and Cherkess organizations in Adygeya addressed a written appeal to the Russian State Duma to issue a formal condemnation of tsarist policies as "genocide." After a six-month silence, that request was finally rejected, according to on January 27.) Almir Abregov, director of Adygeya's National Museum, explained last month to that the creation first of an Adygey Autonomous Oblast and then of a national republic served to promote a sense of national identity.
The Kremlin may have shown exemplary political acumen in proclaiming that the plan to abolish Adygeya's status as a republic is on hold. But the Adygeya authorities' heavy-handed approach to a second explosive issue may prove just as destabilizing.

Both Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev and deputy presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Aleksandr Pochinok went on record last year as disavowing the reported merger plans. But despite those denials, discussion of the planned merger has gained momentum in the run-up to the elections, scheduled for March 12, to a new republican parliament.

The SSA announced in December its intention of concluding an election alliance with the United Industrial Party of Russia in the hope of winning a majority in the new legislature and pushing through legislation that would expedite a merger. Two Cherkess organizations -- the Cherkess Congress and Adyge Khase -- immediately addressed appeals to the international community, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's High Commission on National Minorities, condemning the SSA's election manifesto as chauvinistic and xenophobic.

Merger Unlikely

The two organizations have since appealed to Republic of Adygeya Central Election Commission Chairman Yury Khut to bar the SSA from the parliamentary ballot, "Kavkazsky uzel" reported. They argued that "people and parties with such ideas should not participate in elections to the highest legislative organ of the republic, on whose work stability and calm in Adygeya depends to a large degree."

But even if the SSA wins a majority of seats in the March 12 election, its chances of spearheading the desired abolition of Adygeya's status as a republic now look far remoter than they did a few months ago. Speaking on February 28 after a meeting of the heads of North Caucasus branches of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, Tkachev and Adygeya's President Khasret Sovmen jointly declared that the proposed merger is no longer on the agenda.

Shortly before that meeting, during a nationwide television broadcast on February 21, the pro-Kremlin political commentator Gleb Pavlovsky excoriated Tkachev, implicitly blaming him personally for serious political and socioeconomic shortcomings, including frequent reprisals against Armenians, Meskhetians and other non-Slavs living in Krasnodar, reported. Tkachev was first elected governor in January 2001 and reelected in 2004 with almost 84 percent of the vote.

Plan B?

Some Slavs, however, have already formulated a fallback position. Aleksandr Dorofeyev, a parliamentary candidate for the Rodina (Motherland) party, was quoted on February 28 by as saying Rodina has already formed an initiative group to lobby for a referendum on changing Adygeya's status. But instead of subsuming Adygeya into Krasnodar, Dorofeyev advocated creating an Adygo-Kuban Republic, by analogy with the Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia republics, with Maikop as its capital. That variant would have the advantage of not lowering Adygeya's status and in addition elevating Krasnodar from the level of a krai to that of a republic.
One Slav representative has accused the Cherkess of consistently interpreting any criticism of the leadership's policies as ethnically motivated, and implied that the Cherkess should content themselves simply with those measures foreseen by Russian legislation to safeguard their language and culture.

Whether the Cherkess would find that solution acceptable is unclear. At a meeting in Maikop on February 25, representatives of the Adygei and Cherkess communities from Adygeya, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Krasnodar adopted a declaration addressed to President Putin, the Federation Council, and the leaders of their respective federation subjects, reported on February 27. That appeal stressed the need to preserve Adygeya's current status as a separate federation subject. It further warned that in the event that measures are not taken to preclude any further lobbying for Adygeya's merger with Krasnodar Krai, they reserve the right to proclaim an Adygei Republic within the Russian Federation that would encompass not just the present-day Republic of Adygeya but all those territories to which the Cherkess lay a historic claim: Adygeya, Kabardia, Cherkessia, and the historic homeland of the tiny Shapsug minority on Krasnodar's Black Sea coast. The Adygeis, of whom the Shapsugs are a subgroup, the Cherkess, and the Kabardians are ethnically close, and their respective languages belong to the same northwest Caucasian language family, along with Abkhaz and Abazin.

Trouble Brewing

The Kremlin may have shown exemplary (and uncharacteristic) political acumen in proclaiming that the controversial plan to abolish Adygeya's status as a republic is at least on hold, if not off the agenda for good. But the Adygeya authorities' heavy-handed approach to a second explosive issue may prove just as potentially destabilizing.

An article posted in February on claims that Adygeya police have adopted as a sort of handbook a recent publication denouncing Wahhabism, which the author alleges is being spread by Cherkess from the Middle East who have come to settle in Adygeya in recent years. The author of that handbook lists superficial and misleading criteria by which he claims it is possible to differentiate between those Cherkess who continue to espouse the traditional synthesis of Islam with folk and pagan tradition, and those who practice the allegedly more dangerous "pure" Islam that the recently arrived repatriants are said to be preaching.

The author points out, for example, that "Wahhabis" oppose the wearing of the felt trilbies (familiar from Soviet-era photographs of the Politburo) that Muslim men in Adygeya traditionally wear at funerals as a mark of respect for the deceased, and that they likewise eschew the baking for funeral repasts of traditional maize-meal cakes. Therefore, the author infers, any male who appears at a funeral not wearing a trilby is clearly an Islamic radical. However simplistic that argument may appear, the book in question has reportedly been published in a huge edition and distributed to all government officials, and its author continues to lecture the republic's law-enforcement personnel on the dangers of Islamic radicalism.

In response to that perceived threat, immediately after the multiple attacks by militants on police targets in Nalchik last October, police in Adygeya began checking the identity of young men who regularly attend prayers at several Adygeya mosques.

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