They speak related, but not mutually comprehensible languages. Their historic homeland comprises parts of the North Caucasus republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Adygeya, and Krasnodar Krai.
The size and distribution of the various ethnic groups across that region is uneven, however: while the Kabardians account for over 55 percent of their republic's 900,000 population, and the Adygs account for some 25 percent of the total 447,000 population of the Republic of Adygeya, the Cherkess in Karachayevo-Cherkessia constitute only a small minority (approximately 11 percent of a total population of some 427,500).
Q: What are the young Circassians' specific grievances?
A: Some Circassians still harbor a collective grievance against Russia that stems, first, from the brutal 19th-century Tsarist conquest of the region during which hundreds of thousands of Circassians were killed or driven into exile in Turkey and other Near Eastern countries, where they still have sizeable diasporas; and second, from the present-day Russian leadership's refusal to offer even a token apology for the appalling suffering inflicted.
The Adygeya chapter of the NGO Cherkess Congress has appealed unsuccessfully, first to the Russian State Duma and then to then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, to designate those mass killings as genocide.
At a meeting of Circassian NGOs one year ago in Cherkessk, the KChR capital, individual political figures advocated abolishing or redrawing administrative borders between the various North Caucasus republics in order to create a pan-Circassian republic that would encompass the lands to which the Circassians lay claim.
But while many Circassians may privately approve that idea, the meeting did not formally endorse it, and few have expressed public support for it. The leaders of Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygeya in particular would stand to lose far more in terms of political influence than they would gain.
The current protests in both republics center primarily on domestic political issues. In Kabardino-Balkaria, the Kabardians are campaigning for the annulment of a draft law passed in the first reading on October 30 that would meet the long-standing demand of the Balkar minority to return to Balkar-populated villages thousands of hectares of pasture land on the lower slopes of the Caucasus mountains. They have warned that if this does not happen, they will demand the resignation of KBR President Arsen Kanokov (a Kabardian) and the dissolution of the parliament and government.
In Karachayevo-Cherkessia, the Cherkess minority is aggrieved by the republican parliament's vote on November 17 formally approving parliament speaker Zurab Dokshokov as one of the republic's representatives on the Federation Council. Dokshokov is a Cherkess, but the Cherkess minority had campaigned instead for another co-ethnic, Vyacheslav Derev, the brother of deceased former Cherkessk Mayor Stanislav Derev, to be named to that post. KChR President Boris Ebzeyev repeatedly proposed Derev's candidacy to lawmakers, who just as consistently rejected it, most recently on October 14.
On the eve of the parliament vote, the youth wing of the KChR chapter of the Circassian public organization Adyghe Khase (Circassian Council) addressed an appeal to Russian presidential administration head Sergei Naryshkin and presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Vladimir Ustinov warning that the "provocative" and "insulting" actions of the republic's predominantly Karachai leadership risk exacerbating latent interethnic tensions.
The statement further warned that the organization planned to convene a meeting on November 26 in Cherkessk of Circassians from across Russia at which the issue of "self-determination," meaning dividing the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic in order to create a separate Circassian Autonomous Oblast within the Russian Federation, would be discussed. Such a republic existed from 1943 to 1957, when it was incorporated into the restored Karachayevo-Cherkess ASSR.
The KChR authorities formally banned the November 26 mass meeting, citing the danger of swine flu, but Adyghe Khase Chairman Mukhamed Cherkesov affirmed that it would take place anyway. Some 1,500 people attended the protest, which lasted for 3 1/2 hours.
Q: Who are the key players in the protest movements?
A: Over the past year, it is the youth wings of the various republican chapters of Adyghe Khase that have spearheaded the campaign to protect Circassian national interests. Meeting three months ago in Cherkessk, they adopted an eight-point program intended to serve as the jumping-off point for a radical form of the Circassian national movement. That program includes the establishment of a permanent body to be called the Circassian Youth Coordinating Council.
The youth organization of the KBR chapter of Adyghe Khase is headed by a young schoolteacher, Ruslan Keshev; his opposite number in Karachayevo-Cherkessia is Timur Zhuzhuyev.
Q: How about the smaller Circassian groups? Are they too involved in the protests?
A: The Abazin minority in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, which numbers no more than 15,000 people, opted not to take part en masse in the November 26 Cherkessk protest. Mussa Takushinov, the chairman of the organization that represents the Abazins' interests, explained that they "do not want to take sides" with one group against another.
That circumspect approach is in sharp contrast to the Abazins' unequivocal backing for Stanislav Derev during the hotly contested presidential election of 1999, in which Derev was defeated in the runoff by Vladimir Semyonov.
Q: How have the authorities in the two republics reacted to the recent protest meetings?
A: For years, the predominantly Kabardian leadership of Kabardino-Balkaria has ignored the Balkars' complaints of discrimination. In early August, local NGOs convened a meeting in Nalchik under the slogan "For peace, for concord, for unity," at which speakers demonized the Balkar minority for allegedly seeking to destabilize the political situation.
At the same time, participants praised KBR President Kanokov's success in galvanizing the republic's stagnating economy, and called on the republic's population to close ranks in his support.
It was only after the Balkars threatened to march to Moscow and demand a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev that the republican leadership took the first step towards defusing tensions, in the form of the draft law that would meet the Balkars' demands for unrestricted access to grazing grounds for their sheep. But the Circassian NGOs convened a protest meeting in Nalchik on November 17 at which speakers condemned the draft law as a betrayal of national interests.
On November 28, a rival Circassian youth forum took place in Nalchik at which speakers accused Keshev and other prominent members of Circassian groups of "nationalism," of "selling out to the opposition," and of advocating splitting the republic on ethnic lines. They also branded those Circassians who protested the draft law "idiots" and "CIA agents."
Two days later, Keshev was assaulted and brutally beaten in his organization's Nalchik office; he suffered a broken nose and multiple fractures of one arm.
In Karachayevo-Cherkessia, the republican parliament has formally asked the prosecutor's office to bring criminal charges against the youth wing of Adyghe Khase in connection with the organization's appeal to Naryshkin and Ustinov. The parliament deputies argue that the statement contains a public appeal for the changing the constitutional order by force and incites interethnic hatred.
Zhuzhuyev denied that the statement violates the Criminal Code: he told the news agency Regnum that his organization consulted with legal experts while formulating it.