MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 297: Religious Row Splits Adygeia

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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 297, July 28, 2005

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE JULY 28

ABKHAZ RAILWAY – LIGHT AT END OF TUNNEL? The reopening of railway links
with Georgia could bolster peace efforts. By Inal Khashig in Sukhum and
Giorgy Kupatadze in Tbilisi

AZERBAIJAN EMBRACES NORTHERN CYPRUS Baku’s overtures towards an
unrecognised territory cause controversy. By Rufat Abbasov in Baku

KARABAKH: RELIGION AND THE ARMY Nagorny Karabakh debates what freedoms
to allow its new religious minorities. By Ashot Beglarian in Stepanakert

RELIGIOUS ROW SPLITS ADYGEIA A quarrel over a statue reveals deeper
political and ethnic divisions between Circassians and Russians. By Oleg
Tsvetkov in Maikop.

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............................ 

RELIGIOUS ROW SPLITS ADYGEIA

A quarrel over a statue reveals deeper political and ethnic divisions
between Circassians and Russians.
By Oleg Tsvetkov in Maikop.

A row over the construction of a monument to a Christian saint in the
small North Caucasian republic of Adygeia has caused an unprecedented
row, exacerbating political tensions. 

Adygeia is a small autonomous republic in the North Caucasus, with a
population of 450,000.  About 65 per cent of the population are
Russians, many of whom are Orthodox Christians, and about 23 per cent
are Adygeis (or Circassians), who are Muslims.  

Until recently, any tensions between the two religious groups have
remained below the surface.

However, on July 14, a group of 15 – 20 Muslims demonstrated publicly
against the construction of a statue of the Christian saint, Nicholas
the miracle worker, in the capital Maikop. Their demands were backed up
by influential Circassian voices and the local authorities suspended the
work. 

The protesters argue that Russia is a secular state and that the
erection of a monument of a Christian saint is offensive to them. Others
echo the ethnic concerns of Aramby Khapai, a wrestling trainer, who
said, “Fifty years from now people will ask us, 'How come there are
Circassians in a Slavic state?””

Observers share the concerns of Semyen Khrupin, associate professor at
Adygeia State University, that “overly sharp words from the opposing
parties could stir up the emotions of a large number of people”.

In recent months, the authorities have been engaged in a struggle
against Moscow politicians who want to see Adygeia abolished and
reintegrated into Krasnodar region, of which it was part until 1991.
(See Adygeia: Special Status Under Threat, CRS 282, April 15, 2005)

As part of their campaign against unification, the republican
authorities have argued that the Adygeis were brutally colonised by
Russia during the Caucasian war of the 19th century and therefore have
the right to their own ethnic homeland. 

The Maikop authorities recently scored a success when one of their
critics, Anatoly Odeichuk, the Kremlin's representative in the republic,
had his powers curtailed. 

The initiative for building a statue in Maikop came from the St Nicholas
the Miracle Worker Foundation, whose headquarters are in Moscow. 
Valentin Selivanov, a representative of the Foundation, told IWPR by
telephone that the organisation plans to put up statues of St Nicholas
along all Russia’s borders. 

Selivanov said, “St Nicholas is particularly respected in Russia, and
building statues of him should help protect Russia from all evil
forces.” He stressed that the activities of the organisation have the
blessing of Aleksy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.  

Selivanov also said that the Foundation was “surprised at the protests
against putting up the statues”.

Yevgeny Bestuzhev, assistant to the bishop of Adygeia responsible for
construction, said the plan was for the statue of St Nicholas to be put
somewhere else in Maikop, near the Georgiev cathedral. 

The land around the Georgiev monastery is used by the armed forces..  As
Bestuzhev said, “the leadership of the Adygeia diocese has agreed a plan
for the construction of the statue with the commanders of the military
unit.” 

Meeting officials and Orthodox clergy, leaders from the nationalist
organisations Adyge Khase and the Circassian Congress, proposed that the
statue should be built near the Orthodox church.  

Nurby Emizh, the Muslim community leader for Adygeia and the Krasnodar
region, told a press conference after the meeting, “If I had to put up a
statue of the prophet, I would put it next to the mosque.  But we
Muslims don't make images of the prophet or of God.” 

Almir Abregov, an activist from the Circassian Congress and director of
the National Museum of Adygeia, told the press conference, “The
republic's indigenous people are Sunni Muslims.  Why are they putting
this statue up in a Muslim republic, not in Moscow or St Petersburg?  It
wouldn’t hurt to ask the opinion of the local people.”

However, the head of the Orthodox Adygeia diocese Vladik Panteleimon,
argued, “In every religion people respect righteous men, and this figure
[St Nicholas] could not possibly be the cause of ethnic discord or
violence.”

Nina Konovalova, head of the Slavic Union of Adygeia, an influential
Russian rights organisation, described the atmosphere of the meeting as
“frightening”.  “I have never seen Adyge Khase and the Circassian
Congress behave so badly in public.  They behaved like warriors in a
town they have conquered.  They made boorish ripostes - even going so
far as to tell their opponents to ‘Shut up!’” she told IWPR. 

Konovalova’s described the debate as a “hysterical discussion of the
ethnicity question”.  

“My Adygei opponents,” she told IWPR, “started shouting about the
aggressive nature of the Russo-Caucasian war in the 19th century, and
demanding that the leadership of the Russian Federation apologise for
the ‘genocide’ of the Adygeis and finance the repatriation of
descendants of the Caucasians who fled the Tsar’s army to countries in
the Middle East.”

Konovalova said she was worried about radical Adygei youth and noted
that “strong young people were a noticeable presence amongst those
protesting against the construction of the statue of St Nicholas”. 

Vladimir Karatayev, head of the executive committee of the Slavic Union
and editor of Zakubanye newspaper, also struck a note of alarm saying
that “you can see how the authority of the city ends as soon as even a
small group of Adygei radicals pop up”. 

Nonetheless, Karatayev agreed that the issue of the construction of the
statue had been badly handled and said that most of the inhabitants of
Maikop “had no idea about the plans for the statue of St Nicholas”.  

For all its passion, the conflict has left many ordinary people
indifferent. “Statues don’t hurt anyone,” commented one local Adygei.
And a women, whose ethnicity was unclear, selling cigarettes on a street
in Maikop, told IWPR, “People haven’t got time to worry about statues. 
They've got children to feed.”

Oleg Tsvetkov is an independent political analyst in Maikop, Adygeia.

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ISSN: 1477-7959 Copyright (c) 2005 The Institute for War & Peace
Reporting 

CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE No. 297



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