MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 361: Karachai-Cherkessia: Small Minority Asserts Itself

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Mon Oct 23 21:00:45 2006

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In Memoriam: Anna Politkovskaya
Anna Politkovskaya played a unique role in Russia as the defender of
ordinary people's rights - especially those of ordinary Chechens. By
Thomas de Waal

In Memoriam: Anna Politkovskaya
A Chechen journalist recalls the part Anna Politkovskaya played in his
life - and that of many others. By Timur Aliev in Grozny

Speculation mounts that Moscow may punish Georgia over spy scandal by
recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia. By Dmitry Avaliani in Tbilisi

Many believe the failure to pose much of a challenge to the ruling party
in local elections is bad for democracy. By Diana Chachua and Nana
Kurashvili in Tbilisi

The Nogai community wants local autonomy, but that will require delicate
negotiation with other ethnic groups. By Dana Tsei in Adyge-Khabl


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The Nogai community wants local autonomy, but that will require delicate
negotiation with other ethnic groups.

By Dana Tsei in Adyge-Khabl

In one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the North Caucasus, a
tiny nation is making waves by staking a claim for greater power over
the area in which they live.

The Nogai people in the republic of Karachai-Cherkessia, part of Russia,
have been demanding autonomous status for years. But on October 8, they
took a decisive step by holding a local referendum on the issue.

Led by a pressure group called Birlik, or Unity, the Nogais want at
least part of the administrative district of Adyge-Khable, where most of
their 14,500-strong community live in eight villages, to be turned into
a Nogai Autonomous Region. Their leaders argue this will keep the
community and its distinctive culture alive.

But boundaries are not neat in the Caucasus, and there are Cherkess
people living in the district who have serious misgivings about the

The vote went off peacefully, unlike many past elections in
Karachai-Cherkessia, and the result was 94 per cent in favour of the
change. Ten thousand people took part in the vote. 

But it is only a first step - the Nogais will next have to seek approval
for their plan from other groups through a republic-wide referendum.
Assuming they get this, the matter will then go to the local parliament,
and finally to the Russian prime minister in Moscow. 

Aside from the legal process, the key issue is one that probably lies
outside the control of government: whether the Nogais' claim will be
handled with enough delicacy to ensure that they and the Cherkess can
arrive at some sort of workable solution. 

If not, there is a real danger that the issue will join the list of
unsolved disputes that plague the North Caucasus, with the potential for
armed conflict always on the horizon. 

Given the somewhat arbitrary manner in which the then Soviet autonomous
republics were sliced up in the USSR, many of the "nationalities" or
official ethnic groups have kin elsewhere in the region - and these
might be dragged into an escalating conflict. The Cherkess have the
Kabardans and Adygei, who together share the Circassian identity and
culture; the Karachai have the Balkar (sharing a republic with the
Kabardans next door), and there are strong ties between the Nogai here
and others in Stavropol to the west, Dagestan to the east and as far
away as Russia's lower Volga region. 

Politically, Karachai-Cherkessia works by achieving a balance of power
between the main ethnic groups. The substantial ethnic Russian community
tend to side with the Karachai or the Cherkess, while the two most
significant minorities - the Abaza and the Nogai - have to ally
themselves with one or other of these groups to ensure they have a place
at the table. 

In the tough world of post-Soviet local politics, the Abaza usually back
the Cherkess, to whom they are related culturally and linguistically.
The Nogai have tended to back the Karachai, who like them speak a Turkic
rather than Caucasian language.

The Nogai have a handful of people high up in regional politics -
Karacha-Cherkessia's deputy prime minister Janibek Suyunov and the press
and ethnic affairs minister Valery Kazakov among them - but none in the
world of commerce.

In a region in which the republics are called after the bigger ethnic
groups who live there, having one's own "autonomy" - political as well
as cultural - is seen as an important way of staking out one's position.

If the Nogai get their district, they will get control over cultural
issues such as language, and a degree of self-government. There is
little of economic value on the territory: while on paper they would
seem to have large industrial and agricultural enterprises, in reality,
these businesses are wrecks. 

The 30,000 Abaza have pursued their claim more robustly. In autumn 2005,
activists seized the parliament building in the city of Cherkessk and
refused to let deputies leave until they agreed to an Abaza district
being set up. Russian prime minister Mikhail Fradkov signed off on the
deal in August this year.

The Circassians, especially those in Adyge-Khabl district, are nervous
about the Nogai laying claim to land that they see as theirs.

Ali Aslanov, who heads the district's Circassian association, told IWPR,
"We're not against the Nogais setting up their own district on our
territory. But they want to make our village of Adyge-Khabl its
[administrative] centre. We will never allow this to happen, even if
that means we have to fight them."

One reason for the Circassians to be especially touchy about the local
administrative centre is that in their language, the very name - Adyge
Khabl - means "Adygei (ie. Circassian) village". 

Originally, the activists of Birlik were calling for the entire
Adyge-Khabl district to be renamed Nogai district, with the village of
the same name to get a new title - Nogai-Yurt ("Nogai Place").

However, by the time the referendum took place they had backtracked
significantly, and - in recognition of the Circassian's concerns - they
are now prepared to accept Nogai autonomous status for only that part of
the bigger Adyge-Khabl district where their community is concentrated. 

The Nogai are distinct from most other North Caucasian peoples, who
despite huge linguistic differences share many common cultural traits.
By contrast, the Nogai were originally nomads, and still occupy the
steppes rather than the mountains to the south; their traditional
culture and language resemble those of the Kazaks of Central Asia. 

One tradition they do share with the Circassians, Karachai and others is
Islam. Clerics still enjoy a lot of respect, and mosque attendance is
rising, especially among the young.

"The number of young people coming to the mosques on a regular basis has
been increasing at lightning speed," said businessman Magomet
Sanglibayev, who is head of Birlik. "People are happy about this trend,
because the faith saves young people from many bad habits."

Despite the positive effects of religious observance, Sanglibayev has
some reservations about what the imams are telling people, "We
understand that the kind of Islam that's being preached in our mosques
is ascetic in character. It shuts off young people's access not just to
vice, but also to the joys of the modern world. We want modern, educated
young people, not fanatical militants."

A "Nogai Battalion" has fought alongside the rebels in Chechnya for
years, but Muslim extremism has not really taken hold among the Nogai of

As elsewhere in the region, there are Islamist cells operating covertly
here, called "jamaats" - literally "societies". But these seem to
coexist with the "official" Muslim structures - the clergy and the
mosques - in sharp contrast with the situation in Karachai-dominated
areas to the south of the republic, where clerics have been killed by
suspected jamaat members.

It is questionable whether the Nogais' claim will ever pass all the
bureaucratic hurdles. 

The Abaza, who have got the Russian premier's assent to set up their
district, are finding it hard to make it a reality, as
Karachai-Cherkessia's government is dragging its feet over the
publication of a map that would show where the new district lies. 

There is a major hitch - Karachai people in the current Ust-Jeguta
district are contesting the Abaza claim, in a dispute that has run for
more than a year. 

Dana Tsei is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist in

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