Friday, October 20, 2017

Abkhazia Just Made the Circassian Issue Far More Explosive for Moscow

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 20 – In the last few weeks, as a result of official harassment of Shapsug activist Ruslan Gvashev, Moscow is now confronted not only by what one Russian journalist has called “a small color revolution” among the Circassians but also by the internationalization of the Circassian cause in a new and unexpected way.

            For a discussion of the Gvashev case, a man found guilty of organizing an unauthorized meeting when all he was doing was praying at a site sacred to the Circassians, of which the Shapsugs are one sub-group, and how that has become “a small color revolution,” see

            That is bad enough from Moscow’s point of view, but the Gvashev case had has the effect of leading to the rebirth of what Valery Dzutsati says is “the long-forgotten Abkhaz-Circassian union” and to questions in Abkhazia about Russia’s intentions toward them and how Abkhazians should react (

            For years and especially since the run-up to the Sochi Olympiad, Circassians of the North Caucasus have been protesting “against the policy of the Russian powers in the region,” the Circassian commentator says. But until the Gvashev case, the Abkhazians weren’t involved. Now they are both officially and unofficially.

            David Dasnia, an Abkhaz politician and activist, says that Russians should forget about their former approach of seeking to drive a wedge between the Abkhazians and the Circassians. The Gvashev case has brought the two peoples together and guarantees that the Abkhazians will do what they can to support the Circassians in the future.

            The friendship of the two has deep roots. In 1992-1993, many Circassians fought on the side of the Abkhazians against the Georgians. Among their number was Gvashev. But after that conflict, warming relations between Circassians and Tbilisi led to a cooling of ties between the Circassians and the breakaway and still unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia.

            For Abkhazians, Gvashev is a reminder of that past, especially since he fought for Abkhazia “not only in the 1990s but in 2008 in Kodorsky gorge. He has Abkhazian citizenship, has been awarded the highest medal of the republic, and is remembered as an officer who talked Abkhazians out of backing down when the battles were going against them.

            Dasania says that he and other activists not only are supporting Gvashev now but are demanding that the Abkhaz authorities do the same. Some Abkhazians even tried to join demonstrations in support of Gvashev but were prevented from doing so by Russian police forces.

            According to Dzutsati, “the unexpected interference of Abkhaz activists and the government in the Gvashev case can be connected also with the general dissatisfaction of the residents of Abkhazia with Russia’s policy in relation to its ally.”  Many feel Moscow has trampled on their rights and dignity as an independent country.

            Dasania for his part even suggests that “Abkhazia had more sovereignty before Russia recognized it than it did afterwards.” The result is that the Abkhazians are looking for allies and support, and they have found one in the Circassians who also benefit from getting support from others as well.

Catalonia Contained May Cast Larger Shadow over Russia than Catalonia Unleashed

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 20 – Earlier this month, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev said that there are “many Catalonias” within the Russian Federation, a declaration that caused some analysts to try to identify who they might be and how they do might pursue independence from Moscow (

            But now that Madrid has decided to invoke the 155th article of the Spanish constitution to deprive the Catalans of their current autonomy and thus keep them within that country (, the Catalonian case may have a larger impact on what happens next in Russia that Barcelona’s original drive appeared likely to have.

            That is because such an action almost certainly would be used by Vladimir Putin as cover for what he is reportedly considering doing either in the run-up to the March 2018 elections or shortly thereafter: eliminating the non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation in the name of creating a single Russian nation.

            (Among those suggesting that Putin is planning exactly that is Fauziya Bayramova, head of Tatarstan’s Ittifaq Independence Party ( See also

            Putin has already accused the West of double standards in its handling of demands for secession by ethnic minorities. He would undoubtedly step up such criticism if Madrid went so far as to eliminate Catalan autonomy.  At the very least, that would keep some in the West from criticizing the Kremlin if it moved to suppress the non-Russian republics inside Russia.

            Obviously, the two situations are so different that Putin’s invocation of this case would be dishonest, although no more so than many of the other arguments he has used on other occasions. But there is one way in which the two situations are very similar: suppressing autonomy in either case almost certainly will lead to the radicalization of views in both.

            Moscow’s Vzglyad newspaper in its issue today warns of this danger in Catalonia ( But its argument certainly applies to the non-Russian republics of Russia as well. Indeed, one might even read this article as a case of Aesopian language criticism of Putin’s policies, yet another revenant from the Soviet past. 

Taymyr Regionalism Only One of Ethnic Challenges New Governors Face, Survey Suggests

 Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 20 – Many have focused on the reasons behind Vladimir Putin’s replacement of 11 governors in recent weeks and on the challenges the new men face in meeting his expectations in dealing with economic problems immediately and preparing their regions for the upcoming presidential elections.

            But now the Guild of Inter-Ethnic Journalists has compiled a list of the nationality problems many of them will face in their new positions, problems that could have serious consequences for their ability to meet Putin’s demands and that in some cases could lead to serious instability (

                Four of the 11, the ethnic journalists say, face serious and immediate problems. Three others are confronted by problems that could become serious. And four more, overwhelmingly ethnic Russian oblasts, might appear to be insured against such outcomes; but to ignore ethnic issues there would also be a mistake. 

            The change in Daghestan, the most Islamic and multi-ethnic republic within the borders of the Russian Federation has attracted the most attention. On the one hand, for the first time in 50 years, an outsider rather than an Avar or Dargin has been put in charge. And on the other, the new man, Ramazan Abdulatipov has said he will no longer support nationality quotas in government positions.

            That alone threatens to spark problems even if ultimately it is the only way to overcome the strength of the clans that have long dominated that North Caucasus republic. But there are two other serious problems Vladimir Vasilyev, a Russian-Kazakh, will have to address in the very near term.

            Conflicts over land, all of which are invested with ethnic meaning, are heating up again. And Makhachkala has pointed out that “more than half of the languages of the peoples of Daghestan are at the brink of extinction” (, an acknowledgement that by itself will stir passions.   

            Primorsky kray presents its new governor Andrey Tarasenko with a different but equally serious challenge: Historically populated by Ukrainians and a large number of numerically small indigenous peoples, it now faces the prospect of being inundated by ethnic Russians under Putin’s “far eastern hectare” program, which gives a hectare free to those who move there.

            The program has no protections for the indigenous peoples who fear they will be overrun and their traditional way of life destroyed.  Many of them have organized to protest this Moscow notion, and they have picked up support from other indigenous peoples elsewhere in the Russian Federation.  What happens in Primorsky kray will thus affect large swaths of the country.

            In Samara oblast, an outsider has been appointed, Dmitry Azarov, and he must cope with the fact that his predecessor Nikolay Merkushkin, in office in Samara for five years, had brought with him from Mordvinia where he ruled the previous 17 an entire team that will have to be rooted out if the new man is to put his stamp on things.

            That won’t be easy to do without sparking conflicts ethnic and otherwise.

            And in Krasnoyarsk kray, the new man, Aleksandr Uss, will have to try to find a way to deflect efforts by the residents of the former Taymyr (Dolgano-Nenets) Autonomous District to split off from his fiefdom, efforts that have been going on since Putin forced the amalgamation of the small non-Russian federal subject with a larger and predominantly Russian kray.

            In three other federal subjects, there will also be some problems: Omsk Oblast has a significant ethnic Kazakh diaspora and numerous ethnic Russians. The Nenets Autonomous District has the problems of the numerically small peoples of the North to deal with. And Pskov Oblast must deal not only with the Finno-Ugric Seto people but the problems of ethnic Russians as well.

            Gubernatorial changes have also occurred in four other, predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts, Ivanovo, Oryol, Nosobirsk, and Nizhny Novgorod.  Many might assume there are no ethnic problems there, but Igor Barinov, the head of the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs, suggested otherwise.

            On the one hand, mono-ethnic regions are often the most explosive when outsiders come in as migrants because they have no experience in tolerance of minorities. And on the other, he argues, “mono-ethnic regions” are often places where the strongest nationalistic ideas are first to emerge.