By Paul Goble
Representatives of the 12,000 Shapsugs, a subdivision of the Circassian nation, last week called for the formation of an autonomous district within Krasnodar kray, an event that takes on importance because the Shapsugs are the Circassians who had been living where the 2014 Sochi Olympics are scheduled to take place.
Indeed, speeches at this meeting suggest that Circassian groups, many of whom are outraged that Moscow would organize the Olympics on the site of the genocide of their people in 1864, are beginning to use their objections and the attention these have garnered to make demands on the Russian government to improve their situation.
On Saturday, a congress of the Circassian organization Adyge Khase took place in the village of Lazarevskoye in Sochi to discuss the provisions of the law protecting numerically small peoples like the Shapsugs and the possible impact of the conduct of the Olympics there on them (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/184658/).
Some 230 delegates from Adygeya, Kabardino-Balkaria, Krasnodar and Armavit as well as guests from the International Circassian Association heard speakers call for the establishment of a Shapsug Autonomous District within Krasnodar Kray as a means of protecting that small community.
Most speakers stressed that the Russian law “on guarantees of the rights of numerically small peoples” is not being implemented and consequently the problems it was intended to address are only growing worse. Murdin Teshev, honorary president of Adyge Khase, said that officials in Krasnodar “are deaf to our requests and hopes.”
Several speakers said that because of this, the only hope for the Shapsugs, now living in the Tuaps and Lazarev districts of Sochi is the establishment of an autonomy within Krasnodar kray, an idea that was first put forward in the 1990s but has acquired new importance given the Sochi Olympics.
Adam Bogus, the deputy president of Adyge Khase in Adygeya said that “there is only one approach to the resolution of the problems – the restoration of this district, the restoration of corresponding structures and a budget on a state basis.” If this step is not taken, many of the auls where the Shapsugs now live will soon disappear as “there is no work.”
Another speaker said that things had reached the point that individuals have to ask for land to build a house or operate a farm. And still a third said that “in the auls, drunkenness rules, and narcotics have appeared. Many 30 to 40 year old men and women do not have families and children,” a pattern unprecedented in Shapsug history and a demographic disaster.
According to the delegates, “young people are fleeing from the auls, and pupils are deprived of the chance to study their native language. ‘For the past years, the number of school hours has been reduced several times, and today on the Black Sea coast, only about 20 percent of the Shapsug children are studying their native language,’” one said.
In addition, the Shapsugs asked for assistance in overcoming the problems of housing and infrastructure in their auls, the construction of roads and water mains. Some cultural facilities are operating but generally only on the basis of private contributions such as those which support the local newspaper, “Shapsugia.”
In a related development, the congress discussed the prospect of the 2014 Olympiad in Sochi. According to Kavkaz-Uzel, opinions were divided. Kanshobi Azhakhov, the president of the International Circassian Association, said that “for one people [the expulsion of the Circassians in 1864] was a tragic event; for all others, [the Olympiad is] a holiday.”
“The majority of Shapsugs, whom I represent,” he said, “support the Olympic games. “But this majority can shift to the side of the minority if existing problems are not resolved.” Among the steps Moscow must take to avoid that, he said, is to ensure that the law on numerically small peoples is observed and May 21 is declared a day of mourning.”
About the author: Paul Goble
Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .