By Paul Goble
One of the most cynical methods the Soviet government employed to divide and rule non-Russian nations was the establishment of republics with two titular nationalities because such arrangements guaranteed that the two were more likely to view the other as a problem and threat than to see Moscow as responsible.
At the end of Soviet times, there were three such republics, Chechen-Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia. The first broke up at that time, but the other two have survived because they are part of a larger concern that still animates Moscow’s policies in the region: keeping Circassian nations from coming together and forming a single republic.
Were either of those republics to fall apart, it would almost certainly trigger a broader reordering of the borders in the region as Circassians – including the Adygey, the Kabardins, and the Cherkess – would certainly view a separate Kabardin or Cherkess republic as the nucleus of a future state as well as boosting Turkey’s influence there at Moscow’s expense.
And because of those likelihoods, at least some in Moscow are quite willing to play up fears of that happening to keep the Turkic Balkars and Karachays in line and to continue its campaign to divide the Circassian national movement, a campaign that shows no sign of ending especially because the Circassians are gaining more support abroad.
But if Moscow found it relatively easy to maintain bi-national republics in Soviet times – it could appoint officials to reflect the ethnic “balance” it wanted to ensure by using quotas – the task of the enter now is complicated by the fact that in winner-take-all elections, the local majority will win more than its share of seats and positions, freezing out the other.
These difficulties have come to a head now in Kabardino-Balkaria where just over half of the republic’s population consists of Circassian Kabardins while only 11 percent is made up by Turkic Balkars, as a result of local tensions between the two groups and Moscow’s often clumsy and heavy-handed policies.
(For background on this, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2012/12/window-on-eurasia-kremlins-north.html, windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2014/03/window-on-eurasia-ankaras-support-for.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/07/is-another-bi-national-republic-about.html.)
Now, as Idnal Kardnov points out on the Caucasus Times portal, the situation appears to be coming to a boil, with the Balkar minority making demands that the majority Kabardins are not prepared to meet. Indeed, the latter have rejected these demands with strikingly harsh language in ways that point to conflicts ahead (caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=21533).
Earlier this month, the Council of Balkar Elders adopted a resolution calling on the leadership of Kabardino-Balkaria to give the Turkic Balkars a status in positions in the government and media time equal to that of the Kabardins and Russians. Otherwise, the council said it would be compelled to seek the formation of a separate Balkar Republic within Russia (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2017/01/debate-on-planned-russian-nation-law.htm).
This is not the first such demand by the Council of Balkar Elders, but it is the first to prompt the Kabardins not only to demand that the Balkar leaders be investigated for “separatism” but also to call for two legal steps that appear likely to make the situation more tense and even to lay the foundation for a separate Circassian state.
On the one hand, the leading Kabardin organizations of KBR called for the adoption of a new republic law “on ethnic territories,” which in the words of Kardnov would clearly define “the immemorial territories” of the “subject-forming” peoples of the republic and thus determine the organization of the existing republic.
But by drawing such lines on the map, the Circassian Kabardins are in effect calling for the definition of the “immemorial” Circassian lands, something that could lead not only to the breakup of the KBR but to demands from Circassians in other groups for a similar approach and thus lead to the restoration of a Greater Circassia.
And on the other hand, the Kabardin organizations declared that they would respect a decision by an all-Balkar congress to move for self-determination. Indeed, their letter to republic leaders said that “we will great the decision of the congress of the Balkar people” to have their own territory and republic.
Of course, if the Kabardins are prepared to recognize the right of the Balkars for self-determination up to and including separation from the KBR, they will almost certainly will now demand that the Balkars recognize their right to self-determination. To the extent that happens, the binational KBR republic will be at risk along with Moscow’s control of the North Caucasus.