Ruling Russia: dividing through Unification7 min read

 In Caucasus, Opinion, Politics, Russia
As I recently addressed in a segment of Lossi 36’s weekly newsletter, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who primarily focuses on regional development, is pushing a plan to unify some of the country’s federal subjects. The first round of unification will, theoretically, see Moscow and Moscow Oblast, Saint-Petersburg and Leningrad Oblast, the republics of Mari El and Tatarstan, and the Republic of Adygea– home to part of Russia’s ethnic Circassian population– and Krasnodar Krai combined. 

Subsuming Adygea into Krasnodar has potentially the greatest impact, demonstrating once again Moscow’s willful ignorance of and derision towards the North Caucasus, while also giving the Circassian nationalist movement a legitimate reason to return to in-person events as it emerges from the pandemic.

Khusnullin’s odds of success

Whether Khusnullin’s ambitious idea will be carried out is a major question—one the Kremlin may not like the answer to. Three facts cast doubt on how successfully such plans will be executed. First, Khusnullin’s scheme was criticized in the Duma (the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament) the day before cited a source in Khusnullin’s office stating the plans were moving forward. So, not only is the Duma’ support questionable, but the close juxtaposition of the two stories makes the leak from Khusnullin’s office come across as an attempt to save face, portraying the deputy prime minister as someone who is accomplishing great feats to improve the nation’s wellbeing.

Second, regional unification has long been proposed by politicians across the ideological spectrum, but with minimal progress since 2008, when the Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug was merged with Chita Oblast. This was the final merger of several smaller Siberian autonomous okrugs into adjacent oblasts and krais, which began in 2005. The original debates of combining Adygea and Krasnodar also took place in 2005, with staunch Circassian opposition. Despite President Putin putting the issue to rest in 2006, the merger was raised in 2007, 2011, and 2021, with Circassian resistance mounting quickly in 2011 and now.

Finally, the populations of the threatened federal subjects may not accept regional unification, seeing past the smoke and mirrors that has surrounded Khusnullin’s and others’ plans. While the creators of unification plans usually claim economic development as justification for such a policy, the reality is that eighty-five federal subjects are simply too many in the eyes of the Russian government. As usual, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky describes the reality behind the policy most bluntly: “It is dangerous, the creation of national regions, in certain cases it may—not now, but in around 40-50 years—it may lead once again to division, to separatism.” Here, Zhirinovsky targets the autonomous ethnic republics, rather than the more numerous oblasts, in his suggestion to decrease the size of Russia’s federal system. As noted earlier, the 2005-2008 mergers targeted ethnic autonomous okrugs. Ending the status of republics within the Russian Federation would subvert the conditions under which these regions decided to remain with Russia. Zhirinovsky’s stress on national security and territorial integrity, alluding to Chechnya in the 1990s, is also important to understand the policy. It is precisely the brief independence won by the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria that has had such a lasting impact on Russian regional policy, leading to the repression of minority regions and to the specific targeting of North Caucasus and Muslim peoples.

While these points indicate that Khusnullin’s plan is unlikely to proceed, authorities in Moscow may still proceed with Adygea’s dissolution because of the republic’s low regional standing. Adygea possesses a similar status in the Northwest Caucasus as Ingushetia does in the Northeast: irksome to the authorities, who do not understand why such a small (geographically, economically, and in population) autonomous republic should exist. The residents of Adygea would certainly be aware of how Moscow has treated Ingushetia, despite the latter’s expressed opposition to secessionism—Circassian civil society covers a broad spectrum of opinions as to how the Circassian homeland should align politically. Ingushetia, which could aptly be called the “disappearing republic,” lost its historic capital and some of its land (Prigorodny raion) to North Ossetia during the Soviet era, failed to force the land’s return in the 1990s, had 10 percent of its area annexed by Chechnya in 2018, and continues to have large swathes of its Sunzhensky raion under threat from military and Chechen authorities.

As Adygea does not have the recent history of insurgency that Ingushetia does, its standing explains why complete dissolution is being proposed. This is because the Kremlin interprets the lack of historical insurgency there as a nonexistent threat of a future one, and thus, the population’s anger at being forced into Krasnodar will not pose a viable threat to security. However, regardless of whether Khusnullin’s plans proceed in the North Caucasus, his proposal has consequences from his failure to account for Circassians’ reactions.

The “Circassian question”

Once numbering around one million across the Northwest Caucasus, the Circassians were massacred during the Russian Empire’s invasion of the Caucasus, with the survivors driven out of their homeland to Anatolia and the Middle East. They were one of the final people to fall to Russian rule. Despite this hard-fought resistance, Circassian sentiments are not a primary factor, as some might suggest, in Putin’s North Caucasus platform, which rather maintains the same “stability” perspective today as when he decided to bring Chechnya back under Russian rule. Alas, this policy solely sustains the image of stability and does not extend beyond the surface, as root issues—unemployment, corruption, land usage, minority rights, living conditions, etc.—remain unaddressed by federal and local governments alike.

The centrality of stability to the Kremlin’s North Caucasus policy creates a paradox for this situation, as the proposed unification of Krasnodar and Adygea would certainly lead to instability, though most likely in the form of mass protests, rather than armed conflict. This is most likely to occur in both federal subjects directly affected by Khusnullin’s scheme, as well as in nearby Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, the other two republics containing a substantial number of Circassians. Thus, the Adygea–Krasnodar unification would destabilize a part of the region that largely avoided the total collapse of peace during the two decades following the Soviet Union’s fall.

This paradox reveals the first of the Kremlin’s two major misunderstandings of the Circassians: authorities in Moscow interpret a lack of militancy among Circassian activists as an absence of substantial opposition to Kremlin policy, which in turn leads to an underestimation of Circassian grievances. This is not to say that Moscow does not perceive manifestations of Circassian identity or efforts to promote Circassian rights as a threat to their policies—quite the opposite. All one has to do is look at the examples of Timur Kuashev, Ruslan Gwashev, or Martin Kochesoko, all of whom have been persecuted—and in Kuashev’s case, murdered—for promoting the Circassian identity. However, conducting peaceful resistance is a much less direct threat to stability than armed insurgency, especially when the system is designed to repress protests. Part of the Kremlin’s mindset toward Circassian activism can be attributed to the lack of international awareness of Circassian issues, particularly compared to those of Chechnya. While at least partially true—international media does give more attention to Ramzan Kadyrov’s whims than to Circassian issues—this mindset ignores the internationalization of Circassian issues through their widespread diaspora, which leads to the next major failing.

The second misunderstanding is that the Kremlin misconstrues globalized Circassian civil society, believing it cannot affect local public mobilization unless repatriation actually occurs. Repatriation is codified in Russian law, but the authorities resist issuing residency permits to Circassians from abroad. The Kremlin has ignored the pandemic’s strengthening effect on forming virtual connections within the international Circassian community, as it forced events usually held in person onto the internet and supported broader, more frequent contacts. By doing so, Moscow neglects to acknowledge the lessons from its previous conflicts about the advantages of international support networks, which aided the various North Caucasus insurgencies in the past three decades, as well as helped the Abkhaz and Ossetians in their wars as recently as 2008.

What next?

The Kremlin is not going to suddenly decide to understand the Circassians, nor change policy to compromise with them. Moscow’s work to repress the expression of Circassian identity and to undercut the few rights (republic status, repatriation) extended to the Circassians all but guarantees an eventual showdown. The date of such a confrontation, be it peaceful or violent, is only brought nearer by clumsy, heavy-handed policy. However, for now, the Kremlin is failing to achieve its policy’s goals: the point of unification is the simplification of bureaucratic processes and instituting government control over society, but, in the North Caucasus, this attempt at simplification will only further complicate.

Featured image: Russian-Circassian War 1840 / Alexander Kozlov
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