Did the Chechen/Ingush Border Dispute Open a Pandora’s Box?

The following article addresses precisely the question I had when I first heard about the Ingush/Chechen border dispute: won’t this awaken multiple efforts to redefine the borders of the various Caucasus republics?

Even a brief summary of such disputes would require a major article. The Russian Empire arbitrarily divided the Caucasus based on the positions of their two military lines. In the west, this resulted in the Karachay-Balkars (really one ethnic group) to be divided first into two different administrative regions, and then into two smaller units: Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. The Kabardians and Cherkess are likewise a single ethnic group. However, this particular division, which was maintained by the Soviets, led to Kabardino-Balkaria being overwhelmingly dominated by the Kabardians (and later Cossacks), leaving the Balkars with virtually no representation. Likewise in Karachay-Cherkessia, only in reverse: the Karachays greatly outnumber the Cherkess and another related ethnic group, the Abazas. Currently, no doubt inspired by the events in Ingushetia, the Abazas and Cherkess are demanding their own autonomous subject, including Karachay-Cherkessia’s capital and largest city, Cherkessk. Furthermore, the proposed new republic would include lands occupied by other ethnic groups, a certain formula for major protests (the republic has nearly imploded on two previous instances since the fall of the Soviet Union because of this issue).

I think Moscow opened a Pandora’s Box when they transferred land from Ingushetia to Chechnya. While there is some historical justification for at least considering this move, there’s even more justification for other border adjustments, some of which wouldn’t be particularly desirable, and a few that would lead to near-certain civil disturbances.

This leads to a second question, which is being discussed in many places: is the Russian Federation approaching a collapse similar to the fall of the Soviet Union? My answer would be that the process of imperial collapse that really began during World War I in Russia is ongoing, but that the rumblings in the Caucasus are more of a bellwether rather than the first stage of the next stage of disintegration.


“An effort is underway to dismember Karachay-Cherkessia into two federal subjects: Circassian activists have demanded the creation of the Abazino-Cherkess Republic, which would encompass the largest city in the region – Cherkessk. Similar separatist appeals in recent months have been heard in the North-Caucasian Federal District with an alarming frequency.

Circassians call for Stalinist history

The site of online petitions Change.Org began collecting signatures for an appeal to President Vladimir Putin demanding he protect the rights of Circassians and Abazins living in Karachay-Cherkessia. According to the 2010 census, this is about 20% of the region’s 470,000 population (41% of the population is the titular ethnic group — the Karachays).

The initiators of the petition offer two options for the enacting the idea. The first is the withdrawal of the Circassians and Abazins from Karachay-Cherkessia and joining the Stavropol Kray.

Until 1991, the autonomous republic was still part of Stavropol Kray. From 1943 to 1957, there were three municipal districts of Karachay-Cherkessia within Stavropol Kray, but they were inhabited mainly by Karachays (they, unlike Circassians and Abazins, were subjected to Stalinist deportations).

The second option is to create a new federal subject, the Abazino-Circassian Republic. Moreover, its activists are proposing to make Cherkessk – the largest city in the republic today, where a quarter of the population of the KCR lives – its capital.

And here, too, historical analogies can be found. In 1991, at the height of the Yeltsin “parade of sovereignties,” after Karachaevo-Cherkessia withdrew from Stavropol Kray, Circassian and Abaza deputies announced the creation of two autonomous entities – the Circassian and Abaza republics (with capitals in Cherkessk and Psyzh). In March 1992, a referendum was held in KChR, the official results of which showed that the majority of residents were against division – and RSFSR authorities did not recognize the self-proclaimed autonomies.

And now, a quarter of a century later, the idea of ​​separating the region is gaining momentum again: the Abazins and the Circassians are unhappy that representatives of their ethnic groups are practically unrepresented in KChR. However, to say that this idea has become widespread is premature: the petition for Change.Org gathered only five thousand signatures.

Cossacks accuse Khrushchev of “historical mistake”

It is worth noting that in recent months the problem of ethnic division in the North Caucasus has noticeably escalated. September 18 in two Balkarian villages in Kabardino-Balkaria (Zayukovo and Köndelen) clashes between Balkars and Kabardians began. And to the aid of their “brothers” (from both sides), young people came from Karachay-Cherkessia (Karachays are relatives of Balkars, and Kabardians are Circassians).

The next day, the situation escalated in Nalchik: several hundred young people with Circassian flags gathered near the building of the republican government on Concord Square, and organized clashes with the police.

On the eve of mass protests, the Union of Elders of the Balkar People appealed to the head of the republic, Yuri Kokov, to improve the social situation of the Balkar ethnic group, threatening to otherwise turn to the UN and remove Balkaria from Kabardino-Balkaria.

Mass demonstrations took place in the days when the Congress of the International Circassian Association was held in Cherkessk. Yuri Kokov spoke at it, but didn’t say a word about the events taking place in his republic. A week later, Kokov resigned from the post of head “of his own accord.”

After Kabardino-Balkaria, unrest spread to Ingushetia, in whose capital a rally of many thousands was held for three weeks against the change of the border with Chechnya. As a result of this, part of Ingush territory beyond the Fortanga River comes under the control of Chechnya.

The most radical Ingush activists voiced sentiments at the rally to include the Prigorodny District of North Ossetia in Ingushetia (it was part of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic before Stalin’s deportation of Ingush and Chechens in 1944).

On October 13, an extended meeting (circle) of the Caucasian Cossack Line took place in Stavropol — an association of unregistered Cossacks who demanded the borders of Stavropol Kray and the Chechen Republic be altered. The Cossacks want two districts returned to Stavropol – Naursky and Shelkovskaya, which, as the appeal of the Caucasian Cossack Line states, were “illegally transferred by Nikita Khrushchev to Chechnya in 1956.”

Activists write that in Naursky and Shelkovsky districts, which have become almost mono-ethnic, the constitutional rights of the Russian and Cossack population are being violated. Moreover, in demanding the transfer of two regions of Chechnya to Stavropol, the Cossacks refer to the precedent of establishing new borders between Chechnya and Ingushetia.

And now, after the statement of the Caucasian Cossack line, Russian nationalists in Stavropol Kray can also make claims on the Mozdok district of North Ossetia and the Kizlyar district of Dagestan (they were withdrawn from Stavropol Kray in 1944).

How will Moscow respond

Svobodnaya Pressa asked Alim Bishenov, a specialist in constitutional and state law, an authorized representative of the interests of the Russian Federation in the PraeLegal international association, to comment:

“SP”: – Alim Sultanovich, what, in your opinion, is the cause of such a sharp upsurge of separatist tendencies in the North Caucasus?

AB: During discussions concerning the land dispute in Ingushetia, it was mentioned that this could provoke the same kind of attitude in other regions of the Russian Federation. This is happening now: first, the Cossacks are demanding a review of the issues related to the Naursky region; now Karachay-Cherkessia is faced with the fact that the Circassians and Abazins demand a resolution to the issue of their national identity so that they can live peacefully in the republic with the Karachays.

None of these questions arose yesterday or today – this is a systemic problem, which is being discussed yet again because of events in neighboring regions of the Russian Federation. Previously there were no premises to draw attention to this problem from the public and the authorities.

“SP”: – How should the government react to such provocative appeals?

AB: There are a wide range of scenarios for developing various options. At the moment it is difficult to say how the government will react to such sentiments. It is clear that an ill-conceived decision may provoke a wave of similar sentiments in other regions of the Federation. After all, Russia is a multinational country, and there are many situations where several ethnic groups live in the same federal subject. On the other hand, it is impossible not to react, as this will only strengthen such attitudes.

“SP”: – Well, from a legal point of view, do Circassians and Abazins have the right to self-determination: including the right to decide in which Federation subject they wish to live?

AB: From a legal point of view, there are legislative mechanisms that allow implementing such initiatives. But we must understand that, in fact, it is the federal government hardly needs this.”

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