A Country Study: The Republic of Adygeya, by Zeynel A. Besleney


The School of Slavonic Studies,University College London

Since the re-establishment of the Russian state as a reformed asymmetric federation, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the acceptance of Federal Constitution of 1993 a number of ethno-republics within it have come into the limelight for the tensions within them between the titular and non-titular nations, such as the Republics of Bashkortostan, North Ossetia-Alania, Adygeya and Tuva. 

The language laws that put Russian and the language of the titular nation of the republic concerned on equal footing or the laws that are designed to lure members of the Diaspora of the titular nation to settle in the homeland to tilt the balance of demography to the advantage of the titular nation have created much controversy. 

Among all these cases, Adygeya has attracted the greatest attention of the Russian national media as well as specialists in the Russian Caucasus. A number of articles have appeared in the Russian newspapers in the last few years that even accused the republican government of conducting an “apartheid policy ” towards the Russian majority[1]

This paper is aimed to explore the local politics in the Republic of Adygeya in the light of the local conditions of ethnic relations as well as the nationality policy of the federal centre in the last decade.

Part I is to provide the necessary information on Adygeya and the history of its titular nation, the Adyge. This is essential if one wishes to understand the motives behind the strong desire on the part of the Adyge intelligentsia elite to continue with the Soviet ‘policy of positive discrimination towards the titular nation’ within the local political and legal realms even after the Soviet state collapsed.

Part II is concerned with the contentious issues and the political actors of the republican politics. Consequently, the role of the nationalist organisations the Adyge Xase and the Union of Slavs of Adygeya will be investigated. 

In the last part, the recent developments with regards to the latest presidential elections in Adygeya and Moscow’s role in the future of this republic and its multinational people. 



The republic of Adygeya, extending from the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains to the Kuban Plain in the Northern Caucasus, lies landlocked in the middle of Krasnodar Krai[2]. Adygeya, which is a small republic with 7800km2-land area, has no borders with any other North Caucasian republics. According to 1995 figures, the population of the republic is 541.000 of whom 22 % are Adyge. The Russians and the other Eastern Slavs who make up 68 % of the population are in the absolute majority in Adygeya[3], making the republic demographically the most “Russianized” national unit of the whole Northern Caucasus. However, there are around 40.000 more Adyge living in the adjacent areas of Krasnodar Krai, apart from their ethnic kin the Cherkess, the Abaza and the Kabardians living further east.

Adygeya was founded as an autonomous region in 1922 and until it was upgraded to republican status in July 1991 it had been subordinate to Krasnodar Krai. Because of their coexistence for more than 50 years within the same administrative unit, there are close economical, cultural, historical and ethnic ties between Krasnodar and Adygeya both for the ethnic Adyge and the Russians including the local Cossack population.  

The Northern Caucasus region as a whole is home to the poorest republics of the Russian Federation. Economically, the republic is one of the weakest among the Russian regions. In 1997, % 55.3 of the republican population was living below the poverty line, which made Adygeya 8th lowest ranking in the Federation.[4] With the current growth trend persisting, it will take15 to 30 years for Adygeya to reach the national average level of per capita GRP[5]. However, among all the national republics of the Northern Caucasus, which have been for years the scene of ethnic conflicts, social instability and constant military operations, Adygeya, according to many socio-economical indicators, is the most economically developed and stable republic. This is helped by the relative political and social stability on the republican level.  

The Adyge are a subdivision of the Circassians along with the Cherkess of Karachai-Cherkessia, the Kabardians of Kabardino-Balkaria and the Shapsough of the Lazarevsk region along the Black Sea Coast. The Circassian language, which is related to the Abkhaz of Abkhazia and the Abaza of Karachai-Cherkessia, is part of the Northwest Caucasian language family and native to the Northern Caucasus.

The Circassians, as did the Chechens and the Dagestani peoples of Northeast Caucasus, fought with the tsarist Russian armies for more than 30 years in the 19th Century. Only the fall of Circassia in 1864 marked the end of the Caucasian War whose impact on the region and its people is still felt.[6] “It is impossible to over-emphasise the significance of the Russian conquest in the history of Circassia. Beyond doubt, it was the single most cataclysmic event that changed the destiny of the nation and almost led to its extinction”.[7] The Russian conquest led to the exodus of almost  % 90 of all Circassians to the Ottoman Empire. Today there is a Circassian Diaspora of around 3 million people in Turkey and the Middle East. Their land was colonised by the Cossacks and Russians and other settlers and became modern Adygeya, Krasnodar and parts of Stavropol Krai. Today the bulk of the Slavic population of Adygeya are the descendants of these colonists.

During the Soviet rule, the Circassians were divided, thanks to the Stalin’s ‘social engineering experiments’, into four categories as the Adyge, Cherkess, Kabardian and the Shapsough, which were placed in four different administrative units. “The historical injustice” of being dispersed as a result of the Russian imperialism of 19th Century and being divided and isolated by the Soviet policies became a powerful argument of the various Circassian nationalist organisations across the Northwest Caucasus in the Glasnost era. It is therefore not surprising that the Adyge Xase, which has been an influential actor in the republican politics since the late 1980s, is one of the first nationalist organisations to emerge in the Northern Caucasus.



The controversy surrounding the political developments in Adygeya since the upgrading of its status to republic in 1991 centres on the efforts of the Adyge intelligentsia to create conditions of positive discrimination for the Adyge minority and its language, which has long suffered from the imperialist conquest and colonisation of the 19th Century,in opposition to the wishes of the public organisations claiming to represent the interests of the Slavic majority to have a parliamentarian democracy in its classical form where the majority rules. In other words the question that has arisen is that is the current picture of Adygeya a positive discrimination of a marginalized native population in the context of the post-Soviet Russian Federation or the political and economical dominance of an ethnic minority, in a republic that bears its name, over the majority? 

To find an answer to this question and also to be able to follow the republican politics in Adygeya, one must first identify the local political leadership and the other influential socio-political organisations the Adyge Xase and the Union of Slavs of Adygeya and what they stand for. 

Aslan Alievich Dzharimov, an ethnic Adyge, has been the president of Adygeya since its becoming a national republic in 1991. He had been the First Secretary of the Communist Party’s Regional Committee in Adygeya as well as being a People’s Deputy of the USSR between 1989-1991, representing Adygeya. He won two presidential elections, in 1992 and 1997. In the 1997 elections, when he competed against two other Adyge candidates, he gained 57.88 % of the valid votes. In the all-federation level politics, he is known to have been a supporter of Our Home is Russia and later the Unity Movement. He is a Soviet–era apparatchik as the likes of Mintimer Shaimiev of Tatarstan and Murthaza Rakhimov of Baskhortostan who after the collapse of the Soviet Union have turned into moderate nationalist leaders who reigned in the more radical nationalists within their own ranks but, nevertheless, also challenged Moscow on the issues of the rights of the republics vis-à-vis the Centre. 

The Adyge Xase as an organisation is an all-Circassian nationalist movement with branches in the Republics of Karachai-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and the Shapsough populated areas of the Krasnodar Krai. Although these branches are independent establishments, they are nevertheless part of the wider Circassian umbrella organisation the International Circassian Association (ICA), whose declared aim is to protect the rights of the Circassians wherever they live and to facilitate the return of the substantial portion of the Circassian Diaspora to the Circassian inhabited lands of the Northwest Caucasus to change the demographic structure where the Circassians constitute the minority of the population.[8] Although the Xase has lost considerable strength in Adygeya and Kabardino-Balkaria, it still is a very powerful public movement in the Republic of Karachai-Cherkessia which it wants to break up into separate Circassian and Karachai national units. 

In the early 1990s, the Adyge Xase was the most powerful opposition movement to the leaderships of Dzharimov, whom radicals within the Xase even labelled an enemy of the Adyge nation[9]. However, once Adygeya was upgraded to republican status and the rights of the Adyge as the titular nation were enshrined in the republican constitution it became a staunch supporter of the president and the status quo, to the extent that its current chairmen Ruslan Peneshov has served in the successive republican governments under Dzharimov’s presidency. The organisation’s major objective is to keep the “positive discrimination” for the Adyge secure and to attract the members of the large Circassian Diaspora to Adygeya so that the Adyge can become a majority in the republic. 

The Union of Slavs of Adygeya led by Boris Karataev and Nina Konovalova was created in 1991 as a counter-balance to the Adyge Xase but failed to gain much prominence.[10] However in the early 1990s it categorically opposed the separation of Adygeya from Krasnodar Krai and later the upgrading of its status to a republic. At various times the Union advocated a referendum on the return of the capitol City of the republic, Maikop, which is overwhelmingly inhabited by Russians, to Krasnodar Krai. 

The local branch of the Communist Party of Russia is another powerful political force in Adygeya. It enjoys the majority in the republican parliament and has two deputies in the federal state Duma. However, its capacity in the local politics is limited and does not play a major role.

Therefore, the most contentious issues of the local politics from the point of the Adyge intelligentsia can be summarised as:

· The “reluctance” of the Union of the Slavs of Adygeya to recognise the special status of the Adyge as the titular nation of the republic which is the result of the recognition by the Lenin’s nationality policy of the tragic “history of imperialism” in the Northern Caucasus,

· The way the Russian media is portraying Adygeya is feeding the ‘unsubstantiated’ belief that is prevalent among the Russian nationalists in the Northern Caucasus that all Circassians are ‘conspiring’ to create a ‘Greater Circassia’ uniting all the Circassian inhabitant lands of Adygeya, Karachai-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and parts of Krasnodar Krai, thus forming a [Muslim] greenbelt to surround the traditional Orthodox Slav regions of Krasnodar and Stavropol. Then, they argue, the Circassians will force the Russians and the peoples of other nationalities to leave the republic[11],

· The fact that the main base of support for the Union of Slavs is the local Cossacks makes the Adyge population uneasy about the real intention of this organisation. The calls made by some populist Russian politicians for the revival of the traditional Cossack paramilitary forces, which are seen by the Adyge as the embodiment of the oppression and the colonisation of the last century by the tsarist Russia, are spreading fear among the Adyge that this would lead to the creation of an authoritarian society. [12]

However, the issues from the Union of Slavs’ point of view are as follow:

· The election law, which dictates that all presidential candidates must be fluent in the both official languages of the republic, namely Adyge and Russian [13],

· The way the electoral constituencies are defined (which ensures parity between the Russians and the minority Adyge),

· The local immigration law that grants special settlement and taxation rights to the persons of Circassian descent who desires to settle in Adygeya while the residency rights of the people of non-Adyge origin are tightly controlled and restricted,

· The dominance of the Adyge elite in the republican economy that was facilitated by the privatisation programs carried out by the Adyge leadership as part of the economic reforms in the early 1990s.



Despite all the criticism and the cries of ‘apartheid’ regime, the Republic of Adygeya has been an island of peace and relative stability in a region that has in the last decade seen armed conflicts in Chechnya, Abkhazia, North Ossetia, Daghestan, ethnic unrest in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia as well as economic recession and a sharp increase in criminal activities affecting the whole federation.

In this paper, I intend to draw attention not to what has happened in Adygeya after the collapse of the Soviet Union but, on the contrary, to what has not occurred, which was expected to occur, that is no major rallies or protest meetings have occurred in Adygeya for years and that there has been no talk of the Adyge Xase or the Union of Slavs creating paramilitary forces in preparation for a ‘coming’ conflict. Instead, multicultural dance and art festivals attended by the representatives of the Russians, the Adyge and the other peoples of the Northern Caucasus are regularly organised. President Dzharimov’s every public speech is addressed to “the multinational people of the Republic of Adygeya” not to the Adyge people, which is a sign of a new republican identity emerging against all the odds.[14] Traditionally, the Adyge and the Russians have shared the governmental posts. The current Prime Minister and the chairman of the upper wing of the local parliament are Russians.

This new republican identity beyond one’s ethnic affiliation seems to have given way to a new voting pattern in the last presidential election that took place on 13 January 2002. For the first time since the foundation of the republic of Adygeya, candidates of different nationalities participated in the presidential election regardless of their knowledge of Adyge language, which was the result of the suspension, for ten years, of the language law which requires the president to be bilingual in Adyge and the Russian.

The local Adyge businessmen Khazret Sovmen, who owns gold mines in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia and is known across the whole federation as a philanthropist, won the election, as was expected, by taking 68 % of the valid votes by securing the support of the bulk of the population, Russian and Adyge alike, who have been suffering from the economic hardship for years and have been ready to lay their hopes not on his ethnic background but on his managerial skills, to govern the republic. In this race, the old foes, the incumbent president Aslan Dzharimov, and the leader of the Union of Slavs Nina Konovalova received 9 % and 8 % of the vote respectively.

Although no official statement has been made by Moscow about the result of the election, the outcome must also be welcomed by Putin administration for he is more than happy to see Aslan Dzharimov, just as Ruslan Aushev of Inghushetia, leave his post as Dzharimov, like Aushev, has long been an outspoken critic of Putin’s re-centralising policies and an advocate of the rights of the republics vis-à-vis the centre.

Although the success of Sovmen will evidently surpass the ethnic boundaries for the near future, in the long term, however, Moscow should take into account the local conditions of the Northern Caucasus, especially the case of the Adyge’s ethnic kin, the Abkhaz and the war in Abkhazia that has set an example of how a titular nation, that is mademinority in its own country, can resist outside pressure to abolish the positive discrimination for the titular nation. This is a region where the past is not only a distant memory but also an everyday reality. It is constantly reminded and reproduced by local elites.  

Only by allowing to remain intact the above mentioned language law, that has a great symbolic meaning for the Adyge, and thus offering a incentive to the local Russians, who want to hold governmental posts, to learn the language of the titular nation- a decision which may even pave the way in the end for an Adyge speaker of Russian majority to become president-can Moscow ensure that Adygeya can put aside its problems of ethnic nature and instead concentrate on implementing economic reforms and creating a democratic, prosperous society where the particularities of the Adyge are also respected alongside the wider republican population and taken into consideration. 



1) Alla Chirikova and Natalia Lapina, Political Power and Political Stability in the Russian Regions in Contemporary Russian Politics, edited by Archie T. Brown, p. 384-397, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001

2) Alla Chirikova and Natalia Lapina, Regional Elite: A Quiet Revolution on a Russian Scale, Center For Security Studies and Conflict Research, Zurich, 2001 

3) Alexei M. Lavrov and Alexei G. Lakushkin, The Fiscal Structure of the Russian Federation: Financial Flows Between the Center and the Regions, East West Institute, New York, London, 1999 

4) Amjad Jaimoukha, The Circassians: A Handbook, Curzon Publishing, London, 2001 

5) Andrei S. Makarchev, Islands of Globalisation: Regional Russia and the Outside World, Center For Security Studies and Conflict Research, Zurich, 2000 

6) Anna Matveeva, The North Caucasus: Russia’s Fragile Borderland,The Royal Institute Of International Affairs, London, 1999 

7) Aslan Dzharimov, Ozerklikten Cumhuriyete Adigey (From Autonomy to Republic: Adygeya),in Turkish, Turkiye Isbirligi ve Kalkinma Ajansi, Ankara/Turkey, 1996 

8) Liz Fuller, ‘Adygeya’s Slavic Majority Protests Discrimination’ in RFE/RL Caucasus Report, 16 April 2001, Vol.16

9) Martin Nicholson, Towards a Russia of the Regions, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999 

10) Nana Kitsmarishvili,‘Prizrak Natsionalizma Bradit Po Evrope’in Novaya Gazeta on 4 May 2000, no: 17     

11) Paul Henze, Circassian Resistance to Russia in The North Caucasus Barrier, page 62-111, C. Hurst & Co., London, 1992  

12) Robert V. Daniels, Democracy and Federalism in the Former Soviet Union and the Russian Federation in Beyond the Monolith: The Emergence of Regionalism in Post-Soviet Russia, page 233-244, The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington, 1997  

13) Tamila Lankina, Local Government and the Ethnic and Social Activism in Russia in the Contemporary Russian Politics, page 398-414, Oxford University Press, New York, 2001 

14) Valery Sharov,Adygeyskii Paritet’ in Novaya Gazeta, 11 January 2000,no. 1. 

15) Valery Tishkov, Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict In And After The Soviet Union: The Mind Aflame, Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1997  


[1] See Liz Fuller, ‘Adygeya’s Slavic Majority Protests Discrimination’ in RFE/RL Caucasus Report, 16 April 2001, Vol.16, See also Nana Kitsmarishvili’s article, ‘Prizrak Natsionalizma Bradit Po Evrope’ in Novaya Gazetaon 4 May 2000, no: 17 or Valery Sharov, Adygeyskii Paritet in Novaya Gazeta, 11 January 2000,no.1. The TV programme “Itogy2by Yelena Mashuk was broadcast on Russian National TV, NTV 2 April 2000.               

[2] Anna Matveeva, The North Caucasus: Russia’s Fragile Borderland,The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, 1999, p.82

[3] These 1995 population figures are taken from Robertson’s Russia &Eurasia Facts &Figures Annual,volume 22,1997, pp 20-23 as cited in Anna Matveeva, The North Caucasus: Russia’s Fragile Borderland,page 82.     

[4] Regiony Rossii, Moscow: Situatsionny tsentr pri Presidente RF, FAPSI, 1997 as cited in Matveeva, p.82.

[5] Alexei M. Lavrov and Alexei G. Lakushkin, The Fiscal Structure of the Russian Federation: Financial Flows Between the Center and the Regions, East West Institute, New York, London, 1999, p.xxiii. 

[6] Matveeva, page 5.

[7] Amjad Jaimoukha, The Circassians: A Handbook, Curzon Press, London, 2001, page 12.

[8] The ICA’s own web site, which is in need of updating, can be viewed at

[9] Aslan Dzharimov, Ozerklikten Cumhuriyete Adigey (From Autonomy to Republic: Adygeya),in Turkish, Turkiye Isbirligi ve Kalkinma Ajansi, 1996, Ankara/Turkey, page 16. In this book, Dzharimov re-evaluates the political events of the early 1990s in Adygeya.

[10] Matveeva, page 83.

[11] See the article titled “What is there in the ICA’s Dossier” published in the Russian Language bulletin of the Union Of Slavs, Za Kubanye in Adygeya in its October 2000 edition, No: 21. This argument is especially powerful in Krasnodar where Zhrinovskii’s Liberal Democrat Party of Russia and the Communist Party are the leading political forces. In 1998 when the Adyge authorities proposed a land exchange plan to the Krasnodar authorities, that would have brought into the jurisdiction of Adygeya some areas of Krasnodar Krai inhabited by another Circassian subgroup the Shapsough, whose national autonomy had been abolished in 1945, in exchange for some arable areas, it was the local LDPR that put up a fierce resistance to this proposal arguing that it would be the first step for the creation of ‘Greater Circassia’.

[12] Valery Tishkov, Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict In And After The Soviet Union: The Mind Aflame, Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, 1997, page236.

[13] This law, which was in force for the first two presidential elections, has now been suspended for ten years to provide the opportunity for the potential candidates to learn Adyge language.

[14] Among the Dzharimov’s statements, see especially the one titled From Millennium to Millennium, which was published in the Adyge language newspaper Adyge Mak on 29 December 2000 where he evaluates the past, current political situation in the republic.


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Ethnofederalism in Russia and Circassian Autonomy, by Stephen Shenfield

An ethnofederation is a particular type of federation in which some or all of the federal units have a formally recognized status as homelands considered to “belong” to specific ethnic groups.Thus, the future prospects of Circassian autonomy are inextricably tied up with those of the ethnofederal system in Russia as a whole. The purpose of this essay is to assess these prospects, drawing on recent writings by Russian political scientists.

Stephen D. Shenfield | Special to Circassian World


To the extent that Circassians (among many other peoples) have managed to preserve their language, culture, and identity in Russia, this is thanks above all to the existence of “autonomous ethnic territories” (AETs)1 within the framework of the Soviet and post-Soviet system of ethnofederalism. An ethnofederation is a particular type of federation in which some or all of the federal units have a formally recognized status as homelands considered to “belong” to specific ethnic groups.2 Thus, the future prospects of Circassian autonomy are inextricably tied up with those of the ethnofederal system in Russia as a whole. The purpose of this essay is to assess these prospects, drawing on recent writings by Russian political scientists.

A few terminological points. I distinguish between pure or symmetric ethnofederations, in which allfederal units are based on ethnicity, and mixed or asymmetric federations, in which only some federal units are based on ethnicity. The Russian Federation, like the former USSR, is an example of the second subtype. I also follow Russian practice in referring to the ethnic group(s) to which a territory “belongs” as the titular group(s) (because the title of the territory is related to the name(s) of the group(s) concerned). Finally, in the Russian Federation, again as in the former USSR, AETs are subdivided into categories according to their status in the federal structure and degree of autonomy. The highest-level AETs are called “republics” and are headed by “presidents”3; lower-level AETs are called autonomous provinces or autonomous districts.

Section A sets the general international and historical context of the phenomenon of ethnofederalism and traces the evolution of the ethnofederal system in Russia from its origin in the early Soviet period up to the early post-Soviet period. Section B assesses the drive to weaken the ethnofederal system under Putin and its implications for the future of Circassian autonomy in Russia.

A. Background and context

A1. International context

Pure ethnofederations are very rare. I cannot think of any present-day examples, and the only historical example that comes readily to mind is the former Yugoslavia.

Asymmetric or mixed federations are somewhat more common. For historical reasons, most examples are to be found in the (post-)communist world. Besides the Russian Federation and the Chinese People’s Republic, they include Uzbekistan (due to the special status of Karakalpakstan) and Tajikistan (due to the special status of Gorno-Badakhshan).4 In recent years, however, two Western federations have evolved toward asymmetric ethnofederalism: Spain (due to the special status granted to Catalonia and the Basque Country) and Canada (due to the special status granted to francophone Quebec and the creation in 1999 of Nunavut as an Inuit (Eskimo) homeland).5

We might also note that recently there has been considerable debate among Western policy experts concerning the advantages and disadvantages of applying ethnofederalist ideas to the design of constitutions for the Western client states of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. For the first two countries the advocates of ethnofederalism have in mind the creation of pure ethnofederations,6 while in the case of Iraq they tend to think in terms of a mixed federation with a special status for Kurdistan.7

A2. Historical origin of ethnofederalism

The origin of ethnofederalist ideas can be traced to political debates that took place in the years before World War One in two of the three vast multi-ethnic empires that then still dominated the landscape of Eastern Europe—tsarist Russia and Austro-Hungary. The best-known participants in these debates were theorists of the international socialist (social democratic) movement, but people representing other political tendencies also took part. What most of the participants shared was the aspiration to avert disintegration of the empires into independent ethnic states by transforming them into democratic federations of a kind that would give some scope to ethnic self-expression. This set of goals set them apart from imperial conservatives, from the growing ethnonationalist movements of the day, and also from socialists like Rosa Luxemburg who championed a “pure” working class politics overriding ethnic loyalties.

Some pre-WWI ethnofederalists sought to satisfy ethnic aspirations by creating autonomous ethnic territories (this was Lenin’s position). Others argued that territorial solutions ignored the ethnically mixed composition of many or most geographical areas and advocated alternative extraterritorial schemes for autonomous ethnic institutions in the fields of education and culture (the so-called “Austro-Marxists”).

The feared disintegration of Eastern Europe into ethnic states occurred, rendering the old debates much less relevant—although ethnofederalist ideas remained popular among dispersed ethnic minorities (in particular, Germans and Jews). In Russia, however, the Bolsheviks succeeded in reconstituting most of the empire in a new form. One of the reasons for their success was the fact that they won widespread support among non-Russian ethnic minorities by offering them territorial autonomy within an ethnofederal framework—a concession that their White adversaries in the civil war were unwilling to make. It was this situation that gave rise to the Soviet ethnofederal model that still exists in certain parts of the (post-)communist world, including the Russian Federation.8

A3. Evolution of ethnofederalism in Russia

The Soviet ethnofederal model has varied over time and space in complex ways. The most important variable is the extent to which the formal autonomy of ethnic territories has been filled with real content. In the 1920s the administration of AETs was largely entrusted to indigenous Bolshevik elites (where such elites existed) who were allowed considerable autonomy. Under Stalin many members of these elites were repressed as “bourgeois nationalists” and the real autonomy of AETs was restricted almost to vanishing point. The post-Stalin period saw the gradual emergence of new indigenous elites and a concomitant expansion of autonomy. Gorbachev’s reform of the Soviet system led to acceleration of this trend, with many AETs claiming “sovereignty” (which meant something less than complete independence, though not much less).9 The process of autonomization reached its peak under Yeltsin in the early 1990s, when many AETs were able to negotiate special relations with the federal government that were embodied in “federal treaties.” In the 2000s, Putin has put the process into reverse and reduced the real autonomy of AETs to the lowest level since Stalin. Nevertheless, the ethnofederal model has not been formally abolished.

This overall picture of evolution over time conceals broad variation among AETs. Thus, under Stalin some AETs were abolished altogether when their titular peoples were deported to Central Asia, while others survived relatively unscathed. Under Putin, again, some but not all AETs have been eliminated (this time through absorption into larger federal units, without deportations). In the post-Stalin period, some AETs acquired new indigenous elites but others did not.10 And so on.

A fair amount of evidence suggests that many members of the central political elite in the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods have regarded the ethnofederal system as an inconvenient and “irrational” encumbrance inherited from the past and contemplated its complete abolition. Thus, it appears that Yuri Andropov was considering this possibility; LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has always openly advocated elimination of the AETs; and (as argued below) this was an unavowed goal of Putin’s campaign to amalgamate existing federal units. Russian political scientist Alexander Kynev argues that the aversion to asymmetric federalism is largely psychological and emotional in nature, although it does have a political dimension:

The “nonstandard” character of some regions is perceived as a defect that violates symmetry. By the very fact of their existence, they seem to justify the right of regions to develop their own political and institutional mechanisms, thereby... threatening the unity of the country.11

One indirect reflection of elite hostility to territorial ethnic autonomy in the post-Soviet period has been a revival of the “Austro-Marxist” idea of extraterritorial ethnic autonomy. Widely dispersed ethnic groups like the Tatars have been encouraged to form nationwide associations, which have then been presented in the media as more genuinely representative of the ethnic group concerned than the leadership of its AET in an attempt to delegitimize the latter.

B. The Putin period

B1. The drive to weaken federalism

Putin’s drive to recentralize governance in Russia has greatly reduced the autonomy not only of AETs but of all federal units. In order to strengthen central control, he first installed “plenipotentiary representatives of the president” in seven super-regions called “federal districts” over the federal units. He refused to recognize the validity of the federal treaties concluded by Yeltsin. The crucial step came in 2004, when popular elections of heads of federal units (regional heads) were replaced by what amounted to a system of presidential appointment following consultations with members of the regional elite. The Council of the Federation (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament) was also reformed in such a way that regional leaders lost an important channel of influence over national policy.

These changes are leading toward the emergence of a new generation of regional heads who function as bureaucrats, answerable solely to the central authorities, rather than as politicians responsive to local pressures. It should be emphasized, however, that this is a gradual process and remains far from completion.

Thus, for a couple of years after acquiring the power to appoint regional heads Putin used this new power with great caution. In almost all cases, incumbents were confirmed in exchange for ritual expressions of loyalty. These people still acted informally as representatives of local interests. Only in 2007 did Putin start to use his power of appointment more decisively to weaken regional elites by imposing “outsiders” as regional heads—either unexpected local candidates lacking strong ties with the established elite or people brought in from outside the region concerned.12

Let us take a few examples from the ethnic republics. Arsen Kanokov was appointed president of Kabardino-Balkaria in 2005; he is a Circassian (Kabardian) and was born in Kabardino-Balkaria, but had made his career as a businessman and politician in Moscow. Similarly, Boris Ebzeev was appointed president of Karachai-Cherkessia in 2008 after having pursued a legal career outside the republic since the 1970s. He is a Karachai and lived in Karachai-Cherkessia in his youth (he was born in Kyrgyzia following the deportation of his people in 1944).13 A more extreme case is that of Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn, an ethnic Russian from Tomsk who was appointed president of Buryatia in 2007—the first non-titular president to be imposed on an ethnic republic. A republic with a relatively weak ethnic elite was chosen for this “experiment”: the Kremlin evidently fears the political destabilization that might follow such a step in a republic with a stronger ethnic elite (e.g., in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, or the North Caucasus).14

Nevertheless, even republics with well-entrenched ethnic elites have been subjected to steady pressure to dilute their ethnic character. The position of the languages of titular groups in the education system has been weakened: they are still taught as special subjects, but their use as vehicles of instruction in other subjects has been restricted. Hours of radio and television broadcasting in these languages have also been reduced. Action has been taken to block moves to replace the Cyrillic-based alphabets imposed on these languages under Stalin by Latin-based alphabets.15

B2. The amalgamation campaign

Over the period 2003—2008 the Putin administration waged a campaign to induce contiguous federal units to merge to form larger units. The avowed rationale for reducing the number of federal units stressed considerations of administrative convenience and economic efficiency, but in fact all the mergers sought by the Kremlin involved the absorption of AETs into larger neighboring non-ethnic territories, revealing that the amalgamation campaign was actually a covert attack on ethnofederalism.16

The goals of the campaign were rather modest, its results even more so. Ten AETs were slated for absorption—all nine of the autonomous districts (the lowest level of AETs) plus one ethnic republic—Adygeia, which was targeted because like the autonomous districts (ADs) but unlike the other ethnic republics it was completely surrounded by a non-ethnic territory (Krasnodar). When the campaign was abandoned in 2008, six ADs had been eliminated, reducing the total number of federal units from 89 to 83. In the other three ADs as well as in Adygeia,17 resistance at both popular and elite levels was sufficiently strong and persistent to thwart pressure from the Kremlin.

The peoples that lost AETs as a result of this campaign—the Komi of northeast European Russia, the Dolgans and Evenk of northern Siberia, the Koryaks of Kamchatka in the Far East, and the Buryats of eastern Siberia18—were all quite weak in terms of their low demographic weight and meager economic resources. The three ADs that managed to survive (Nenets, Khanty-Mansi, and Yamalo-Nenets) did so in part because the rich mineral deposits under their soil placed their elites in a stronger economic and political position.

It is also worth noting that the indigenous peoples of three of the abolished ADs—the Koryak AD and the two Buryat ADs—did retain certain rights under the terms of amalgamation, including reserved seats in the regional legislatures and a special status for the areas that used to constitute the ADs. Basically, their autonomy was reduced to a lower level rather than totally abolished.19

B3. Implications: a half-sleeping institution

The weakening of federal (including ethnofederal) institutions in Russia under Putin raises the question of whether Russia “really” remains a federation (or ethnofederation). Has it not been reduced to a unitary state in all but name?

Andrei Zakharov, a Russian expert on federal systems, answers this question by resorting to the political-science concept of “sleeping institutions.”20 A sleeping institution is an institution that has been rendered inactive or emptied of substantive content but that maintains a formal legal existence and may therefore be reactivated (or “reawakened” or “defrozen”) under certain circumstances. Federalism, he argues, is currently such a sleeping institution in Russia, but as the Putin regime loses its grip on power—a development that Zakharov, like many other Russian analysts, expects in the not too distant future—federalism can be expected to reawaken.

In light of the slow pace of the de-federalization process and the limited success of the amalgamation campaign, it seems to me somewhat of an exaggeration to say that Russian ethnofederalism today is “sleeping.” Perhaps we could call it a “half-sleeping institution.” If so, we can be even more confident that ethnofederalism and the system of autonomous territories for indigenous ethnic groups will survive and eventually recover when the pendulum of Russian politics swings back from centralization to decentralization.

The Putin regime, while by no means democratic, is also far from being a monolithic dictatorship. Power remains fairly widely diffused among various national and regional political and economic elites with diverse and often conflicting interests. Moreover, great care is taken to maintain the appearance of legality and democracy. Thus, although the amalgamation campaign was actually initiated by the Kremlin, the law of 2001 on which the campaign was based21 required the initiative for each specific amalgamation to come from the federal units concerned; consequently, even passive resistance was capable of thwarting the Kremlin’s designs.

Zakharov’s explanation of the durability of ethnofederalism in Russia is worthy of note. He observes that “theoretically” the Russian Constitution could be radically revised to eliminate federal principles, and yet despite all the “centralist rhetoric” of the Putin years this idea has never even been seriously considered:

Much as it may wish to, the Russian elite today is in no position to finish off the sleeper before he awakes. The main reason is that a hypothetical suppression of federalism would unavoidably exacerbate the so-called “ethnic question.” In terms of relations among Russia’s ethnic groups, the imperial regime did not succeed in creating a homogeneous nation-state, nor did the Soviet regime... This circumstance... has left a marked imprint on Russian federalism in both its Soviet and its post-Soviet version. It sharply reduces the number of options at the disposal of those who would like to reform the administrative-territorial system, which constantly tends toward the same solution—that of combining the territorial with the ethnoterritorial principle [i.e., asymmetric ethnofederalism—SS] in organizing the country’s political space... In other words, we cannot abolish Russian federalism.22

In other words, the determination of indigenous ethnic groups, including the Circassians, to defend their territorial autonomy protects not just that autonomy but Russian federalism in general.


1. I have coined this term because there is no official term that applies to all types of AETs. Unofficially they are often referred to simply as “autonomies.”

2. A single AET can be shared by two or even more specific ethnic groups. The crucial feature that distinguishes it from a non-ethnic federal unit is that it is not considered to belong to allresident citizens irrespective of ethnic affiliation.

3. Heads of “non-ethnic” provinces are called governors. Heads of lower-level AETs do not have a special title.

4. The autonomy of Karakalpakstan is purely formal in nature, and the autonomy of China’s ethnic territories is also of course extremely limited. Nevertheless, in legal-constitutional terms Uzbekistan and the PRC are asymmetric federations. I have not included Ukraine, because although the Crimea enjoys a special status it is not considered to belong to one or more specific ethnic groups.

5. For more on the emergence of an ethnofederation in Spain, see:

I do not count India and Pakistan as ethnofederations because although both are federations containing many federal units with names that refer to ethnic groups (Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, Balochistan, etc.) such units have no special status and are not officially considered to belong to their titular groups.

6. The leading advocate of ethnofederalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan is Henry Hale (PONARS Policy Memo 208, Ethnofederalism: Lessons for Rebuilding Afghanistan, Preserving Pakistan, and Keeping Russia Stable, CSIS, November 1, 2001). For more critical views, see: Christa Deiwiks, “The Curse of Ethnofederalism? Ethnic Group Regions, Subnational Boundaries and Secessionist Conflict,” February 8, 2010, at; Philip G. Roeder, “Ethnofederalism and the Mismanagement of Nationalism,” at

7. See: Brendan O’Leary, John McGarry, and Khaled Salih, eds., The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).

8. There is an enormous literature of widely varying quality on the origin and evolution of Soviet ethnofederalism and “nationalities policy.” On the early Soviet period, I recommend: Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923—1939 (Cornell University Press, 2001) and Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union(Cornell University Press, 2005).

9. This phenomenon came to be known as “the parade of sovereignties.”

10. In my essay “Tataria and Chechnya,” I contrast the position of Tataria (now Tatarstan), which acquired a strong indigenous elite and significant autonomy in the post-Stalin period, with that of Chechnya, which was not allowed to do so (see the section entitled “Soviet Nationalities Policy” at

11. Aleksandr Kynev, “Nedostizhimaia simmetriia: ob itogakh ‘ukrupneniia’ sub_”ektov Rossiiskoi Federatsii” [Unattainable Symmetry: On the Results of the “Amalgamation” of Subjects of the Russian Federation], Neprikosnovennyi zapas, 2010, no. 3.

12. These appointees are unofficially known as “Varangians”—the Scandinavian Vikings who according to legend were summoned by the warring Slavic tribes to establish the first Russian state in 862 (“Come and rule over us!). For a more detailed account of the evolution of the practice of appointing regional heads, see: Rostislav F. Turovskii, “How Russian Governors Are Appointed: Inertia and Radicalism in Central Policy,” Russian Politics & Law, January—February 2010, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 58-79.

13. For a survey of the character of ethnic elites in the AETs of the North Caucasus and their relationships with appointed regional heads, see: Maksim Vaskov, “The Upper Echelon of the Russian North Caucasus: Regionally Specific Political and Sociocultural Characteristics,” Russian Politics & Law, March—April 2010, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 50-67.

14. Perhaps the large-scale disturbances throughout Kazakhstan that followed Gorbachev’s imposition of an ethnic Russian outsider as party boss of the republic in December 1986 have not been completely forgotten.

15. Latin-based alphabets were favored in the early Soviet period. For more on the “alphabet wars” in Tatarstan, see: Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia, Summer 2007, Vol. 46, No. 1.

16. For a detailed analysis of the amalgamation campaign and its results, see: Aleksandr Kynev, “Nedostizhimaia simmetriia: ob itogakh ‘ukrupneniia’ sub_”ektov Rossiiskoi Federatsii” [Unattainable Symmetry: On the Results of the “Amalgamation” of Subjects of the Russian Federation], Neprikosnovennyi zapas, 2010, no. 3.

17. On the campaign to annex Adygeia to the Krasnodar Territory, see: Matthew A. Light, “Territorial Restructuring in the Russian Federation and the Future of the Circassian Republics,” JRL Research & Analytical Supplement, No. 42, May 2008 (reproduced at As Light notes, although Adygeia survived as a federal unit its administration was weakened by the transfer to Krasnodar of offices of key ministries such as customs and transportation.

18. The Buryats had a republic, Buryatia, plus two ADs (Ust-Ordyn Buryat and Aga Buryat). They lost the ADs but kept (at least formally) the republic.

19. These arrangements are reminiscent of the old “autonomous counties”—a level that used to exist below the autonomous districts. An example is the Shapsugh autonomous county, comprising a small number of surviving Circassian villages near Sochi, that existed in the early Soviet period.

20. Andrei Zakharov, “Rossiiskii federalizm kak ‘spiashchii’ institut” [Russian Federalism as a Sleeping Institution], Neprikosnovennyi zapas, 2010, no. 3.

21. The Federal Constitutional Law No. 6-FKZ “On the Procedure for the Admission or Internal Formation of a New Subject of the Russian Federation.” The law was passed in December 2001 and amended in November 2005.

22. Zakharov, op. cit..

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Life Standard In The Post-Soviet Context: The Case of The Republic of Adygeya, by Cemre Erciyes

By Cemre Erciyes


September 2006

This study aimed to describe the life standard in the post-Soviet context taking the Republic  of  Adygeya,  one  of  the  poorest  districts  of  Post-Soviet  Russia,  as  an example. The applicability of  the European approach  to  the  life standard  (quality of  life) was  also  in  question. 

The  survey  in Adygeya  showed  that  life  standard research  is  applicable  in  the  post-Soviet  context.  However,  modifications  are necessary and not all concepts are comparable  to  the world outside  the ex-Soviet region. The descriptive chapters on the case of Adygeya include income, economic life, settlement, necessities and ownership,  the failure of the systems of education and heath, democracy and citizens as well as the general evaluation of the quality of life and satisfaction.

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