Ethnicity in the Caucasus: Ethnic Relations and Quasi-Ethnic Conflicts

By S.A. Arutiunov
Head, Caucasian Studies Department
Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology
Russian Academy of Sciences


I. The Caucasus and Nationality

A. The Caucasus and Ethnicity

Are ethnic conflicts inevitable? Is there a fatal predestination for every ethnic entity to compete with other ethnic entities in a Darwinian struggle for existence, to see the only guarantee of its own ethnic reproduction in the expulsion, suppression or extermination of other ethnic groups? Given its patchwork of ethnic diversity, perhaps no part of the former Soviet Union provides more fertile ground for interethnic strife than the Caucasus region. The civil war in Chechnya is seen as indicative of the potential for greater instability in the region. Alternatively, this report contends that, although political cleavages in the Caucasus often mirror ethnic divisions, at heart these disputes are as much economic and political conflicts, triggered by the ongoing uncertainty of economic transformation, as ethnic conflicts. Given this, despite extensive ethnic diversity, the Caucasus region is not invariably condemned to ethnic turmoil.

B. A Taxonomy of Ethnic Identity

The birth of ethnicity or of a particular ethnic unit can be considered as a process of adaptation to a cultural or social environment analogous to natural selection. Unlike the animal kingdom, the development of human ethnic groups entails both a biological exchange as well as the transference of cultural information and values through socialization. Having once emerged, ethnic identity tends to reproduce itself as a means for group competition for identity and resources. Such extended self-reproduction becomes the raison díetre of ethnic group activity.

That being said, ethnic groups vary as to the intensity of ethnic identity and the types of activities and political objectives pursued. Ethnic groups can be classified based on the density of intra-group communication as the key distinguishing feature. At the lowest level, tribes are primarily denoted by oral communication traditions with a limited scope for ethnic communication. The development of written traditions allows nationalities (or, in Russian, narodnosti) to emerge. Finally, as deeper and more extended communication networks develop via mass media and mass education, the highest type of ethnicity, a nation, emerges. Nations differ from narodnosti in that they seek to establish an independent nation-state and primacy over other ethnic groups within a given territory. This sort of interaction is readily observable in the southern Caucasus in the Armenian-Azeri conflict around Karabakh, in Georgiaís military intervention in Abkhazia, in Azerbaijanís claims to the oil resources of the Caspian shelf, and in the general squeezing out or restriction of ethnic or cultural minorities in all the newly independent Trascaucasian nations.

In contrast, not only the northern Caucasus, but probably in the whole Russian Federation, only four ethnic groups can fairly be labeled nations: Volga Tartars, Chechnyans, Yakuts and Tuvans. Narodnosti would certainly include Buriats, Chusvashs, Bashkirs, and -- although with less certainty - Ossets, Kabardins, Adyghes, Karachais and Maris. Finally, those groups best labeled as tribes would include Karels, Komis, Udmorts, Mordvins, Khahass, Altaians, Balkars, Cherkess and Kalmyks. The different classes of ethnic groups in the northern Caucasus have all undertaken actions aimed at ethnic self-assertion and self-reproduction. Yet while all pursue ethnic issues and seek to establish an ethnic "space," it would be misguided to assume that ethnic competition invariably leads to violent conflict. Only Chechnya has openly fought for full independence. Other strategies to increase ethnic autonomy include negotiating treaties with Moscow for new rights and privileges for the republic under the Federal Constitution (done in North Ossetia and Kabardin-Balkaria) or declaring the republic an "economic free zone" (done in Ingushetia). Even for groups fairly labeled as nations, the move to full independence may be undesirable, since none of the Caucasian republics can be economically self-supporting. The great mistake to be made in analyzing the Caucasus is to assume that all groups are essentially nations seeking to carve out independent nation-states from the old Soviet republics.

C. Ethnic or Political Conflict?

A good example of this can be seen in disputes between Georgia and Abkhazia. Abkhazia had long been associated with Georgia under the Soviet system and Abkhazians lived peacefully within a Georgian-dominated media and educational structure. Politically and culturally, however, Abkhazians were more oriented to Russia - which was larger and less culturally threatening - than Georgia. Yet this ethnic marriage was largely nonproblematic until the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the dissolution of the USSR, Abkhazians resisted incorporation into the newly independent Georgian nation, leading ultimately to the Georgian-Abkhazian War of 1992-93, which produced de facto independence from Georgia. Superficially, this seems like the classic example of an inter-ethnic conflict. Although true in a strict sense, there is really no great ethnic enmity between Georgians and Abkhazians, noted by a high percentage of mixed marriages. Abkhazian demands were not for independence as an expression of nationhood, but rather for association with federal Russia rather than Georgia. The conflict turned on the desire to change political association, not to secure ethnic independence per se.

All of this leads to the conclusion that the essence of most of the conflicts in the Caucasus is not inherent and historically predetermined enmity between ethnic units, but results rather from political manipulations of the ethnic elite, which tries to exploit ethnic identity to safeguard for themselves the benefits of political power during a period of economic transformation.

II. The Ethnic Situation in the Northern Caucasus

A. Adygea, Karachai-Cherkessia, and Kabardin-Balkaria

This section will outline the nature and roots of ethnic conflicts in the various regions of the northern Caucasus. The demographic numbers provided are very arbitrary and approximate, since the exact numbers of ethnic groups in the territories are not available. The analysis will move along the "east-west axis" because there are significant cultural and economic differences between the western and eastern territories. The western regions contain a higher percentage of ethnic Russian (i.e., 80% of the population in the Krasnodar and Stavropol territories, but only 10% in Dagestan) and people tend to be culturally Western oriented. The level of industrialization and urbanization also decline as one moves east, just as the relative importance of the Islamic faith rises in the east. The following analysis is based on analysis of the local press and various documents, direct observations of the author, and various conversations with colleagues from all Caucasian republics.

In the small territory of Adygea, which is encircled on all sides by the primarily Russian Krasnodar Territory, relations between Adygean and ethnic Russians are quite friendly. Russians make up more than half of the population within Adygea and the current President, Jarimov (an ethnic Adygean) was elected largely on the support of Russian votes. Russians may express some discontent over the domination of Adygeans in retail commerce, but the level of dissension is minimal. Some nationalistically minded Adygeans hope for the restoration of a "Greater Adygea", which would include Cherkessia and Kabardinia. Adygeans, Cherkessians and Kabardins share a common cultural and linguistic "Adyghe" identity. Among all Adyghes, the Adygeans certainly have the strongest feeling of all-Adyghe common destiny.

Equally, however, the Adygeans have preserved some tribal divisions. Among the twenty odd tribes, some of which are very small in number, two are significant. One are Shapsugs, mostly living outside of Adygea proper. Their main demand is for the restoration of the Shapsug National District abolished in the 1920s and of traditional Shapsug town names altered by the Soviets. The other tribe is the Bzhedugs, living mostly around the city of Krasnodar in the most urbanized and westernized part of the area. Under the Soviets - and continuing into the present - almost all of the key governmental administration positions are held by Bzhedugs. Proliferation of this dominance entails a level of tribal (as opposed to ethnic) nepotism unknown in other parts of the Caucasus, creating significant cross-tribal envy. Finally, a certain Armenophobia has spread among Adygeans -- a relatively new development -- in the wake of a large influx of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan, Abkhazia, Chechnya and other territories.

The important point to note for this territory is that to the extent that disputes have arisen they are not inherently ethnic, but rather are social and economic with an ethnic mark. In the early Soviet era they were practically nonexistent and they will probably disappear if and when the social and economic situation changes, when politically correct place names are restored, when a proper state of law is established, and when a market economic structure is fully institutionalized. Should there be no progress on these larger issues of the political and legal context, then these relatively superficial divisions may solidify into more long-term cleavages.

In the republic of Karachai-Cherkessia, about 40% of the population is ethnic Russian (mostly Cossacks), with another 35% being Turkic-speaking Karachais, and less than 10% Cherkessians. The Karachais were among the so-called "punished peoples" exiled to Central Asia in 1944 and only returned to the region in 1957. The trauma of unjustified repression remains with them. As a result, Cherkessians, although smaller in number, controlled many of the privileged positions in the old Soviet system. A Karachais nationalist movement ("Djamaghat") has been actively pushing for an autonomous Karachais province. Public support for this has waned, however, since higher Karachais birthrates look to push them above 50% of the population in a few years and give them the ability to exercise "Karachai power". This perspective frightens both Cherkessians and Russians, who are currently more allied than confronted.

Ethnic divisions are suppressed, however, as a result of cross-cutting cleavages within ethnic groups in Karachai-Cherkessia. Among the Karachais, the pre-revolution social classes included Bii (barons), Uzden (yeomen) and Kul (serfs). The Bolshevik Revolution led to the extermination or exile of the Biis, the dispossession of the Uzden, and the usurpation of power by Kuls. Despite representing only 40% of Karachais today, Kuls continue to hold most important social and political positions. In many respects, the Uzden-Kul cleavage is deeper and more intractable than cross-ethnic divisions in the province. Similarly, the majority of ethnic Russians are Cossacks, who tend to pursue their own distinct social interests, often in conflict with non-Cossack Russians. By not delving beneath the surface, observers of these various intraethnic conflicts tend to regard them as ethnic conflicts.

To the east of Karachai-Cherkessia is the Republic of Kabardin-Balkaria. In August 1999, after long disputes and rallies of protest, the Supreme Court of the Karachai-Cherkessian Republic recognized General V. Semenov (a Karachai) as the legally elected President of the Republic. The supporters of his rival, S. Deres (a Cherkessian) who constitute only 20 percent of the votes, are protesting against this decision and now demand a secession of the Cherkessian-populated North from the Karachai-populated South. Again, this i s not so much an ethnic conflict, but rather a desire to keep in the North all revenues from the highly profitable alcohol industry, largely controlled by S. Derev. Its population of one million is roughly 50% Kabardins, 30% Russian, and less than 10% Balkars, with the remainder a mix of various groups. Kabardins are the same detribalized Adyghe as Cherkessians, yet "Greater Adygea" movements have found little support within the republic. The popular president of the Republic, Kokov, is a former Communist functionary valued for his skill in maintaining social peace and gaining economic benefits from Moscow. The vast majority of Russians in the region are recent emigrants, attracted during the Communist era by plentiful jobs, less competitive education and a pleasant climate. Relations between ethnic Kabardins and Russians of long residence are generally friendly. Although new Russian emigres sometimes create tensions, the economic attractions of the region have largely vanished, limiting further Russian immigration.

Relations between Balkars is more problematic. Balkars were also exiled to Central Asia from 1944-57, although most returned after 1957 and were settled in territories that stretched beyond their original tribal homelands. In day-to-day interaction, relations between Balkars and Kabardins are rather friendly. There are numerous mixed marriages, people get along well in the workplace, and there are many villages with mixed populations. Yet Balkars complain about the social and political domination of Kabardins and the barriers to Balkar advancement indicated by few Balkars in higher decision-making positions. This sense of grievances is reinforced by Kabardin stereotypes of Balkars as stubborn and stupid . On the other hand, the highland pasture lands owned by many Balkars have allowed for the extensive development of sheep and Angora goats, and the processing of wool and knitwear. The result is that Balkar income is about 10%-20% higher on average than Kabardin income.

There was a rather noisy Balkar nationalist movement headed by retired General Beppaev, who insisted on the creation of a new Balkarian state separate from Kabardinia. Beppaev and his followers organized a number of violent actions, which provoked some anxiety among Kabardins. For a period it appeared that the republic might be on the verge of mass violence. However, as a smartly organized referendum at the end of 1994 revealed, the total number of active supporters of Beppaev did not exceed 1,000. When President Kokov appointed Beppaev to an important position in the administration his followers stopped all protests.

Especially in Karachai-Cherkessia and Kabardin-Balkaria, the course of events in these territories demonstrate that, even in a multinational society where there are many prerequisites for ethnic tension, sober and balanced government leadership attempting to provide a decent niche for successful economic development may be able to prevent conflict. People who have some prospects of moderate economic prosperity are not willing to sacrifice that prosperity to the selfish interest of nationalist politicians. Only where the hope for economic success is frustrated can such politicians have any sort of success.

B. Ossetia, Ingushetia and Chechnya

To the east of Kabardin-Balkaria lies North Ossetia, the scene of some of the worst ethnic clashes in the northern Caucasus. Ethnic disputes in the region date back to the 1950s, when Chechens and Ingushes were repatriated to a newly reformed dual administrative region of Chechnya-Ingushetia. Unfortunately, a chunk of the Ingushesí traditional homeland was not included. Thousands of Ingushes nevertheless settled in this core of their ethnic territory, now the Prigorodnyi Raion of the North Ossetian ASSR, and attempted to maintain a power base grounded in customary law (adat), while the remaining Ossetians and Russian Cossacks used the legal basis of Soviet law as a thinly veiled policy of discrimination. There were numerous ethnic clashes in the region from the 1960s onward. Riots in the capital, Vladikavkaz, in 1981 were so severe that the army had to be called in -- although this was largely unknown to the outside world. Renewed conflict in 1992 saw the burning and plundering of Ingush property and the eviction of 60,000 Ingushes from North Ossetia. When combined with refugees from the Chechen War, over half of the current population of Ingushetia are refugees.

Ossetia as an ethnic territory consists of two parts: North Ossetia (or Ossetia-Alania), which is part of the Russian Federation, and South Ossetia, which is de jure part of Georgia but de facto an independent republic supported by Russian peacekeepers. South Ossetia has avoided any significant Russification or Georgification, maintaining a traditional cultural identity as well as an agriculture and cattle breeding economy. The territory is poor, but self-supporting. In contrast, North Ossetia is highly industrialized, urbanized, very significantly Russified, and the rural areas maintains Soviet-era forms of organization. Theoretically, Ossetians dream of reunification, but culturally northerners and southerners are very different and nurture many mutual prejudices.

Among all of the nations of the northern Caucasus, Ingushes and Chechens suffer from the most ethnic conflict. They feel a common cultural bond and only the prestige of Ingush President Ruslan Aushev has prevented Ingushes from large-scale participation in the Chechen War or retaliation against Ossetians. The history of the Chechen War of 1994-96 is well known, but ironically it is not significant to consideration of future ethnic relations. Chechens on the whole, as well as Ingushes, do not harbor an inherent hatred towards Russians. The countless anti-Russian actions that occurred from 1991 to 1994 were not motivated by inherent hatred, but rather resulted from a generally chaotic political and social period.

Of much more importance for both Ingushetia and Chechnya are the territories for economic development. Ingushetia has been declared an economic free zone. This helps to some extent, but their economic situation is particularly difficult: the territory is overcrowded with refugees for which the largely agricultural economy can provide few jobs. While it is too early to predict the economic future of Chechnya, it is likely to evolve as a dual economy -- urban areas will be reestablished as oil-based industrial economies while rural regions will remained laden with small-scale agriculture. Combined with the increasing influence of Islam, this will create serious social and cultural cleavages between the modern, industrial large cities and the tradition-oriented rural life of the southern highlands. That this split will largely correspond with teip (clan) differences indicates the crucial role of social stratification within Caucasian ethnic groups.

Thus in the area of the Central Caucasus, only Ingush-Ossetian relations display a deep mutual enmity. Peaceful coexistence, as such, may only be possible through strict separations of the two groups into their respective territories (although a return of part of the Prigorodnyi Raion and its resettlement by Ingushes is also a necessary prerequisite of any coexistence). In all other cases, differences between various segments of the same ethnic group may be more decisive.

C. Dagestan

The easternmost and largest republic in the north Caucasus is Dagestan, with more than 2 million people from nearly thirty aboriginal groups ranging in size from a mere 1,000 (Archins) to 700,000 (Avars), plus hundreds of thousands of Russians, Azeris, etc. Prior to Sovietization, the majority of these peoples lived as compact groups on their own territories in secluded mountain valleys. It was an ethnic mosaic, but largely an orderly one.

The Soviets changed this for the worse. Communist authorities exiled some groups and resettled others (e.g., Laks, Dargins, Didos) from the mountains to the lowlands. They also built the capital city (Makhachkala) in the heart of the ethnic territory of the Turkic speaking Kumyks, then offered thousands of other nationalities administrative and industrial jobs in the city, leaving

Kumyks feeling alienated in their own homeland. The net result is a multiplicity of claims and disputes across dozens of ethnic groups. Should ethnic violence ever flare in Dagestan, it will likely spread like wildfire. So far, however, the general realization of the explosive potential of ethnic conflict has served to keep it in check. In addition, power is still in the hands of former Communist functionaries who enjoy widespread popular support. Finally, the privatization of land in Dagestan, has proceeded quite peacefully, though it was an extraordinarily difficult task given the small amount of arable land relative to the number of potential claimants. Despite the difficulties created by Communism, it appears that the only viable social, political and economic system for the near future in industrial Dagestan is a quasi-Soviet system with Russian as the lingua franca. But local dialects and traditions will continue in the countryside.

Recently some ultra-Islamist Chechnian terrorists (sponsored by Osama bin-Laden and similar fanatics), with very little support of some young Dagestani religious radicals, tried to start an Islamic Fundametalist (Wahhabist) uprising against the traditional power. However, the majority of Dagestani population sided with the Russian troops in ousting the invaders back to the territory of Chechnya.

III. The Social and Economic Context of Caucasian Development

In recent years a there has developed in Russia an undisguised racist contempt and suspicion toward ethnic minorities, especially Caucasians. When moving to other parts of the Russian Federation, people from the Caucasus face discrimination in the workplace and harassment from police. The roots of this new xenophobia are beyond the scope of this paper, but it has contributed to certain trends among non-Russian minorities: to remain as much as possible within their own ethnic territory; to try to increase ethnic power and autonomy within those territories; to consolidate their economic and social position at the expense of the neighboring Russian population; and to resuscitate their traditional culture, native language and, in this case, the Islamic faith. All of this has contributed to dramatic social and economic changes in the northern Caucasus.

With the exception of the oil-based industrial infrastructure of Chechnya, much of which was damaged in the war, the economic base of the Caucasus is agricultural, particularly specialty products (tobacco, coriander, grapes for wine production, etc.). There is some small-scale industry, and tourism - which was heavily subsidized by the state - played a significant part during the Soviet era. All of these industries were manned mainly by Russian rather than native workers. Besides agriculture, all other industries are now in crisis. The general cash income of the region has markedly decreased, and stands at only around 50-60% of the Moscow average. The buying capacity of Russians has been particularly damaged, especially since, as urban dwellers primarily, their standard of living is not compensated by the home production of various foodstuffs.

The pace of social and economic change has varied from place to place and across ethnic groups. In Karachai-Cherkessia, Russians and Cherkessians tend to live in cities and in the lowlands, terrain of which is perfect for the development of orchards. Yet this requires extensive capital investment, which is lacking. As a result, the pace of privatization has been slow, Soviet-era modes of organization persist, and the revitalization of traditional cultures has not gained momentum. In contrast, Karachais reside in the highlands, terrain suitable for root vegetables and herding. Karachais have undertaken "wild privatization", staking out claims by fencing in particular parcels of land, without any firm legal basis. Since these lands often were ancestral plots swallowed by collectivization, it has provoked minimal conflict. It has also led to the revitalization of traditional social life built around clan gatherings and Islam. There has also been the development of some small-scale industry, notably beer brewing and trout farming, but this has been hindered by bureaucratic red tape, corruption and criminal syndicates. Success thus depends on formations of "protection rackets," both through criminal and (corrupt) official sources. This may lead to inter-ethnic or inter-strata enmity when the owners and racketeers (or bureaucrats) belong to different ethnic groups or different estates.

IV. Lessons for Avoiding Inter-Ethnic Conflict

From the above review of developments in the northern Caucasus, it is clear that very often the conflicts we see are not ethnic conflicts proper, but most often are ethnically disguised economic conflicts, triggered by the ongoing social and economic uncertainty, redistribution of property, struggle for key positions, etc. On the other hand, it is clear that in a region rife with ethnic friction, only two conflicts have led to bloodshed: the eviction of the Ingushes from North Ossetia and the Chechen War. It is obvious, then, that there are some mechanisms at work that either prevent or stifle ethnic strife.

The first, paradoxically, is that the continuity of power in the hands of former Communist Party functionaries helps to maintain social order. President Jarimov in Agydea, for example, was elected not as an Adygean leader, but as a former top personality of the local party leadership with sufficient experience, connections and conservative attitudes. Conflicts arise where former leaders are too weak to maintain power. Secondly, voluntary organizations may play an important role. Despite the disorder in Chechnya, there was a Council for Inter-Ethnic Reconciliation which managed to minimize the number of local conflicts. Islamic Sufi orders have also played a very positive role in Chechnya and Dagestan. Beyond this, the reconciling role of traditional village elders is also quite important. These mechanisms helped to prevent intensification of the Balkar-Kabardin conflict and hindered the mass participation of Ingushes on the Chechen side in the Chechnya War. Similarly, elderly Azeri women, acting in a traditional role, halted a crowd of Azeri youngsters when they tried to storm Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, after the February 1988 declaration of secession. Unfortunately, their efforts were annulled by the inflammatory rhetoric of the Azairbaidjan media. On the other hand, the existence of a large percentage of ethnically mixed marriages does not seem to help in conflict prevention. The percentage of such marriages was very high in Abkhazia and especially in Ossetia, but members of these families were regarded with mistrust by both sides.

Overall, one may assume that these mechanisms will be most effective in more traditionally oriented societies and economies. Unfortunately, in many societies in the northern Caucasus today, a large number of young men are growing up without exposure to or respect for traditional values. As such, there is a danger that new conflict is growing in the region. If there is to be any chance of avoiding this, it must be through economic development. The economic future of these areas lies not in industry or agriculture, but in reviving the tourist trade. The Caucasus region has a pleasant climate rich in natural beauty, plenty of historical relics, exotic customs, ancient architecture, etc - everything needed for a successful tourist industry. What it lacks is social stability. Tourism requires security, suppression of crime and terrorism, a decent and effective police force, and so on. Many Caucasians equate service jobs with servility, and are unwilling to work in the tourist trade. Equally, many ethnic Russians are reluctant to work for non-Russian bosses. Tourism is likely to be the future for the region, but for this industry to flourish, there must be significant changes in both social interaction and national mentalities.

Notes and References

Arutiunov, S.A., Narody I kulítury: razvitie I vzaimodeistvie, Moscow, Nauka, 1989.

Arutiunov, S.A., Kavkazskaya likhoradka: diagnoz i lechenic," Itogi, No. 34, 1999.

Arutiunov, S.A., Zakony gor vne zakonov ravnin," Itogi, No. 3, 1999.

Gasanov, N.N., Zachevov, K. Ya., and Kazimov, A.K., "Mezhnatsionalínoe soglasie v Dagestane: problemy i perspectivy," Polis, No. 2, 1993.

Kaltakhchian, A.C., "Reabilitatsiia repressirovannykh narodov: pervye shagi," Etnopolis, No. 2, 1992.

Mikhailov, V.A., "Printsip voronki ili mekhanizm razvertyvaniia mezhetnicheskogo konflikta," Sotsis, No. 5, 1993.

Skakunov, E.M., "Etnonatsionalínye konflikty I politicheskaia stabilíností Rossii," Etnopolis, No. 2, 1992.

Zolian, S.T., "Opisanie regionalínogo konflikta kak methodologicheskaia problema," Polis, No. 2, 1994.

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