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 all federal 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 all resident 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..