Russia Facts
Area:    17,075,200 sq. km.
Capital:    Moscow
Total Population:    146,881,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Ethnic tensions in Karachay-Cherkessia have returned to a precarious peace since 2001 after an intense, largely non-violent, conflict erupted in 1999-2001 over disputed elections. There is, however, a growing danger emanating from Karachay participating in a broader, Caucasus-wide movement, using violence when necessary, aiming to establish an Islamic republic in the region.

The risks of ethnic strife in Karachay-Cherkessia come from three sources: Turkic-Circassian tensions, which were especially troublesome in 1999-2000; tension between both groups and the Cossacks, who are perceived to be a tool of repression from Moscow; and emergent Islamic organizations drawing on members of many Caucasian peoples that have been implicated in a series of attacks on local police and civilians. The potential source of conflict with the Cossacks has been overshadowed by the rift between the Karachay and the Cherkess since the election of Semenov but both of those conflicts have largely subsided, with greater attention now focused on sporadic attacks being conducted.

Although it appeared possible for all-out conflict to break out between the Turkic and Circassian people of Karachay-Cherkessia and even Kabardino-Balkaria in the late 1990s, as of today chances of that occurring appear to be nonexistent. During the crisis, Moscow demonstrated a willingness to mediate, demonstrating a proactive attitude rather than the reactive one it has demonstrated elsewhere in the Caucausus. There has not been a recent history of conflict greater than low-level acts of violence. Semenov has not disputed the results of the 2001 parliamentary elections, suggesting that perhaps democracy in the republic has a chance to take root. And, perhaps most importantly, no one in the region is eager to replicate the fate of the Chechens. The various referenda that have been held in both republics consistently show that the overwhelming majority of all four peoples desire the preservation of the status quo. That alone may be enough to keep the peace among these ethnic groups. The increase of radical Islamic activity in the region associated with ethnic Karachay and the response to this by Russian authorities may now be of greater concern vis-à-vis increased risk for conflagration.

Analytic Summary

The Karachay are a Sunni Muslim Turkic people (BELIEF = 3) who live primarily in the autonomous Russian republic Karachay-Cherkessia (GROUPCON = 2), which is just north of Abkhazia in Georgia. The Karachay are mountain people, closely related to the Balkars and Abkhaz, and less closely to the Nogai and Kumyk of Dagestan. They have lived in their native land for centuries (TRADITN = 1), and, like many of the Muslim groups of the region, suffered tremendously under the tsars and the communists. Their group identity and cohesion, although low compared to other groups in the region (COSHESX9 = 1) due to strong tribal (rather than communal) identification, may be in the process of solidifying due to recent events in their republic. They have the highest death and unemployment rates among Caucasian peoples, which may be a symptom of their inability to adjust to post-Communist realities.

In the middle of the 19th century, imperial Russia spent nearly three decades trying to conquer the peoples of this region, and thousands fled to Turkey to escape the rule of the tsar. Further displacement occurred in 1943, when the Karachay were accused of collaborating with the Nazis and deported by Stalin to Siberia and Central Asia. Somewhere between one quarter and one half of their population survived to return during Kruschev's reign. Here, as elsewhere in the Caucasus, those returning from exile were not allowed to return to all of their traditional land, creating tensions and disputes that carry on to the present.

As part of the "divide and rule" strategy of the Communist rulers, two ethnically divided republics - Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria - were created in the 1920s. The Cherkess and Kabardins are closely related Circassian peoples living in the north of these republics, and the Karachay and Balkars are Turkic people living in the south. It would have been possible to create ethnically homogenous republics, but Stalin thought it better to create two divided republics that would be easier to rule from Moscow. By doing so, he laid the foundations for ethnic strife that only began to assert itself with the first presidential elections in Karachay-Cherkessia in 1999.

Partly due to simmering ethnic tensions, Karachay-Cherkessia was the last Russian republic to hold local elections. In 1999, Vladimir Semenov, an ethnic Karachay, won a run-off against Stanislav Derev, a Cherkess. Accusations of electoral fraud led to demonstrations and scattered acts of violence, as the Cherkess and another Circassian minority, the Abazins, began to agitate for independence from Karachay-Cherkessia. Intervention by Moscow, both through mediation and review of the election by Russian courts, calmed the situation.

Semenov retained power without incident until the 2003 presidential elections when, in contrast to 1999, only ethnic Karachay candidates ran for office; Semenov was narrowly defeated by Mustafa Batdyev. The Karachay make up approximately 43% of Karachay-Cherkessia's population; the Cherkess are perhaps 10%, the Abazins, 7%. The rest of the republic is comprised mainly of Slavs, both ethnic Russians and Cossacks, who have been the deciding factor in the politics of the republics. Some demands by the Cherkess for a division of the republic remain, but these voices have not made their presence felt in the past few years.

Recently the republic has experienced a series sporadic bombings (REB01-03 = 2) associated with ethnic Karachay involvement in Islamic extremist organizations, such as Hizbu at-Tauhid, aiming to establish an Islamic state in the Caucasus. The terrorist attacks involved small car-bombs killing police and some larger bombings targeting civilians on trains and in towns and led to a series of arrests (REP0101-03 = 1). These attacks are perceived by authorities and regional experts to be part of a wider Islamic campaign involving Chechens and other Caucasus peoples. While there are no official policies of discrimination against Islam, there have been an increasing number of radical Islamic groups in the region that are associated primarily with the ethnic Karachay, and this has heightened federal authorities' attention to practitioners of Islam in the region. Already grievances have been expressed by Karachay over some official policies, such as the refusal to open a Muslim Institute and the denial of permission to build more mosques. This remains a disturbing trend.


BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, numerous stories, 1990-2003.

Hill, Fiona. "Russia's Tinderbox": Conflict in the North Caucasus And its Implications for the Future of the Russian Federation. SDIP, Harvard University, September 1995.

Lexis-Nexis: All News Files 1995-2003.

Olson, James S. An Ethnohistorical Dictionary of the Russian and Soviet Empires. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Reuters World Service, numerous stories, 1990-1995.

RFE/RL numerous stories 2000-2003.

TASS, numerous stories, 1990-2003.

Tishkov, Valery. The Principal Problems and Prospects of the Development of National Territorial Entities in the Russian Federation. Cambridge: Harvard University Strengthening Democratic Institutions Project, n.d. [probably 1992].

Wixman, Ronald. The Peoples of the USSR: An Ethnographic Handbook. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1984.


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