Start Logo of Danish Association for Research on the Caucasus

Dansk - klik her!Russian

About DARC:

The Board




The Caucasus

"If not taken care of in the utmost conscientious way, it might one day in the future make Europe look back at the Balkan war as just a warm-up exercise" Helen Krag, 1992




Conference on Minorities, Human Rights and the CSCE Process  

Swedish Institute of Foreign Affairs, Stockholm, 16. December 1992

By Helen Krag


1. The North Caucasus - an issue of primary urgency

It has repeatedly been said that the traumatic and dramatic armed conflicts within and between the successor states of former federal Yugoslavia could have been avoided had there only been adequate insight in the diversity of interests, violations of human and minority rights, claims and controversies - and had the CSCE at that time had the mechanisms and the experience it has today.


Being the first to-day to introduce one urgent area of conflict I appeal to you, and to Sweden in its CSCE-chair, to let the Yugoslav experience be a lesson and a chance. I would like to draw your attention to an area on what seems to be the rim of Europe that is on the verge of developing in the same direction as Yugoslavia did just a year ago, i.e. on the way to take over the sad inheritance of a war in Europe. If not taken care of in the utmost conscientious way, it might one day in the future make Europe look back at the Balkan war as just a warm-up exercise. I need only to quote two recent reports from International Human Rights organizations to back up my claim. Helsinki Watch mentioned in a 1991 report the area in question as the biggest risk for large scale turmoil, and International Alert, in an excellent december 1992 report, states that no other area on the Russian periphery today is more turbulent and potentially volatile than the North Caucasus.


It is the North Caucasus I primarily intend to talk about. Not that the South, i.e. Transcaucasia, is free of violence, territorial claims, violations of human and minority rights, including ethnic cleansing and the inhumanities of large scale refugee and forced migration problems - but Armenia, Azerbajdjan and Georgia, being now independent states, have to a certain degree had the attention of other CSCE-member states, of NGOs and the international media for some time, and atrocities there are relatively well known to you and the public in general. The Nagorno-Karabagh conflict, the fighting in South Ossetia and lately in Abkhazia have made their way to us, even though they often are seen as local ethnic conflicts and not in their entire regional context. I therefore include Transcaucasia only in as much as it is an actor in the ever raising conflict potential in the North Caucasus – which it undoubtedly is.


Both South Ossetian and Abkhazian minorities in Georgia are now seperated from their kin in the North, i.e. in the Russian Federation, by a hard state border line, and the issues involved have to be seen as a whole. The severe time limit of this seminar does not allow me to go into details, and I will therefore have to concentrate on an overview and a generalizing sketch.


2. a sketch on the difficult reality of the Caucasus

Being already acquainted with the above mentioned names of peoples and former autonomies of the Soviet type, i.e. the ethnic and national entities of the area that have been in turmoil for some time, we will soon have to become used to such additional denominations of national areas as Adygeya, Circassia, Kabardina, Karachay, Balkaria, Ingushetia, Chechnia, Daghestan, and ethnic groups such as the Avar, Kumyk, Nogai, Lak or Lezghin.


No map of the area adequately reflects the complicated realities at stake. Administrative demarcations of several countries (Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijdjan) and at least ten recognized and non-recognized autonomies of ex- and post-Soviet structures are in the process of changing status and borders. In the new Georgian state, for instance, the former low key autonomies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have in principle been abolished; In the Russian Federation former Autonomous Soviet Republics and districts have become republics, and the Republic of Chechnia has declared itself independent from Russia, has left its long time partnership with Ingushetia and is claiming to become the 13th CIS-state - just to give a few examples. It seems even more crucial that all administrative or territorial maps, old ones and new ones alike, inadequately reflect the ethnic diversity of the area. Just to mention one single example here: Daghestan to the North-East is populated by at least 30 different, partly totally distinct peoples in language and cultural heritage and in their status as either migratory or indigenous. Up to one quarter of each ethnic group lives outside their republic, and each republic has great numbers of other ethnic inhabitants. Russians, both industrial workers and cosacks, live in great numbers in each of the republics, except multiethnic Daghestan. Peoples do not live in the territories assigned to them, and not one of the Republics is solely populated by one ethnic group. Territorial claims to each other are, thus, raised.


It is the claims of the peoples and the violation of their rights that need attention much more than geographical demarcations, even though national entities are the category we, living in nation states, more often than not, are used to think and act within. Nowhere is it less adequate than in the North Caucasus.


The ridges and the valleys of the Caucasus have always been known as the homeland of a multitude of distinct mountain peoples with an astonishing richness of diverse languages, many of them not related at all, others very much so. Living together for good and for bad, some forming strong kingdoms at times, being under the rule of others in other times. The mountain peoples of the Caucasus were known for their fierce opposition against Russian invasion and colonialization in the 17 and 18 hundreds. Muslim freedom fighters such as the puritan sufi sheikh Mansur, a Chechen, and the more orthodox Shamil, an Avar, were through their charism able to incorporate many of the diverse Caucasus peoples in their fight, also those living in Georgia to-day. There is, thus, a long tradition for cooperation under circumstances of danger. There is also a long tradition of non-cooperation and self-determination. When the Caucasus was conquered, the waves of emigration and population transfer to Turkish lands in the Ottoman empire were huge. To-day, many a Caucasus people, such as the Circassians or the Abkhaz, have external bases in Turkey.


Even though opposition was strongest under the flag of Islam, several Caucasian peoples have been christianised under Russian and Georgian rule, such as the Ossetians and the Abkhaz. It has just been the case that Islam has been a unifying force among these very diverse peoples. It is important to accept that - very much like with the Muslims of Bosnia - it is not fundamentalism that threatens the area or is a stone of contention to others.  As I said before, peoples are looking for cooperate identifications in times of turmoil.  And Islam is at hand.


Also, it has to be stressed, that it would be wrong to talk exclusively about ethnic conflict. Ethnic conflict as much as conflict in religious values is not the prime issue. It seems much more correct to speak of social, economic and human grievances that - not being met - increasingly come to use ethnic or religious symbolics and identities to articulate their claims for justice. Once in use, they stick and there is no way back. One more reason to take up the issue before it is too late.


3. Some causes for conflict

What, then, are the difficulties, injustices, grievances and dilemmas of the North Caucasus that have to be adressed?


Under the condition of this short presentation I will restrict myself to few specific problem areas and general levels of anlysis and suggest some possible actions:


1. The refugees: The war in South Ossetia, Georgia, has left more than 100.000 refugees, mainly women and children, in North Ossetia, Russian Federation. They have probably come to stay, as many of the Ossetian houses and villages in Georgia are burnt down. There are also refugees – or displaced persons – in other republics of the area, who have  difficulties in housing and supplying the newcomers on top of their own problems. Also Russians are moving to North Ossetia in increasing numbers. In all between 100 and 200.000 Russians are said to be on the move in the area. There are, of course, no traditions and structures for handling refugee problems.


2. Another difficult issue is the amount of arms in use. It has been said that every male, young and old, in the North Caucasus is heavily armed these days.


3. the most acute problem that has to be taken care of is the unresolved fate of the formerly deported peoples. This seems also the main grievance of the Caucasian population. In 1943/44  entire peoples were deported to Central Asia (70.000 Karachai, 40.000 Balkars, 80.000 Ingush and 400.000 Chechen, the numbers being estimates). Their soil and habitat was given to other people or fell into decay, the borders of their autonomies were changed or disbanded, their fate and their existence was concealed to the Soviet population and the world. Only in 1957 were the deported people officially rehabilitated and started to return to their homelands or, were this was not made possible, to other areas nearby. Rehabilitation included a partial reestablishment of old autonomies and a partial suspension of the taboo to mention them in public, but no compensation and no reestablishment of their rights. Tensions and clashes between the returnees and the population that had taken over their soil were therefore frequent and in places violent from the beginning. The problems were never resolved, and since the mid-eighties there was new hope for justice, new claims for homes for the deported and for the return of their lands. In 1991 the Russian Parliament published a rehabilitation decree on the issue, but no implementing guarantees were given - whereafter the people themselves, under the umbrella of legality, have begun to reclaim, with arms, what had been taken away from them, as was the case with an Ingush attack on South Ossetia. Much more could and should be said about the atrocities, injustices and neglect that cause the people to take the law into their own hands. But so much for this short information.


There is, thus, ample reason for turmoil that calls for attention. I suggest analysis to be carried out on four levels:


- International Relations

Conflicts in the area affect Russia, Turkey, Iran and Irak as well as relations between the now independent Soviet successor states: Russia-Georgia; Armenia-Georgia; Armenia-Azerbaidshan; Russia-Azerbaidshan. Special attention should be given to the relation between the Russian governed North Caucasus and Transcaucasia, not only due to war in the region but also due to the economic isolation of Transcaucasia as a consequence of war and new hard borders. Railway tracks across the Caucasus are blocked. Thus, Russia and other CIS-states are cut off from urgently needed products, while Armenia and Georgia are barred from life saving oil deliverances. To mention just one of the consequences that change the balance in the area, Irak is allegedly prepared to build and finance a pipeline to Yerevan,  Armenia.


- Centre-periphery Relations

The peoples of the Caucasus live in the periphery of at least two states: The Georgian Nation state and the Russian Federal State. None of these have had the capacity to state a precedent of workable solutions so far. For different reasons, though. Georgia (with one third of its population belonging to minorities) on the one hand goes for a Georgian state with Georgian language and church as the ruling force. Russia, on the other hand, with its political instability and its economic problems is focussed in the Russian core areas and has no ressources for adequate involvement in the South.


Experts on minority issues, formerly advisers to the President, such as ethnographers Galina Starovoitova and Valeri Tishkov, have been dismissed from office. Both centers have repeatedly used arms in their Caucasian peripheries, when the crisis seemed overwhelming. It is the centers that have not been able to meet their obligations towards their minorities, while at the same time it is the Georgian and Russian centers, i.e. the governments, that are members of CSCE. This dilemma will have to be met in order to solve the problems of instability before it is too late.


- Regional Interrelations: restructuring the area into new entities

Several countries and sub-entities such as Azerbaidshan, Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, Ossetia, Chechnia, Ingushetia have made their way to the Western media, while others, such as Daghestan, Kabardia, Balkaria, Karachai, Cherkessia, Adygeya, have hardly been noticed yet. Their autonomies might fall apart, new ones might form, with territorial claims to each other. Chechnia and Ingushetia have as mentioned already parted, both with claims to neighbouring areas, and others will follow. Borders in the area were drawn by tsars and communist leaders, out of Russian and Soviet administrative and economic interests rather than out of consideration for the interests of the peoples. Borders have also been changed, for instance when Ingushetians, Chechens, Balkarians and Karachai were deported. On top of it all, the Cosacks of the region, once inhabitants of their own Terek Cosack Republic, also lay claim to what they consider theirs.


Simultaneously, there is a movement towards a cooperation and even a confederation among the peoples of the North Caucasus, a joint movement across ethnic, religious and state borders. Thus, the Assembly of the Peoples of the North Caucasus, that supports Abkhazian resistance against Georgianization, now consists of 16 different ethnic groups (Caucasians and Turks, Muslims and Christians) in the area and might, one day, unite for independence. But also other, frequently changing alliances, often along ethnic lines, are taking place. Even though conflict has not primarily arisen on internal ethnic and religious disagreements, the conflicts may (or even will) increasingly concentrate on ethnic demarcation and muslim identification.


Developments of national and ethnic fragmentation as well as of unification are in process. The process of political restructuring will have to be observed closely, spokesmen of the peoples listened to, if Europe wishes to avoid to be taken aback by conflicts and war.


- Internal Relations: reform and democracy in each national entity

Experts and observers have stressed the fact, that autonomies in the area could have chances for good development, if not ignored by the West. It would be important to secure that NGOs, especially democratic ones, can reach the international political scene. Probably more than anywhere else, the Caucasus points to one of the most obvious weaknesses of international cooperation, i.e. the sole participation of member state representatives and the non participation of minorities.


To sum up some of the most urgent problems:

- massive refugee problems

- deportations, rehabilitation, no compensation

- Confederation of the Peoples of the North Caucasus

- arms

- the unresolved problem of cosack-settlements

- inadequate border lines

- inadequate commitment by the states involved

- blocked relations between the states involved


4.  a few ideas of what could/should be done

Involve the Russian government in meeting the needs and rights of the peoples, no matter which government.


Involve more vigorously in Georgia. Shevardnadze, even though charming, is no guarantee for democracy. He might have the same problem as Gorbachev: Charming the West while his own country is erupting.


Involve the peoples concerned on their own premises. Let them speak, listen to each and every of them. Support NGO-contacts. Don't accept beforehand that state borders have come to stay forever, and that CSCE member state representatives are the only and best to cope with minorities. Investigate. Finance research. Too little is still known about the realities of the area. The Soviet legacy of tabooing the histories of their peoples and research about them has by no means been overcome yet.


There is a need for bilateral agreements on reestablishing justice for deported peoples of the area and a need for international involvement in solving the refugee problem.


With the minority rights standards of the Copenhagen 1990 meeting, the amendments of the Geneva meeting of experts July 1991, the mechanisms agreed on in Moscow and the High Commissioner for minorities agreed on in Helsinki this year there should be ample means for acting. Even with the limited mandate of the High Commissioner only to become involved in areas that threaten the national security of member states, the North Caucasus offers itself as an urgent aim for action.


- As I said in the beginning, quoting an International Alert report: no other area on the Russian periphery today is more turbulent and potentially volatile than the North Caucasus. The process of ethnification has begun and can not be reverted. But if the non-ethnicity of the background, the reasons for grievances and desparation is understood and it is accepted that Stalin's borders and Stalin's actions were as illegal in the Caucasus as in the Baltic states, then much could still be done. The area is not only an area of volatile conflict potential, it is also an area of potential development - provided the CSCE is strong enough to prevent the worst.


It is already too late for early warning, but still not too late for mediation. If it is state security and European security, that are the concern for the CSCE, then involve now.

Republics of the North Caucasus (map 1)

(numbers and percentage are pre-1990; they do not reflect more recent refugee, displacement, resettlement and restructuring movements)


Name                            Population (total)                    Percentage of titular ethnic group

Adygeya                                         432.000                      22% adygeyans

Karachay-Chercessia                     415.000                      31% karachay & 10% circassians

Kabardina-Balkaria                        764.000                      48% kabardinians & 9% balkars

North Ossetia                                 632.000                      53% (excl. refugees)

Chechnia-Ingushetia                     1,270.000                      58% chechens & 13% ingush

                    (now two independent republics)

Daghestan                                   1,800.000                      19% (the ten biggest groups:

                    Avar, Kumyk, Darghin, Lak, Tabasaran, Nogai, Caucasian Jews, Lezghin a.o.)


Ethnic groups of the North Caucasus (map 2)

Russians                                         10-15 mio, number of cosacks not known

Chechens                                       756.000

Ossetians                                        542.000

Avar                                              483.000

Kabardinians                                  322.000

Kumyk                                           288.000

Darghin                                          287.000

Ingushians                                       186.000

Karachai                                        138.000

Adygey                                          109.000

Lak                                                100.000

Tabasaran                                        75.000

Balkar                                              66.000

Nogai                                               60.000

Circassians (Cherkes)                       46.000

Caucasian Jews                                43.000

Tats                                                  22.000