Adygea as a test case for merging North Caucasus regions

An overwhelming majority of Irkutsk region and Ust-Ordynsk autonomous district residents have voted in favor of merging the two regions. Experts warn, however, that any further regional enlargement could draw powerful resistance from local ethnic elites – especially in the North Caucasus.

In a referendum held Sunday April 16, an overwhelming majority of Irkutsk region and Ust-Ordynsk autonomous district residents voted in favor of merging the two regions. Experts warn, however, that any further regional enlargement could draw powerful resistance from local ethnic elites. The first casualty in the battle for regional autonomy could be President Khazret Sovmen of Adygea.

Preliminary figures show 89.76% support for the regional merger in the Irkutsk region, and 97.79% in the Ust-Ordynsk Buryat autonomous district. The official results of the Irkutsk region’s unification referendum will be announced on April 20. Campaigning in favor of unification was unprecedented: numerous television ads, to suit any taste, and the regional media constantly talking of the merger’s benefits. Regional officials toured villages, campaigning in favor. Vast numbers of billboards on the streets and leaflets in letter-boxes didn’t allow citizens to forget about their civic duty. Citizens who turned up at the polling stations received gifts; for example, some polling stations were handing out lottery tickets for a total of 1.5 million rubles in prizes.

But low turnout wasn’t the only problem for the authorities; they also faced resistance from the local ethnic elites. For example, Dashiin Byambasuren, president of the Worldwide Association of Mongols, wrote to President Vladimir Putin to express displeasure about the forthcoming merger. He protested “against this violation of the Buryat-Mongolian people’s rights to retain national statehood.” It isn’t yet known who will head the expanded region, but it’s already certain that Valery Maleyev, head of the Ust-Ordynsk autonomous district, will lose his job after the merger.

The next stage in regional enlargement is forming the Baikal territory. This would include the Irkutsk and Chita regions, Buryatia, and two autonomous districts: Ust-Ordynsk Buryat and Aginsk Buryat. The documents for a referendum on merging the Arkhangelsk region and the Nenetsk autonomous district are expected to be ready by December 2006. Actually, some reports indicate that there are already plans to merge the Komi republic with the Arkhangelsk region and the Nenetsk autonomous district. There has also been talk of a possible merger between the Tyumen region, the Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous district, and the Yamalo-Nenetsk autonomous district.

The experts we approached for comments warn that if Moscow continues enlarging regions, it could encounter stronger resistance from ethnic elites than it did in the Ust-Ordynsk autonomous district.

Sergei Mikheyev, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center: “The biggest problems will be in what are known as the ethnic Muslim regions. The status of quasi-states within Russia is very advantageous for them; they receive fairly substantial preferences, both economic and political. Essentially, these regions have no economies to speak of – they’re entirely dependent on federal subsidies. Their ethnic elites continually speculate on the possibility of secession, separatism, nationalist sentiments, discontent, and so on. They will attempt to retain their positions. It wouldn’t be at all to their advantage if Kabardino-Balkaria or Karachaevo-Cherkesia were equalized with the Ryazan region, for example. That would mean lower political status and cuts to economic subsidies, since they all live off dividing federal funding.”

Mikheyev’s evaluation is supported by the recent exacerbation of the situation in Adygea.

In December 2004, Governor Alexander Tkachev of the Krasnodar territory proposed a merger between his region and Adygea. President Khazret Sovmen of Adygea spoke out strongly against the proposal. Eventually, in February 2006, both regional leaders announced that there would be no merger.

Then Sovmen started having problems. As we reported earlier, at the first session of the Adygean State Council (Khase) on April 4, Sovmen suddenly announced his resignation as president of Adygea; but a few hours later his press secretary denied this, stating that Sovmen had been misunderstood by some legislators and the media. Some time later, in an interview with a national newspaper, Sovmen distinguished himself by alleging that the presidential envoy’s office for the Southern federal district, headed by Dmitri Kozak, is putting pressure on him – attempting to force a merger between Adygea and another region. Moreover, Sovmen expressed general doubts about whether the existence of the presidential envoy’s office is useful. These events propmpted Kozak to comment on the situation. He said that the question of a Krasnodar-Adygea merger is not being considered at present, and such matters ought to be decided by the people, anyway.

Then there was a media leak to the effect that Sovmen went to Moscow on Tuesday, April 11, to meet with Kozak and Sergei Sobyanin, head of the presidential administration. Sovmen then wrote another resignation letter.

“Sovmen evidently had a conversation with the federal leadership, which presented him with some fairly harsh terms,” says Alexander Konovalov, president of the Strategic Evaluation and Analysis Institute. “But there are many people in Adygea who support him or are members of his clan. It remains unknown what they will do – whether they’ll attempt to use some sort of ethnic idiosyncrasies in order to make such a merger difficult or impossible in practice.”

Still, there hasn’t been any official information about this. When we approached the presidential envoy’s office for the Southern federal district, staff declined to comment on the Khazret Sovmen situation.

Meanwhile, Adygea is hearing increasingly frequent threats of “another Nalchik” if Adygea is merged with the Krasnodar territory.

Political analyst Sergei Mikheyev maintains that Adygea is now a battlefield for all the North Caucasus elites that are opposed to regional enlargement. Mikheyev says: “Of course they’ll make threats – after all, Adygea is the first test case in the North Caucasus. If this merger works out, the same thing could happen to the rest of them within a few years. I think the Cherkessian organizations aren’t the only ones who understand that. What’s behind this is the unspoken, consolidated opposition of all the North Caucasus elites. They think that if Moscow fails in Adygea, it won’t try to do this to any other regions.”

Political analyst Alexander Konovalov maintains that merging Adygea with other regions should be postponed until better times. Konovalov says: “Merging this region with the Krasnodar territory means attempting to break ethnic traditions, and that’s very painful. If protests break out there, it would be hard to keep control of the tense socio-economic and political situation in that region.”