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Ethnic Circassians in Caucasus Demand Autonomous Region

Hundreds of ethnic Circassians gathered over the weekend to call on federal authorities to allow their ethnic group to split off from the Karachayevo-Cherkessia republic to form their own autonomous region within the Russian Federation.

The appeal offers a new headache to the federal authorities, who are already struggling with problems of separatism and insurgency in the restive North Caucasus region where Karachayevo-Cherkessia is located.

More then 800 Circassians from various North Caucasus republics and Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia attended a congress Saturday in Karachayevo-Cherkessia's capital, Cherkessk, and huge crowds stood outside the meeting hall, Husin Shevkuzhev, an ethnic Circassian who attended the congress, told The Moscow Times.

Along with the call for an autonomous region, the congress urged the Kremlin to replace Karachayevo-Cherkessian President Boris Ebzeyev, an ethnic Karachay, with an ethnic Russian and to end the dominance of ethnic Karachays in the regional legislature, said Shevkuzhev, who heads a local human rights group.

“We are not trying to exacerbate the situation, but we want the authorities to hear us,” he said Sunday.

Kremlin officials have not reacted publicly to the congress' demands, but Pavel Krasheninnikov, head of the State Duma's Legislation Committee, said the creation of an autonomous region could only be decided through a referendum.

Krasheninnikov, speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio Saturday, said there was "little chance" that an autonomous region would be formed within a vast country where federal authorities are keen to merge regions rather than create new ones. But he said Karachayevo-Cherkessia's "social problems" meant that the issue could not be merely written off.

Muhammed Cherkesov, head of Adige Hase Cherkess, a group that unites ethnic Circassians in the Caucasus, dismissed the notion of a referendum and said the government could make the decision on its own.

“We have appealed to the federal authorities and are waiting for a decision from them. We do not plan to carry any referendum on the matter,” he said, Interfax reported.

Cherkesov said the Circassians wanted a return of the autonomy that they enjoyed from 1926 to 1957. The Soviet authorities, who deported a large part of the Karachay population to Central Asia during World War II, later merged the two ethnic groups into a single republic.

The Circassians represent the third-largest ethnic group in the republic, with less than 50,000 people in the total population of 435,000, which comprises a mix of 80 ethnic groups. Ethnic Russians are the largest group, followed by the Karachays.

The republic, one of the poorest in the North Caucasus, has witnessed repeated violence between the Circassians and Karachays in recent months, Shevkuzhev said.

“In the city of Cherkessk, there is a clash almost every day between the Karachays and Circassians. Karachays are telling the Circassians that the city belongs to them,” he said.

At the congress, delegates also demanded that local authorities find the killers of a local Circassian youth leader, Aslan Zhukov, who was killed in March, and an adviser to the republic's president, Fral Shebzukhov, who was killed last month.

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