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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Plan Called an Insult

NALCHIK -- A public congress of the Cherkess, an ethnic group that populates several provinces in the volatile south near Chechnya, on Thursday criticized a Kremlin plan to celebrate the 450th anniversary of their incorporation into Russia as an insult to their identity.

Cherkess activists point out that a 1557 alliance between a regional feudal lord and Tsar Ivan the Terrible was short-lived and centuries later Russian imperial troops conquered their land, exterminating a large part of the local population. They say the Kremlin's plan to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the alliance next fall amounted to an attempt to rewrite history and cover up what they called genocide.

"We must speak firmly against distorting our people's history," Ruslan Keshev, the leader of the Cherkess Congress, said during the congress in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria.

About 1 million Cherkess now populate several areas in the Caucasus Mountains that were conquered by tsars in the 19th century. Josef Stalin recarved provincial borders as part of his efforts to divide and subdue numerous ethnic groups, splitting the Cherkess into three regions: Adygeya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria.

Last summer, Cherkess activists called on the Kremlin to consider merging the three into one region, but Moscow has ignored the initiative.

Cherkess activists spoke angrily against what they described as official neglect of their language and culture, allegedly at the behest of central authorities. Many urged the Kremlin to recognize the 19th-century wars against the Cherkess as genocide.

"Russia is trying to deprive the Cherkess of their history, culture and language," said Beslan Makhov, another Cherkess activist, in the town of Cherkessk. He denounced the Kremlin's plan to celebrate the anniversary as a "political falsification."

Generous subsidies to the southern regions, earmarked by the Kremlin in the run-up to the planned celebrations, have not dampened anger. Nalchik police have had to patrol a memorial being built for the event to stop locals from painting angry graffiti.