Activist Says Abkhaz Are Not Genuine Allies of Circassians

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 183

Circassian activist Ruslan Kesh (Source: kavkasia.net)

Circassians in the North Caucasus were infuriated by the speech delivered by Abkhazia’s president, Alexander Ankvab, at an official celebration. On September 29, the leader of the Georgian breakaway region delivered a speech to a meeting in Sukhumi dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the “Victory of the Abkhaz People in the Great Patriotic War.” That is the way the authorities in Abkhazia refer to the 1992–1993 war between Georgia and Abkhazia, which also involved Russia and ended with the Abkhaz forces’ victory and the expulsion of ethnic Georgians from the republic. In his speech, President Ankvab enumerated foreign actors that helped Abkhazia to defeat Georgia. “Regions of the Russian Federation, our true friends who perceived the tragedy of the Abkhaz people as their own, were among [our helpers],” he said. “Thanks to the real assistance from Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Rostov region, Moscow, Russian cities far away from Abkhazia, and our closest neighbor—the Krasnodar region—we did not break down; we survived and were victorious” (http://apsnypress.info/news/10201.html).

Many Circassians fought in the Abkhaz-Georgian war of 1992–1993 on the Abkhaz side. Ethnic Abkhaz and Circassians are related linguistically, so at the time of the war, many Circassians believed that they were fighting in Abkhazia for their own kin against hostile Georgians. Dozens of Circassian volunteers died in the conflict, but President Ankvab did not even mention the Circassian volunteers in his speech. Later, on October 10, the leader of Abkhazia belatedly met with the relatives of the fallen volunteers from the North Caucasus, but the meeting was on a much smaller scale and did not receive much public attention (http://apsnypress.info/news/10314.html).

Circassian activist Ruslan Kesh expressed frustration over the Abkhazian president’s speech, calling him “the leader of the self-proclaimed ‘Republic of Abkhazia,’ Mr. Ankvab.” Kesh wrote: “Abkhazia’s policies toward the Circassians have been utterly hostile, attempting to split the Circassian people, misappropriate Circassian history, engage in subversive activities among the Circassian diaspora, split the Circassians and the Abaza. All these activities were performed under the guise of big words and slogans of unity and brotherhood. The naïve part of the Circassian community that preferred to believe not their eyes, but their ears, bought into those beautiful words.” The Abkhaz, according to Kesh, manipulated the Circassians for their own interests, and the practice should be stopped, as the Circassians need to care for their own interests (http://hekupsa.com/mnenie/r-kesh/1478-r-kesh-o-rechi-prezidenta-abkhazii-a-ankvaba).

The sense of Abkhaz-Circassian fraternity was indeed quite popular for some time. One of the Circassian ex-combatants, Ibragim Yaganov, told a Georgian website: “We dreamed that in Abkhazia we would get our first independent Circassian state, where we would be able to work on our issues.” In the end, Russia emerged as the winner, according to Yaganov, because Georgia was deprived of Abkhazia, which is turning into a poor, hopeless Russian province; and the Circassians received nothing for their efforts (http://abkhazeti.info/news/1371851467.php). After Russia officially recognized Abkhazia as an independent state in 2008, the status of Abkhazia relative to the status of the Circassian republics of the North Caucasus rose. As a reflection of those changes, the Abkhaz significantly changed their attitude toward Circassians and the North Caucasus in general. For example, the construction of a highway from Cherkessk, the capital of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, to Sukhumi, Abkhazia—which would have followed the route of the Sukhumi Military Road, built by Tsarist authorities at the turn of the 20th century, but which has since fallen into disuse—was a popular project for a while. In 2010, Vladimir Putin, at that time serving as Russian prime minister, even officially endorsed this idea (http://ria.ru/economy/20100706/252566280.html). The project, however, was soon scrapped, because the Abkhazian side was not interested in allowing a greater influx of people from the North Caucasus and Russia had no real intention of breaking the isolation of the North Caucasian republics.

The ideological battles around the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi also contributed to the frictions between the Circassians and the Abkhaz. While the Circassians have largely been opposed to the Sochi games, claiming that they will be held on the land where Russians exterminated their ancestors, the Abkhaz, on the contrary, regard the Olympics as an opportunity to win favor with the Russians. Some Abkhaz historians alleged that not Circassian, but Abkhaz tribes lived in the Sochi area, undermining the Circassian claims of “genocide.” It appeared that the Circassians who supported the Abkhaz during the Georgian-Abkhaz war failed to receive recognition of their grievances not only from the Russians, but even from their own supposed brethren, the Abkhaz people.
Georgia, on the contrary, became much more attentive to the Circassian issue after the 2008 war with Russia. In 2011, the Georgian parliament recognized the Circassian “genocide” and President Mikheil Saakashvili raised the issue of the Circassian “genocide” again at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September 2013 (http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=26491). Notable Circassian figures such as Ibragim Yaganov have become frequent visitors to Georgia in recent years due to the effectiveness of Georgian soft power initiatives toward the region. A Circassian cultural center continues to function in Tbilisi despite changes in Georgian domestic politics (http://www.aheku.org/news/policy/4925). Thus, the strategic environment for the Circassians appears to have been spectacularly reversed, with the Abkhaz becoming practically their adversaries while the Georgians became their friends and de-facto allies. There are no territorial issues between the Circassians and Georgia, and both sides are less than impressed with Russian policies toward them (albeit for different reasons). Warm Circassian-Georgian ties, therefore, are on course to continue due to Moscow’s failure to recognize even the most basic demands of the Circassians, such as recognizing that they are the real indigenous people of the Northeast Caucasus—a fact that will go unmentioned at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games next February.