On May 21, over 50 people from Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygea chose to commemorate the anniversary of the Russian-Circassian war in the 19th century in Georgia. “In practice the issue of the Russian-Caucasian war’s results should be discussed in Russia, by Russian scholars,” the head of the Adyge Khasa organization in Kabardino-Balkaria, Ibragim Yaganov, told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website’s reporter in Georgia. “However, we do not receive scholars’ accounts of those events, apart from the total denial of war.” According to Yaganov, many Russian historians try to interpret the Russian-Caucasian war as a war that the natives of the Caucasus fought among themselves, which makes it hard to explain why the vast majority of the Circassian people ended up outside their homeland – in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East — after that war. “If we cannot get the historical truth in Russia, we will look for it in other territories,” Yaganov warned (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207057/, May 24).
In addition, Yaganov, a highly decorated hero of the 1992 Abkhaz-Georgia war, pointed to the inspiring political reforms in Georgia, which are increasingly becoming the envy of the people in the North Caucasus who live under essentially authoritarian regimes with little propensity to change. The contrast is becoming more and more glaring as the North Caucasians receive more opportunities to travel to neighboring Georgia after it dropped visa requirement first for the North Caucasian residents and then for all Russian citizens. The impact of free travel is bound to have the greatest impact on the residents of the North Caucasus. This follows from the fact that the North Caucasus is most proximate to Georgia, both physically and culturally. But also, in comparison to other Russian territories, this region is particularly plagued by the absence of rule of law, violence, the menacing omnipresence of the Russian security services and Moscow’s emerging attitude toward the region, which increasingly resembles that of a colonial power.
Kasei Kik, head of the Circassian Congress organization in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, told Kavkazsky Uzel that Circassian youth have particularly drastically changed their opinions about Georgia in recent times after relations between the Circassian activists and the Georgian state warmed. “Georgia is an example of how development and reforms should be implemented [in the North Caucasus],” he said. “I feel that Georgia is becoming a cultural center for all the Caucasus, where many issues of the Caucasus may be discussed” (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207057/, May 24).
Republican authorities in Adygea came under scathing criticism by Circassian activists for ignoring the anniversary of the Russian-Circassian war of the 19th century. The Adyge Khase-Circassian Parliament organization, a civil society organization and not the region’s parliament, passed a special resolution condemning the head of the republic, Aslan Tkhakushinov, for disregarding the celebrations, even though May 21 was officially designated as a day of remembrance and mourning. In the statement it was alleged that Tkhakushinov harbored the same negligent attitude toward other issues that Circassian activists consider important, such as the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the transfer of federal agencies from Maikop to Krasnodar as a way of denigrating Adygea’s autonomy, the Syrian Circassian problem and others. Tkhakushinov’s behavior was unacceptable and needed to be adjusted, the statement concluded (https://www.elot.ru/main/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2891&Itemid=1, May 24).
Regional authorities in the Circassian-populated republics of the North Caucasus may be under particularly acute pressure at the moment as they try to navigate between increasingly vocal Circassian activists and Putin’s power vertical. As the Soviet-era generations with their reflective “naïve multiculturalism” gradually fade away and are replaced by more nationalistic activists throughout the Russian Federation, the challenges facing the leaders of the North Caucasus republics are likely to increase. Some Circassian officials are quite openly advocating for the rights of their people. “I think, all those willing to return to their historical land [in the North Caucasus] should have the right and the opportunity to do so,” said Albert Kazharov, Kabardino-Balkaria’s representative in the Russian Federation Council, about the plight of Circassians in Syria. “Circassian people have the right to historical truth. No one is trying to repatriate anybody forcibly, but there are many who are willing to [be repatriated]. Given the socio-political situation in which Syrian repatriates currently reside, I think, disregarding their appeals and addresses to the Russian state is not an option” (https://kavpolit.com/vse-zhelayushhie-dolzhny-imet-pravo-i-vozmozhnost-vozvrashheniya-na-svoyu-istoricheskuyu-rodinu/, May 25).
On May 29, the Russian Public Chamber held a hearing on the Syrian Circassian issue. The hearing apparently turned into a debate between the Russian experts and Circassian activists. While the Russians said Circassians had nothing to fear in Syria and that Bashar Assad was firmly in power, a deputy from the Adygean parliament, Mugdin Chermit, stated that 60 Syrian Circassians had been killed to date. “How many more Circassians should die before the federal authorities start doing something?” Chermit asked emphatically. The Public Chamber proposed setting up a government commission to examine the repatriation question and amending existing legislation to allow fast track processing of immigration cases for compatriots living abroad (https://www.aheku.org/page-id-3032.html, May 29).
Moscow has been trying to adhere to a wait-and-see policy regarding the Syrian Circassians. On the one hand, the Russian government wanted to avoid having to reject the Circassians’ pleas openly, while, on the other hand, it has tried to prevent any substantial influx of Circassian refugees to the North Caucasus. With the situation in Syria still in a dire state, the latest massacre near the Syrian city of Homs and severe international sanctions against Assad’s regime in sight, Moscow finds itself pushed to the decision-taking point. Regardless of the outcome, the increasing activities of Circassian activists in the North Caucasus and in other countries are likely to continue altering the situation in the North Caucasus by further reducing its isolation from the world.