Circassian Activists Unite Around Circassian ‘Genocide’ Issue

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 60

(Source: Caucasian Knot)

At the end of March, Mukhamed Cherkesov, the leader of the Circassian organization in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, addressed a plea to republican officials to help Circassian refugees from Syria. Cherkesov alleged that Syrian Circassians have been encountering unusually steep bureaucratic hurdles in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and been forced to leave the republic. According to Cherkesov, the Federal Migration Service officially requires two to six months to review an applicant’s paperwork to approve granting a temporary stay. However, in Karachaevo-Cherkessia it takes more time and Circassian activists are forced to send the refugees to other countries to wait until their documents have been reviewed by the officials (http://kavpolit.com/cherkesy-bez-priyuta/#comment-227166).

Karachaevo-Cherkessia is a small, but ethnically highly diverse republic. With a population of 478,000, the republic hosts four indigenous groups and a large ethnic Russian minority. Ethnic Karachays, a Turkic-speaking people closely related to the Balkars in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria, comprise a plurality in the republic—194,000 people or 41 percent of the total. Ethnic Russians come second, numbering up to 150,000 people or 31.6 percent of the total population in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The population of Circassians is 56,000, or almost 12 percent of the republican population. Ethnic Abaza, who are related to the Circassians, make up 7.8 percent of the republican population, or 37,000 people. Ethnic Nogais, another Turkic-speaking people in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, comprise 3.3 percent of the total population, or 16,000 people (2010 Russian census results).

Ethnic Karachays and Circassians have sparred over the leadership in the republic on several occasions. Particularly threatening clashes took place during the first presidential elections in Karachaevo-Cherkessia in 1999, when the republic was on the verge of collapse. Ethnic Karachays are apparently anxious about allowing any increase in the number of ethnic Circassians coming into Karachaevo-Cherkessia because the Karachays enjoy commanding positions in the republic’s political and economic spheres. When the head of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Rashid Temrezov, spoke about extending a helping hand to the Syrian Circassians, the Karachay leaders protested, saying that many Karachays also would like to return to the republic from Central Asia. In 1943, Joseph Stalin’s regime sent ethnic Karachays into exile in Central Asia for alleged collaboration with Nazi Germany, and some Karachays have remained in Central Asia since then. Besides the discontent among the Karachays, the Circassian community in this republic is reportedly deeply internally divided, which prevents the Circassians from organizing for social action (http://kavpolit.com/cherkesy-bez-priyuta/#comment-227166).

While internal conflicts have plagued Circassian activists in the North Caucasus for a while, a new consensus appears to be emerging among them about Circassian victimhood. On March 25, the Circassian activist organization Adyge Khase—Circassian Parliament—harshly reacted to a denial of the Circassian “genocide” by the leader of the International Circassian Association (ICA), Khauti Sokhrokov. Adyge Khase’s leaders stated that a person who does not recognize the Circassian “genocide” is not only precluded from leading the ICA, but even from being an ordinary member. Sokhrokov, who is also a high-level official in the Kabardino-Balkarian government, reportedly retracted his statement, saying that his words had been misinterpreted (http://www.natpress.ru/index.php?newsid=8145). The incident demonstrated that the Circassian “genocide” is no longer questioned among Circassian activists and any denial of it can result in public ostracism.

Khauti Sokhrokov made his controversial remarks at an interesting gathering in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, in February, when Georgian experts visited Kabardino-Balkaria under the aegis of the Moscow-based non-governmental organization Caucasian Cooperation to establish closer relations with the North Caucasus. Caucasian Cooperation operates at the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs (MGIMO). The meeting of Circassian and pro-Moscow Georgian experts in Nalchik resulted in at least two scandals. The Circassians were unpleasantly surprised by the Georgian visitors’ dismissal of Georgia’s official recognition in May 2011 of the Circassian “genocide.” In turn, the Georgian experts expressed fierce opposition to Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, following the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. The Georgian visitors’ patron from Moscow, Nikolai Silaev, said he hoped the two sides would find common language over time (http://kavpolit.com/priklyucheniya-gruzin-na-kavkaze).

The same cohort of pro-Moscow Georgian experts had earlier visited Chechnya, Dagestan and North Ossetia. The visits, apparently organized by the Russian non-governmental organization with close ties to the Russian diplomatic institution, highlighted three important tendencies. First, Moscow’s position on Abkhazia and South Ossetia is irreconcilable with the position of even pro-Moscow Georgian experts and leaders. Second, in the North Caucasus, especially those individuals living in Circassian territory demand that Georgia have an independent position on North Caucasian affairs. Third, the very fact that Moscow organized these visits shows that the Russian government is fully aware of Georgia’s influence on the North Caucasus because of its geographic and cultural proximity. This gives credence to the view of some experts that Moscow is anxious to establish control over Georgia in order to secure control over the North Caucasus. As these experts say, Russia was never able to control the North Caucasus unless it also controlled the South Caucasus.