The main reaction of Circassians living in their historical homeland in the North Caucasus to the seminal conference on the Circassian “genocide” issue held in Tbilisi appeared to be highly positive. Many sounded very enthusiastic about Georgia’s indication of interest in the problem, which is seen by Circassians as a matter of justice. “The Circassian youth of the republic of Adygea received the news [about the call by participants in the Tbilisi conference to recognize the genocide of Circassians by Russia] with great … hope for a positive decision on the part of Georgian lawmakers,” a group of Circassian youth from Adygea said in a passionate statement, adding: “The possible recognition of the genocide of our people will become an important step in the process of settling the Circassian question. Today, the problem of the Circassians is making it to the international level and the Russian government authorities will not be able to disregard this issue anymore” (www.natpress.net, March 25).
The independent Circassian organization in Kabardino-Balkaria, Khase, also adopted a special statement dismissing earlier fears that it would oppose Georgia’s recognition of “genocide.” In the statement, they said they would support “genocide” recognition by any country (www.natpress.net, March 23).
The conference “Hidden Nations, Enduring Crimes: The Circassians & the Peoples of the North Caucasus Between Past and Future” took place in Tbilisi, Georgia on March 20-21. The Jamestown Foundation and Ilia State University of Georgia co-sponsored the event. Conference participants prepared two separate statements addressing the Georgian parliament with pleas to recognize the “genocide” of the Circassians and the Chechens in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (www.peacetocaucasus.com).
The issue of the Circassian “genocide” in the nineteenth century is an especially sensitive topic for Russia, as the Circassians insist that the Sochi Olympics in 2014 should not be held in what they consider to be “the land of genocide,” where their ancestors were partly slaughtered and partly expelled en masse by the Russian army. Today an estimated 90 percent or 6-7 million of the Circassians live outside their homeland in the North Caucasus, mainly in Turkey and the Middle East. The remaining 700,000 are split between three republics of the North Caucasus –Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Only in Kabardino-Balkaria do the Circassians comprise a majority of the population.
The overwhelmingly positive response was even more remarkable because the Russian government appeared to have pressured the Circassian activists prior to the conference in Tbilisi, so that most of them living in the North Caucasus could not make it to the conference. Another important factor is that some Circassians feel very strongly about the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-1993, as the Abkhaz and Circassians are ethnic cousins. Russian-Georgian relations have reached a nadir since the August 2008 war between the two countries.
Referring to the war in Abkhazia, the organization of Circassians in the Krasnodar region of Russia, where Sochi is located, condemned the Georgian side’s attempts to consider the Circassian issue, saying that because of previous wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian government “had no moral right to touch the issue of the Circassian genocide” (www.natpress.net, March 25). Today, only about 0.5 percent of the population the Krasnodar region of Russia, which was Circassian land before the Russian conquest of this territory in the nineteenth century, is Circassian.
According to the well-known Russian liberal journalist and writer Aleksandr Podrabinek, there is a large collection of historical evidence about the Russian conquest of the northwestern Caucasus that leaves little doubt about the colonial and brutal character of the war Russia waged then. Podrabinek acknowledges that the issue has a political context, but he argues that Russians must come to terms with their past, admit to the killings of civilians and express their condolences. He said: “We are proficient in being proud of our ancestors’ merits, why cannot we learn to regret their trespasses? We cannot and we should not be so puerile as to consider our past as exclusively heroic, valiant and faultless” (www.svobodanews.ru, March 26).
Sergei Markedonov, one of the leading Russian commentators on the North Caucasus, argued that the Russian empire did not have the intention of eliminating the Circassian people, even though he admitted that over 90 percent of the Circassian population “left” their homeland. Markedonov warned that Tbilisi would use the Circassian “genocide” issue as “an additional political weapon” against Russia. He called on the Russian government not to concede this issue to others, but rather reach an agreement with moderate Circassian activist groups before the Sochi Olympics (www.novopol.ru, March 22).
Journalist and editor Oliver Bullough, who wrote a book on the eradication of Circassians by Russia, called it “the first genocide in modern European history.” Bullough visited the future site of the Sochi Olympics and noted: “I was impressed by the beauty of Krasnaya Polyana, which will host the skiing events, and the gorge along which visitors will travel to reach it. It will be a magnificent venue. But, I was equally stunned by the complete erasure of the Circassians from this place, which was their heartland until their defeat and expulsion by Tsar Alexander II’s army. I found only a single pear tree, which was too old to have been planted by the aristocrats who colonized this remote gorge in the late nineteenth century, as proof that anyone lived here before the Russians” (www.iwpr.net, March 18).
On March 24, the parliament of Adygea, the North Caucasus republic closest to the Sochi Olympics sites, tried to capitalize on the Circassians’ protests, appealing to the Russian government to include a Circassian cultural element in the Olympics’ program (www.natpress.net, March 25). The Circassian activists were appalled by the presentation that the Russian hosts of the 2014 Olympics made at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. They portrayed Sochi as a native land of the Russian Cossacks with no mention of the Circassians, who were the owners of those lands 150 years ago.
Circassian activists and even local authorities repeatedly called on Moscow to give recognition to their sorrowful past, but all in vain, so the activists turned to foreign countries and international organizations. The Sochi Olympics will provide the Circassians with a unique chance to make their voice heard worldwide, while providing Georgia with a rare opportunity to improve its relations with the neighboring Caucasian peoples by attending to their quest for justice.