Circassians See Long-Term Struggle for Their Interests in the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 141

Circassians marching in Istanbul in support of their co-nationals in Syria (Source: businessturkeytoday.com)

The high expectations on the part of Circassians of benevolence from the Russian state were cut short by the Russian government’s attitude toward the repatriation of the Syrian Circassians. “Even in a ‘life-and-death’ situation, Russia will never help us,” the well-known Circassian activist Andzor Kabard told Ekho Kavkaza Radio, referring to Moscow’s reluctance to allow the repatriation of Circassians from Syria to the North Caucasus. Kabard predicted there would be some kind of information campaign in support of Circassians in fall 2013 in connection to the Olympiad in Sochi, but that Russia is unlikely to change its attitude toward what he called the “Circassian Question.” According to the Circassian activist, the “Circassian Question” is first of all “the question of unifying people who were expelled from their homeland.” Kabard asserted that the Russian government and media turned the question upside down, into an anti-Russian plot of some kind. “I cannot understand how unification of people could be something directed against Russia, but if it looks like that, what can we do,” the activist said (http://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/25051605.html).

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the crisis in Syria have rapidly moved the Circassian Question to a position of prominence it has not had for decades. The Olympics will be held on territory where Circassians lived prior to the Russian invasion of the 19th century. Moreover, the Sochi area was the last point of organized Circassian resistance, which was finally crushed by the Russian imperial army in 1864. Following the defeat of the Circassian forces, the bulk of the remaining Circassians were deported to the Ottoman Empire. Contemporary Russian governments have been dismissive of Circassian claims that the Russian state’s policies in historical Circassia were “genocidal.” This has prompted a gradual buildup of Circassian opposition to the Sochi Olympics. Moscow’s silent refusal to help the Syrian Circassians further antagonized the Circassians in the North Caucasus. Ekho Kavkaza Radio’s interview with Andzor Kabard shows that the Circassian activists’ next step, given Moscow’s unresponsiveness to their pleas, might be to back the idea of complete independence for Circassian lands from the Russian Federation.

The Circassian national tragedy of the 19th century, when an estimated 90 percent of the population was exterminated by the Russians or were forced to flee their homeland, is becoming an important focal point for Circassian activists in the North Caucasus. Circassian activists now reprimand those Circassians who “betray” the Circassian cause by renouncing the cultivation and pursuit of the topic of the Circassian “genocide” as “not constructive.” One Circassian writer notes that centuries of war and the repeated division of Poland did not stop the Poles from establishing their own state in the end (http://aheku.org/page-id-3609.html). The success of the Polish people, of course, came after a long struggle, many sacrifices, Germany’s military defeat and a balance of the great powers in Europe. So the question is whether it will be possible for Russia to change its position on the Circassian Question without suffering a military defeat. Hopes for eventual establishment of an independent Circassia apparently run high among some Circassians.

The attention of Circassian activists is turning to Turkey, where a majority of the worldwide Circassian diaspora, estimated at several million people, resides. Turkey is undergoing a transformation of its own and its minorities are being allowed to play increasingly greater roles in the political life of the country. Some Circassians believe that the tide of the changing political landscape in Turkey will eventually reach the Caucasus region and Russia. “In the next five years, by the end of the decade, we will see an entirely different people, much more structured, systemic and consolidated, than the loose formation that we have observed previously,” Kabard said. “Unfortunately, Russia will not be the state to make this transformation, because it chooses to see the Circassians as a problem instead of a resource” (http://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/25051605.html).

On July 25, the parliament of Adygea adopted new legislation that established April 25 as the Day of the Circassian Flag. Unofficially, this day has been celebrated in the Circassian republics for the past several years, but now the date has acquired official status (http://ria.ru/society/20130725/952074100.html). So while Circassians in the North Caucasus are constrained in many ways by tight control from Moscow, they are still trying to promote their national identity as best they can.

Circassian organizations in the North Caucasus plan to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), with a request that European institutions discuss the state of the Circassian minority in Syria. “We have concrete facts of human rights’ breaches in relation to the Circassian minority in Syria,” Asker Sokht, leader of the Circassian organization in Krasnodar region, told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website. The Circassian activists apparently plan to use PACE not only to have an impact on Syrian affairs, but also to raise the Circassian Question in the respected European political body in order to influence Russian internal policies. The Syrian Circassians suffer doubly, according to Circassian activist Abubekir Murzakan: on the one hand the Circassian diaspora of Syria is in a difficult position and on the other hand the problems of the Circassians who have relocated from Syria to Russia are largely ignored by the Russian authorities (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/227790/).

Having understood that resolving the Circassian Question is a long-term objective, the Circassian activists in the North Caucasus are gradually coming to the conclusion that they should work out a proper strategy for their actions. At the same time, Moscow’s dismissive attitude toward Circassian interests contributes to strengthening opposition voices in the Circassian republics, which is likely to improve the Circassians’ chances to organize united public actions.