Asker Sokht, president of the Circassian “Adyge Khase” organization of Krasnodar Krai, said this week that his nation will not seek to realize its rights by violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of any country as the Abkhaz have done (www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1597324.html). Many are likely to see this assertion as a retreat from the efforts of other Circassians to bring their plight to the attention of the international community. But in fact, Sokht’s declaration may represent yet another move on the shifting chessboard of relations between Georgia, the Russian Federation and peoples of the North Caucasus like the Circassians.
On November 26, Sokht told Russia’s Regnum news agency that “the problems of the political status of the Circassian people as a definite international problem do not exist.” Instead, “historical Circassia is an inalienable part of the Russian Federation and the Circassians of the Russian Federation are a native people of Russia who have achieved self-determination in the form of republics within the Russian Federation.” Moreover, the Circassian diaspora abroad is an inalienable part of the societies of sovereign states. Any other approach contradicts both the existing world order and good sense” (www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1597324.html).
Sokht’s comments came as a reaction to comments by Abkhazian President Aleksandr Ankvab who told the sixth World Congress of the Abkhaz-Abaza People three days earlier (https://apsnypress.info/en/news/485.html) that “the process of repatriation will not be felt until our diaspora joins in the efforts of the government. Out state will for a long time still have complex internal problems—the war ended quite recently—and our possibilities, to our great regret, are limited” (www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1597324.html).
Sokht observed that “in recent years, in the context of the conflict between Georgia and the Russian Federation, attempts have been made by the Georgian side to artificially construct a certain international problem around the Circassian people. Contemporary political realities in full measure caused the Circassians in Russia and the diaspora to consider without qualification the tragic Abkhaz experience.”
“At the end of the 20th century, the Abkhaz intelligentsia and the Abkhaz political elite together gave rise to ‘the Abkhaz question,’” the Adyge Khase leader noted, and “as a result gave birth to this most complicated political crisis and led to military conflict […] More than that, ‘the Abkhaz question’” led to “an open political confrontation on the international arena by having created serious political risks for Russia. This historical experience of the Abkhaz is clear testimony of the need for an adequate conception of the historical past.”
“The Circassian world,” Sokht added, “is predicated not on virtual geopolitical projects but on the realization of political, linguistic and socio-cultural rights of the Circassians in all countries where they live according to contemporary international standards. In this regard, respect for sovereignty, the territorial integrity of sovereign states, the traditions and values of peoples with whom the Circassian people have been fated to live are recognized by us, by all Circassians, as the most important principles for the realization of the rights of the Circassian peoples.”
Sokht’s words are noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, in seeking to distance himself from Tbilisi and to curry favor with Moscow, it certainly appears that he overstates his argument. Clearly, not all Circassians favor continuing the status quo, one that not only has the Circassian community subdivided into at least four Moscow-defined national regions within the Russian Federation but also keeps them from linking up—as many have said they want to—with the far larger Circassian community abroad.
Why might Sokht then say this? Obviously, he could be simply under pressure from the Russian side to say what Moscow would like him to, or he could be playing one or two more complicated games. For instance, he could be positioning Circassians in the North Caucasus to secure a better deal from Moscow precisely by disclaiming interest in the kind of promotion of the Circassians that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had encouraged. Sokht certainly understands that Tbilisi’s approach is likely to change under the new Georgian government.
Alternatively—and this is more speculative—he may be playing the proverbial “good cop” in a “good cop, bad cop” strategy, presenting a less immediately threatening face to Moscow and the West but ultimately a more challenging one. It is less threatening because Sokht disclaims any interest in continuing the kind of relations with Georgia that Circassians had enjoyed up to now; but Sokht’s suggestion is also more challenging precisely because the specific policy goals he is advocating will be taken more seriously in both Moscow and the West than they have been up to now.
Read in this way, Sokht’s comment are not so much a retreat from the Circassian stance as an attempt to shift that nation’s position given the political changes in Georgia. And thus, his words are especially interesting as an early indication of what other leaders in the North Caucasus are likely to find themselves compelled to do in the coming months.