Clashes Intensify Between Moscow and Circassians on Key Issues

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 151

Circassians commemorate their banishment from Russian territory in 1864 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The range of issues on which Moscow and the Circassian nation are in conflict is expanding, and the Russian government, along with its agents in the Circassian republics and regions of the North Caucasus, have stepped up their efforts to block Circassian demands. In response, the Circassians themselves are creating new organizations outside of Moscow’s control and appear ready to take steps to promote their national interests—even if these bring them into open conflict with the Russian government. That, in turn, suggests the several-year period of relative quiescence on the Circassian question may be coming to an end.

The issues on which Moscow and the Circassians disagree include the defense of the Circassian language, the possibility that the various Circassian peoples in the North Caucasus will declare a common national identity in the upcoming census, the return of Circassians from war-torn Syria to the national homeland in the North Caucasus, and the recognition of the forcible expulsion of Circassians from that region by Russian forces in 1864 as an act of genocide. On the one hand, none of these issues is new. But on the other hand, all of them have taken on fresh urgency in recent months, with Circassians seeking to break through the Russian government’s obstinacy to these various demands or points of dispute.

The language issue is heating up again because Moscow has taken another step to limit Circassian education, and the Circassians have responded with protests. By making the study of non-Russian languages in the national republics entirely voluntary and requiring all students aspiring to higher education to take examinations in the Russian language, President Vladimir Putin hoped to reduce the number of students studying in those languages. In that sense, Putin’s policy was successful. But apparently, the shift is not happening fast enough for the Kremlin, at least in so far as the Circassians are concerned. Thus, Moscow has adopted a new tactic: it has cut back on the publication of textbooks in Circassian, thereby making it impossible for students in some republics to study their national tongue. Not surprisingly, Circassians are furious and have protested to local officials, describing this move as an act of “ethnocide” and demanding that the authorities reverse the policy (, September 27, October 1).

The language issue is presently heating up for another reason as well. As Circassian activist Murat Temirov pointed out, Moscow is pushing Russian as a common language not out of Russian nationalist motives but rather to make it easier for the center to control all nationalities within the Russian Federation, including his own. Thus, the battle over language must be viewed as a battle over who will determine the future of that nation and others, he suggested. And so, Temirov concluded, the Circassians have good reason to make common ground with all non-Russians who face the same threat (Nat Press, September 26).

The possibility remains that Circassians will declare a common Circassian identity in place of the sub-ethnic ones (Adygs, Kabards, Cherkess, Shapsugs, etc.) the Soviets created. The Russian government’s concern has heated up as the delayed 2020 census is now set to take place. Moscow has been alarmed by Circassian calls for this step, believing that the declaration of a common ethnonym would put at risk the existing ethno-political divisions in the North Caucasus. In response, it has taken two steps.

First, the Russian authorities and their representatives have played up the risk that such a move would threaten the positions of those who work for the existing republic governments. Second, they have moved to take control of regional Circassian organizations in the hope that they can limit this campaign. So far, the Russian side has been only partially successful: it appears likely that far more Kabards, Cherkess, Adygs and Shapsugs will identify as Circassians for this census than did in the last census in 2010 (Ekho Kavkaza, October 15, 2020).

The return of Circassians from Syria and elsewhere is sharpening tensions as well. Moscow and the republics have allowed a minimal number of Circassians to return, but both the central government and the republic authorities have dragged their feet, fearful that the influx of Circassians from abroad will not only change the ethnic balance in the republics but promote traditional Circassian values (still strong in the diaspora) in parts of Russia where they have been weakened by constant Russian government pressure. Not surprisingly, the Circassians in the North Caucasus welcome the return of their co-ethnics not only on humanitarian grounds but out of the belief that with their additional numbers the national movement will gain influence and power (Caucasus Times, September 21; Caucasian Knot, Septermber 23).

Finally, the issue of the recognition of the events of 1864 as a genocide has gained new prominence. A decade ago, Georgia officially adopted the term “genocide” to describe tsarist Russia’s 19th-century massacre and mass expulsion of the Circassians from the Northwest Caucasus. But since then, the Circassians have not had much success in encouraging other governments to follow Tbilisi’s example. Moscow is diplomatically behind much of the resistance. Yet now, the ice appears to be breaking. Two Turkish opposition parties have called on Ankara to recognize 1864 as a “genocide.” And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself might also follow suit, putting pressure on Moscow. This new development, no matter how hypothetical at this point, has encouraged Circassians to step up their efforts elsewhere (Nat Press, May 29).

The current state of these disputes is reflected in moves by each side in the last several weeks. Moscow used its political clout to increase control over the International Circassian Association at that group’s September 19 meeting in Nalchik by preventing a Circassian advocate of repatriations from becoming president (National Accent, September 20; TASS, September 19; Circassian Press, September 23). However, on the eve of the organization’s gathering, Circassians in Kabardino-Balkaria set up two new independent groups, the Circassian Historical-Geographic Society and the Unified Circassian Media Space, to push for policies Moscow may be unable to block in other groups (Adyg Plus, May 10; Caucasus Times, September 6). It is clear that the conflicts between Moscow and the Circassians will only intensify in the months to come.