On February 14, Russian police arrested Asker Sokht, the head of the Circassian civil organization Adyge Khase, in the city of Krasnodar, the capital of the region hosting the Olympic Games in Sochi. Even though the official reasons for the arrest were unknown, observers noted that Sokht was vilified for his political activism regarding the Circassian issue. Sokht’s arrest came as a surprise to many, because he was fairly loyal to Moscow. Even Andrei Yepifantsev, a well-known Russian critic of Circassian activists, told the Kavkazskaya Politika website that Sokht held a “neutral position” toward the Circassian issue and the Circassian protests against the Sochi Olympics (https://kavpolit.com/articles/askera_soht_zhdet_sud-592/).
“Not being a Circassian myself, I know Asker very well,” Artur Priymak reported on Facebook. “He has always been loyal to the Russian authorities, hated any separatism and extremism. Welcomed the Olympiad” (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/238205/). Circassian activist Andzor Kabard, former co-chair of the Russian Congress of the Peoples of the Caucasus, told the Kavkazsky Uzel website he did not understand why Sokht was detained. “Asker Sokht has been known for his loyal attitude toward the policy of the Russian state in regard to holding the Olympics,” Kabard asserted (https://krasnodar.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/238194/).
In the run-up to the Olympics in Sochi, a majority of Circassian activists denounced the Games or said they would ignore them since the Russian government refused to acknowledge the grave damage the Russian Empire inflicted on the Circassians. When the Russian Empire conquered the North Caucasus in the 19th century, the Circassians arguably suffered the most because their territory around the Black Sea was considered strategically important. Moscow then used scorched earth tactics to remove the Circassians from the large areas along the Black Sea coastline, including Sochi. The contemporary Russian state refused to recognize its responsibility for what Circassians say were “acts of genocide.”
The harsh actions against Circassian activists coincided with a statement by President Vladimir Putin, who on February 10 mentioned the Circassian issue publicly for the first time during a meeting with Sochi civil organizations. Putin said the Circassian question had been artificially created by the West and was part of a containment strategy against Russia (https://news.kremlin.ru/news/20203/). The head of Adygea, Aslan Tkhakushinov, hurried to express support for the Russian president, saying the Circassian issue was simply speculation designed to destabilize the situation in Adygea and Russia as a whole (https://www.natpress.net/index.php?newsid=12066). The question, of course, is how mere speculation could destabilize the situation in the republic and the entire country?
A few Circassian activists welcomed the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, but also sought to improve the position of the Circassians incrementally by getting at least some concessions from Moscow. Asker Sokht was one such leader. But even people relatively loyal to Moscow like Sokht were outraged at the Russian government’s failure to incorporate elements of the Circassian culture into the Olympics’ opening ceremony. In an interview with Kavkazsky Uzel published the day after the start of the Olympics, Sokht said he was “stunned and appalled” by the absence of any Circassian elements in the opening ceremony. The ceremony presented the situation as if the Sochi region was visited by mythical Argonauts who immediately were followed by Russian Tsar Peter the Great in the 18th century. “This is especially amazing against the backdrop of the recent statements by Dmitry Kozak [the Russian deputy prime minister responsible for Sochi Olympics] at a meeting with the international Circassian delegation in Sochi. At the meeting, he said that he could not disclose the details of the opening ceremony of the Olympiad, but that Circassian culture would be presented vividly,” Sokht said. The Circassian activist concluded that the opening ceremony testified to the fact that hatred toward Caucasians and Circassians was becoming part of government policy. Ruslan Gusaruk, the former deputy governor of Krasnodar region, confirmed that the Russian government had literally backtracked on its promise to include the Circassians in the Olympics opening ceremonies (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/237880/).
Indeed, at a meeting with Circassians in Sochi in October, Kozak promised that Circassian culture would be presented “widely” at the Olympics. He also said the government was considering lifting visa requirement for Jordan, where many ethnic Circassians reside (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/231844/).
In December, the Russian security services rounded up a dozen of the most prominent Circassian activists in Krasnodar for questioning. The activists were soon released. On February 7, the day the Olympics opened, a group of Circassians protested against the Sochi Olympics in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, under the slogan “Sochi Is the Land of Genocide!” Dozens of protesters were arrested, and while most of those detained were subsequently released, several remained in custody. Circassian activists addressed the head of Kabardino-Balkaria, Yuri Kokov, demanding an investigation into alleged abuses by police against peaceful protesters (https://www.natpress.ru/index.php?newsid=8737).
At the same time, the authorities ordered the deportation of three Circassian students from Syria who say that they were bystanders at the Nalchik protest. “We reckon that deporting them from Russia to wartime Syria, which they left with such difficulty, just because they were in a wrong place at a wrong time, is highly unjust and inhumane,” Beslan Khagazhei, representative of the civil organization Peryt, told Kavkazsky Uzel (https://www.aheku.org/news/society/5578).
The Russian government’s crackdown on Circassian activists appears to be expanding, given that President Putin, in his statement, dismissed the grievances that Circassians harbor. In order to confirm Putin’s words, the Russian authorities apparently intend to harass and eliminate the most vocal critics among the Circassians. While Moscow may achieve this objective relatively easily, relations between Moscow and the Circassians are likely to continue to sour further over the long term.