Georgia’s increasingly assertive North Caucasus policy is likely to cause waves across the region

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 12 Issue: 11

On May 20, the Georgian parliament recognized the mass killings and deportations of Circassians from the North Caucasus in the nineteenth century as “genocide.” The resolution, which passed by a vote of 95 to 0, said that pre-planned “mass killings of the Circassians by Tsarist Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century,” accompanied by “deliberate famine and epidemics,” should be recognized as “genocide,” and those deported from their homeland should be recognized as “refugees.” The Georgian lawmakers emphasized that the decision was not directed against Russian people (, May 20).

Nonetheless, the chairman of the Russian State Duma’s committee on foreign affairs, Konstantin Kosachev, condemned the Georgian parliament’s resolution on the Circassians. Kosachev stated that the parliament of Georgia did not care about “the truly tragic fate of the Circassian people,” and was instead trying to pursue its own political ends to put contemporary Russia and the peoples that populated the Russian empire and the USSR at loggerheads. In the best tradition of the Soviet Union, Kosachev dubbed Georgia’s move as “stepping on the slippery slope” and invited the country’s leadership to make up its mind about similar events from the distant past (Interfax, May 20).

In Kabardino-Balkaria in the North Caucasus and elsewhere around the globe, the Circassians applauded the first ever official recognition of the Circassian “genocide.” The Georgian flag was flown in Nalchik –something unimaginable just a few years ago because of the hostile attitude of Circassians toward Georgia. At an officially approved event in Nalchik on May 21, commemorating the 147 years since the end of the Russian-Circassian war, Circassians voiced their evidently elevated expectations of Moscow. Historian Artur Kazharov said at the rally that defending the Circassian people’s interests is equal to defending Russian interests in the world. Kazharov called on the Russian government to recognize the Circassian “genocide” and allow Circassians from the diaspora to freely visit the North Caucasus and resettle there, if desired. Representatives of the Circassian diasporas in Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel told the gathering that many in their respective countries were willing to return to their historical homeland or at least to have dual citizenship (, May 21).

In the bloody and prolonged war between the Russian empire and the Circassians in the nineteenth century, an estimated 90 percent of the Circassian population was either exterminated or deported to the Ottoman empire, where the Circassians were scattered across many territories. Numerous historical documents, such as the memoirs of Russia’s own officers, vividly depicted the massacres of civilians –hardships deliberately imposed by the Russian government on the Circassians. For many years, the history of those events was distorted by Russian officialdom, and alternative narratives started to appear in the North Caucasus after the USSR was disbanded in 1991. In 2007, Russia won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics at the Black Sea coast resort of Sochi, where Russian generals held a final victory parade in 1864, following the defeat of Circassians. The latter seized on this opportunity to call the world’s attention to their plight. Activists in Turkey, the United States, Europe and the Middle East staged numerous protest actions, demanding recognition of the Circassian “genocide” or depriving Russia of the right to host the winter Olympics in Sochi.

Recognition of the Circassian “genocide” may not be the last move by Georgia. The chairman of the Georgian parliamentary committee for defense and security, Givi Targamadze, already said that the Georgian parliament should consider the plight of other groups in the North Caucasus. “This process will lead us to a powerful and a significant Caucasian unity,” Targamadze concluded (, May 20). The Chechen issue might be the next to be considered by Georgia, especially given that the Chechens not only experienced two devastating wars with Russia during the past 17 years, but also were deported along with the Ingush people en masse to Kazakhstan by Joseph Stalin in 1944.

As Georgia tries to establish a more proactive policy toward the North Caucasus through accommodating some of the interests of the North Caucasians, Moscow is becoming increasingly wary of its neighbor. In August 2008, following the brief Russian-Georgian war, Russia officially recognized the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and officially installed military bases on both territories. Georgia’s overtures toward the North Caucasus are widely viewed in Moscow as retaliation. Yet, there are some essentially regional consequences of Georgia’s recognition of the Circassian “genocide.” The Abkhaz and the Circassians are closely related peoples, and the Circassians supported the Abkhaz in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict of 1992 – 1993. Now the Abkhaz will have to decide whether they pay back the Circassians with the same recognition of the Circassian “genocide” and thereby side with Georgia, or ignore the issue and distance themselves from the Circassians.

As Georgia has taken on the task of bringing up controversial issues in relations between the North Caucasian peoples and Russia, the colonial past and present of the North Caucasus will increasingly come up. The rising public awareness of the inequality between the ethnic Russian regions and the North Caucasus is likely to contribute to a falling out between Moscow and the North Caucasus. Indeed, as one of the ways to overcome the demographic crisis that descended on Russia in the past 20 years, the government has stimulated the immigration of Russian-speakers from the CIS countries and elsewhere. The large Circassian diaspora, numbering up to six million people worldwide, has been treated very differently than those of ethnic Russian origin, with none or very few receiving permission to resettle in their historical homeland. The controversy over just this single issue –over why ethnic Russians can return to the Russian Federation freely while ethnic Circassians cannot– will be enough to further complicate the situation in the North Caucasus and probably even spark another national-liberation movement in the region.