Moscow and Circassians Increasingly Diverge On History and Repatriation

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 217

Poster advertising the Sochi Olympics in Russia (Source: The Guardian)

The Russian and Circassian narratives on Circassian history continue to clash. On November 16, one of the three major Russian TV channels, NTV, broadcast a report about Russia providing humanitarian assistance to Circassians. “In 1998, prior to the NATO bombardment, Russia evacuated 42 Circassian families from Kosovo,” the report stated. “They were the descendants of soldiers and officers of the Tsarist army who had settled in Yugoslavia after the [1917] revolution.” This report sparked a major uproar among the Circassian activists, who vehemently opposed NTV’s interpretation of those events and addressed an indignant open letter to the channel. “These Circassians [from Kosovo] are not descendants of Tsarist officers, as your reporter allowed himself to say,” the later stated. “They are descendants of the Circassians who, to defend their independence, fought the Tsarist officers of the Russian Empire, during the Russian-Circassian war of 1763-1864” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 29).

After the bloody conquest of the Circassian lands in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire deported almost the entire Circassian population from their homeland to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans resettled the Circassians in various parts of the empire, including the Balkans, which is how the Circassians ended up in Kosovo. A Circassian researcher of the Kosovar Circassians’ resettlement in Adygea, Gaziy Chemso, said it was also incorrect to compare the Serbs and Circassians as equally deserving of Russia’s support. Chemso said that the Circassians are one of the Russian peoples and should be treated accordingly. All Circassians who were repatriated from Kosovo currently live in the village of Mafekhabl in Adygea (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 29).

Circassian activists are currently lobbying the Russian government to launch a program for repatriating Circassians from the current Middle East hotspot, Syria. The Circassians in Syria traditionally were aligned closely with the government, as in most other countries of the region. However, as the government of Bashar Assad has cracked down on the peaceful demonstrators in the country and his regime increasingly comes under international pressure, the Circassians have reportedly been singled out by the local Arab population for their support for the Assad regime. Protestors have urged the Circassians to switch sides or leave Syria altogether. As some Circassians have been looking for exit options, only Turkey appears to have offered them refuge. Officially, Moscow responded by saying that no Russian involvement was necessary (http://www.elot.ru/main/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2640&Itemid=1, November 28).

The Russian reaction to the plight of Circassians in Syria indicates once again that Moscow does not treat ethnic Russians and other ethnicities native to the Russian Federation equally. Bearing in mind how under-populated Russia is and how acute the demographic situation is in the country, Moscow’s reluctance to admit Circassians into Russia betrays its biased approach to non-ethnic-Russians. This situation has predictably galvanized the Circassian community worldwide.

On November 7, which was Circassian Day in the European Parliament, an American Circassian activist, John Haghor, stated that “[a]mong the Circassians there is a growing understanding that returning to the homeland is not simply a call of heart, but an absolute necessity for the survival of our people.” Haghor called on the European Parliament to support the Circassian right to return to their homeland in the North Caucasus and urged Europeans to establish a constant channel of communication with the region to monitor the worsening trend of attacks on and murders of Circassian activists (http://www.elot.ru/main/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2637&Itemid=1, November 27).

In the North Caucasus, an internal struggle going on inside the Circassian community as Moscow tries to sway the discussion. On November 17, the Circassian organization in Adygea, Adyge Khas, unveiled plans to declare 2014, when the Winter Olympics are to be held in Sochi, a year of mourning and remembrance. According to Circassians, Sochi was the scene of mass killings and the deportation of Circassians by the Russian Empire in 1864. On November 19, Arambiy Khapai of Adyge Khase was quoted as saying that the organization was retracting its statement about the Sochi Olympics, but later the Circassian activists confirmed they were unanimously in favor of commemorating 2014 as a year of Circassian mourning and remembrance (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/196304/, November 23).

Meanwhile, more incidents have been reported in another Circassian-populated republic in the North Caucasus, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, which was relatively quiet until very recently. On November 23, one suspected rebel was killed and another injured in a police special operation in the republic’s capital Cherkessk. Two policemen were injured in the special operation. Earlier, on November 20, a policeman was killed in an attack in the remote village of Uchkeken. One of the assailants was injured and arrested (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/196348/, November 24). On November 25, the Karachaevo-Cherkessian police claimed to have uncovered a rebel laboratory for producing home-made explosive devices in a garage in Karachaevsk (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/196470/, November 25).

The Circassian and official Russian narratives on the Russian-Circassian war in the nineteenth century diverge diametrically and there seems to be no move on the Russian side to make the official view more inclusive of Circassian opinion. Moscow’s demonstrative inattention to Circassian grievances may contribute to the trend of radicalization in the Northwestern Caucasus. While Circassian activists have not engaged in armed resistance, they may simply lose interest in maintaining social order in their territories, which will provide a breeding ground for destabilization in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and potentially in Adygea as well.