Mahatma Gandhi may never actually have said of colonized peoples that “first, the imperial authorities ignore you; then, they laugh you; then, they fight you; and then, you win”; but this observation nonetheless aptly fits Moscow’s evolving relationship with the Circassians. The Russian center had previously dismissed and derided this group, but now it finds itself compelled to both combat the Circassians in their North Caucasus homeland as well as attack member of their large diaspora in the Middle East and in Western countries, where support for that much-victimized nation is growing. That does not mean the Circassians are about to win. But it does suggest the Kremlin now fears they have a chance to assert their rights and national identity. As such, the Russian government has launched a new effort to prevent that outcome via repression and subversion.
In its campaign, Moscow has identified three main targets—the growing strength of the Circassian movement inside Russia and abroad, the influence this movement is having on other national and regional groups in the Russian Federation, and the willingness of some in the West to support these victims of Russian imperialism, past and present. While the first category involves “only” the Circassians themselves (at home and abroad), the second and third have far broader implications, extending to the Russian Federation as a whole and to relations between Moscow and the West more broadly. As such, what some might dismiss as an ethnic issue has far greater consequences and needs to be tracked even by those who do not closely follow events in the North Caucasus or even within Russia itself.
On May 21, Circassians marked the 156th anniversary of the tsarist expulsion of their ancestors after the latter had resisted Russian forces for 101 years. And this year, they were more united than at any point in recent history precisely because they were forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to mark this event primarily online. The virtual commemorations highlighted the increasing tendency of Circassians in the homeland and those in the diaspora to come together and develop a common agenda. Equally importantly, their shared agenda extends far beyond overcoming Soviet-imposed divisions or Moscow’s opposition to the return of Circassians from the war-torn countries of the Middle East. More and more, the Circassian communities in the North Caucasus and abroad are becoming united in their outspoken opposition to Moscow’s neo-imperialism and authoritarianism writ large (see EDM, July 9; Nazaccent.ru, July 10).
Both Circassians in the homeland and in the diaspora have denounced President Vladimir Putin’s constitutional changes and his efforts to have memorial statues to tsarist conquerors erected in Circassian areas like Sochi. They, thus, have become for Putin that most dangerous of groups: simultaneously drawing strength and ideas from a diaspora he does not control, speaking out ever more boldly against his regime and its plans to amalgamate republics and suppress nationalities, and serving as a model for other national and regional groups in the Russian Federation, including Cossacks and Siberians (Zapravakbr.ru, May 29; Tumentoday.ru, June 8; Facebook.com, Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, June 28).
In response, the Russian authorities have begun a major crackdown against Circassian activists in the homeland. Illustratively, law enforcement planted drugs on one individuals and threatened him with ten years behind bars. Such actions openly demonstrate that the government is prepared to be far more repressive than ever before in the hopes that the Circassians can serve as a convenient “enemy” to re-energize Russian support for Putin (Zapravakbr.ru, August 8).
Moreover, Moscow has signaled it will not tolerate other groups following the Circassian model—either in cooperating with their own respective diasporas or in outright opposing Russian imperialism (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, June 2, 30). In addition, the Russian security forces have launched a Trust-style operation against the Circassian diaspora to divide and disorder Circassians abroad lest they continue to influence their co-ethnics—and, thus, others—inside Russia (Pamela K. Simpkins, Ed., “The Trust,” The Security and Intelligence Foundation, 1989; Harbin.lv, accessed August 11, 2020; Ekho Kavkaza, June 30, 2020)
But Moscow views the Circassian threat as a much broader problem and has sought to warn off Westerners from backing this nationality lest such support encourage and embolden the group’s representatives and make it harder for Russia to limit the Circassians’ influence or to crack down on them. In particular, the Russian government has stepped up its attacks on those in the West (including this author) who defend Circassian rights, accusing them of being “agents” of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and seeking the disintegration of the Russian Federation (SM-News, June 30). Relatedly, it has labeled The Jamestown Foundation “an undesirable organization” because of its coverage of the Circassians (Genproc.gov.ru, April 8; see Jamestown.org, April 9). And now it has launched an effort on Russian-controlled English-language media outlets to discourage anyone in the West from empathizing or standing with the Circassians (The Duran, August 6).
How far Moscow is prepared to go remains uncertain. But three facts are worth pointing out. First, the Russian government’s anti-Circassian campaign is a multi-pronged attack. Second, it seeks to block the Circassians in the homeland from being influenced by the diaspora and, in turn, from influencing Russia’s other minority groups. And third, the authorities in the Russian capital feel compelled to elevate this issue to one of international power politics by attacking Western support of the Circassians. Taken together, it all appears to be a well-planned effort, unlikely to stop anytime soon.
Both the Circassians and their friends need to keep in mind that this Moscow threat is growing precisely because the Circassian nation is growing in strength. As such, the Kremlin now feels it has no choice but to oppose it forcefully and so has raised the stakes. It is not dismissing the Circassians anymore; it is again fighting them. But that may, in fact, represent the last stage in this conflict before the Circassians eventually win the victories they seek.