Throughout its history, no country’s government has devoted more attention to its émigrés and diaspora populations than that of Russia. Nor has any other country taken more steps to try to disorder, penetrate and control them. The reason for this is simple: émigrés and diasporas from Russia have regularly played outsized roles in the country’s history, often serving as the only base from which its peoples can offer their dissent from the regimes in power. Sometimes, and most worrisome from the Kremlin’s perspective, some émigrés even return home and overthrow the ruling regime, as Vladimir Lenin did most famously in 1917 (Window on Eurasia, February 13). And while it has received less international attention than ethnic Russian emigration both past and present, the Russian government has not devoted as much attention to or worked harder to disorder and disarm any other diaspora than the Circassians, who number more than seven million worldwide, with a particular concentration in the Middle East. (To learn more about these Russian efforts, including the seizure of control over the International Circassian Association by individuals and groups working for the Russian intelligence services, see Window on Eurasia March 14, 2020, May 4, 2022; Zapravakbr.ru, December 19, 2022.)
The reasons for this focus are four-fold. Firstly, the Circassian diaspora is committed to calling international attention to one of the most heinous crimes in Russian history, the mass expulsion of Circassians from the North Caucasus in 1864 after more than a century of resistance to imperial expansion—an act which is almost universally viewed as a genocide by the Circassian community. Secondly, some Circassians seek to reconstitute the historic Circassian state in the North Caucasus, something that would redraw the borders of that region and end Russian power there. Thirdly, leaders of the Circassian émigré community have risen to positions of power and authority in the countries to which they fled, enabling them to play an outsized role in the thinking of governments there. Most prominent among them include Turkey and others such as Georgia, which has recognized the Circassian genocide while developing ever-closer ties with the 700,000 Circassians in the homeland via modern technology (Window on Eurasia, September 15, 2020). And fourth, rather than simply giving up and retreating from the public space as other émigré groups have done when Moscow penetrates and influences their interest groups, the Circassians have a long track record of forming new groups in response to such efforts, meaning the struggle between the Russian state and the Circassian nation is constantly being renewed. (For background on this struggle, see EDM June 20, 2017; October 5, 2021; May 19, 2022.)
In this struggle, victories have been won on both sides. The Russians, for their part, have created various Circassian organizations from whole cloth in addition to hijacking existing ones. The use of these two tactics has allowed Moscow to issue statements at odds with the views of most Circassians on certain issues, including the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the same place from which the 1864 expulsion took place, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, which most Circassians oppose but some Circassian organizations support (Justice for North Caucasus, June 2; November 10, 2022). This obfuscation not only confuses Circassians in their homeland but more importantly also confuses outside observers as to what Circassians actually stand for—as is undoubtedly intended. It also has the additional benefit from Moscow’s point of view of leading many Circassians to avoid taking part in any organized opposition effort lest they fall victim to the actions of the Russian Federal Security Service. Moreover, just as in the North Caucasus, where Moscow has sought to divide Circassians into numerous subgroups such as the Kabardins, the Cherkess, the Adygeys, the Shapsugs and others, the Kremlin has tried to convince Circassians in the diaspora to identify either with one of these subgroups, the related Abkhazians or with their current place of residence—a strategy that has succeeded with many in the diaspora (Justice for North Caucasus, October 16, 2021).
Recently, however, Circassian activists have outsmarted Moscow by repeatedly exposing Russian efforts to subvert old groups while creating new ones that can operate independently of Moscow for at least a time. Thus, these groups better reflect the views of the Circassians, both in the diaspora and, importantly, in the homeland. The Council of United Circassia represents the latest Circassian entrant in this back-and-forth struggle (United-circassia.org, January 30). In addition to the traditional tasks of Circassian groups, such as advocating for international recognition of the 1864 expulsion as a genocide and support for the restoration of a Circassian state, this new group is explicitly committed to countering Moscow. In its founding message, the council declares that Circassians must not be deceived by the pro-Moscow arguments regarding Ukraine made by Circassian groups under Russian control. They should instead refuse to fight in yet another Russian colonial war and risk becoming part of the mounting list of Circassians who have died over the past year. Additionally, the council pledged to unmask Russian efforts to penetrate Circassian organizations and suppress the rights and freedoms of the Circassian people. Moscow will certainly counter this move by seeking to penetrate the council as well, adding yet another chapter to the fight between the Circassian diaspora and the Kremlin.
But compelling reasons highlight why this council’s emergence after all of Moscow’s past efforts to destroy or geld other Circassian organizations may represent a turning point not only in the histories of Russia and the Circassian nation but more broadly as well. For Russia, its focus on the Circassians abroad and at home highlights its ever-weakening position in the North Caucasus. Despite Moscow’s continued fighting, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not winning on this front as on so many others. For the Circassians, it is a sign, perhaps more indicative than any other, of just how prominent the Circassian nation is not only in the minds of the paranoid elite in the Russian capital but also on the ground across the Middle East and, in what one can only hope will again truly be the Circassian homeland, in the North Caucasus. And for others, including both within the current borders of the Russian Federation and beyond them, what the Circassians have been doing to counter Moscow’s moves has been a model to emulate and their goals a harbinger of things to come.