Moscow Hardens Its Confrontational Stance Toward Circassian Activists

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 190

Circassian activist, Murat Berzegov (Source: circassianworld.com)

On September 23, the Russian justice ministry issued an official warning to the Circassian Congress in Adygea. Russian officials accused the Circassian activists of extremism and incitement of hatred. Following the recognition of the Circassian “genocide” by the Georgian parliament in May 2011, the Circassian Congress of Adygea responded to the Georgian move with a letter of gratitude, where phrases such as “the genocide of Circassians by the Russian state in the Russian-Circassian war of 1763-1864” were used. Russian officials stated that the term Russian-Circassian war (as opposed to the officially acceptable Russian-Caucasian war) was “non-scientific” and put ethnic Russians and ethnic Circassians at loggerheads (www.elot.ru, October 12).

The leader of the Circassian Congress in Adygea, Murat Berzegov, stated the organization would appeal the justice ministry’s warning, saying that the Russian-Circassian war had been mentioned in Russian historical accounts in the past. Berzegov called the warning “illogical” and “absurd.” “There were many wars in the past, but now, according to our opponents, [mentioning those wars] incites hatred between the peoples that fought them at the time,” Berzegov said (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 14).

Circassian activists who oppose the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and advance the goals of a Circassian revival appear to be increasingly under pressure from the Russian state. On October 3, one such Circassian champion, Suadin Pshukov, was gunned down in his car in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria (www.elot.ru, October 4). Even very moderate opinion leaders among the Circassians, such as Sufian Zhemukhov, have been criticized by Russian hardliners, who dubbed him as “the Islamist ideologue of Kabarda.” The Circassian expert is currently a visiting scholar at George Washington University in Washington DC. Zhemukhov described the current situation in Kabardino-Balkaria as a “return to Stalin’s time.” Telling the story of Zalimgeri Zhemukhov, who was killed by the Russian security services and declared to be a “rebel,” Zhemukhov showed how the government’s failure to follow the legal procedures destroys people’s trust in state institutions. “I have no reason not to trust the official information [about Zalimgeri Zhemukhov being an insurgent] apart from my personal acquaintance with Zalim,” Sufian Zhemukhov wrote in his blog. The author said that accusations against Zalimgeri Zhemukhov were so ludicrous that none of his many friends and family members would ever believe the official version. Sufian Zhemukhov appealed to Vladimir Putin as the only person that could stop what he called “senseless violence” in Kabardino-Balkaria, fearing that if Putin does not do so, “the current generation [in the republic] is doomed” (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/word/799676-echo/).

Sufian Zhemukhov’s account of events and trends in Kabardino-Balkaria may shed light on the Russian government’s policy in the region. Violence in the North Caucasus and specifically in Kabardino-Balkaria increasingly resembles an old-fashioned imperialist war against a small people. The clashes are no longer limited to rebels and government forces: local independent-minded public figures and virtually anyone deemed to be popular and outside of government control may be the next victim. The Russian government seems intent on infusing public life in Kabardino-Balkaria with fear, which would allow Moscow to control the situation in a more efficient way in order to block and thwart any threat to the Olympics in Sochi in 2014.

On October 15, a group of relatives of rebels in Kabardino-Balkaria addressed the government and civil organizations about unending hostilities in the republic. Their statement read: “Muslims are persecuted based on ‘Wahhabi’ lists [compiled by the government], planting pieces of ammunition [in their homes], torturing them and using cruel and inhumane…methods on them. They [the Muslims] cannot defend themselves in a legal way. This is the real cause of the radicalization of young Muslims” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 15).

Meanwhile, given the precarious security situation in the North Caucasus, some Western experts are voicing concern about the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Georgetown university professor Harley Balzer told the Voice of America’s Russian language service that the US and European countries are facing a difficult task in deciding whether to participate in the 2014 Olympics or abstain for security reasons (http://www.voanews.com/russian/news/Sochi-Olympic-conflicts-2011-10-14-131843498.html).

The relevance of the Circassian issue is further amplified by the recent uprisings in the Middle East. The Circassian diaspora is scattered across the Middle East and has played a prominent role in either the opposition or the government in a few of those countries. Circassians in Libya opposed Colonel Qaddafi’s rule, while the estimated 50,000 Circassians in Syria have either remained neutral or are on the side of President Bashar Assad government. The Syrian opposition reportedly threatened the Circassians, warning that when it comes to power in the country the Circassians will be “sent back to the Caucasus.” Attempts by Circassian activists to lobby the Russian government to accept refugees from Syria, and earlier from Libya, have failed so far (PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 180 September 2011 http://www.gwu.edu/~ieresgwu/assets/docs/ponars/pepm_180.pdf).
 
Despite being a vastly under-populated country with a rapidly declining population, Russia is unlikely to give a green light to any sizeable return of Circassians to the North Caucasus. This, in turn, is likely to antagonize the Russian government and Circassian activists further. The US-based activist Cicek Chek warned that if Russian policy toward the Circassian issue does not change “[a]ny nascent independent movements will begin to gain supporters as more and more Circassians lose hope in a cooperative solution” (www.reuters.com, October 13).

Moscow in turn is trying to promote Circassian loyalists, such as Asker Sokht, who heads a Circassian association in Krasnodar region, where the 2014 Olympics are scheduled to take place. Sokht was included in the Russian PACE delegation and tried to disavow the claims of other Circassians about genocide and related issues. In particular, Sokht even denied the existence of a unified Circassian people, undermining the very existence of the social base for those who oppose the Sochi Olympics on the grounds that the Russian state committed “genocide” against the Circassians (http://www.natpress.ru/index.php?newsid=6915).
 
The situation in Kabardino-Balkaria and other Circassian-populated areas of the North Caucasus seems to be headed for further instability as Moscow indicates no willingness to compromise, while the Circassians’ alienation from the government deteriorates further and peaceful activists like Suadin Pshukov are brutally murdered by the Russian security services.