Northwestern Caucasus Security Worsens as Loyalist Circassians Ask Moscow for Help
On May 8 in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, the International Circassian Association (ICA) unveiled its plans to compile a list of Circassians scattered abroad who would like to be repatriated to their historical homeland in the North Caucasus. The association also decided to establish Circassian Flag Day and convince the government to introduce Circassian symbols into the 2014 Sochi Olympics’ program (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, May 13). The organization approved the initiative of the younger generation Circassians to officially use the name “Cherkes” for all Circassians regardless of their tribal affiliation (www.gazetayuga.ru, May 13).
On May 21, the Circassian world will mark 146 years since the end of the Russo-Circassian war, which ended disastrously for the Circassians who dominated the largest part of the Northwest Caucasus prior to the Russian military conquest of the region in the nineteenth century. An estimated 90 percent of the Circassian population was expelled from their homeland and many civilians were killed, with the remainder scattered among other local tribes and their land given to Russian and other settlers. Many of the Circassians are calling for the international community to recognize Russia’s brutal policies in the region as “genocide.”
The vast majority of the Circassians currently live in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries with bleak prospects for return to their historical homeland. However, with the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 to be held in the Circassians’ historical setting, the Circassian activists have been encouraged by this opportunity to attract the world’s attention to their plight.
The Jamestown Foundation and Georgia’s Ilia State University organized a conference on “the Circassian genocide” issue in Tbilisi in March 2010. The conference alarmed Russia, as Georgian officials signaled they might consider recognizing Russia’s actions in the region as “genocide,” thus jeopardizing the Sochi Olympics. The Olympics in Sochi are widely held to be a personal project of Russia’s most powerful politician: Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.
One of the Russian government’s responses to the Circassian “genocide” issue has been to revitalize organizations loyal to Moscow. The ICA, an organization created by the Russian security services after the breakup of the USSR to maintain ties with the Circassian disapora, announced at its latest meeting that its initiatives were approved of by the Russian presidential administration (www.gazetayuga.ru, May 13). But a letter to the President of the Jamestown Foundation, Glen Howard, was the most evident, though peculiar sign of where the sympathies of this organization lie. The letter criticized Jamestown for organizing the conference on the Circassian “genocide” in Tbilisi and for not inviting their specialists on the issue, and at the same time urged the Jamestown Foundation to make sure it kept the International Circassian Association informed of all its plans for future conferences. The letter stipulated that the Circassians who live in the region know better than the people from the Diaspora whether they should protest against the Sochi Olympics or not.
Currently, Circassians comprise less than 0.5 percent of the population of the Krasnodar region, where the Sochi Olympics are to be held in 2014 (www.perepis2002.ru). Some sources claimed that Circassian leaders such as, Ruslan Keshev, the Head of the Circassian Congress organization, were prevented from attending the conference in Tbilisi by government authorities (www.skfonews.ru, May 14). It is also noteworthy that Kabardino-Balkaria’s President, Arsen Kanokov, accompanied President, Dmitry Medvedev, during his May visit to the Middle East, where Circassian diasporas are particularly prolific (www.president-kbr.ru, May 11).
In addition to the Circassian “genocide” issue that has energized Circassian communities in the North Caucasus, a completely separate local destabilization trend has surfaced. On May 12, Fral Shebzukhov, adviser to Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s President, Boris Ebzeyev, was murdered in Cherkessk (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, May 12). Shebzukhov was not a mere adviser to the local president, but the head of the important republican district, Adyge-Habl, and the principal candidate for the prime minister’s position. Earlier in April, Moscow’s envoy in the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, unequivocally told Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s president to appoint a Circassian (Cherkes) as prime minister of the republic before May 1 to keep the ethnic balance in this multiethnic republic (EDM, May 3). Some observers claim that Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s parliament openly ignored Moscow’s orders, showing the limit of Moscow’s power in the region (www.apn.ru, May 13). However, it also may be the case that by using the local, non-Circassian communities like the Karachays of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Moscow is trying to teach the Circassians a lesson and keep them in check. Several large-scale fistfights were reported in Karachaevo-Cherkessia between Karachay and Circassian youth.
It is unclear whether Moscow simply cannot order the appointment of a prime minister of the republic or is using other local ethnicities against the Circassians. But, either way, it shows that Moscow’s ability to influence the situation through legal and legitimate mechanisms is very limited.
The Natpress agency recounted nine violent attacks, including murders, against Circassian leaders since November 2009, plus the imprisonment of a prominent Circassian academician, Aleksandr Okhtov, from Karachaevo-Cherkessia (www.natpress.net, May 13). In Kabardino-Balkaria, at least one violent incident –usually an attack against police– took place on each of the five successive days during the period of May 8-12 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, May 12). On May 16, a police patrol was shot at in the city in Tyrnauz in the mountains of the republic. The same day, unknown perpetrators attacked the house of Adig Abregov, the minister of construction and architecture in the local government.
Kabardino-Balkaria is the biggest of the Circassian-populated republics and the only one where the ethnic Circassians comprise a majority of the population. The situation in any of the Circassian-populated republics –Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygea– normally has almost instantaneous impact on the others because of the numerous informal networks linking them all. The mounting incidents and the important issues of Circassian national identity appear to be one of the major defining trends in the region.