On Eve of Sochi, Russian Authorities’ Step Up Harassment of Circassian Civil Activists

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 1

On December 13, authorities in Krasnodar region briefly detained a dozen Circassian activists in a surprise police raid. Eleven persons from Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria were taken to the city of Krasnodar for questioning, including Ibragim Yaganov, Amin Zekhov, Ruslan Kesh and other well-known leaders of the Circassian civil movement. Even though the activists were arrested under the pretext of alleged ties to an Islamic extremist with the surname Chernyshev, experts tied the arrest of the activists to their opposition to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/235109/).

Following the incident, Yaganov stated that “neither the Circassian people nor the leaders of the Circassian organizations threaten the holding of the Olympiad, but the security services need a threat. The action that took place in Krasnodar on December 13–14 [the arrest of the Circassian activists] was nothing more than fighting windmills” (http://www.golos-ameriki.ru/content/sochi-extremism/1813310.html). Yaganov did not know that his words would be quite literally confirmed by the terrorist attacks just two weeks after his brief detention in Krasnodar. While the Russian security services were busy harassing civil Circassian activists, the insurgents carried out two bomb attacks in the city of Volgograd on December 29 and 30, killing 34 people and undermining the government’s ability to provide safety at the Olympics.

Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, a member of the Memorial Human Rights Center and a key representative of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in the North Caucasus, told Voice of America’s Russian service that Moscow’s onslaught on the Circassian activists was similar to the general suppression of environmentalists and independent journalists in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics. “This is an attempt to put heavy pressure on the Circassian leaders before the Olympiad and also a signal to other activists that any publicly stated non-conformism and attempts to protest against the Olympic Games will be stopped,” Sokirianskaya said. The expert, however, expressed doubts that such a heavy-handed approach would help Moscow. Rather, according to Sokirianskaya, “the Circassian theme will sound louder” (http://www.golos-ameriki.ru/content/sochi-extremism/1813310.html).

It should be added that the Russian government hardly needs the Sochi Olympics to crack down on civil activists in the country. In fact, Circassian activists now probably have their best opportunity ever to stage protests, with an international sporting event around the corner and Moscow constrained from applying its full administrative and police force. When the international community is no longer paying much attention to the North Caucasus, the Russian authorities will have much less trouble suppressing civil dissent.

On December 14, Valery Khatazhukov, the chairman of the Kabardino-Balkarian Human Rights Center, addressed an appeal to Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, pointing out to the preposterousness of the official accusations that Circassian activists support Islamic radicals, given that Circassian activists and Islamic radicals fiercely oppose each other. Some Circassian activists have received threats from the Islamic radicals (http://www.aheku.org/news/society/5031). A well-known Circassian activist, ethnographer Aslan Tsipinov, was killed by Islamic radicals in December 2010 after being criticized for the revival of “pagan” practices (http://caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=21220).

Tensions surrounding the Circassian issue have created a new situation, in which Circassians and ethnic Russians increasingly viewing their relationship in a very different light. Russian analyst Andrei Yepifantsev, who has extensively covered the Circassian issue, told Voice of America’s Russian service that the Russian government’s crackdown on Circassian activists was “absolutely correct.” He said the arrests were “a warning to make sure that [the Circassian activists] sit quietly during the Olympiad” (http://www.golos-ameriki.ru/content/sochi-extremism/1813310.html).

Apart from everything else, Yepifantsev’s words betray the Russian intelligentsia’s glaring disregard for the rule of law—something commonly attributed only to the Russian authorities. Of course, Yepifantsev is just one among many Russian analysts, but most Russian experts either demonize the Circassians for undermining the greatness of Russia or remain silent on the Circassian issue. The very notion of protecting minorities appears to be nearly completely alien to the Russian public and expert community.

Human Rights Watch criticized the arrests of the Circassian activists. Jane Buchanan, the group’s Europe and Central Asia associate director, said: “Targeting minority rights activists is completely at odds with Russia’s role as an Olympic host embracing people from all corners of the world. The government should stop harassing those who are critical of Russia’s decision to host the Olympic Games” (http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/12/18/russia-new-harassment-olympic-critics).

Many Circassians oppose the Sochi Olympic because they believe that the Olympics are being held on land where their ancestors were the victims of wide scale atrocities by Tsarist forces that some have called “genocide.” Abundant historical evidence exists that the Russian Empire pursued policies in the 19th century that were directed at effacing the Circassian population from the Black Sea coast. The primary justification for this from Russian historians and analysts is that “everybody did so in the 19th century.” This position would probably be tenable if ethnic Russians and ethnic Circassians were citizens of separate states. However, as it happens, both live in the same country and, at least on paper, have equal civil rights. Yet the Russian government not only continues to deny responsibility for past misdoings, but continues to crack down on the small North Caucasus ethnic minority while preparing for the Sochi Olympic Games.

Moscow had an opportunity to display a gesture of goodwill by helping out the Syrian Circassians, who were caught in the middle of a civil war in the Middle East. Instead, the Russian authorities allowed only about 1,000 Syrian Circassians to come to the North Caucasus and closed the door to the rest. Moscow’s policy in this regard is increasingly alienating the Circassians from the Russian Federation and likely to have long-term consequences for relations between the North Caucasian Circassians and Moscow.