Plans to Stage the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi Sparked Circassian Political Activism in 2010 (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 13

In 2010, Circassian activists managed for the first time to stage public protests in multiple countries against what they referred to as Russian “imperialism” in the North Caucasus. The Circassians protested against the 2014 Winter Olympics that are scheduled to be held in the surroundings of Sochi, a small city on the Black Sea. Public protests were held in Turkey, the U.S., the EU and several other countries. The upcoming Olympics provided a unique opportunity for this North Caucasian people to tell the world their long forgotten story of struggle, defeat and suffering at the hands of the enormous Russian imperial army in the 19th century on onwards.

The Circassians argue that what the Russian empire did to their ancestors in the 19th century on the very lands designated as the sites for the 2014 Olympics amount to nothing less than genocide. The activists demanded that the International Olympic Committee “strip Russia of the Sochi Olympics based on it being the location of the Circassian Genocide.” The victorious Russian empire is believed to have killed up to 1.5 million Circassians, while subjecting the majority of the 1.5 million who survived deportation to the Ottoman Empire (www.nosochi2014.com, accessed on January 17, 2011)

Indeed, it is known that the Russian army held a military parade near modern Sochi in 1864, following the final defeat of the Circassian armies. There is also a plethora of historical evidence pointing to questionable Russian policies in the region, including the killing of civilians, inflicting deliberate hardships and what in the contemporary world is often referred to as “ethnic cleansing.” Today the Circassians, known also as Adygei, Kabardin, Cherkess, Abaza and Shapsug, comprise less than 0.5 percent of the population of Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi and all the territory that once belonged to the Circassians. They also live in Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, comprising a majority (55 percent)  of the population in the latter territory (www.perepis2002.ru, accessed on January 17, 2011).

The galvanization of the Circassian diaspora abroad, where the bulk of ethnic Circassians reside nowadays, had a major impact on political developments in the North Caucasus. The participants in a conference on the Circassians and the North Caucasus organized by The Jamestown Foundation and Ilia State University in March 2010 petitioned the Georgian parliament, asking it to recognize “the Circassian Genocide.” The Georgian parliament agreed to consider this question. The Jamestown Foundation and Ilia State University held a second conference in this series in November 2010, which attracted even more scholars and practitioners from around the world. Georgia’s move toward possible recognition of the alleged “genocide” was received very warmly in the Northwestern Caucasus, given that it was the first time the possibility of a U.N. member-country recognizing “the Circassian genocide” appeared realistic. Russian media and some politicians reacted angrily to Georgia’s incursion into North Caucasus affairs, blaming, as usual, the regime of President Mikheil Saakashvili and “Russia’s enemies in the West” who allegedly want to deprive Russia of the 2014 Winter Olympics. At the same time, the very real grievances of the Circassians did not receive much consideration, most of the time being swept under the carpet (www.politcom.ru, March 18, 2010).

However, the previous course of events showed that there was a strong internal drive among the Circassians in the North Caucasus to make their voice heard, which had nothing to do with clichéd “enemies of Russia.” One of the most respected Circassian leaders in the North Caucasus, Murat Berzeg, was forced to leave Russia and seek asylum in the U.S. in 2010 because of mounting pressure by the Russian authorities. As early as in 2006, that is before the Russian application to hold the 2014 Olympics was approved, Berzegov initiated an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg regarding the Circassian “genocide” issue. The appeal came after the Russian State Duma rejected the Circassians’ claims (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, October 31, 2006).

Berzegov accused the Russian authorities of ignoring and distorting the Circassian problem, suggesting that this approach would provide “a platform for irresistible escalation.” In Berzegov’s opinion, that would drive the youth into the rebels’ ranks, eventually making the Circassian-populated republics of Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria follow the path of volatile Ingushetia and Dagestan (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, July 17, 2010). In fact, Kabardino-Balkaria clearly outpaced Ingushetia in 2010 in terms of the number of attacks and their gravity, becoming the second most deadly republic in the North Caucasus after Dagestan (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 20, 2010).

The issue of “genocide” received such acclaim in Kabardino-Balkaria that even the republic’s officialdom appeared to be siding with the informal activists. Sufian Zhemukhov, Deputy Director and Senior Associate in International Relations at the Kabardino-Balkarian Institute of Humanitarian Research, which is under the strong influence of the republican government, wrote for the Open Democracy website on the positive impact of The Jamestown Foundation and Ilia State University joint conference.

“The Circassian genocide has become more of an accepted subject for discussion in Russia,” Zhemukhov wrote. “Historians and analysts have come to consider the events of 1864 as a tragedy for the Circassian nation. This in itself is a massive improvement over the notion that dominated earlier discussions: that the Circassians were predators (khishniki) who attacked peaceful Russian troops at the border, were deceived by treacherous British and Turkish agents, voluntarily left their country, and, finally, suffered in the Ottoman Empire as a result of their own stupidity” (opendemocracy.net, November 9, 2010).

The Winter Olympics in Sochi, the warmest place in Russia, became the target of fierce criticism by the Russian opposition. The official estimates of the costs incurred in developing the area to meet the Olympics’ standards exceed $30 billion, while some unofficial estimates put the figure even higher – at $45 billion-$50 billion, which is an unprecedented amount of money spent on preparing for the Olympics. Due to the endemic corruption that even the government does not bother to deny or fight, much of the allotted money is misspent. Just one highway alone is projected to cost $7.5 billion, each kilometer costing $150 million (http://www.putin-itogi.ru/doklad/#10). These colossal amounts of resources could obviously be used more wisely in a country with crumbling infrastructure and a fragile economy like Russia. Instead, the resources were redirected to a project that increasingly looks like Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s whim and betrays the true nature of the current political regime in Russia.

As the 2014 Winter Olympics approach, the Circassians are increasingly likely to take this opportunity to make known their tragic history and try to make at least some political gains. While the Russian government has chosen to ignore and suppress the Circassian movement, destabilization is likely to deepen in this part of the North Caucasus in 2011.