Radical Departure from Moscow’s Current Circassian Strategy Remain Low

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 123

Demonstration near the Russian Consulate in Istanbul, May 21, 2011 (Source: Reuters)

On June 21, the Russian Public Chamber’s working group on the North Caucasus held a public hearing on the problems of divided peoples who involuntarily found themselves separated by state boundaries. The Circassian issue was one of the most discussed themes, as a majority of ethnic Circassians have lived outside their homeland in Russia’s North Caucasus since the expulsions by the Russian empire in the nineteenth century. Besides the Circassians, the working group also recognized the Lezgins, Avars, Tsakhurs and Rutuls as divided peoples. The participants in the hearing produced a list of recommendations for the Russian government that particularly targeted Circassians. They advised the authorities in Moscow to make adjustments to Russian law in order to grant willing members of the Circassian diaspora the status of compatriots with a simplified path to Russian citizenship.

The government was also asked to examine the possibility of organizing resettlement programs for members of the Circassian diaspora willing to return to their historic homeland. The list of territories for the possible resettlement included Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Adygea, the Krasnodar and Stavropol regions and the Mozdok district of North Ossetia. Boosting cross-border cooperation was seen as one of the key factors for solving the issue of divided peoples (http://top.oprf.ru/news/3355.html).

Zamir Shukhov, the leader of the Circassian organization Khase in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, emphasized in his report for the Russian Public Chamber the benefits Russia would obtain from allowing the Circassians to return to their homeland in the North Caucasus. “[If] the correct political assessment [is present], the Russian authorities may find a solution to the Circassian issue before the start of 2014 Olympic Games, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Russian-Caucasian war’s end,” Shukhov stated. The world would evaluate the maturity of Russia’s democracy based on how Russia resolved the Circassian issue, Shukhov claimed. According to Shukhov, there are about 8.5 million Circassians in the world, of whom only about 10 percent (900,000 people) live in Russia, mostly in the North Caucasus. An estimated seven million Circassians live in Turkey, 200,000 in Syria, 130,000 in Jordan, 150,000 in EU countries, 40,000 in Iraq, 30,000 in Libya and about 30,000 in North America (www.elot.ru, June 22).

The scheduled 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, the former Circassian homeland, have galvanized Circassian activists in the North Caucasus and the diaspora. While the Circassians are hoping to attract the attention of the world community to their expulsion from their homeland, Moscow seems to be anxious to avoid an international scandal during the Olympics.

Leaders of respected civil organizations and experts were a majority of those who participated in the Public Chamber’s conference, but some notorious characters were also present. Gocha Dzassokhov and Malkhaz Gulashvili, leaders of the so-called Assembly of Peoples of Georgia, an organization based in Russia, called on Moscow to have a more proactive policy in the South Caucasus (http://top.oprf.ru/news/3355.html, accessed on June 25). The likely motive behind this is to counter the more active policy toward the North Caucasus that Georgia has pursued, lifting visa restrictions for North Caucasians and, in May 2011, recognizing the Circassian “genocide.”

Aleksandr Okhtov, a Circassian leader from Karachaevo-Cherkessia, shed light on the atmosphere at the Russian Public Chamber event. According to Okhtov, the head of the working group on the Caucasus, Maxim Shevchenko, expressly prohibited discussing any problems that divided peoples face in Russia. Supposedly, only those living outside the Russian Federation, especially those living in countries of the South Caucasus, have encountered difficulties. In particular, Aleksandr Zhuravsky of the Ministry for Regional Development and Sergei Markov, a member of the Russian State Duma, allegedly asserted that the Circassians who reside in the Russian North Caucasus are completely satisfied with their situation. The two were allowed to interrupt other speakers and speak as much as they wanted, while papers by two Circassians were deemed “unsuitable” for the conference. “Does it follow that Mr. Markov and Mr. Zhuravsky know more about the problems of language and culture of the Circassian people in Russia than ordinary Circassians and Circassian scholars?” Okhtov asked rhetorically. Circassian activists stated that modern-day Circassians in the North Caucasus are also undergoing “genocide,” in the form of ethnocide, since they are divided between two federal districts and six separate regions in the south of Russia. According to Okhtov, many Circassians in the North Caucasus have been unable to receive an education in the Circassian language and are rapidly losing their identity. “Retaining the language and the culture of the Circassian people is retaining the language and the culture of the Russian Federation, since we [the Circassians] as people are part of Russia,” concluded Okhtov.  “We are Russians. As a matter of fact, we are therefore asking Russia to retain itself” (www.elot.ru, June 25).

Unfortunately, Okhtov’s appeal is likely to fall on deaf ears in Moscow. Following the recommendations of the Circassian activists would necessarily require a radical departure of the Russian government from the path of centralization, curbing civil freedoms and sealing off the North Caucasus from the outside world. None of this appears to be even thinkable under the current Russian regime. So while some carrots for the Circassian activists are possible, the chances for a radical shift in Moscow’s policy on this issue are slim. In turn, Moscow’s unwillingness to do something about the Circassian issue may ignite the already restive area.

Kommersant-Vlast quoted Circassian activists who warned of possible violent scenarios. Circassian activists Rustam Lakhov and Zurab Kazanokov predicted to Kommersant-Vlast in 2010 that Georgia’s recognition of the Circassian “genocide” would become a powerful unifying factor for their people, who would demand Moscow’s attention to their needs in relation to the Olympics in Sochi. “There will always be some radical [Circassian] guys who will visit Sochi,” the Circassian activists predicted. Before the Olympics everybody will be nervous. These activists will be tied, beaten up, imprisoned. This will spark large scale riots in the whole Caucasus” (Kommersant-Vlast, June 6).

The Circassian issue highlights once again how the breakdown of participatory political institutions and the absence of a free media make it excessively hard to resolve important political issues in Russia. Since there are no legally legitimate representatives of the people, it is very hard to arrive at any lasting agreements, and that makes the odds for Moscow and the Circassians finding common ground extremely low.