Russian Authorities Counter Circassian Activism Through Manipulation

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 9

On April 25–26, an international academic conference called “Circassians: History and Modernity” took place in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria. Underscoring the high profile of the event, the head of the republic, Yuri Kokov, delivered the keynote address. Kokov’s message was simple and transparent: he attempted to dampen the historical grievances of the Circassians and dissuade them from political activism. “It is known that there is practically no people in the world that did not experience tragic events at some point of their history that had devastating consequences for each of them,” he said. “It is encouraging, therefore, that contemporary Circassians realize well that historical tragedy touched not only upon their fate, but upon many other people of Russia, especially, the Russian people. Circassians do not speculate on the hardships of their ancestors. They do not accede to attempts to advance their own dignity at the expense of dignities of other people” (http://www.president-kbr.ru/ru/kbr-events/news/meeting/9812–l-r.html).

Recently appointed as the head of Kabardino-Balkaria, Kokov, a veteran of the Russian security services, apparently aimed at stalling Circassian activism, cleverly turning the Circassians’ code of honor against them. The recent Winter Olympic Games in Sochi paved the way for a significant spike in civil activism among Circassians worldwide, including their homeland in the northwestern Caucasus. Circassians demanded official recognition of the Circassian “genocide” by Russia. The Russian government decimated the Circassian population of the North Caucasus at the time of the conquest of the region in the 19th century. Russian tsars vied for control over the Black Sea and, in doing so, literally replaced the indigenous population of the area—the Circassians—with ethnic Russians.

The ethnic makeup of the northwestern Caucasus was completely changed in the aftermath of Russia’s conquest of the region. Today, the majority of ethnic Circassians live in Turkey, following the policy of killings and expulsions by Russia. It is notable that despite the fact that the Sochi Olympics are already in the past, the Circassian question remains sufficiently alive so that the government must grapple with it. In May, Circassians worldwide will mark the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of the Russian-Circassian war, which put an end to independent Circassia and to the preponderance of Circassians in the North Caucasus.

At the conference in Nalchik, the rector of Kabardino-Balkarian State University, Barazbi Karamurzov, said that “many Circassians” perceive the fact that the majority of the nation lives outside its historical homeland as a problem and an anomaly that needs to be corrected. This is the core of the Circassian question, according to the academician. Karamurzov further stressed that the Circassian question cannot be isolated from outside influences (http://adygeia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/241668/). In saying so, Karamurzov essentially challenged President Vladimir Putin, who earlier in February linked the Circassian question to Western plots to contain Russia, thereby brushing aside Circassian grievances (http://www.kremlin.ru/transcripts/20203). The official conference in Nalchik was the target of scathing criticism by independent Circassian activists as an attempt to divert Circassians from pursuing pressing issues (http://www.natpress.info/index.php?newsid=8941).

The Russian authorities and their regional agents in the North Caucasus take the Circassian question seriously and they are clearly trying hard to deflect criticism even after the Sochi Olympics. Apart from the conference in Nalchik, which was held shortly before the 150th anniversary of Circassians’ final destruction by the Russian Empire, a forum of Circassian youth of Russia and abroad took place in Nalchik, then moved to Sochi and then on to Sukhumi, Abkhazia. A Circassian website called it “an enigmatic, out of nowhere forum.” It featured 100 participants, half of them from the Circassian diaspora. An event like that required significant organizational and financial commitment and yet was not affiliated with any well-known organizations or individuals. In the concluding memorandum, the forum called on Circassian organizations abroad to cooperate with their Russian counterparts, and with the Russian and regional governments. The forum specifically warned against “involving the Circassian youth of Russia and foreign countries in actions that could destabilize the situation in the Caucasus” (http://www.natpress.info/index.php?newsid=8936).

The authorities in Adygea replaced the Day of the Circassian Flag that Circassians mark on April 25 with the “Day of the Adygean Flag,” which is identical to the Circassian flag. To the surprise of Circassian activists, the authorities in Adygea invented the new republican festival this year. Adygea’s entire leadership took part in the procession—something that they had never done previously (http://www.natpress.info/index.php?newsid=8937).

Since the local governments installed by Moscow cannot openly suppress Circassian activism, the authorities instead try to take control of these processes using manipulative techniques. The series of actions designed to take control of the Circassian question indicate that Circassian activism in the North Caucasus is strong enough to worry the government. It appears that the Circassian question is not going away despite the end of the Olympics and the world’s waning interest in the Circassians and their problems.