On May 16, members of the Russian State’s Duma committee on foreign affairs met with a group of Circassian activists from the North Caucasus and the overseas diasporas. The short, one-hour meeting, which was the highest level Russian government meeting with Circassian activists to date, was allegedly driven by the ongoing debates in the Georgian parliament that are expected to culminate in a resolution on the Circassian issue by May 20. According to the Georgian expert Mamuka Areshdze, it is almost inevitable that the Georgian parliament will adopt a resolution on the Circassians calling the mass killings and expulsions of Circassian civilians by Russia in the nineteenth century either outright “genocide” or “tragedy” (Moskovskie Novosti, May 17).
On May 13, experts presented a report in the Georgian parliament asserting that recognizing the events in historic Circassia in the nineteenth century as “genocide” would be “a matter of great prestige for Georgia” and “an opportunity to restore justice.” During the Caucasian War of the nineteenth century, “pre-planned and implemented cleansing” of territories settled by the Circassians resulted in “either the death or expulsion of 90 percent of the 1.5 million Circassians,” reads the report, compiled by a group of academics based on archival materials. “We clearly qualify these actions as genocide,” the report concludes (www.civil.ge, May 14).
The Russian imperial army celebrated its military success in Circassia with a parade at Krasnaya Polyana near the modern Black Sea resort of Sochi in 1864. After Sochi was chosen, in 2007, to be the site for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, Circassian activists seized on this opportunity to make their cause known internationally by organizing rallies and other public events. The Jamestown Foundation with Georgia’s Ilia State University held two landmark conferences on issues connected to the Circassians and other North Caucasian peoples in Tbilisi in 2010.
Little information on the meeting in the Russian parliament was leaked to the media. So far, Moscow has dismissed the Circassians’ claims that the Russian empire employed genocidal practices in the North Caucasus in the nineteenth century. Apparently even now Moscow is trying to strike a deal with a few influential individuals from among the Circassians. After members of the younger generation of Circassian activists in the North Caucasus were tipped off about the meeting in the Russian parliament, they demanded that the participants disclose the contents of the discussion. The president of the International Circassian Association, Kanshobi Azhakhov, concisely responded that they would discuss repatriation, cultural development of the Circassians as well as making use of the Circassian theme in the Sochi Olympics. Participants from the United States, Germany, Syria, Jordan and Turkey were expected to attend the meeting (https://www.aheku.org/page-id-2419.html).
The International Circassian Association has a dubious reputation among many Circassians for its alleged close relations with the Russian government. A Circassian website noted: “It is true that the organizations, which are behind the vociferous campaign against the Sochi Olympics, and the political groups, whose objective is the re-establishment of Circassia, were excluded from the meeting. Therefore, we should not rule out the possibility that the main objective might well be to mitigate global Circassian activism and to sow seeds of dissent between various parties in Circassian politics” (https://www.circassianworld.com/new/analysis/1564-circassianworlds-statement-on-the-meeting-of-may-16th-in-russian-duma.html).
The most complete account of what the Circassians demanded from the Russian legislators was provided in the address of Cicek Chek, president of the Circassian Association of California/Adyghe Khasa. The central part of his speech concerned the Circassians’ “unconditional right of return” to their homeland with Russian governmental support for the repatriation process in the North Caucasus. In his written submission, Chek said the Circassians’ right to return meant “the elimination of all quotas, financial requirements, residency requirements and language requirements” as well as free travel to and from the North Caucasus and Russian financial backing for the resettlement process. Another important political demand was about creating a contiguous Circassian republic within the Russian Federation that would include all current territories populated by the Circassians—namely Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Adygea and the Shapsug area of Krasnodar region. Chek concluded his speech with a stark warning: “If the prospect of a Circassia within the Russian Federation continues to fade, the allure of independence among greater numbers of Circassians is not only more likely, it is assured. Whether Circassians pursue their aspirations with, and within, the Russian Federation or through a full-fledged independence movement is, at this point, completely up to the Russian leadership”
The deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s committee on foreign affairs, Andrei Klimov, evasively commented that the committee and the Circassian activists agreed to hold a direct dialogue on the Circassian genocide issue. Klimov said the meeting was not prompted by the hearings in the Georgian parliament and expressed a desire to solve all problems through direct dialogue (www.regnum.ru, May 16). Klimov’s emphasis on “direct dialogue” probably reflects a goal of reducing the Circassians’ international activism and the attention of the international community as much as possible.
Since it is next to improbable that the current regime in Moscow will take any significant steps toward fulfilling either of the primary demands that Cicek Chek voiced, Russia may well face the rise of another independence movement in the North Caucasus. The Russian Federation has been keen on attracting ethnic Russian settlers from CIS countries, especially as it badly needs a larger workforce. Yet, it is reluctant to accept ethnic non-Russians as citizens, particularly in large numbers and for resettlement in the North Caucasus. Allowing free travel to the North Caucasus from abroad is also practically out of question, since isolating the region from the outside world has been one of Moscow’s key policies at least since the interwar period in Chechnya in the 1990’s. So, in order to accept Circassian conditions, Moscow would have to completely revamp its policies not only in the North Caucasus, but to some extent in Russia proper as well. Instead, the Russian government is likely to try to bribe some Circassian leaders, frighten the others, foster internal conflicts and disagreements, and send more money to the existing governors of the Circassian-populated republics in the North Caucasus. It is questionable, however, whether more money will appease the wider circle of Circassians who appear determined to seize the opportunity to advance the Circassian cause.