In the past, Moscow has used population censuses to promote divisions within the Circassian nation. As part of its divide-and-conquer effort in the North Caucasus as well as to isolate them from the far larger Circassian nation abroad, Moscow has required members of that community to identify themselves as Adygs, Karachays, Kabards and so on—names of historical subgroups of Circassians. Roughly 500,000 Circassians remain in the area of their historical North Caucasus homeland, but more than five million are members of the diaspora, which arose as a result of Russia’s forced deportation of that nation in 1864.
Now, as part of an effort to overcome those Russian-imposed divisions, Timur Yevgazhukov, a Circassian activist living in Moscow, has launched an Internet campaign to conduct an electronic census of all Circassians. His planned survey will cover Circassians both within the Russian Federation and abroad. This approach, he says, will help promote their common identity. Circassians overwhelmingly support the idea of reaffirming their unity, and therefore most back this census. But some suspect that the way it is being organized may mean that the Russian security services are behind this initiative and that its ultimate but unstated goal is the same one the Russian state has pursued in the past, according to journalist Larisa Cherkes (Kavkazr.com, October 18).
Many are suspicious because the new project allows Circassians to register as such only if others already on the list invite them to do so. Organizers say this is necessary so that members of other nations do not register as Circassians. But many Circassians clearly feel that this is an effort not only to identify networks within their community that the Russian authorities might exploit or suppress but also to reduce the number of recognized Circassians by frightening some of them away. Such a strategy could allow Moscow to claim that there are not nearly as many Circassians in the world as most experts say.
But far more Circassians appear to be concerned about what will happen to their data if they provide it online. The older generation of Circassians is largely unfamiliar with the Internet and, hence, is suspicious of it as such. Younger Circassians are Internet-savvy, but they are naturally suspicious of how the Russian intelligence services or perhaps someone else might misuse the data they provide. Such fears are compounded by the fact that the organizers of this effort are unknown to most and have not described how they will keep the data Circassians provide safe.
These Circassians are troubled by something else as well: the site exists in English and in Russian but not in Circassian. Many Circassians within the borders of the Russian Federation know Russian; and many Circassians living abroad know English. But many Circassians do not speak either. Hence, some are questioning this bilingual limitation. One answer is that the organizers do not really want to count all Circassians—and that suggests that behind this project may be people and institutions that are anything but sympathetic to the Circassians and their cause.
One of this community’s most prominent skeptics is Zaur Geduadzhe, the head of the Circassian Institute in Munich. He says that it is extremely dangerous to provide private information to unknown individuals or organizations, especially if one does not know how this data will be used. Indeed, the new “census” asks for addresses and other information that would allow Moscow to find almost anyone who takes part (Onkavkaz.com, October 18).
According to Geduadzhe, this is the third attempt to conduct some kind of census of all Circassians. The first involved the creation of an electronic business network; and the second—“the unsuccessful project of creating Circassian passports.” He says that all these efforts were intended to weaken rather than strengthen the Circassian nation, even though many hoped in each case that they would spark a growth in Circassian national identification.
In his view, behind the current effort “stands the FSB [Russian Federal Security Service],” which is interested in threatening “Circassian activists and eliminating them as [its officers and representatives] have been doing with Chechens.” Geduadzhe here is referring to the tragic history in which agents of republican leader Ramzan Kadyrov, likely working closely with the FSB and other Russian intelligence services, have killed opposition Chechens abroad. If he is right, it would appear that Moscow is now prepared to expand its fight against Circassian activism in a new and dangerous way.
Despite this threat, it is likely that many Circassians will be tempted to fill in the forms because the organizers promise that soon individual Circassians will be able to search for relatives anywhere in the world and construct genealogies. But until there is a Circassian-language version of this “census,” that seems unlikely. Indeed, the greatest danger is that only a few Circassians will participate and then, on that basis, Moscow will claim the Circassian nation is much smaller than heretofore assumed.