Shapsug Circassians in Sochi Demand Recognition as Native Peoples to Region

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 11

Ethnic Shapsugs who live in the Krasnodar region around Sochi are trying to make use of the upcoming Olympic Games to improve their position in their homeland. Aisa Achmezov, a businessman and a Circassian activist, told the Kavkazskaya Politika website that the Shapsug village of Bolshoi Kichmai received some infrastructure upgrades in the run-up to the Olympics, and therefore the Shapsug people welcomed the Olympics. The Shapsugs had earlier asked the governor of Krasnodar region, Alexander Tkachyov, to grant the Shapsugs the status of people native to the region, but repeated attempts to resolve this issue failed, according to Achmezov (http://kavpolit.com/olimpiada-i-shapsugi/).

The Shapsugs are a branch of the Circassians who traditionally resided in the Sochi area. Prior to the Russian Empire’s bloody conquest of the North Caucasus in the 19th century, the Shapsug branch of the Circassians was one of the largest, estimated at several hundred thousand people. Currently, little more than 3,000 Shapsugs remain in their homeland. The rest of the Shapsugs, along with the vast majority of the other Circassians, were killed or expelled from the western Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire by the Russians during Tsar Alexander II’s reign. An estimated 90 percent of Circassians today live outside their historical homeland. The Circassian population of Krasnodar region is now estimated to be about 25,000 people, or less than 0.5 percent of the region’s total population of 5.1 million (2002 Russian State Census results).

The Circassians’ hopes to call attention to the issues in their homeland have received a boost from the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympic Games. A group of people scattered among many countries has finally obtained the chance to attract the world’s attention to their problems. The Russian government, however, has remained largely dismissive of the Circassians’ demands. In particular, the Circassian activists expected that contemporary Russia, as the self-proclaimed heir of the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire, would recognize the Circassian “genocide.” “Moral duty today requires recognizing and condemning the Circassian genocide in the Caucasian war at the state level,” the head of the Social Research Institution in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Muradin Besleneyev, stated at a conference commemorating the 149th anniversary of the end of the Russian-Caucasian war held on May 21 in Cherkessk, Karachaevo-Cherkessia. “Only this step can draw a line under that war and prevent a reappearance of the same policies in the future. Such recurrences are possible, as was confirmed throughout the history of the 20th century, when many peoples of the Caucasus, including the Cossacks and the Karachays, were repressed en masse” (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/224507/).

The Russian government so far has not only refused to recognize the Circassian “genocide,” but even to grant native status to the Shapsugs, natives of the Black Sea coastal areas whose roots in the region no one seems to contest. Governor Tkachyov stated at the meeting with the Shapsug activists that “elements of Circassian culture will be incorporated in the general program of the opening and closing of the Olympic Games, thereby emphasizing that the Circassians are people native (to the region) who made it possible for this unique event to happen.” However, as the Shapsug activists said, it was unclear how this “incorporation” would be implemented. The officials reportedly did not consult the Circassians on this matter. Furthermore, the Shapsugs of Krasnodar region are calling for changes to the text of the region’s official hymn, which calls Muslims the enemies of the region, apparently reflecting the realities of the war in the 19th century (http://kavpolit.com/olimpiada-i-shapsugi/).

Russian-born Israeli expert on the Circassian question, Avraam Shmulevich, pointed out that Moscow refuses to recognize the Circassian “genocide” because such recognition would entail recognizing the Circassians’ rights to return to their homeland. The Russian government then would find itself obliged to create the necessary conditions for the Circassians’ return. Potentially, this is not an impossible task for Russia, Shmulevich asserted. However, for Vladimir Putin’s Russia, admitting thousands of non-Russians with dual citizenship—who cannot be suppressed the same way that Russian citizens can—poses a great danger, the analysts wrote. According to Shmulevich, there are issues with the Circassian organizations in the North Caucasus as well, since they came under the strong influence of the Russian security services. Having been disillusioned with the existing Circassian civil organizations in Russia, Circassian youth are on the verge of setting up an international organization that would invoke international law to press Russia to change its position on the Circassians. “The Russian security services apply enormous effort to neutralize the Circassian question,” Shmulevich said. “But they are not omnipotent. Even the mighty Soviet KGB could not control the multi-million nation [of Circassians]; the much less powerful contemporary successors to the KGB will be even less able to achieve this objective” (http://www.apn.ru/publications/article29213.htm).

Moscow’s refusal to extend any concessions to the Circassians tends to solidify the Circassians’ positions. Even the handful of Circassians left in Krasnodar region are becoming increasingly bold in their demands to Moscow. The 2014 Sochi Olympics are likely to provide an ample venue for the advancement of the Circassian cause by civil activists, so more protests lie ahead.