On April 30, ethnic Shapsug representatives held a conference in Sochi. The Shapsugs are a tiny remnant of the numerous Circassian tribes who were once the sole inhabitants of the Sochi region and much of the western North Caucasus plains before the Russians overran the area in the 19th century. The conference participants decried the poor state of study of the Circassian language in schools, as well as economic and cultural decay. The Circassian activists expressed the view that the Sochi Olympics, scheduled to be held in 2014, could help them solve Shapsug minority issues. In particular, the activists said they could engage in a bargaining process with the Russian government, trading in their opposition to the Sochi Olympics. “The majority of the Shapsugs that I represent support the Olympic Games [in Sochi],” said the president of the International Circassian Association, Kanshobi Azhakhov. “However, this majority might go over to the side of the minority [that opposes the Olympics in Sochi] if the existing problems are not solved” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, May 1).
It must be noted that the Shapsugs, numbering only 12,000 out of the more than five million people who populate the ethnic Russian Krasnodar region, have traditionally been the most vulnerable and, understandably, the most complacent branch of the Circassian people in the North Caucasus. Yet, even the Shapsugs have started to speak out more boldly about their grievances as the Circassian issue took hold in connection with the approaching Sochi Olympics. Initially, the Shapsug conference organizers denied they would discuss the issue of the Sochi Olympics issue (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 28). The formal head of the Shapsug organization in Krasnodar region, Madzhid Chachukh, is considered “a servile” leader by some Circassians. In the run-up to the Shapsug conference Chachukh told the southern Russian news agency Yuga.ru that he supports the Olympics in Sochi, as “it would give a boost to the development of [Shapsug] villages” and voiced optimism about preserving the Circassian language (https://www.yuga.ru/articles/society/6058.html). Yet, Chachukh stated at the conference that some of the Shapsug villages in the mountains of the Krasnodar region were on the brink of disappearing because of government neglect (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, May 1).
The reticent approach of the Black Sea coast Circassian population, the Shapsugs, to their pressing concerns appears to be giving way to a more insistent approach and language as the Circassian issue increasingly rivets attention. On April 27, Andro Gabisonia, the Circassian Congress’s representative in Georgia, handed over another set of documents confirming “the Circassian genocide” at the hands of the Russian empire to Nugzar Tsiklauri, who chairs the Georgian parliamentary committee on friendship with the North Caucasus republics. Gabisonia called on Georgian politicians to assume a leadership role in the Caucasus region and make more decisive moves toward recognizing “the Circassian genocide” (www.natpress.net, April 27). One of the Circassian activists addressed the Shapsug conference to make clear the Circassians’ expectations of the Russian government, demanding recognition of the Circassian genocide by the current Russian leadership, repatriation and adaptation of the Circassians from the diaspora, correction of “historical falsifications” in school textbooks regarding historic Circassian territories and “extensive use of Circassian culture in the cultural program of the Sochi Olympics” (www.natpress.net, May 1).
A commentator on the popular Circassian website Aheku.org calling himself Anzor Kabard wrote: “In the next three years all the ambiguities in relations between Russia and the Circassians will be inescapably resolved. Russia itself appointed ‘the moment of the truth’, its time, place and format [the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi]”. The commentator noted that the next several years would be decisive in clarifying whether Moscow wants to treat the Circassians as full-fledged Russian citizens and compatriots or to expand the war in the Caucasus. The author rejected the notion that the Circassian problem appeared only recently in connection to the Sochi Olympics. In fact, he argued that, in its modern form, it dates back to a groundbreaking Circassian conference that took place in Turkey in October 1989, as the Soviet system was starting to melt down and travel abroad became possible. The future of the Circassian movement heavily depends on the situation in Turkey, where the bulk of the Circassian people currently reside and which may become the main source for repatriation. “If Turkey continues on the path of democratization and integration into the European Union, then Circassian nationalism is bound to grow in the country,” Kabard wrote. “This rise of Circassian nationalism, in turn, will have repercussions for the Circassian enclaves in Russia and for Abkhazia. Whether it will be a problem for Russia or a resource will depend on the quality of relations between it and Turkey” (www.aheku.org, April 29).
In the meantime, relations between Russia and Turkey appear to be thriving. The improvements in bilateral relations have already translated into dropping the visa regime between the two countries. On April 16, an agreement came into force allowing Turkish and Russian citizens to make visa-free visits of up to 30 days in length to each country (www.sk-news.ru, April 27). It is unclear whether there will be formal or informal restrictions for Turkish citizens to visit the North Caucasus. Moscow has designated much of the North Caucasus as a so-called “state border zone,” that requires foreigners who want to visit the region to first obtain special permits issued by the Federal Security Service (FSB). In 2007, during then Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Jordan, the Circassian diaspora, which is well-represented in King Abdullah’s inner circle, planned to deliver several requests to Putin. The Circassians hoped to be allowed to repatriate, to invest in the North Caucasus and to travel freely to the region. Putin avoided meeting with the Circassians, however, and the presidents of Kabardino-Balkaria and Adyghea tried to convince their Jordanian brethren not to press ahead with their demands (www.natpress.net, February 15, 2007).
The current Russian leadership does not appear prepared to give in to the Circassian demands. For example, allowing any significant numbers of non-Russians to resettle in the North Caucasus would contradict all the recent Russian policies in the region and, probably, the personal beliefs of Vladimir Putin. So Moscow is limited to two possible courses of action – applying more pressure on the North Caucasian Circassians in various ways or attempting to trick the Circassian activists with meaningless and easily revocable acts and declarations. Both of these trends can already be seen in Russian policies toward the North Caucasus. The dismissal of the Circassians’ legitimated demands, however, could cause a major destabilization in the region.