Vladimir Putin is a specialist at “hybrid” operations, in which the nominal goal of any move covers up his real methods and motives. He has launched another such effort in Sochi, where his government is using plans for the construction of a new railroad as a means to effectively destroy an indigenous ethnic group. But because the plans had to be slowed in order to finance his bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea, the group in question—the Shapsugs, one of the 12 subgroups of the Circassian nation—has had time to organize and mobilize support among Circassians not only in the North Caucasus but internationally. As a result, Putin’s program is backfiring: in the short term, he may succeed in eliminating some Circassian villages; but in the longer term, he has ensured the rebirth of the Shapsug nation and unintentionally given new energy to the Circassian cause.
The Shapsugs and the way in which their fate is linked to Russian projects first came to international attention in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the site from which 19th-century tsarist forces expelled nearly a million Circassians at the conclusion of the Russian advance into their historical homeland. Only about 10,000 Shapsugs are left in the Sochi area, but more than 800,000 reside abroad. They, thus, form only a small portion of the 700,000 Circassians living in the North Caucasus but a significant fraction of the 5–7 million Circassians living beyond current Russian borders.
Because they were the most immediately affected by the construction of Putin’s Olympiad in 2014, the Shapsugs took the lead in calling attention to the government’s decision to hold an international sports competition on the site of and on the 150th anniversary of an act many of them and some others, including the government of Georgia, view as a “genocide.” Now, as a result of Putin’s new mega-construction efforts, the Shapsugs are again speaking out.
During a visit to Sochi at the end of last year, the Kremlin leader said that the existing railroad along the embankment of the Black Sea in Sochi must be shifted inland for national security reasons (Efcate.com, December 24, 2019. But the new route would require the destruction of many of the surviving Shapsug neighborhoods in the city and adjoining villages; as such, it represents a threat to their continued survival in that corner of southwestern Russia. National, regional and local officials eager to show their commitment to fulfilling Putin’s desires have rushed forward, ignoring the interests of the Shapsugs. That is easy for them to do since the Shapsugs lack their own territorial autonomy and do not have any representatives in the local Sochi government bodies (Kavkazr.com, November 23, 2018.
Nevertheless, Shapsug public organizations have appealed to the city and federal authorities to at least take their concerns into account in deciding on the route of the new railway. So far, however, officials have largely ignored them, declaring that any Shapsugs displaced will receive modern high-rise apartments and should be pleased (see EDM, January 16; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, January 14).
Now, however, the Shapsug cause is being taken up by Circassians elsewhere in the North Caucasus and abroad. In a 2017 interview for the Prague-based Caucasus Times, Ruslan Gvashev suggested that this latest Russian move is going to backfire because the Shapsugs feel backed into a corner while other Circassians will be galvanized to support the Circassian cause as a whole. Because the Circassians identify with the Shapsug case so strongly, they are not only demanding the cancelation of the railroad plan but also that Moscow make further concessions to the Shapsugs and the wider Circassian community on a variety of issues (Caucasus Times, November 22, 2017).
Gvashev, a Circassian leader in Stavropol Krai—there are some 30,000 Circassians living in that predominantly ethnic-Russian region—said that “the most horrible thing hanging over us” is Putin’s attack on the Shapsugs. “Up to today,” he continued, “a map hangs in the office of Sochi leader Pakhomov showing the projected railroad from Krasnodar to Sochi” that will pass through Circassian villages and require their destruction to complete. Moscow has already invested “millions” in this effort, although construction had been slowed by the diversion of money to build the Kerch Strait Bridge to Crimea. Now that is finished, and the threat to the Shapsugs has intensified.
If the railroad project is completed, he argued, “[a railway] station will stand where the Tkhagapsh aul [mountain village in the Sochi region] is today. It will cover the entire village […] and they will resettle us in apartment blocks.” That will destroy the community and put the nation at risk, especially since “the 10,000 Shapsugs today do not have radio, television or schools” in their native language. The Shapsugs are furious and all Circassians should be as well, Gvashev contended. They should see the Shapsug demand that the rail line not be relocated as part and parcel of Circassian demands for the defense and revival of the Circassian language, for the restoration of a single Circassian Republic and for the repatriation of Circassians from the Middle East to their historical homeland—demands that Moscow has consistently opposed (see EDM, February 6).
Gvashev’s words and his suggestion that young Circassians are no long afraid of challenging the authorities sets the stage for a serious conflict between the Shapsugs and Sochi officials over the railroad and, more generally, for an even more serious one between the Circassians and Moscow over the future of Circassians. Indeed, it appears that, once again, a Putin project is backfiring. And at the very least, ever more Circassians, long divided by Moscow, can be expected to declare a common Circassian identity in the upcoming Russian census.