The FSB’s Campaign to Eradicate Circassian Nationalism

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 7

Three Russian men pressed a pistol muzzle against the back of Murat Berzegov’s head. Earlier that evening, they had abducted the leader of the Circassian National Movement of Adygea right in front of his house.

“We’re veterans of the security services, professionals and Russian patriots,” they told Berzegov. “You won’t be able to die a national hero. If you don’t stop shaming Russia with your talk of “genocide,” we’ll discredit you and you’ll lose your kids.”

Murat Berzegov emotionally retells the story of the Circassians’ century-long war with Russia while sitting in his office in Maikop, the green flag of Circassia on the wall behind him. He worries about his family, but is determined not to bow in the face of intimidation.

“We had petitioned the Duma and the Russian President to officially recognize that the genocide took place, but they refused. Therefore, we’re appealing to international organizations, even though that’s being labeled as “extremism.” First, the FSB worked against us through official channels, but now they’ve passed the torch to their veterans, and those people know no rules.”

The existence of semi-official organizations composed of Soviet and Russian veterans of the special services is barely acknowledged within the Russian Federation. The subject is taboo in the media, with the prohibition only recently broken by the opposition Novaya Gazyeta newspaper. In a three-page article entitled, “The Backup Services,” the paper describes the existence of secret divisions of the Russian security establishment functioning under the guise of social organizations or private security firms. These organizations of “veterans” are well structured, organized along hierarchies and closely connected with the official security services of the state. Remaining outside the official structures, such “veterans” are able to carry out the dirty work of disposing those whom the chiefs of the security apparatus deem inconvenient.

Gaidar Jemal, the leader of the “Islamic Committee of Russia” movement, is certain that a secretive KGB-style organization connected with the security services exists. Jemal told this author that: “There are certain organizations that resolve those issues that lie outside of the scope of authorized action of the legally sanctioned security services. These groups work with the official security apparatus through unofficial channels and are staffed by the veterans of these services. Such men carry out the death sentences handed out by those who hold official government posts. The ostensible motivation behind these actions is ‘patriotism,’ but it’s really racist xenophobia. The victims of the ‘security veterans’ are those deemed as “Russia’s enemies and traitors.”

As Murat Berzegov’s story shows, such “veterans” are even active in the Caucasus, where Berzegov was targeted for appealing to the President and Congress of the United States to recognize Russia’s genocide of the Circassian people.

It should be noted that the existence of Circassia is known only to a few historians today. A country that occupied the lands between the Black and the Caspian Seas, it was colonized by Russia in the 19th century, with 90% of the Circassians being annihilated in the process. Today, a million Circassians (the Adyghe and the Kabard) live in three republics in the south of the Russian Federation – Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Close to five million other Circassians comprise a diaspora that exists outside Russia.

Admission of a genocide would result in the recreation of Circassia within its historical borders. As the Caucasus scholar Yakov Gordin told this author, this could lead to Russia’s loss of the entire Caucasus. This is why the Russian media occasionally features stories regarding the “dangerous plans of re-creating a ‘Greater Circassia’ stretching from sea to sea.” The ostensible backer of this plan is the exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Such articles indicate that the Kremlin takes the Circassian problem seriously and is willing to implement harsh steps to crush the smallest demands by the Circassians for recognition of their rights.

From that standpoint, the “Circassian Congress” is a truly dangerous organization since its stated goal is the recognition of the genocide of the Circassians by the Russian state. The “Congress” has chapters in twenty countries around the globe, with those located in Russia subject to harassment by the authorities. The leader of the Cherkessk chapter, Beslan Makhov, told this author that he is regularly called in for questioning by the local office of the FSB and that he has even been forced to cease the publication of a free youth newspaper.

“We only published archival documents about the war between Circassia and Russia,” Makhov explains, “but that was enough to have our newspaper labeled as ‘extremist’ by the FSB and shut down.”

In the Caucasus, the most apparent evidence of “service veterans” activity is the mysterious disappearance of thousands of people. One officer of a so-called “death squadron” from the region provided this author with information on condition of anonymity. According to him, there are many ways of making an individual vanish without a trace, with different methods being used depending on whether information is needed or only assassination is required.

According to the officer, those men that need to be questioned are abducted using a well-rehearsed plan. A special group will drive to any city of the Caucasus fully prepared with a full knowledge of the victim’s schedule and movements. The actual abduction can be carried out with little to no trace, even on a crowded street. The victim is driven outside the city limits and is then placed in a waiting helicopter that takes the man to a special base in Khankala (Chechnya) or a secret prison in Mineralnyi Vody. Interrogations are then performed using both chemicals and torture (such as electroshock). After the necessary information is obtained, the body is driven to remote locations and dumped into specially prepared chemical-filled pits. Over the course of several days, the body simply dissolves and the man in question vanishes without a trace.

At least two men famous in the Northern Caucasus have suffered this grizzly fate in the recent past. One of them was Rashid Ozdoev, an investigator from the Ingush attorney general’s office. He disappeared two years ago following his investigation into the FSB’s kidnapping of civilians and community leaders. Ozdoev had assembled materials proving the FSB’s crimes in Ingushetia, but the information disappeared along with the investigator.

The second man was Ruslan Nakhushev, a former KGB major who simply vanished in early November 2005 after being questioned in the FSB office in Nalchik. This distinguished graduate of the Academy of Internal Security was linked to attacks against security officers committed on October 13, 2005 and accused of terrorism by the local prosecutor’s office. A month before Nakhushev disappeared, certain government-controlled newspapers published articles detailing the supposed betrayal committed by the former KGB officer who had sided with the separatists. A week before he vanished, Nakhushev told this author that he would be killed – “They’ll get rid of me. They don’t let you go once you’ve been part of the organization.” Nakhushev became a “traitor” after he founded the “Institute of Islamic Studies” in Nalchik. His deputies were Anzor Astemirov, Musa Mukozhev and Rasul Kudaev, all three of whom were leaders of the Kabardino-Balkaria dzhamaat and two of whom subsequently took up arms and organized the 2005 attack on the Russian security forces in Nalchik.

These two cases pose unanswerable questions. As they like to say in Russia these days – “without a body there is no crime.” Nevertheless, there are other cases. Suspicious and unexpected deaths have claimed three of today’s most famous Circassian leaders.

Yuri Kalmykov, a Circassian who held the post of Minister of Justice under President Yeltsin, died from acute heart failure while exiting an airplane. Kalmykov was the only member of the Russian cabinet to resign as a sign of protest against the war in Chechnya, and after leaving his government post, he dedicated himself to the idea of reuniting the Circassian people. A man with an extensive understanding of Russian law, he worked on creating a foundation for a new Circassian state. For example, in accordance with his plans, an “Inter-Parliamentary Council” of three republics (Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria) was formed. In accordance with the decisions of this council, a single executive authority and even a unified budget were created. The next step would have been the ratification of a new constitution, but when Kalmykov died, so did his project.

A similar cardiac disorder claimed the life of Boris Akbashev, Kalmykov’s successor to the presidency of the “International Circassian Association” in Cherkessk. The third such death was the sudden and unexpected demise of Stanislav Derev, an important businessman and widely acknowledged leader of the Circassian national movement in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. These deaths could, of course, have been completely natural. However, the doctors of all three men were completely surprised by the autopsy results, which revealed that the hearts in all three were almost entirely shredded and destroyed. Two of the deceased – Akbashev and Derev – had no histories of cardiac problems. In fact, Derev was a competitive tennis player and ran ten kilometers every morning. The funerals of all three men were accompanied by widespread demonstrations across Cherkessk, with many people speaking openly about the assassination of their leaders.

It is true that all of these undertakings of Russia’s unofficial security services are quite effective in keeping Russia’s influence in the Northern Caucasus alive. The Russian government continues to sacrifice tens of thousands of victims on the altar of its geopolitical interests, multiplying the violence within the North Caucasus and thus furthering the spread of dangerous global instability.