Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 22

By Igor Rotar

In August, on board aircraft from the Russian ministry for emergency situations, twenty-three Adygei families (eighty-six people) were brought to Adygea from the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. In Kosovo itself only seven Adygei families remain. The chief organizers of this mission were the president of the Adygea Republic Aslan Djarimov and the Russian foreign ministry. The immigrants are now living in a kindergarten in the Adygea capital, Maykop, but by spring the Adygea government is supposed to provide land for them. “Almost all the Kosovo Adygeis are peasants, so here in Adygea, as in Kosovo, we are planning to work on the land. It’s no problem to feed yourself here–as long as you’re not afraid of hard work. I think that in Russia today a lot of people have simply forgotten how to work–which explains the poverty. We are used to plowing from dawn to dusk, so we are in no doubt that we can earn ourselves a living,” the immigrant Abdullakh Khasani told Prism.

During the war in the Caucasus in the 19th century, more than half a million “Circassians” (the generalized name for all north Caucasian nationalities in those days) migrated to the Ottoman empire to escape the punitive acts of the Russian army. (1) Most of the refugees were Adygeis (the collective name for the closely related Kabardian, Circassian, Adygei and Abkhazian nationalities). More than half the migrants died on the way. The historian Jean Carol called the flight of highlanders from the Caucasus one of the most tragic pages in the history of world barbarism. In the words of eyewitnesses, “Boats from the Danube bringing Circassians to the Balkans… appeared as floating cemeteries to all who witnessed them.” (2) Today, in the countries formed after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, there is a powerful and influential “Circassian” community (all those from the North Caucasus who settled abroad are still known as Circassians). It is not known exactly how many Adygeis there are abroad. The president of the “International Circassian Association” Boris Akbashev puts the total number of Adygeis abroad at 6 million. “If Moscow’s poorly thought out policies turn the Adygeis against it, the consequences will be infinitely more terrible than the Chechen war. Six million fellow-countrymen will come to our aid from abroad!” Akbashev claimed in an interview with Prism. However, the Adygea deputy minister for the press, Gazi Chemso, who is organizing the repatriation of expatriate Adygeis to the republic, considers Akbashev’s figure to be grossly exaggerated. “In actual fact there are no more than 3 million people abroad with any Adygei roots at all. And many of them don’t speak the Adygei language,” Chemso said.

“How exactly we ended up in Kosovo nobody remembers,” Enver Tsei, a migrant from Kosovo, told Prism. “But there is a story that has been handed down from generation to generation in our family: In the 19th century, during the Caucasian war, our family decided to leave its homeland. Our ancestors got to the Balkans by horse. The journey took several months. However, every Adygei believed that sooner or later he would return to his homeland. Almost every Adygei family in Kosovo kept, like a relic, a child’s cradle that their ancestors had brought from the homeland 150 years ago. Today these relics are back in Adygea–and we believe that this symbolizes the fact that we have returned to our homeland for good!” It is astonishing that, far from home, the Adygeis maintained the traditions of their ancestors better than their fellow-countrymen in the homeland. For example, Adygeis in Kosovo only speak their native language to each other, while their counterparts in Adygea often speak to each other in Russian. Unlike their north Caucasian blood brothers, Kosovo Adygeis are very devout: They religiously observe all Moslem rites, and almost all of them abstain from alcohol.

The immigrants are reluctant to talk about the war in Yugoslavia. “We have finally made it back to our homeland, and we want to forget what we went through in Kosovo.” However, all the immigrants are unanimous in saying that they lived peacefully with the Serbs, whereas the Albanians were quite hostile towards the Adygeis. Adygei children were often beaten up at school by their Albanian contemporaries. The adults were uneasy too: There were robberies, Adygei homes were burned down, snipers often took potshots at Adygei peasants as they worked in the fields. Enes Khasani remembers: “The main problem was that we Kosovo Adygeis were law-abiding citizens of Yugoslavia. But the Albanians wanted us to join their campaign of insubordination against the Serb authorities. When we refused, they immediately dubbed us traitors. In our village, Donja-Stanovitsa, most of the inhabitants were Albanian, and it got to the point where often neighbors wouldn’t greet each other and Albanian and Adygei children played apart. In the local school, the Albanians introduced a system of “parallel education” and forced our children to study in Albanian. We had to bus our children to the Serb village of Priluzhye, where they were taught in both Serbian and their native Adygea. Our Albanian neighbors didn’t like that at all, and they often threw stones at the buses carrying the schoolchildren. To give ourselves some protection from persecution, we asked the Serb authorities to give us guns, and they allowed us to form Circassian self-defense brigades.”

Gazi Chemso explained to Prism: “For the vast majority of the international Circassian community, the explanation for the return of Adygeis from the Yugoslav province of Kosovo to Adygea is that they were forced to flee to escape persecution by the Serbs. But paradoxically, though both the Adygeis and the Albanians are Moslems, relations with the Serbs were in fact far better than relations with their fellow-believers, the Albanians. Perhaps this can be explained by the character of the Adygei people. In carrying out my job I have visited every country where Adygeis live, and have noticed the following pattern: Adygeis are loyal to the authorities everywhere. For example, the Royal Guard in Jordan is made up of Circassians, in Turkey local Adygeis fight in the army against Kurdish separatists, and in Israel, where there are about 3,500 Adygeis, two flags fly over their settlements: Israeli and Circassian.”

Gazi Chemso quoted for Prism from Boris Yeltsin’s address to the peoples of the Caucasus:

“In different periods of history, depending on the political situation, the Caucasian War of 1820-1860 has been examined and assessed differently. Today, when Russia is building a legal state and gives priority to values which are common to all mankind, it is possible to treat the events of the Caucasian War objectively, as a spirited fight by the peoples of the Caucasus not just for their survival on their native land, but for the preservation of their original culture and the best traits of their national character. The problems bequeathed to us from the Caucasian War, in particular the return of the descendants of Caucasian migrants to their historical homeland, should be resolved at an international level by means of negotiations involving all interested parties”.

In Chemso’s opinion, that this address has appeared at all testifies to the fact that Russia is at last genuinely interested in dealing with the repercussions of the Caucasian war:

“Although the initiative to repatriate the Kosovo Adygeis came from our president, Aslan Djarimov, it has received the full backing of the Russian foreign ministry. In my view, there are two reasons for Moscow’s support for our initiative. First, the fact that the Kosovo Adygeis are not fleeing from persecution by the Orthodox Serbs is of great importance to Moscow. Second, with the current tension in the North Caucasus following the Chechen war, it is very important for Moscow to demonstrate its friendly attitude to the peoples of the North Caucasus, and in this sense the return of the Kosovo Adygeis has been a very successful diplomatic move.”

According to Adygei President Aslan Djarimov, the repatriation of the Kosovo Adygeis was an excellent way of attracting international attention to the problem of returning Adygeis to their historical home. “The return of this small group of Adygeis from Kosovo has stirred the whole Circassian world. It is an example of historical justice–indeed of justice as a whole. There probably isn’t an ethnic group on earth which suffered the genocide that the Adygeis did. Yesterday the world did not know about this. Now it does,” Djarimov said.

At the end of October, the son of King Hussein of Jordan, Ali-bin al-Hussein, visited the North Caucasian republics, where many Adygeis live (Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Adygea). The prince and his entourage, made up of Jordanian Adygeis, made the whole journey from Amman to the North Caucasus on horseback, thus repeating in reverse the route the fleeing Adygeis took from the North Caucasus in the 19th century. In the prince’s opinion, this journey was to symbolize the start of the return of Adygeis to their historical home. “My mother is Circassian, and my father’s mother was Circassian, so my interest in the North Caucasus cannot be described as coincidental. Moreover, I am a 42nd-generation descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and am duty bound to care for Moslems throughout the world,” Ali-bin al-Hussein told Prism. Although the prince graduated from Cambridge University in England, he plans to continue his education in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, where he intends to study the Adygei and Russian languages and the history if the North Caucasus. That the prince’s intentions are serious is attested by the fact that the prince has received a repatriate’s certificate in Maykop. “According to our laws, these certificates can only be given to Adygeis. To avoid embarrassment we explained this to the prince, and asked him whether we should produce such a document for him. He said yes,” Gazi Chemso told Prism.

In Ali-bin al-Hussein’s opinion, the Circassians, Kabardians and Adygeis are one Adygei people and a Circassian republic should be formed on Russian territory which would incorporate Kabardian, Circassian and Adygei lands. There is undoubtedly some logic to the prince’s opinion. In 1922 two neighboring dual-subject autonomous regions were created: Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. As a result, the border between them divided both the Adygeis who lived on the plain and the foothills–the Kabardians and Circassians–and the closely related mountain peoples–the Karachayans and Balkarians.

About eighteen months ago in Nalchik, the leaders of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Adygea signed an agreement on the creation of an Interparliamentary Council of the three republics. In November of last year, the first session of the interrepublican legislative body took place in Cherkessk. “At first our initiative was not supported by Moscow. We had to go to the very top to explain what we wanted,” the chairman of the Council of the Republic (the lower house of parliament). of Kabardino-Balkaria, Zaubri Nakhushev, told Prism. “If we look at the national make-up of our republics, Adygeis, Circassians and Kabardians are linguistically and culturally very close to each other and form a single ethnic community of Adygeis. Balkarians and Karachayans are also closely related peoples and speak one Karachai-Balkar language which belongs to the Turkic family of languages. In addition, in all three republics there is a large Russian population. So our alliance is natural. Although our union is not closed (theoretically other republics may join it), I think that if this happened it would become a formal economic association,” Nakhushev said.

The authorities of the North Caucasus republics, however, see this alliance as a purely economic and cultural association. “To talk about closing the borders in the North Caucasus is madness. This would lead to mass bloody clashes,” Gazi Chemso said. Chemso is fairly skeptical about the Jordanian prince’s idea that the mass resettlement of foreign Adygeis back home would revive the Circassian economy. “I have been dealing with repatriation for several years now, and have come to the sad conclusion that a mass return of Adygeis to their historical home is just not realistic today. Judge for yourselves: Despite the efforts of the authorities, as of today around 500 foreign Adygeis have immigrated to Kabardino-Balkaria, about 300 to Adygea and just a few dozen to Karachayevo-Cherkessia. Above all, this is because the standard of living in the North Caucasus is much lower than in the countries where the Adygeis are living today. The mass migration of Kosovo Adygeis is an exception to the rule. In the first place, there was a war going on in Kosovo and the local Adygeis feared for their lives. In my opinion, another important reason why the migrants from Kosovo have settled here in Adygea is that Yugoslavia, like Russia, is a former socialist country, so the Kosovo repatriates find it easier to adapt to our conditions than their fellow-countrymen from Turkey or Jordan,” Gazi Chemso believes.



1. Robert Land, Islam in Russian History, Moscow, 1995, p. 113