Genocide Recognition as a key issue in the Circassian revival
How the issue of genocide recognition has been reinforced as a key Circassian issue that has been strongly enhanced by 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics as a mega sports event taking place at key locations in the historical Circassian homeland. This has generated both renewed transnational Circassian memorialisation and mobilisation – in a process that increasingly managed to target the Russian authorities and official Russian minority policies in the North Caucasus.
Lars Funch Hansen
University of Copenhagen
Circassian Day, Bruxelles, June 18th 2012
In this presentation I will argue that ‘genocide recognition’ has become a key headline of the Circassian revival – a type of catch-phrase that can encompass most of the aims of the Circassian revival. Genocide recognition has in this way become the ‘What’ of the Circassian revival – supplementing the ‘Where’ of ‘Sochi’ – that has been promoted through the 2014 Winter Olympics – and the already established creation of the ‘When’ of 1864 – especially through the May 21 commemorations of the last twenty years. ‘Genocide Recognition’ through the latter years has become the new headline for the Circassian revival to a much larger degree than earlier. I suggest that these three issues – the ‘What’, the ‘When’ and the ‘Where’ – together can be seen as linked in a triangle where each of the three issues constantly and mutually reinforce each other.
Since shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union the year ‘1864’ has gradually become institutionalised as a so-called ‘defining moment’ in the contemporary Circassian identity. The annual May 21 commemorations, that have increased in number and size around the world, has played a key role supplemented by a number of publications, conferences etc. This process has in the latter years been significantly enlarged through the use of the internet in a number of different ways. I will argue that ‘Sochi’ through the international mega sports event of the Olympics has become a more concrete representation of the mythological Circassian homeland. This is especially the case among the Circassian diaspora – most of which has never visited the Caucasus after what is often referred to as ‘seven generations’ in exile.
When the ongoing and renewed Circassian revival began in 2005 ‘genocide recognition’ was the key issue from the beginning. A number of new Circassian organisations cropped up during this period and were characterised by a will to act politically – partly in opposition to the mainly cultural focus of the older associations. An appeal initiated by the Circassian Congress in the North Caucasus was sent to the Russian Parliament – the Duma – and was a year later rejected with the answer that this was not relevant since the event had not taken place in the Soviet period. This was a type of ‘non-answer’ that not only illustrated the difficulties of coming to terms with historical injustices in the Russian Federation but also gave the Circassians and especially the new Circassian organisations that began to emerge in the mid-2000 a motivating issue that could generate renewed mobilisation.
Documentation is a key part in the process of working for genocide recognition and the application for formal genocide recognition was accompanied by a number of documents from various historical archives. When the formal apply for genocide recognition was once more forwarded to the Russian Parliament a few years later it was not only signed by a larger number and more transnationally constituted group of Circassian organisations but also carried further material of documentation. This also illustrates how memorialisation plays a key role in the renewed Circassian mobilisation – though this was also the case before 2005. But now these efforts of memorialisation focussed on documentation more specifically and most significantly had a clear target in the Russian Federation as the formal successor state to not just the Soviet Union but also to the Russian Empire.
The role of documentation in the Circassian revival is similar to the processes of many other indigenous peoples around the globe that has suffered from forced displacement and other forms of atrocities – often in relation to processes of colonisation. For instance Linda Smith has stressed the importance of research in the revival of indigenous peoples. Smith further state that the Western discourse on post-colonialism reflects the dominance of a Western view, as there are still many places of the around the world where indigenous people are still faced with an uphill struggle for decolonisation. Which in many ways corresponds to the challenges facing the renewed Circassian movement.
One illustration of the importance of documentation in relation to the campaign for genocide recognition has been access granted to researchers from Circassian civil society organisations to former imperial archives in Tbilisi in Georgia – when access to similar and larger archives in different parts of Russia was prohibited. Since most of these sources are handwritten in Russian language they are not equally accessible to all and many of the documents are in a process of being translated into English and other languages. A similar type of research take place in relation to Ottoman archives that mostly are handwritten in Turkish language through the use of the Arab alphabet. Subsequently these are also translated little by little into other languages. As a minority group these processes mostly take place within the civil society sector – outside governmental institutions and without access to public financial support – though some limited cooperation with republican research institutions in the North Caucasus takes place. It is also a priority of many of the Circassian organisations to publish and present the material from the archives to the wider public in the form of exhibitions, books, web sites etc. – and to promote further use of this material towards potential independent researchers.
Maybury-Lewis has stressed the importance of power-relations and introduced the term ‘relatively powerlessness’ to in relation many attempted genocides towards indigenous peoples. The case of the Circassians in the 19th century in many ways corresponds to this description, though not on all accounts – neither historically nor today. Historically the Circassians were far from powerless as seen in relation to a war that lasted 47 years according to official Russian sources and 101 years according to a Circassian understanding, that is quickly gaining support these years. The interest in the 19th century Circassian resistance from the side of Great Britain – though often performed through non-state or non-official diplomatic actors – in building potential alliances with the Circassians also illustrates this type of ‘relative powerlessness’. On the one hand Circassia and the Circassians was a potential allied partner of Great Britain, but in spite of many statements of interests during the course of several decades, in the end it was regarded as more important to British interests to prioritise some form of friendly relationship with the large and powerful Russia instead of small Circassia. So this type of ‘relative powerlessness’ is also illustrating the role of the Caucasus as a location in the geopolitics of the 19th century, when the region became a scene of renewed imperial competition. In this game of geopolitics Imperial Russia was successful in achieving control over the Black Sea coast, which was regarded as a key objective for the long term interests of the Empire. At any costs, as can be seen in the way this objective in the end sealed the fate of the Circassians.
It could also be argued that the contemporary Circassian mobilisation – that increasingly takes the form of transnational cooperation – is showing signs of addressing or breaking away from this type of ‘relative powerlessness’. The lobbying efforts of some Circassian organisations towards, for instance, the parliaments of Georgia and Estonia, where some form of post-Soviet and post-Imperial solidarity with the Circassian issues can be found, is an example hereof. A number of Circassian civil society organisations played an important role in the process leading up to the recognition of the Circassian genocide by the Georgian Parliament in 2011. The continued cooperation through, for instance, the Circassian Cultural Institute in Tbilisi and in relation to the 2012 revelation of the new monument to the 19th century forced eviction of the Circassians from the Caucasus in Anaklia by the Georgian Black Sea coast are other examples of attempts a breaking-away from the situation of ‘relative powerlessness’ through new forms of lobbying and alliance-building. In other words, Circassian actors has increasingly become transnational players with increased possibilities of alliance-building in the geopolitical games surrounding the Caucasus – that since the fall of the Soviet Union again has become a region of competing geopolitical interests.
That setting an agenda on ‘genocide recognition’ can be a potentially powerful ‘tool’ to break-away from the position of ‘relative powerlessness’ has been illustrated by the successful efforts of the lobbying efforts of, for instance, Jewish and Armenian diaspora organisations. This type of framing historical atrocities as genocide has in these and other cases proven to be efficient in relation to both the intra-group redefinition of identity and towards the external mobilisation including a targeting of the relevant contemporary authorities – as Russia in the case of the Circassians.
Within the recent Circassian civil society mobilisation the use of the internet has played key role. Circassian civil society actors have managed to enlarge and develop a new space for action – both among the diaspora and in Russia. It is important to stress that this is not just a virtual space. It includes the use of the internet as both a means of publication of and campaigning for counter-versions of the Circassian identity and history – as seen in the case of promoting the understanding of the exile as an act of genocide – and as a means of communication, coordination and cooperation between the Circassian organisations. The arrival and increased outreach of the social media of Web 2.0 has resulted in new forms of youth activism and has further resulted in a large number of discussions on the definition and understanding of Circassian history and identity on sites such as Facebook, YouTube etc. 
According to a model developed by Maximillian Forte on internet-generated revival of indigenous people the four key issues of this process are Visibility, Embodyment, Recognition and Authenticity. In the case of the ongoing Circassian mobilisation these issues also constitute key elements of this process. After visiting and interviewing representatives from a number of Circassian organisations – especially among the diaspora – I can conclude that the word ‘recognition’ perhaps best of all characterise the Circassian revival. Recognition of not just genocide, but recognition on a number of different levels as a contemporary people of the Caucasus as well as a historical people of the Caucasus in the history books of the world – and especially those in Russia.
Moving from being a so-called ‘hidden people’ with a ‘forgotten history’ Circassians have now become frontrunners of a hyper-modern globalised transnational cosmopolitan way of life, where new forms of media and communication are used for mobilisation and identity building. And the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, as connected to the defining moment in Circassian history and identity through the 150 year anniversary, will secure that the Circassian experiences of today as well of their past will become much more known in the so-called World Community. A renewed so-called Circassian ‘master-narrative’ has been developed based on this understanding of Circassian history and identity. It is this renewed Circassian narrative that through the latter years increasingly has been framed or referred to under the headline of ‘the Circassian Genocide’.
In combination with the Sochi 2014 Olympics the issue of Circassian Genocide Recognition has contributed to elevate the so-called Circassian Question into a transnational issue that has also penetrated into the agenda of mainstream media in Russia – and elsewhere. This has resulted in reactions from politicians and various expert observers from the federal Russian centre, which illustrates this development.
‘Sochi’ has become a long-distance site of memory among the Circassians worldwide. Especially among the diaspora, where Sochi as a contemporary and concrete Caucasian space has become a symbol of the lost homeland that includes the tragedy of war and forced expulsion that is now widely referred to as the Circassian genocide. The many references to the historical as well as the contemporary homeland in the Caucasus on the internet in the form of blogs, discussion forums, social media etc. can be labelled as a virtual re-territorialisation. They hereby share a number of similarities with various decolonisation processes from different parts of the world – and with post-colonial efforts known in relation to other post-imperial contexts.
According to my analysis the decision of Sochi hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics has played a key role – perhaps the key role – in creating a new unity among the Circassians on the use of the term ‘genocide’ as the joint heading or title of what earlier was often referred to as the 19th century tragedy of the Circassians. The arrival of the Sochi Olympics has finalised a triangle of constantly increasing Circassian mobilisation, where the two other fix points are ‘May 21 (1864)’ and ‘genocide recognition’. These three issues have shown to be able to mutually reinforce each other and create a constantly increased memorialisation and mobilisation that continuously create and recreate the Circassian movement. The mega event of the 2014 Sochi Olympic has in this manner significantly contributed to accelerate the Circassian level of memorialisation and mobilisation – within Russia and other national contexts as well as transnationally.
 Due to 2014 being the 150 year anniversary of the Circassian exodus from the Caucasus in 1864 the Sochi Olympics also – at least indirectly – also link to the ‘when’ of the Circassian revival.
 This type of politicisation of civil society was traditionally looked upon negatively in the contexts of the two most important countries of Circassian residence – Russia and Turkey.
 The contradiction in this non-answer from the Russian Duma is evident in a North Caucasian context, where the Circassian ’co-titular’ nationalities of the two double-titular republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachai-Cherkessia – the Balkars and the Karachais – formally were rehabilitated and had their forced deportations during the Second World War recognised. And as such commemorated in new monuments and official museums. (A illustration of a type of institutionalised ‘competing memorialisation’ that unfolds within a framework of sub-federal administrative governance that was developed during Stalin era. I.e. also an illustration of how this form of Soviet heritage functions – and an example of an element of Soviet heritage that is not addressed by the authorities. And for instance the claims for ‘European forms of self-determination’ are roughly rejected by the federal authorities – in spite of great efforts and will from the side of the Russian leadership to join international organisations such as the Council of Europe and the OSCE, that promote this type of ‘self-determination’.
 Parts of the Imperial Russian archives are in Tiblisi, as the present-day Georgian capital in the 19th century functioned as a regional administrative centre of the empire.
 Maybury-Lewis (43)
 It could be argued that it is precisely the strong Circassian resistance against the advancing Russian colonisation that – almost – inscribed Circassia and the Circassians in modern European understanding of the role of and the legitimacy of a nation-state and its nation-building constituting people (titular nation)…
 Also Georgian President Mihail Sakashvili has on several occasions criticised the Sochi Olympics and encouraged an international boycott.
 This type of phenomenon of new transnational forms of political influence has been termed as ’frontier zones (of globalisation)’ by Saskia Sassen.
 According to my analysis the Circassian internet mobilisation has led to what can be labelled as a virtual re-territorialisation of Circassia. What I have labelled as ‘iCircassia’.
 This is also a period when several of the classical cultural markers such as the Circassian language and the traditions of dances and music no longer have the same position they used to have. While this could be assigned as – at least partly – an effect of globalisation, the actions of the Circassian organisations and activist could be labelled as a way of using other elements of the era of globalisation to compensate for these effects – in a redirected and modernised manner.
 As Linda Smith notes the term post-colonial indicates that the world has become decolonised, while in reality indigenous peoples are often still fighting against a colonial heritage that they often experience as marginalising or discriminating.(Smith: 98)
 What we see in the Circassian memorialisation and counter-memorialisation is simply the establishment of Sochi as symbol of the lost homeland that is often mythologized.
 In conclusion Genocide Recognition has become the new framing of the Circassian Revival, which is largely the result of Circassian civil society mobilisation. The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics play a key role as a ‘facilitating event’ that has contributed to make the Circassian Revival more visible – towards Circassians internally as well as towards the world at large. It appears as though the Sochi Olympics exponentially increased not just the visibility of the Circassian issues, but also the level of involvement of ‘ordinary’ Circassians on an everyday level. The significantly increased role of the internet – including the social media such as Facebook and YouTube – has played a key role in this process. )