Fifteen Minutes of Fame Long Gone: Circassian Activism before and after the Sochi Olympics
Bo Petersson and Karina Vamling
Faculty of Culture and Society, Malmö University, Malmö, Sweden
Fifteen Minutes of Fame Long Gone: CircassianActivism before and after
In this article we discuss the effects of the Sochi Olympics on the indigenous Circassian
population in NorthCaucasus. The Circassian situation was paradoxical in the sense
that whereas this indigenous group fiercely opposed the organization of the Winter
Games in Sochi, the Games themselves denoted a rare opportunity for them to make
their voices heard internationally. During the run-up to the Olympics they all of a
sudden had a global audience for their claims for recognition of their cause. This was
quite simply their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, a rare and short-lived period of celebrity
and worldwide attention. The paper will look into whether the anti-Sochi activism
helped to unite Circassians in the diaspora and abroad around common claims, and to
what extent the Circassians managed to use media attention to make their cause more
widely known by international society.
Keywords: Sochi Winter Olympic Games, Circassians, Circassian diaspora, genocide,
Before the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi in 2014 there was an intense discussion on
Russia’s record on democracy and human rights, and whether it was appropriate to organize
such a mega-event in an authoritarian setting. Similar voices were heard before the Beijing
Summer Olympics in 2008. However, some kind of media logics always seems to dictate that
once the Games start (see Ekberg and Strange, this issue), critical discussions are over and
done with, and after the event the attention is gradually shifted to the next mega-event to
follow. With regard to Sochi, as for all sites of major sports events in non-democratic settings,
continued critical attention is however called for to assess political developments even, and
perhaps especially, after the conclusion of the Games. Against this background, we will in
this paper discuss how the organization of the Sochi Olympics influenced the indigenous
Circassian population in North Caucasus, the activism for their cause and the global attention
given to their demands.
The Circassian situation was paradoxical in the sense that whereas this indigenous
group for the most part intensely opposed the organization of the Winter Games in Sochi, the
Games themselves denoted a rare opportunity for them to make their voices heard
internationally. During the run-up to the Olympics they all of a sudden had a global audience,
large segments of which were ready and prepared to listen while they communicated their
claims for recognition of their cause (Hansen 2014). This was quite simply their fifteen
minutes of fame, a rare and short-lived period of celebrity and worldwide attention (Petersson
and Vamling 2013). Earlier research has indicated that marginalized and socially excluded
groups as a rule do not profit from the organization of mega-events on their home ground
(Minnaert 2012). Were the Circassians then any different in this regard? In this paper we will
give special attention to the extent to which Circassian activity before the Sochi Games
helped Circassians in the homeland and in the diaspora to articulate their claims, and to what
extent the Circassians managed to use media attention to make their causes more widely
known by the international society. For the sake of clarity, it should be added that we, when
using the graphic expression of fifteen minutes of fame, have in mind precisely the brief
period of rather unprecedented global attention for the Circassian cause. We certainly do not
suggest, however, that the Circassian issue has lost its topicality, has been removed from the
international agenda, or has been successfully resolved.
Background and Setting
Historically the Circassians fiercely opposed the Russian conquest of their part of the
Caucasian region for more than one hundred years and up to Russia’s final victory in 1864.
Sochi was the last Circassian capital, and it has become a sacred place and a site of great
symbolic value for the indigenous population and the Circassian diaspora. This is why so
many Circassians were vocally critical of the idea of bringing the Olympic Games to Sochi
(Bullough 2012). Especially provocative for them was the fact that the downhill competitions
of the Games were to be located in the mountains, at Krasnaya Polyana, the very site where
the Russians organized their victory parade in May 21, 1864. The grounds of Krasnaya
Polyana hold many Circassian remains from those battles, which gave rise to Circassian
protests under the slogan: ‘No Olympics on our ancestors’ graves’ (Persson 2013). It added
further insult to injury that the Olympic year of 2014 coincided with the 150th anniversary of
the end of the Russo-Circassian war and the ensuing mass deportation of Circassians. In the
last years of the war alone at least 625,000 Circassians out of a total population of 1.5 million
are believed to have died (Richmond 2013, 92). According to one estimate, as much as a
stunning 90% of the Circassian population was killed during the 101 years between 1763 and
1864 in connection with the Russian campaign (Zhemukhov 2012, 505). Richmond (2013,
91) suggests that only in 1864 was the number of Circassians that were driven to the Black
Sea coast for further deportation to the Ottoman Empire between 600,000 and 750,000.
Among these the death tolls from starvation and sickness were staggering.
Substantial Circassian diasporas are today found in several countries, above all
Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the US. In the homeland, situated in the Russian Federation,
Circassians live in three areas of the North Caucasus: the republics of Adygeya, KarachaevoCherkessia
and Kabardino-Balkaria. They are also found in North Ossetia and Stavropol krai
and in some scattered villages on the Black Sea Coast 1. According to the 2010 census
(Vserossiiskaya perepis naseleniya 2010), the total number of Circassians (Adyghe, Cherkess
Kabardians and Shapsugs) in the Russian Federation is today 719,000. The Circassian
diaspora is several times bigger, but there are no reliable figures based on censuses (Besleney
2014). Estimates of the Circassian population in Turkey, which is the main country of
Circassian diaspora settlement, vary considerably; Hansen (2013) mentions a span between
1 In the years 1924-1945 this included a fourth Circassian autonomous territory, the Shapsug
Cherkess.net National District (Polovinkina, undated).
two and five million, whereas several other experts narrow the number down to between two
and three million (Kaya 2014, 51; Papşu 2005; Besleney 2014, 31).
After the conquest in the mid-19th century the Russian strategy was to give the
Circassians the option to resettle to Cossack-controlled areas on the plains north of the
Caucasus or to emigrate. However, as Kreiten (2009, 219) notes, ‘it was quite clear to Russian
officials in the Caucasus that the Circassians would not leave their homeland voluntarily, but
only when threatened with extermination.’ Following the Russian victory, most Circassians
were forced into exile to the Ottoman Empire and remaining minor groups were dislocated to
other places far away from their original settlements. Measures were taken early on to prevent
exiled Circassians from returning. Already in 1861 rules were set up to counter return
migration to the Caucasus: ‘The purpose obviously was to exclude as many return candidates
as possible by introducing a whole catalogue of conditions which could not easily be met’
(Kreiten 2009, 222). The largest groups of Circassian emigrants to present-day Turkey came
to live in the central and northwestern parts of the country. Thanks to their compact settlement
in certain rural villages the Circassians for several generations largely managed to maintain
their language and culture.
Contacts between Circassians in the homeland and in the diaspora became
increasingly difficult in the early 1920s after the development of the new Soviet state and its
increasing isolation, suspicion, repression and closed borders (Jaimoukha 2001, 75-76).
During the 1930s many Circassian leaders and intellectuals in the homeland became victims
of Stalin’s purges. Under WWII the Circassian lands came under Nazi occupation (Jaimoukha
2001, 76-79). The Circassians’ two co-titular groups, the Balkars and Karachais, were
deported to Central Asia in 1944 (but were later rehabilitated under Khrushchev in 1957).
Major political changes, basically favorable for the Circassians, took place in the
region in the late 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries. From having been expelled from
their homeland, and thereafter regarding it as almost inaccessible, the prospect of return
started to seem realistic for diaspora Circassians. Glasnost, perestroika and the collapse of the
Soviet Union in 1991 opened up the borders and allowed for reinvigorated contacts with
homeland Circassians. Popular political organizations were beginning to emerge in the North
Caucasus, such as the Confederation of Caucasian Peoples, to which the Circassian Musa
Shanibov was elected the first president (Besleney 2014, 91-92). Following the first
international event in Ankara in 1989 to commemorate the exile, the International Circassian
Association (ICA) was established in Nalchik in 1991, and became an important political
actor and basis for transnational Circassian networking (Besleney 2014, 119). At much the
same time Caucasian and Circassian associations became more active in Turkey, where
legislative changes were introduced in 2002 which gave organizations the right to get in touch
with and join associations in foreign countries (Özgür 2011). The Federation of Caucasian
Associations (KAFFED), an umbrella organization and central actor in Circassian diaspora
politics in Turkey, developed close contacts with ICA and also largely came to share its proMoscow
orientation that had increased over the years (Besleney 2014, 105).
Such was the background and the setting before the decision was taken by the
International Olympic Committee in 2007 to hold the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. Direct
contacts and travel between the diaspora groups and the homeland in North Caucasus in the
Russian Federation had become facilitated, the Circassian organizations in Turkey had
become stronger and more active, and there was also vastly improved communication
between and within different segments of the diaspora, on the one hand, and the homeland, on
the other. At the same time, the internal political climate in Russia and the Caucasus was
becoming increasingly tense. Important new actors in the Circassian diaspora responded to
this situation. Among these were the Caucasus Forum (KF) in Turkey and the US-based
Circassian Cultural Institute (later the International Circassian Council), demanding self-
determination for the Circassians, repatriation to the Caucasus and the establishment of
Circassia as a single entity in the Caucasus and launching campaigns to reach international
recognition of the ‘genocide’ (Besleney 2014, 161-2).
The question for the Circassian movement in general was now how to become more
visible and to strive for common aims (Lagunina 2007). In many ways it was the Sochi
Olympics that provided the answer, as “it was the selection of Sochi for the Olympics that
gave the activist groups the publicity boost that they needed” (Besleney 2014, 161).
Circassian Activism: Framing and Symbolic Politics
Charles Taylor (1994), in his treatise on the politics of recognition, famously differentiated
between equality of respect and equality of dignity as the two key components of recognition.
Whereas respect denotes equal value as fellow human beings, dignity is more connected to
recognition of identity claims on a collective level, of the right to belong to a distinctive and
unique community. In the Circassian case, one item in particular has of late become vital for
the attempts of attaining global appreciation for the dignity and indeed the identity of the
Circassians, namely the striving to have the atrocities of the Russian wars against the
Circassians during the mid-19th century recognized as genocide.
As elaborated on by Zhemukhov (2012), Circassian activists form a heterogeneous
group. Starting with the most radical sentiments, the Circassian movement could according to
him be visualized on a scale ranging from vocal nationalists, who would demand a state of
their own for the Circassians, over sovereigntists, culturalists and centrists onto
accommodationists, the latter of whom strive for reaching a common understanding with the
Russian authorities. In general, the most outspoken nationalists would be found in the
diaspora, whereas most accommodationists would tend to be active in the homeland in
contemporary Russia, where they have to co-exist on a daily basis with the powers-that-be in
an increasingly authoritarian setting.
The recognition of what Circassians claim to be the genocide committed by the
Russian Empire in the mid-19th century has ever since the end of the Cold War been one of
the three professed main goals of Circassian activist groups in the diaspora, alongside the
right of repatriation to the homeland and the unification of Circassian territories (Zhemukhov
2012, 505-506). Of these three, the recognition goal would seem to be the one politically most
attainable in the short to medium time perspective, and it was thus to this goal that the main
energy was devoted by activist groups during the years preceding the Sochi Olympics. In the
words of Hansen (2014,199), ‘genocide recognition has become the new “banner” of the
Circassian revival over the last couple of years’. The issue has attained symbolic value and
has become a centerpiece of the identity construction of Circassian groups in the diaspora,
and has come to make up the nexus of cooperation between the diaspora and the homeland
(Hansen 2014). In other words, genocide recognition has come to be almost synonymous with
the struggle for recognition of the Circassian identity as an indigenous population. If widely
recognized by the international community, the recognition of the genocide could potentially
and in the longer run lead to the articulation of demands for e.g. certain political rights, but
this has thus most often not been the immediate focus of the activities. In any case, the
attention awarded to the Sochi Olympics meant that Circassians were provided with a
worldwide stage on which their demands for recognition of the genocide and thus their
identity, albeit for a limited while, could be vocalized with much greater resonance.
Generally speaking, politically salient diaspora activities are today, much more so than
in earlier ages, undertaken in manifold ways and through a myriad of different means.
However, according to Hägel and Peretz (2005, 484), there are still three basic forms that
such activities most often take: issue-framing, agenda-setting and network-building. By
framing issues at hand differently from what incumbent regimes do, activists may challenge
the hegemonic status of the powers-that-be. They do so by setting agendas that differ from
those advocated by the incumbents. Through both national and transnational network-building
these potentially oppositional ideas proliferate and attain additional strength and support.
On the concept of framing, Entman’s (2004, 5) influential definition denotes
“selecting and highlighting some facets of events or issues, and making connections among
them so as to promote a particular interpretation, evaluation and/or solution”. Frames perform
functions such as problem definition, identification of causes, moral judgments and the
recommendation of remedies. The framings made by elites are in all societies influential for
shaping popular views and ideas, but counter-framings successfully propounded from the
bottom and up can be salient oppositional politics with thorough implications for the
definition of the political agenda.
Committed activist groups who, in the diaspora and at home, purposefully frame
events differently from what certain government structures do and strive to gain acceptance
and recognition for their interpretations could with good reason be regarded as transnational
advocacy networks (Keck and Sikkink 1998). They are well organized for political ends and
equipped with elaborate ideas about what strategies to follow (cf. Auten 2006). In the late
1990s Keck and Sikkink (1998,16-25) discerned four different tactics which advocacy
networks tend to employ: information politics designed to generate credible and politically
usable information; symbolic politics, i.e. the ability to evoke symbols, actions or stories that
grasp the attention of far-away audiences; leverage politics which bring influence to bear on
actors to change their behavior; and finally accountability politics which underscore
discrepancies between stated aims and given promises, on the one hand, and actual behavior,
on the other. Whereas all of these tactics seem relevant for the analysis and understanding of
Circassian activism in relation to the Sochi Games, it is information politics and symbolic
politics that are of special importance here.
The emergence and continuous development of information and communications
technology (ICT) have served to revolutionize the contextual setting for activist groups,
uniting efforts between diaspora groups and groups in the homeland, allowing for crisscrossing
communication across and within different collective actors at different levels of
scale. Both information and symbolic politics have become easier to effectuate, and the
channels to spread the messages have proliferated. The global revolution in the modes of
communication has enabled otherwise dispersed populations ‘to converse, interact and even
symbolize significant elements of their social and cultural lives’ (Gilroy 1994, 211).
Differently put, it has become ‘much easier for diaspora groups to live on “both banks of the
river” at the same time, both in diaspora and homeland’ (Kaya 2004, 227).
In connection with the Sochi Olympics Circassian activists made substantial efforts
both with regard to the questions of issue-framing and, on the basis of this, agenda-setting.
The foremost examples pertain to the framing of the warfare of the Russian Empire in the
mid-19th century as genocide against the Circassians, and the placing of the recognition of this
genocide on the international agenda. As we will try to show in the following, Circassian
activists employed both information politics and symbolic politics to this end, the two tactics
of which tend to be patently difficult and even less meaningful, to pry apart as they most often
are interwoven in practice. A particular message that is regarded as objective information by
one party may be seen as heavily infested with emotional symbolism, or worse, by another.
Apart from the reaching out to global audiences there is also an internal dimension to
this communication process. During the run-up to the Olympics, the growing number of
publications, both on- and off-line, dealing with Circassian issues offered information that
had previously not been known or accessible to larger groups. The documentation of
Circassian history and the publication of books and materials on the Internet became an
increasingly important task for Circassian communities and organizations, both among the
diaspora and in the homeland in the Russian Federation (Besleney 2010, Hansen 2014). This
contributed to the strengthening of a common identity among Circassians at home and abroad
and helped strengthen the struggle for recognition of the Circassian genocide. The appearance
of interactive technology and social media contributed to the easier spread of information and
It can therefore be argued that the activities before the Olympics had a generally
mobilizing effect among Circassians. The remarks by a Circassian activist about his gradual
understanding of his own background are indicative of the importance of such publication
[…] as a child growing up in Russia, he knew very little about his ancestry. Learning
Circassian history was prohibited in school, he says. “When I was a child, it was if I was
a guest in my own country. But slowly, I found some information about our history, and
now I understand. I ama Circassian” (Somra and Watson 2014).
Overall, it seems that the Sochi issue brought different groups of the diaspora together and
strengthened, not least through the establishment of the oppositional nosochi.com website,
transnational interaction in the diaspora (Kaya 2014, Hansen 2014, Persson 2013). Vocally
criticizing the organization of Olympics at the site of Sochi and adamantly pleading for an
international boycott of the Games (Persson 2014), the website became a gathering point
internally and was widely noticed externally. It attracted considerable international attention
and became a platform for the Circassian efforts at constructing symbolic politics to promote
Symbolism and Framing
In 1992 and 1996, respectively, the parliaments of the two North Caucasian republics with the
largest Circassian populations within the Russian Federation, Kabardino-Balkaria and
Adygeya adopted resolutions on the Circassian genocide. In 1994, at the 130th anniversary of
the end of the war, President Boris Yeltsin characterized the Caucasian War of the 19th
century as a ‘courageous struggle by the Caucasian peoples not only for survival on their
native lands but also for the maintenance of their own culture’. At the time he also expressed
readiness to approach the problems of repatriation, whereby ‘the return of the Caucasian
emigrants to their historic homeland should be solved on an international level through
negotiations between all parties concerned’ (Adygi.ru 2011). Moreover, Yeltsin connected his
readiness to comply with the simultaneous processes of construction of the rule of law and the
prioritization of human values going on in Russia. This also coincided with the development
of greater independence of the regional subjects of the Russian Federation, where Yeltsin
famously encouraged the regions to ‘take as much sovereignty as they could swallow’ (New
York Times 21 March, 1992).
As is well-known and in comparison with the turbulent but comparatively democratic
years under Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin’s terms in presidential office from 1999/2000 have been
characterized by the gradual re-emergence of authoritarian policies. The contextual
preconditions for the Circassian struggle are therefore vastly different between then and now.
This fact notwithstanding, Circassian organizations in May 2013 appealed, with no avail, to
Putin and to the Federal Council of the Russian Federation to recognize the Circassian
genocide by the Russian Empire during the Caucasian Wars (Adyge Heku 2013).
Some Circassian groups in the North Caucasian republics actually welcomed the idea
of having Sochi as an Olympic host and saw possibilities in the worldwide attention and the
investments the Games would attract (Gutkin 2014). They also hoped, in vain as it turned out,
that the Circassians as the region’s indigenous population would receive some kind of official
acknowledgement during the Games. However, in his speech in Guatemala in 2007 when the
decision was made to let Sochi organize the 2014 Winter Olympics, Vladimir Putin
mentioned the ancient Greeks as inhabitants of old of the Sochi region but made no reference
to the indigenous Circassians (YouTube 2007). As Richmond remarks the ‘implication that
the ancient Greeks were the first inhabitants at Sochi struck Circassians worldwide as the
most blatant and public attempt yet to erase their history’ (Richmond 2013, 149). The official
and neglecting attitude towards the Circassians as an indigenous group was to prevail all
through the run-up and the carrying through of the Games.
Circassian representatives were especially disappointed to be neglected also during
the Olympic opening ceremony in Sochi (Kapaeva 2014). Apart from their participation in the
general cultural program together with other ethnic groups of the Russian Federation and
exhibitions in the so-called Circassian House in Krasnaya Polyana (Jaimoukha 2014), the
Circassians were not present in any particular way. Moreover, in a statement by Vladimir
Putin at a press conference during the Games not a single trace of acknowledgement of the
legitimacy of the Circassian claims could be discerned. Instead, Putin stonewalled, arguing
that the “Circassian factor” was used for undue attempts by the West to hamper and slow
down developments in the Russian Federation in general:
We see [in the West] attempts to deter Russia here and there. Unfortunately, this had to
do with the Olympic project and the Circassian factor was used as an instrument.
However,frankly speaking, as soon as I realized that such attempts are being made I did
not have any doubt that this was a futile attempt. I know what the mood is among the
Circassians, I know the leaders of the Circassian organizations personally, and I know
what their attitude is to both their native land and to their home country – Russia. It was
obvious for me that this had no prospect (Putin, 2014).
Not only was there in Putin’s speech a discernible attempt to connect the Circassian protests
with the Western encirclement that used to be part of Soviet-time rhetoric and has been
brought to life in an increasingly harsh political climate of 21st century Putinism (Petersson
and Sommers 2015). The argumentation also hints at condemning the Circassian demands as
orchestrated from abroad and as the results of action by a fifth column inside the country.
More recently, the activities of the foreign Circassian diaspora have even been labelled by the
presidential administration as a potential threat to Russian national security (Kornya 2015).
This all connotes a stern warning to the Circassian opposition not to rock the boat or else face
the consequences. In Putin’s speech there was also a visible tendency to dismiss the
Circassian complaints by claiming that moderate and mainstream elements of the Circassians
do not subscribe to the anti-Olympics activism. In this respect, Putin’s statement was a
demonstration of the classical politics of divide and rule.
The Aftermath of the Games and the Genocide Issue
Due to the dramatic developments in Ukraine in the spring of 2014 the Circassian issue
disappeared from international news rather abruptly even before the Sochi Games had
formally come to an end. At this very moment international media attention changed to focus
on the political movement and increasing protests on the Maidan Square in Kyiv and the
subsequent development in Crimea leading up to its annexation by Russia.
Obviously, the goal of making foreign countries boycott the Games, that was
advocated e.g. by the nosochi2014 website2, was not achieved. Moreover, as told and contrary
to the expectations about some sort of official gesture during the ceremonies in Sochi, the
Circassians did not get their recognition as the indigenous people of the Sochi region. Despite
such setbacks, international experts such as Paul Goble still evaluated the Circassian
achievements in a positive light:
2 The website was hacked shortly prior to the opening of the Games in Sochi (Bacchi 2014) and is not available
on the internet anymore. Material by the nosochi2014 activists may be found on their Twitter
(https://twitter.com/nosochi2014) and YouTube accounts (https://www.youtube.com/user/NoSochi2014).
No nation more skillfully used an international event than did the Circassians during the
Sochi Olympiad to call attention to the Russian-orchestrated genocide of their people 150
years earlier. Despite Moscow’s best efforts, few independent reporters talked about
Sochi without talking about the continuing crimes against the Circassians (Goble 2015).
Concerning the main symbolic issue of the recognition of the Circassian genocide, however,
Georgia is so far the only foreign country to have complied with the request. This was made
already in 2011 well ahead of the Sochi Games (Parliament of Georgia 2011). In the harsher
political climate in Russia in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis and the reactions of the West to
the Russian meddling, the Circassians have continued their activities aiming at international
recognition of the genocide. In 2014 Circassian activists sent two appeals to Ukraine seeking
official recognition. The first appeal (in May) was initiated by an Israeli-based Circassian
organization whereas the second appeal (in June) was organized by Circassians in the North
Caucasus and abroad. The appeals had some success as the Ukrainian MP Oleg Lyashko
initiated a bill to be put before the Ukrainian Rada proposing recognition (Dzutsev 2014).
Furthermore, Poland received a Circassian request for recognition of the genocide on the
Polish Independence Day on November 11, 2014 (NatPress 2014a). Also, in March 2015 the
presidents, prime ministers and speakers of the parliament of Estonia (Justice for North
Caucasus 2015) and Lithuania (Cherkess.net 2015), respectively, received joint appeals for
recognizing the genocide from Circassians in the North Caucasus and in the diaspora.
These appeals have not been uncontested within the activist groups themselves. There
is still a certain split between diaspora activists and radical representatives in the homeland,
on the one hand, and more moderate and mainstream elements in the homeland, on the other.
The head of Adyge Hase in Krasnodar, Asker Sokht, was critical of initiatives directed at
foreign countries (Circassia Times 2014b). In his opinion the question of recognition of the
Circassian genocide is an internal issue that should be discussed within Russia. He pointed
out that there were other organizations that shared his standpoint, such as Adyge Hase in
Adygeya and Kuban. Another Circassian activist, Andzor Kabard, holds a different opinion
and maintains that there is solid popular support among the Circassian diaspora in particular
but also among Circassians in the homeland generally (Circassia Times 2014).
The Empire strikes back – or refrains from doing so?
Activists in the North Caucasus who have been engaged in the appeals to Ukraine, Poland and
other countries have experienced some renewed pressure from the Russian authorities. To
mention one example, the editor-in-chief of NatPress, Aslan Shazzo, was interrogated by the
authorities for having published articles on the appeals (Natpress 2014b). Valery Dzutsev, an
international expert on the Circassian movement, sees however signs of a recent strengthening
of the position of homeland Circassians in relation to their authorities. Although harassment
of Circassian activists does occur, this is not carried out with full force, he says. According to
him, the Russian authorities seem to have chosen ‘a low-key containment strategy’ in fear of a
backlash from Circassians in the North Caucasus and in the diaspora. It is in this light that he
assesses the fact that a large international delegation of Circassians from Turkey and other
countries was touring the North Caucasian republics (but not Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana)
taking part in mourning ceremonies organized in connection with the Day of Remembrance
on May 21, 2015. Dzutsev thinks that recent developments in the North Caucasus and Turkey
suggest that ‘Moscow regards the Circassians as a serious force that cannot be easily
suppressed without repercussions’ (Dzutsev 2015).
The Circassian quest for genocide recognition is made additionally complex by its
coincidence with the globally more well known struggle for recognition of the Armenian
genocide in 1915. In the commemoration of the centenary of the Armenian tragedy, Vladimir
Putin participated in ceremonies in Armenia, while declining invitations to come to Turkey.
He even used the term genocide in his address to the Armenians:
April 24, 2015 is a sorrowful date linked to one of the most tragic and dramatic events in
the history of humanity – the genocide of the Armenian people. One hundred years later,
we bow our heads before the memory of all victims of this tragedy, which our country
has always seen as its own pain and sorrow. (Putin 2015)
The issue was on the agenda of the Russian parliament on April 24, 2015, whereby a
resolution was passed that described the massacre of Armenians that took place in 1915 as
genocide (Gosudarstvennaya Duma, 2015). Turkey’s president Erdoğan as well as the Turkish
Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted strongly to the Russian use of the controversial term,
indicating rather clearly that here the pot was trying to call the kettle black (Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey, 2015). By the same token, Halis Din, board member of
the Circassian Association Federation in Turkey, reacted to Putin’s use of the g-word with
respect to the Armenian tragedy while ignoring the Circassian quest for recognition of the
Russia needs to confront their own history, recognize the murder of Circassians as
genocide and compensate them for their exile. […] We are calling out to Putin and the
entire Russian government to open up the archives, recognize the Circassian genocide,
and compensate for the genocide and the exile that continues today (World bulletin.net
It is hard to tell whether the Circassian quest for recognition of the genocide has benefitted
from or been hindered by the points of convergence with the Armenian genocide and the
coincidence in time with the vocal campaign for its recognition. Whereas the Armenian
campaign has developed into high politics and caught worldwide attention, the Circassians
have been more low-key in promoting their cause. One may perhaps suspect that the
Circassians efforts may have become less noticed by the world because of the turbulence
surrounding the Armenian issue. To the extent that the two campaigns can be coordinated
there may be benefits for the Circassian activists, but often, in view of the intricacies of
Russo-Turkish relations the gains may seem uncertain. That is why the Sochi Olympics and
the run-up to them were so valuable for the Circassians. For a short while there, they had the
undivided attention of the global audience.
How successful were then the Circassians in advancing their demands in conjunction with the
Sochi Winter Games in 2014? It is difficult to assess how much the global attention around
the Games has actually promoted the Circassian cause and how big its impact on the
Circassian movement will be in a longer perspective. Even if some internal divisions remain
within the Circassian movement, the campaign against the Sochi Winter Games has served to
mobilize Circassians internally, strengthened their articulation of a common identity and
helped them to raise the international awareness of their hitherto marginalized conditions of
existence. In that sense, for all the losses of prestige and the disrespect incurred through the
organization of the Sochi Olympics on the lands of their ancestors’ graves, the Circassians
may therefore on balance and on a collective level have seemed to benefit from the Sochi
In terms of the lobbying for their cause the Circassian activists groups especially in
the diaspora were active both in terms of issue-framing and attempted agenda-setting. The
Russian warfare in the North Caucsaus in the mid-19th century was framed as genocide, and
its recognition as genocide was put on the international agenda for discussion. It seems that
the Circassians managed to carve out a niche of their own and gain international attention for
it. The activities of the Circassian groups were noted by a global audience, and if Goble was
right that few independent reporters on the eve of the Games could write about the Sochi
Olympics without making some reference to the crimes historically committed against the
indigenous population, this was certainly a great success for the lobbyists.
By implication it would seem that the Circassian activists’ goodwill gains add up to a
corresponding loss of prestige on the part of the Putin administration. The Russian authorities
have not taken lightly to the attempts of Circassians to use their fifteen minutes of fame to
maximize the attention to their cause from abroad. This global attention may have served
partly to shield the Circassian activists from full-blown repression, but this effect may well
trail off rather quickly.
At times the Circassians have played a game with uncertain outcomes and high stakes.
The appeals for recognition of the Circassian genocide addressed to the Georgian, Ukrainian
and Estonian parliaments and governments, were symbolic in more than one respect.
Symbolic politics were certainly there as the aim was to gain recognition of the genocide, the
question of which has come to be a centerpiece of the Circassians’ common identity
construction. In addition, however, symbolic politics were also involved in turning to what on
an official rhetorical level is treated as Russia’s external adversaries. This may have prompted
the Russian authorities to play it tough against individual Circassians activists.
It is hard to tell what made the Circassian activists turn their appeals to the Ukrainian
political leadership in the midst of the tense international situation over Ukraine and the
Western criticism of Russia’s obvious but non-admitted involvement in the crisis. They must
have known that this move, quite in analogy to the appeal for genocide recognition to the
Georgian parliament in 2010, was likely to antagonize the Putin regime. Were their actions
then made because of their perception that the Circassian movement thanks to the Sochi
Olympics had gained so much momentum that it could afford to advance its positions further?
Or were they this time rather due to a feeling of frustration that the fifteen minutes of fame
were long gone and were not likely to return?
For some while yet, the awareness of the existence of the Circassian indigenous
population in North Caucasus, partly living on in the homeland under harsh conditions but
above all remaining in the diaspora, will linger in the minds of the international public
opinion. For how long this effect will remain no one knows, but it is safe and indeed also trite
to assume that the effects of the fifteen minutes of fame will subside as time goes by.
However, through their common activities the Circassians have gained both in dignity and
respect also internally. Rather than the greater but receding receptivity on the part of the
elusive public opinion abroad this factor may be what ultimately helps the Circassian
movement in achieving international acknowledgement of their identity claims in the future.
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