Circassians Remember the Past But Mobilize for the Future
This year as every year for more than a century, the nearly 500,000 Circassians in their North Caucasus homeland and the more than five million Circassians in the diaspora paused, on May 21, to remember the losses they suffered during their 101-year-long resistance to Russian imperial expansion and their forcible expulsion from their homeland in 1864. Indeed, according to Zaurbek Kozhev of the Kabardino-Balkar Institute of Humanitarian Research, this memorial day is “an inalienable part of contemporary Circassian identity” and thus the basis for the mobilization of the community to pursue its collective goals, a point other speakers at memorial meetings made as well (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 23).
While many who do not know the history of the Circassians may be inclined to dismiss these remembrances as solely about the past, they increasingly are just as much about the future as the recollections of the events of 1915 are for the Armenians or the Holocaust is for the Jews. They help maintain a collective identity among a people divided by geography, politics and even language. And they demonstrate that the Circassian search for justice concerning what happened to their nation more than a century and a half ago is intended to help them solve immediate problems. Those contemporary problems include the return to their homeland of Circassians from war-torn Syria, an end to Moscow’s division of the Circassian people into several nations and republics and repression of their national activists there, and the defense of the Circassian language at a time when Vladimir Putin’s regime is seeking to reduce its status and thus its future.
As it frequently does, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs unwittingly called attention to the contemporary nature of these memories. First, the authorities blocked any commemoration of 1864 in Moscow—officials put out the word that there was no need for a meeting there because there were meetings in the North Caucasus. Second, the foreign ministry warned Russian citizens against taking part in Circassian memorial day activities in Turkey (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 22). And third, the ministry denounced the Circassian meetings abroad as “anti-Russian” actions (Kavkazsky Uzel, May 22).
But these Russian statements had no effect. More than 3,000 Circassians and their supporters took part in the commemorative activities in Istanbul, as did thousands more in other centers of the diaspora in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. And thousands did so in the capitals of republics and regions in the territory that once was part of the Circassian state, including 15,000 in Nalchik (Republic.ru, May 25). Many of these in the North Caucasus were the largest since the much freer period of the early 1990s, and some may have been the largest ever, an indication that Circassian nationalism is not weakening as Moscow hopes but gaining strength and self-confidence (Circassian World, May 23, 25; Caucasus Times, May 21).
As such, this May 31 represents a return to what had been the high point of Circassian activism in recent years—its protests against Putin’s decision to hold the Sochi Olympics precisely on the grounds where Russian forces in 1864 killed many Circassians and exiled many more. Those protests had attracted international attention to the Circassian cause and amplified Circassians’ calls for international recognition of the events of 1864 as a “genocide,” something only the Republic of Georgia has so far done. But this year’s meetings also represent a dramatic recovery from 2017. The past year was marked by the arrest of prominent Circassian activist Ruslan Gvashev, the former head of the Council of Elders of the Circassian-Shapsugs, and by the expansion of Moscow’s efforts to split the Circassian movement both within the North Caucasus and abroad. As Gvashev noted several days ago, “Last year, there was an attempt to close down our national question, but today I am happy to say, together with all of you, that this did not happen” (Caucasus Times, May 21; Circassian World, May 23). And Moscow’s efforts to divide the Circassians—while persisting (Circassian World, May 25)—appear to be less effective than many had feared.
The most important proximate cause of this upsurge in Circassian activism is the suffering of the Circassian community in Syria. This has been compounded by the outrage of many Circassians over the unwillingness of the Russian authorities to allow more than a handful of Syrian Circassians to return to their homeland or to provide support for those few who have been able to return so that they can integrate into the community there. Moscow is clearly afraid that if the Circassians returned from Syria in large numbers, it would change the ethnic balance in the North Caucasus and threaten its control of a region where it has long used divide-and-rule tactics (Caucasus Times, May 21).
But there is another reason for the rise of Circassian activism and its increasingly future-oriented approach. In the North Caucasus itself, the combination of the declining influence of Islamist groups and the increasing persecution of national activists has led to an influx of ever more young people into local Circassian organizations. Notably, these youths are connected with the Circassian diaspora via the Internet, Islam Tekushev of the Prague-based Caucasus Times says. As a result, he argues, they are changing the Circassian movement, “freeing it” from the weight of the past and giving it “a completely new dynamic.” They are less interested in achieving symbolic recognition of past crimes than in solving real problems, including the repatriation of Circassians from Syria and elsewhere to the homeland (Caucasus Times, May 21).
That trend presents a more serious challenge to central Russian authority than anything the Circassians have done up to now.