Tensions Between Moscow and Circassians Reach Crisis Proportions

Tensions Between Moscow and Circassians Reach Crisis Proportions

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 74

Circassians in Turkey commemorating the anniversary of the Russian Empire's systematic mass murder, ethnic cleansing and expulsion of their people in1864 (Source: Worldbulletin.net)
Circassians in Turkey commemorating the anniversary of the Russian Empire’s systematic mass murder, ethnic cleansing and expulsion of their people in1864 (Source: Worldbulletin.net)

Tensions between Moscow and the Circassians, both within Russia and abroad, have reached a boiling point. The driving factors are numerous and multi-varied. In part, they stem from long-time Circassian efforts to promote their national language and identity, to return Circassians living abroad back to their North Caucasus homeland, and to secure international recognition for what they argue was an act of Russian “genocide” against them in 1864 (Caucasus Times, April 25). More recently, frictions have erupted because of Circassian declarations of solidarity with Ukrainians in their resistance to Russian aggression. On the other side, the Circassians have been growing angrier over President Vladimir Putin’s apparent conviction that he is now in a position to suppress the identities of peoples inside the Russian Federation, just as he is seeking to do with Ukrainians abroad. Indeed, strains between the Circassians and Moscow are presently even higher than they were in 2014, when Putin and the Circassians clashed over the holding of the Winter Olympics on the site from which Russian forces deported that nation on May 21, 1864. Today, both two sides appear more committed to achieving their mutually exclusive goals than ever before. This situation could easily lead to an explosion—one that might begin in the North Caucasus but would quickly send shockwaves outward.

Relations between the Russian state and the Circassian nation have long been fraught (see EDM, May 9, 2020August 11, 2020October 5, 2021). And each year, as the Circassians mark the anniversary of their deportation a century and a half ago, those relations deteriorate further, with the Russian authorities defending what the tsarist empire did in 1864 and the Circassians, united by the memory of that horror, staking out positions that Moscow views as anti-Russian and, therefore, dangerous. But this time, the passions on both sides have risen to a fever pitch, making it less and less likely that either will back down. The possibility that they will clash, potentially violently, in the coming weeks and months is growing ever more acute.

Like other non-Russians within the Russian Federation, the Circassians have been confronted by Putinist policies that threaten the survival of their language, republics and even identity. But additionally, they face two other problems that set them apart. On the one hand, the Soviet authorities split the Circassian nation into various subgroups divided among multiple administrative territories; and they sought to prevent the Circassians from asserting a common national identity or demanding a single Circassian republic in the North Caucasus. More recently, however, the Circassians have fought back, viewing the much-delayed 2020 Russian census as a means to reunite Kabards, Cherkess, Adygeys and other parts of the Circassian nation under a single “Circassian” umbrella. The census results have yet to be published, but clearly this mobilization effort has already shown significant success (see EDM, October 14, 2021).

And on the other hand, ever more members of the over five million Circassians living abroad are seeking to return to the homeland, something that Moscow fears would destabilize the region by dramatically changing the present ethnic mix there. Today, fewer than 700,000 Circassians live in the Northwest Caucasus (see EDM, February 22, 2022). Moscow threw up all kinds of obstacles to prevent the return of the diaspora communities; and now, it is set to make it virtually impossible. The Russian Duma (lower chamber of parliament) is considering legislation that will strip Circassians abroad who do not speak Russian—and few of them do—of the right to claim compatriot status, despite being descendants of people who lived in Russia earlier. That has sparked outrage among Circassians at home and abroad (Zapravakbr.ru, May 3).

Because of the critical role of the Circassian diaspora in sustaining Circassians in the North Caucasus, a role that has increased because of the internet, Moscow has long sought to divide the nation. In particular, Russia created various government-controlled associations that claim to speak for Circassians but, in fact, are a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. All other independent Circassian groups are denounced as handmaidens of the West. The Kremlin has doubled down on this strategy in the last few weeks because, while Moscow-controlled Circassian organizations have backed Putin’s war in Ukraine, all independent Circassian groups have denounced that campaign (Politnavigator.net, April 26; Cerkesfed.org, February 26).

Confronted by increased Circassian activism, the Russian authorities have prohibited Circassians in the North Caucasus from commemorating May 21 this year and threatened to arrest anyone who takes part (Zapravakbr.ru, May 1518). This ban and threat have not so much intimidated the Circassians as sparked outrage among them “not only in Russia but among the numerous Circassian diasporas around the world,” in the words of one sympathetic observer (Doshdu.com, May 15).

These developments alone would be sufficient to predict a crisis ahead, but yesterday (May 18), an event took place that makes it highly unlikely such an outcome can be avoided. Four Circassian activists and supporters—Anna Fotyga, a Polish europarliamentarian, Janusz Bugajski of the Jamestown Foundation, Fatima Tlis of the Voice of America, Brian Williams of the University of Massachusetts, and Nugzar Tsiklauri, a Georgian politician—presented a seminar entitled “The Circassian Genocide” at the European Parliament that was hosted by the European Conservatives and Reformists party. A video of the meeting will be released in three days to correspond with the Circassian Memorial Day. Moscow is certain to be furious not only by the venue and the use of the term “genocide” but also by the fact that the speakers drew explicit parallels between what Russia has done to the Circassians and what it is doing to Ukraine today (Ecrgroup.eu, May 18).

Tlis, a longtime Circassian activist, has already shared a copy of her remarks, and they only highlight this prospect. She argued that “it is imperative for the restoration of peace and security in Europe that we understand the roots of Russia’s brutality and violence” in Ukraine “because the seeds of Bucha [a Kyiv suburb where Russian soldiers are accused of committing war crimes] had been planted in Sochi and hundreds of towns and villages of Circassia that exist no longer… Russia shattered the Circassian territory into different artificial provinces to further marginalize the nation and break its unity and political significance.” Exactly what it is trying to do in Ukraine, she contended (Justicefornorthcaucasus.info, May 19).

Moreover, she said, “this year Russia denied the Circassians living on their own land in Circassia the right to commemorate May 21, [predicting that] on May 21, Circassians around the world will gather on the streets of foreign cities and villages that are their homes for now. They will grieve, they will remember and they will tell the world once again—Circassia is alive. Circassia will be free again.”

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