Last Steps May Be the Hardest: Circassians on Brink of Achieving Independence

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Last Steps May Be the Hardest: Circassians on Brink of Achieving Independence

Last Steps May Be the Hardest: Circassians on Brink of Achieving Independence

Paul Goble

Window on Eurasia

Remarks prepared for the International Conference on Independent Circassia

Istanbul, August 5, 2023

Mahatma Gandhi is reputed to have said that first the opponents of national movements ignore the latter, then they laugh at them, then they attack them, and finally they surrender to them. The Indian leader’s comment can be updated for Putin’s Russia and the approach the Kremlin has adopted against the Circassians: first, it ignored their movements; then it attacked and penetrated them; and finally it arrested some, forced others to emigrate, and even organized parallel meetings and groups to confuse the situation.  Circassians should wear Moscow’s ever more sweeping attacks on them as a badge of honor both because they reflect the strength of their movement and the fears of its imperial opponents and because what Moscow is doing ensures that the final result will be what Gandhi predicted: the restoration of an independent Circassia. That is the good news and it should be celebrated – indeed the title of this conference is a measure of how much Circassians appreciate what they have gained — but at the same time, the coming weeks and months almost certainly will feature new Moscow moves against Circassians in the homeland and in the diaspora that will discourage some and may even lead a few to decide to put off any final drive to achieve independence.

            Circassians and their supporters need to keep five things in mind as they continue their efforts to achieve an independent Circassia and respond to what is certain to be increasing use by the Kremlin of its police powers and security agencies against their nation:

·       First, Circassians are almost uniquely positioned to oppose Moscow because they have both a large number of increasingly radicalized people in the North Caucasus homeland and an even larger number of nationally conscious people in the diaspora. And over the last decade, they have learned to make use of social media in ways that mean the actions of the one strengthen the position of the other and Moscow’s moves against the one leads to new losses for the Russian empire in the other as well. Thus, for example, when Moscow cracks down on Circassian activists at home and forces them into prison or emigration, these people do not lose their voice but rather are able to add it to the other component of the Circassian nation, something Russian officials don’t know how to respond to effectively. Instead, like someone fighting a grease fire with water, they are spreading the Circassian movement rather than extinguishing it as they clearly hope.

·       Second, never before has the Circassian nation had such as important ally as Ukraine. Kyiv recognizes that the Circassians are its natural allies in the struggle against Russian imperialism because Ukrainian officials recognize that the enemy of their enemy is above all their friend. The more deeply Russia becomes embroiled in its war of aggression in Ukraine, the more true that will be; and the more Ukraine can be counted on to support the Circassians and their just aspirations for independence. That support and that alliance is something that no Circassian should ever forget.

·        Third, and related to Ukraine’s new role, the international community has now recognized that Putin alone is not the problem and that the Russian Federation because it remains an empire will remain a threat to world peace unless it is dismantled. Two years ago, the number of people in the capitals of the West who were prepared to argue that were few in number; but now, in world capitals, it is becoming common ground among the most thoughtful analysts and policy makers. And that means that Circassians have additional allies in their cause, one that they almost certainly did not expect before February 2022 when Putin began his expanded invasion of Ukraine.

·       Fourth, Circassians are not alone within Russia. They have more allies than they can possibly count. Not only are most of the non-Russian nations interested in or even committed to achieving independence or at least a new union they help define rather than to continue to live under Moscow’s aegis, but many historically ethnic Russian regions share those beliefs. If the West recognizes that Russia as an empire is the problem, the peoples of Russia beyond the ring road of the Russian capital know that the problem is Moscow and its empire and that they can only have a better future if Moscow is no longer in a position to rule them.

·       Fifth – and this may be the most important factor of all – the Putin regime is approaching its end. Its author is aging and has destroyed most if not all of the institutions of the Russian state. As a result, he is making ever more mistakes because he will not listen to anyone and no one close to them can remain in that position if they tell him the truth. His war in Ukraine is Exhibit A of this; but his policies in the North Caucasus, the Middle Volga, Siberia and elsewhere reflect this senescence as well. In the coming weeks and months, he will make ever more mistakes and they will be all of one kind: the use of violence to try to prevent others from seizing their future, including not importantly, the members of the Circassian nation at home and abroad.

Some considering this list will assume that a victory for Circassians is something they can just wait for while others will conclude that a quietist approach is best lest the Putin regime visit violence on Circassians and their movement. But both those positions are self-defeating, the first because it means that Circassians would forego all the advantages of the situation today; and the second because it could give Moscow at least some temporary victories it doesn’t deserve. Instead, Circassians should recognize that they need to act and act both carefully and thoughtfully; and that means they must recognize that while they are close to a victory, it could be snatched from them if they don’t adopt the right strategies and tactics. Among the things they must keep in mind in deciding how to act are the following:

·       The Circassians must always keep in mind that they can lose their allies unless they act in ways that will keep them on their side; and there will always be those who are prepared to strike what look like principled positions that could cost Circassians influence in Kyiv, Washington, Ankara and elsewhere. That must be avoided at all costs.

·       The Circassians must constantly reach out to other non-Russian nations and to Russian regionalists. Such people will be the ones best able to help the Circassians achieve their ends. They may not want everything Circassians do, but cooperation doesn’t require unanimity and those who demand that are going to torpedo the Circassian cause.

·       The Circassians must recognize their unique resource in having an enormous diaspora as well as having a significant population in the homeland and that the Internet and especially social media are going to play an enormous part in their struggle to recover their lands.

·       The Circassians must also recognize that the Circassian nation for both historical and ideological reasons remains divided. Efforts to impose a single program on all Circassians will be counterproductive. The broadest possible unity must be sought even if that requires that the Circassians give up some of their own passionately held positions.

·       And finally, the Circassians must be alive to the fact that the closer they approach victory and Russia suffers defeat, the more violent and subversive Russian policies toward them are certain to become. They need to be on guard and even more to alert the international community to that reality.

A Circassian victory is near, but the last steps of achieving it may be the hardest. I for one am confident that the Circassians have the capacity and the leadership to cope with such difficulties — and that the day is not far off when we will be having a conference not about the future of an independent Circassia but about that as a new reality.

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