END GAME OR NEW GAME TO THE CIRCASSIAN ETHNONATIONAL AGENDA?
In the last years the Circassian Question re-appeared across the mainstream media, especially after the 4th of July 2007 when in Guatemala City Russia won the organization of the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014. Georgia, which fought against Russia in the Five Day War of August 2008, was in the last few years an important ally to the Circassian ethnonational aspirations. However after the last Parliamentary elections (2012) that gave victory to the “Georgian Dream” of Bidzina Ivanishvili things appear to be changing.
The Circassian Question
This is not the first time I am writing about Circassian Affairs but even so I think it is important to summarize the key aspects of the Circassian Question. First of all it is important to acknowledge the freshness of the contemporary Circassian ethnonational agenda. There is little dispute that “on the contrary to what happened in the 1990s, in the first decade of the third millennium of the Gregorian calendar, the Circassian ethnonational agenda has shown signs of an extraordinary vitality” (Lopes, 2011, p. 102).
The transformation of the Circassian movement had a little help from internet, social groups, chat rooms and more recently facebook. Despite the new impetus “Circassians maintained [intact] three goals – recognition of the genocide, unification of Circassian territories in the homeland, and repatriation of the expelled population” (Zhemukhov, 2012, p. 505) to the North Caucasus. Regarding repatriation we have to signal that there is a primary concern towards the communities living in Syria and Libya due to the sociopolitical unrest in both countries.
In order to better understand the first and second goals, we have to bear in mind that “historical Circassia today is divided between six regions of the Russian Federation. In Soviet times, the Circassians were split and subdivided into several Soviet narodnosti (nationalities) with different ethnonyms in Russian – Kabardin, Adyghei, Cherkess, and Shapsug – and spread over several administrative units” (Zhemukhov, 2009, p. 1), as the republics of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia.
To be more accurate “the Circassians are an ancient people and (…) indigenous to the North Caucasus” (Bram, 2008, p. 35) at least since the tenth century. “The so-called Circassian issue (…) goes back to the nineteenth century, when [in 1864], under pressure from Russia, hundreds of thousands of Circassians (Adygs) had to migrate to Turkey and the Middle East” (Malashenko, 2011, p. 10) in then, in a second moment, the Circassian diaspora scattered around the world to locations like Australia, Germany, Bulgaria and the United States of America.
The Russo-Circassian War begun, to the Russian Empire, in June 1763 when Kabardians (Circassian ethnic group) asked for the destruction of the fortress of Mazdok (North-Ossetia Alania), whose construction was considered an act of aggression. However, to the Circassians the war begun fifty years sooner, given that “on May 13, 1711, Czar Peter Alexandrovich I, better known as Peter the Great, ordered Araksin, Governor of Astrakhan, to invade Circassia” (Natho, 2009, p. 268). The campaign resulted in almost 44.000 souls lost, a prelude of a violent secular conflict that ended with slaughter and the massive exodus of an entire population.
The exact toll of the Russo-Circassian War is still under dispute amongst historians and other social sciences researchers. Although contested “it is believed by some historians both within and outside the Adyge community [that the conflict] have claimed lives of more than one million Circassians, with some Adyge tribes fully exterminated, virtually all of them ethnically cleansed from the area and hundreds of thousands of survivors expelled from their historical homeland” (Souleimanov, 2011, p. 67) through the port of Sochi.
The 150th anniversary of the deportation of Circassians, through the port of Sochi, as a consequence of the Russo-Circassian War, will be blotted by the realization of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. In a curious irony of History both dates coincide. So if on one side the Russian Federation will be celebrating Sports, Youth and Glory; on the other side, the Circassians across the planet will be remembering Tears, Pain and Blood.
Georgia has an active ally
In August 2008 the world was paying attention to the Beijing Olympic Games when “Russian tanks rolled across the border into Georgia” (King, 2008, p. 2), allegedly to protect Abkhazia and South Ossetia secessionist Republics. The conflict initiated a cycle of diplomatic tension between Moscow and Tbilisi; with Tbilisi using the Circassian ethnonational agenda as political leverage against Moscow.
The recognition by Russia of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on 26 of August 2008 was counter-targeted in 2010 by a visa-free initiative from Georgia to all inhabitants of the North Caucasus. The initiative was presented as part of a larger program named “United Caucasus”, announced during a speech of Saakashvili to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2010.
Russia called this program an unfair, divisive and provocative diplomatic maneuver. Tbilisi was emboldened and a “decree signed by President Mikhail Saakashvili on October 11 imposed [de facto] a 90-day visa-free entry regime for residents of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and the Republic of Adygea” (Janashia, CACI Analyst, 2010).
In 2011 Tbilisi struck again! On a courageous moment, the “Georgian Parliament passed on May 20 with 90 votes to 0 a resolution saying that ‘pre-planned’ mass killings of the Circassians by the Tsarist Russia in second half of 19th century, accompanied by ‘deliberate famine and epidemics’, should be recognized as ‘genocide’ and those deported during those events from their homeland, should be recognized as ‘refugees’” (Anon., Civil Georgia, 2011). Georgia so far continues to be the sole State across the planet that recognizes the Circassian Genocide.
Circassian ethnonational agenda had, for the first time in the post-soviet era, an ally that was pushing their goals forward. In this sense, Georgia made it easier the access to information available in the National Archives regarding the Russo-Circassian War and regarding Circassian History. The Circassian ethnonational agenda was so important to Georgian politicians that in October “the Circassian Cultural Center was created by special order of the President of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili” (Anon. Georgia Times, 2011). The Circassian Cultural Center was designed to work in close cooperation with the Ministry of Culture of Georgia.
In the beginning of 2012, Georgia was by far the biggest accomplishment of all the Circassian campaigns. We have to remember that no other country recognized the genocide and cumulatively no other country, besides Georgia, was pondering the possibility to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014. With the Parliamentary elections ahead in that year the alliance between Georgian politicians and Circassian activists cool down and Russia was able to regain influence.
The unexpected Syrian factor
In addition to the internal scams and scandals that anticipated the Parliamentary elections in Georgia, the civil war in Syria has given to Russia an opportunity to minimize the impact of the visa-free program and of the recognition of the Circassian Genocide. In February 2012 “Russian government still appeared to be undecided about whether or not to help the Circassians from Syria to relocate to the North Caucasus” (Dzutsev, Eurasia Daily Monitor, 2012).
Several politicians argued that a repatriation of Syrian-Circassians to the North Caucasus would diminish the opposition from the Circassian diaspora to the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014. With the escalation of violence in Syria, Russian politicians used the Syrian-Circassian refugees to show the willingness of Moscow to pursue a humanitarian agenda. There was even a failed attempt to craft a parallelism between this humanitarian schema, and the so called humanitarian intervention that allegedly motivated the début of the Five Day War of August 2008.
The Russian Senator Albert Khazarov said in March 2012 that a “large numbers of Syria’s Circassian community were seeking a return to their traditional homeland in Russia’s North Caucasus” (Anon., RIA Novosti, 2012). Russia regained some credibility at the international level due to its actions towards the repatriation of the Circassian community of Syria. Curiously, Moscow acted quite differently with the Circassian communities living in Libya in 2011.
In April 2011, during the battle that opposed the National Liberation Army and the Libyan Armed Forces loyal to Gaddafi there were odd internet statements of a shadow group called “Circassians of the Caucasus” offering loyalty to Gaddafi. Circassians across the world reacted almost immediately with public statements saying exactly the opposite. To several researchers and analysts “the supposed statement of support for Gaddafi by Circassians seemed to be a poorly executed attempt [of Moscow] to spoil the reputation of the Circassians in the West” (Dzutsev, North Caucasus Analysis, 2011).
We can argue that the incapacity to damage the image of Libyan-Circassians worldwide pushed Russia to offer its help to Syrian-Circassians. In October 2012, Kabardino-Balkaria had already received almost 500 Syrian-Circassian refugees, Karachaevo-Cherkessia welcomed nearly 200 Syrian-Circassian refugees and Adygea more than 200 Syrian-Circassian refugees.
Despite the effort, the real meaningfulness of Russia’s humanitarian agenda was more symbolic than real. With less than 1000 Syrian-Circassian refugees transferred to the North Caucasus “the refugee quotas for 2012 was already exhausted for the North Caucasus” (Anon. RT News, 2012), a pale number knowing that there are at least 100.000 Circassians living in Syria.
Georgia the unengaged neighbor
The parliamentary elections of 1 October 2012 in Georgia coincided with the momentum in which Russia was reshaping its international image as a humanitarian player, using the Syrian-Circassian refugees accommodated in the North Caucasus. The election outcome redrew the political landscape across Georgia. The Georgian Dream of the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili won almost 55% of the votes, a result that ensured 85 seats from the 150 seats that compose the Georgian National Parliament.
The United National Movement, which accounted with the support of President Mikhail Saakashvili, decreased from almost 60% (119 seats) in the parliamentary election of 2008 to 40% (65 seats) in 2012. After the parliamentary election of October 2012, the balance of power begun to change in Georgia and with it the positioning of Georgia regarding the Circassian question.
Since Ivanishvili has assumed the legislative power in Georgia, the “new government says it is seeking to turn down the temperature with Moscow and engage Russia on issues of common interest, such as trade” (Whitmore, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 2013) without abandoning the intentions to join NATO and the European Union. Georgia wants also Russia to reverse the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia but in order to reach that Ivanishvili’s Georgia will have to abdicate of something also and the Circassian ethnopolitical agenda seems to be the weakest link in the equation.
The call for a normalization of relations with Russia had to come with some gifts. If during Saakashvili era Circassians were a key policy issue has we have demonstrated, Ivanishvili has opted for a totally different approach. One of the most exciting projects under Saakashvili leadership was the creation of a Circassian TV Channel, based in Tbilisi. Despite the good intentions, so far “the "First Informational Caucasian" doesn't exist. More recently the existence of the project "the Circassian Genocide" has been called into question” (Anon. Georgia Times, 2012) and there is a significant decrease of political support to the ongoing activities at the Circassian Cultural Center.
Another prove that the Circassian moment is fading in Georgia is that fact that “Georgia's National Olympic Committee's president, Leri Habelov, said on May 2 that the committee voted unanimously in favor of their country's participation” (Anon., Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 2013) in the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014. The prospect of a boycott from Georgia to the Sochi Winter Olympics is now null and so far no other country has shown any sort of willingness to boycott the Games.
There is another piece of information that might help us to understand the new positioning of Georgia after the parliamentary elections of October 2012. In the beginning of this year the new political conceptions designed to guide Georgian Foreign Policy were presented. In the plan known as the “14 points of Ivanishvili” there is a “new policy concept [that] declares (point number ten) that the relations between Georgia and the peoples of the Northern Caucasus will be based on principles of good neighborliness (…) that should not be used to increase Tbilisi’s confrontation with Moscow. Many [experts and analysts] believe that this point indicates Ivanishvili’s preparedness to renounce Georgia’s recognition of the Circassian “genocide”” (Menabde, Eurasia Daily Monitor, 2013).
So far there are no clear indications that the Parliament of Georgia will nullify its decision to acknowledge the Circassian Genocide; but at the same time it is now obvious that Georgia is no longer a reliable ally to heighten the Circassian ethnonational agenda. It is reasonable to assert that campaigns like NoSochi2014 (http://nosochi2014.com/) might not produce the expected outcome, but does this have to mean an end game to Circassian activists?
A possible roadmap to the Circassian Ethnonational Agenda
It is unquestionable that while “the prospect of mass repatriation to the Northwest Caucasus is utopian, Circassians in the Russian Federation are actively campaigning to encourage such migration” (Richmond, 2008: 173) that would make it easier the establishment of, at least, an autonomous mono-ethnic Republic inside the Russian Federation. In this regard, a leading Circassian organization recently state that “a unified Circassian republic “is no threat” to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” (Goble, Window on Eurasia, 2010) while the maintenance of the current status could actually damage Moscow’s interests in the region, in the medium-long term.
Cumulatively to the migration agenda and to the political goals there are also some identity issues at the Circassian ethnopolitical agenda. Identity, actually, is the basis of the Circassian ethnopolitical agenda, a fact easily understandable if we consider the fact that “throughout this long history of displacement, Circassian identity has been formed and transformed. The particularities and symbols of distinctiveness in each locality articulated with translocal ethnic connections and collective sensibilities” (Shami, 2000: 180). Circassian identity was born in the North Caucasus but contemporary discourses tend to transcend those frontiers with a particular emphasis on the socio-cultural specificities of the Middle East diaspora communities.
Circassian ethnopolitical agenda seems to be on a crossroad: Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 are approaching fast and so far Circassians seem to have achieved so little. That is actually a misinterpretation! Circassians were already able to develop a stronger notion of their own Identity. This newly crafted Identity conception is nearer to solve the inter-relational riddles posed by close related ethnic groups like the Abkhazians, the Abazins and the Shapsugs.
Circassians in the last few years were also able to master new information technologies in order to make it easier a rapprochement of several different communities scattered around the globe. Internet forums, facebook groups and YouTube pages are just the tip of the iceberg of this truly proto-Circassian civil society. Circassians from the diaspora are getting to know themselves using technologies to diminish distances and to enhance their “Circassianness”.
Internet mastery is actually one of the biggest victories of the Circassian diaspora activists. It is impressive how the “Circassian civil society actors and cyber-activists have not only been able to establish a counter-public sphere or develop a new space for action, but also increasingly have been able to move key issues from Circassian spheres into the wider public sphere of mainstream Russian media and politics” (Hansen, 2012: 103). The word Circassia is back to the minds and concerns of the Kremlin politicians, and for a moment was even able to shape Georgian domestic and regional policies.
Despite the victories of Circassian activists a lot is still to be done. First of all Circassian activists need to decide if the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 are the end game, or just the commencement of a new game. Circassians have earned a lot of social capital that should not be disbanded solely because the goals towards the Sochi Winter Olympics might not be achieved. Tibetan separatists did not downsize their protests just because Beijing Summer Olympics 2008 did not earn the political gains they were expecting.
Secondly, if Circassians still want to win some battles regarding their campaign against the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 they need to change some of their strategies. For example European Circassians should have campaigned more vehemently in Germany, Bulgaria, Netherlands, Serbia and even Ukraine. Petitions from diaspora groups like the NoSochi2014 should have been sent to the Scandinavian parliaments (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland) or to Austria, or Canada, since these countries have an enormous tradition in Winter Olympics.
Third, Circassians activists need to learn how to benefit from mass media events like the Eurovision Song Contest (with an average global reach of 500 million viewers) in which they could have delegates waving Circassian flags during the live shows; or in events like Cannes Film Festival, Berlinale or the Oscars in which they could have campaigns to raise awareness to their plea.
Fourth, although it is important to maintain events like the Circassian Day at the European Parliament it is fundamental to think on ways to open this sort of initiatives to the general public. Circassian affairs are too much closed in a confined circle mainly composed of Circassian activists, Circassian politicians and experts on Circassian Affairs. It is critical to attract other segments of the international public sphere with other type of events.
Fifth, Circassians need to copy successful initiatives like the Palestinian project to be raised to the status of full membership at UNESCO. In this case the work of diaspora communities would be essential to guarantee the necessary votes to win the plea. Besides the need to guarantee the help from the United States of America, countries like Australia, Jordan, Turkey and Germany could be good allies to ensure the success of this ambitious and bold project.
The Armenian diaspora has built another successful enterprise that Circassians could and should copy. Armenians spread across the globe were able, with the help of several scholarship programs and through the foundation of several research institutes and think-tanks, to create a new research field within the Post-Soviet Area Studies: Armenianology (Kotchikian, 2006).
Circassians can achieve the same, building-up Circassianology, if the Circassian International Association is available to design an innovative, audacious and multilevel scholarship program to master, doctoral and post-doctoral candidates. The establishment of a scientific publication, preferentially included in the Social Sciences Citation Index, would stimulate the appearance of cut-edge research summaries, solid analysis papers and innovative policy proposals. Circassian Cultural Institutes and Circassian Associations inside the North Caucasus and at the diaspora can work has hubs for several think-tanks and research institutes focused on different matters but integrated in a joint network. Circassians need to rationalize better theirs resources spending in order to avoid unnecessary repetitions and to maximize the impact of Circassianology.
Sixth, the International Circassian Association has to redesign its internal organic and functioning bodies in order to be able to meet the tough challenges that the Circassian ethnonational agenda has to face until the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 and after it. The International Circassian Association should also launch a major project to outline a roadmap to ease Circassia’s state building dynamics. There is a need to have already some pre-answers to questions like: What political system Circassia will chose to be? What currency will be adopted? What borders will define Circassia? Which will be the indispensable National symbols?
To summarize, it is a fact that the Circassian ethnopolitical agenda suffered a blow after the last parliamentary elections in Georgia. It is also almost unquestionable that the real impact of Circassian campaigns, to damage the image of Russia during the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014, it is so far minimal. However, those two occurrences do not have to mean an end game to Circassian ethnonational goals.
Circassians have now a golden opportunity to reshape its ethnopolitical agenda and to give a new impetus towards the realization of all its aspirations. An autonomous republic or a sovereign an independent Circassia it is still possible if Circassians show the capacity to adapt to the difficulties; the resilience to resist the difficult challenges and the creativity to solve all the riddles.
Tiago Ferreira LOPES
Analyst and Expert at the Strategic Outlook
Executive Officer at the Observatory for Human Security
Administrator at the State Building and Fragility Monitor
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