Russia’s war on Circassian national consciousness

8 November 2017
A group heading for the prayer at the site of the 1779 battle near Psykhurey was stopped at a police cordon (/Kavkaz.Realii)

The Circassian national movement in the North Caucasus has for years been under pressure from the authorities. Facing detention, prosecution, or outright violence, Circassian activists, scholars, and young people all feel the pressure, but there is much disagreement as to why they are being targeted.

Over the past few years, leaders of the Circassian national movement in Russia have been subjected to unprecedented pressure and harassment by local and central authorities.

The latest incident was connected to the anniversary of the battle between Circassia and the Russian Empire in 1779. According to a 30-year tradition, a group of young people gathered on 10 October to pray for the Circassians killed by imperial troops at the battle near the village of Psykhurey on the River Malka. A group heading for the prayer in several cars was stopped at a police cordon. They were allowed to go only after the identities of everyone present was established.

This is not the first time the authorities have tried to stop Circassians commemorating those who died in the Russian conquest of the Caucasus. In February 2014, 29 people were detained and beaten in Nalchik during a rally against the Olympic Games in Sochi. At around the same time, a group of unknown men attacked Ruslan Keshev, the leader of the Circassian Congress. He actively opposed holding parts of the 2014 Olympics in Krasnaya Polyana, the last holdout of Circassian resistance against Russian troops, which fell exactly 150 years prior.

[Read also: ‘The Great Day of Unity’ vs ‘the tragedy of the genocide’: Kabardino-Balkaria’s contradictory public holidays]

This summer, Ruslan Gvashev, the leader of Black Sea Circassian Shapsugs — a Circassian subgroup from Krasnodar Krai — was detained, tried and fined by the Lazarevsky District of Sochi for organising a funeral service in memory of the Circassians who died during the Caucasian War. These stories of young Circassians dying, being detained, or beaten up in Krasnodar and Stavropol Krais, as well as in the central regions of the country they go to for work, regularly surface on social media.

[Read more: Rally in Sukhumi for hunger striking Circassian leader]

The domino principle in the Caucasus

Zaurbek Kozhev, a historian from the Kabardino-Balkarian Institute of Humanitarian Studies, believes that the reasons are quite obvious. Since the actions are aimed at remembering people ‘exterminated during the wars with the Russian Empire’, Kozhev says that this touches upon sensitive pages in history.

‘Despite the fact that [remembrance events] are not covered in official media, information about them is promptly disseminated via the internet and becomes public. Such information inflicts a serious blow to the image of Russia as an international state that united in a single family and civilised the “wild” peoples of the Caucasus’, he says.

According to Kozhev, the reason those in power have a different attitude towards Circassians in comparison to other peoples of the Russian Caucasus has deep historical roots. Firstly, no other Caucasian ethnic group lost 90% of their historical territory as a result of the wars with Russia, he says. Secondly, he noted that no other Caucasian ethnic group has been subjected to ‘genocide’ in such proportions as Circassians. If the authorities recognised that genocide occurred, Circassians will be able to present territorial and material claims, he says.

‘If these [claims] are satisfied, the Circassians would have to return almost the entire territory of the Krasnodar and Stavropol regions, including the Russian Black Sea coast — from Taman [near the Kerch Strait, across from Crimea] to Abkhazia’, Kozhev says. He is convinced that such an example would create a precedent that could be followed by other small ethnicities in Russia. This, in turn, ‘will quickly lead to the collapse of Russia as a state’.

Practical considerations

Human rights activist from Kabardino-Balkaria Valery Khatazhukov disagrees that the authorities are afraid of ‘threats’ posed by potential territorial and material grievances. He bases his opinion on his own experience during perestroika and the early 1990s. Back then, he actively participated in the emerging Circassian national movement, which included the establishment of links with the Circassian diaspora in the Middle East.

‘Even then the Circassian diaspora did not express a particular desire to return home, even though the Yeltsin government recognised the colonial nature of the Caucasian War and the genocide of Circassians. So it is unlikely that they will be eager to come now, when the economy of Russia, and especially of the North Caucasian, is cracking at all seams’, he says.

Khatazhukov says foreign Circassians are practical people and are not ready to simply abandon their property and a familiar social environment. Returning to the Caucasus does not guarantee them either work, decent housing, or social protection. The exception is a few thousand Syrian Circassians, who have lost everything in the Civil War.

[Read also: The unwanted: Syrian Circassians in their historic homeland]

Khatazhukov believes that Russia could benefit from establishing relations with the Circassian diaspora. This diaspora includes many who specialise in areas in demand in today's Russia, for example in construction, engineering, and agriculture.

Many Circassian diaspora organisations, for example, the Union of the Circassian Communities of Turkey (KAFFED), have social and political influence in their country, which could contribute to mutually beneficial cooperation for both countries. However, as Khatazhukov notes, Russia does not take advantage of this opportunity.

Soviet patterns

Murtaz Tlepshev, an expert in international relations from Karachay–Cherkessia, sees the persecution of Circassians as the Kremlin’s attempt to unify ‘non-Russian’ ethnic groups. He believes that the government acts according to the Soviet approach, which ignores the main reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union itself — ‘unwillingness to delve deeply into the problems of non-Russian peoples’.

‘And here, the government acts according to Soviet patterns: it reduces the hours of teaching of the [local] language, persecutes national leaders, creates ‘puppet’ national associations, and reduces the number of people from the Caucasus, the Volga region, etc. to be drafted into the ranks of the armed forces and other security agencies’, he says.

According to Tlepshev, ‘otherwise it is impossible to explain the prohibitions on memorable dates rationally. It's just not clever.’

The opinions of young people

A second-year student at the Kabardino-Balkarian State Agrarian Institute who wished to remain anonymous told OC Media the reason for the persecution of Circassian activists is the desire of the central government to unify and assimilate non-Russian peoples living in Russia. The student is sure that for such a policy to work, Russia needs to increase the number of ethnic Russians. He thinks that because of this, the authorities use double standards in relation to immigrants of different nationalities.

‘Otherwise, how can one explain the fact that Russian refugees from the south-east of Ukraine, unlike the Circassians and other “aliens”, do not have any difficulties obtaining citizenship of the Russian Federation? Why do they raise again the question of introducing voluntary classes of native languages as it was in the USSR?’ he asks.

His fellow student, who called himself Beslan, believes that the matter is in Russian President Putin’s personal grievances with the Circassians. He says ‘the Circassian activists are to blame for everything, because several years ago they sharply opposed holding of the Olympics in Sochi’. Raising this topic, they tried to damage the prestige of the state, he believes.

‘And what is the result? The Olympics were held anyway, but during the opening ceremony Circassians were not even mentioned among the indigenous peoples of Sochi’, Beslan says.

In addition, Beslan says that Putin has become even more firm in his policy of rewriting official history. ‘And will not listen to the opinion of national minorities in his decision making. They are again assigned to the position of the “younger brother” ’, Beslan concludes.

[Read also: Unambitious state-backed Circassian groups hide a growing nationalism in young Circassians]

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