Vienna, May 27 – Moscow’s security services over the past decade have worked hard to prevent the Circassian nation in the Russian Federation from breaking out of the divisions Stalin imposed on it almost a century ago and also from having closer ties to the large and powerful Circassian diaspora in Turkey, Jordan and around the world.
That conclusion, one that reflects both the reports of Circassian leaders themselves and the dramatic shift in Circassian politics and possibilities over the last decade, is offfered by Islam. Tekushev in an article posted online last Thursday on the “Caucasus Times” website (http://www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=12608).
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Circassians in the Russian Federation believed that they then had a good chance to address three issues that had long troubled their community. First, they felt they could secure Moscow’s acknowledgement that their nation had been the victim of genocide not just once but twice.
During its advance into the Caucasus in the mid-19th century, the tsarist authorities expelled more than 800,000 Circassians from the region, almost half of whom died before reaching the Ottoman Empire. The authorities did so because the Circassians had fiercely resisted tsarist forces, fighting on five years after Shamil surrendered.
This genocide in the Circassian view was then exacerbated by the Soviets who first launched punitive expeditions against the majority of Circassians who opposed the Bolsheviks during the Russian civil war and then deported many of them to Central Asia at the end of World War II on charges of disloyalty.
Second, the Circassians in the early 1990s believed that they could reverse the ethnic engineering that Stalin had used to dismember their community. Unique among peoples falling under Soviet power, the Circassians were divided into four different nationalities – or even if one counts the closely related Abkhazians in Georgia.
In addition to splitting up the Circassians into the Adygei (the self-designation for Circassians), the Kabardinians, the Cherkess, and the Shapsug, the Soviet state put them in different administrative units that were frequently expanded, contracted or even suppressed.
And in yet another measure of just how much the Soviet government feared Circassian nationalism, Moscow paired two Circassian groups with two Turkic groups in separate ethnic territories – Kabardinia-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia – the only nationality to be treated this way during the Soviet period.
During Gorbachev’s time, many intellectuals in these various Circassian communities concluded that the rectification of Stalin’s crimes to which the Soviet president had committed himself would allow them to restore a single Greater Circassia in the North Caucasus.
And third, the Circassians in the North Caucasus were convinced that the collapse of Soviet power opened the way for them to restore close ties with the large and politically influential Circassian diaspora communities first and foremost in Turkey but also in Jordan, Europe and the United States.
To advance these three programs, Circassians organized political organizations in each of the Stalin-drawn regions and also an umbrella group, the International Circassian Association. That group, known by its Russian initials M.Ch.A., however, soon was torn apart by more particularistic agendas and Circassian involvement in the Abkhaz war.
Many if not most Circassians supported the Abkhazians in their struggle with Georgia, providing a conduit for military assistance from abroad to that region as well as volunteers who participated in much of the fighting. Not surprisingly, that involvement attracted the attention of Russian security services.
Even though at least at that time the Circassians and the Russians were on the same side in Abkhazia, Moscow was clearly concerned about the development of a channel between the Circassian diaspora and Circassians in the North Caucasus not controlled by the Russian government.
Such fears only increased not only when the M.Ch.A. very vocally sought to promote the repatriation of Circassians from Turkey and Jordan back to their homeland in the North Caucasus but also when Moscow’s involvement in Chechnya deepened after 1994.
In order to regain control of the situation, the Russian security services engineered a change of leadership in the M.Ch.A., one that means that formerly independent body is now under the control of those services, former leaders of that organization now have said to Circassians abroad.
Their claims about the hand of Moscow in this case are reinforced by the fact that the Circassians have been stymied in their pursuit of all three of their goals, a development not only consistent with Russia’s public policy pronouncements but also with Moscow’s approach to the North Caucasus as a whole.
First of all, the Russian government has shown itself ever less willing to acknowledge the crimes of the Soviet or even tsarist past – and paralleling this, most Circassian organizations, even when they commemorate the tsarist deportation as they did on May 21, now do not demand that Moscow condemn that event as a genocide.
Moreover, and this is clearly a reflection of Moscow’s desire to play divide-and-rule politics in the North Caucasus, the umbrella organization M.Ch.A. now plays an insignificant role compared to movements based on Soviet-era divisions and even more to the governments of the various republics populated by Circassians.
And finally, Circassian leaders themselves have proved unwilling, unable or in some places complicitous with Moscow to counter the Russian Federation’s continuing effort to keep the Circassians of the Russian Federation isolated from the Circassian diasporas abroad.
Tekushev, the author of the “Caucasus Times” article cited above, provides an example of this. He reports that when Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Jordan in February 2007, Jordanian Circassians had prepared a letter to him calling on the Kremlin leader to make repatriation easier.
But Putin never got the letter, Tekushev reports: The leaders of Adygeia and Kabardino-Balkaria blocked its path upwards, fearful of the Kremlin’s reaction to anything that might cast a shadow on his trip and possibly also of property disputes if Circassians did return to their homelands.
Despite that, the Circassians have had some successes in playing on Moscow’s fears about the diaspora. Having invoked the power of the diaspora, the leadership of Adygeia last year succeeded in delaying any vote on combining that Circassian republic with the surrounding Russian nationalist Krasnodar kray.