Monday, April 20, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Is Official Ankara Distancing Itself from the Circassians?

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 20 – Turkish government officials at the last moment announced that they would not participate in a long-scheduled conference on relations between Turkey and the Caucasus, a decision that suggests Ankara may have decided to lower its public profile in this area as part of its effort to expand its cooperation with Moscow in the Caucasus.
But if Ankara has indeed decided to do so – and Russian pressure on Turkey has been strong, especially given Moscow’s sensitivities about the Sochi Olympics whose convention many Circassians oppose – Turkish officials are certain to come under increasing pressure from the more than five million Turkish citizens of Circassian descent to reverse this course.
Officials of the Khase Circassian Federation of Turkey (KAFFED) said they were “extremely surprised” that Turkish government officials who earlier had agreed to come and were listed on the program announced the day before the conference began that they would not take part (
“Nevertheless,” the organizers from KAFFED said, “the conference took place as scheduled,” and they insisted that “the large number of people who visited the conference provides evidence that [many in Turkish] society consider the questions raised at [this April 14 meeting] to be important.”
Some speakers, like Guven Sak, the head of the Turkish Foundation for Economic Research, even suggested that the failure of Turkish officials to take part in the meeting had the effect of underscoring just how important and sensitive issues involving the Circassians in the North Caucasus have become.
Sak argued that discussions of these issues are helping people in Turkey to see that the Caucasus cannot be reduced to the question of relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. That region, he said, “is very important from any point of view. It must be considered as a whole. And only such a view will be effective.”
KAFFED President Jihan Jandemir said that his organization had created a Center for Scientific and Strategic Research on the Caucasus (KAFSAM) in order to make use of its ability to draw on reports from Circassian co-ethnics in the Caucasus and thus provide a more accurate picture of what is taking place in the Caucasus.
“The situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is very important for us,” Jandemir continued, “and Turkey can play an essential role in improving it.” Among the steps Ankara should take, he said, was to simplify the visa regime between Abkhazia and Turkey, something he had hoped to have a foreign ministry official explain at this meeting.
Another speaker, Onur Oymen, the deputy chief of the Turkish Popular Republican Party, said that the issue of Ankara’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia was not now on the agenda of Turkish officials. And he suggested that Circassians should not expect any movement anytime soon.
“Not one country has ever been recognized immediately,” he said, somewhat distorting the historical record. “The Soviet Union, for example was recognized [by the United States] only in 1933. And the Chinese People’s Republic, [which] was formed in 1949, was recognized [by Washington] only in 1975,” 26 years later.
Another speaker, Hasan Kanbolat, the head of the ORSAM Center for Strategic Research on the Near East, pointed both to Ankara’s past reluctance to pay close attention to the Caucasus, which after all is in Turkey’s backyard, and to the reasons why many in Turkish society are going to push their government to do so in the future.
According to Kanbolat, Turkish military sources did not even publish maps of the Caucasus between 1887 and 1993, unwilling to focus on these regions. But, he continued, “the collapse of the USSR has opened the eyes of Turkey and forced it to look at the Caucasus” and at its peoples.
And at the same time, the ORSAM Center head said, “almost 40 percent of the population of the Black Sea and Aegean coasts of Turkey consists of people who were resettled there as a result of genocide, ethnic cleansing and forced migration approximately 130 years ago.” They have not forgotten that past, and they will not let Ankara forget either.

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