Vienna, May 6 – The Circassian diaspora, which numbers more than five million people in Turkey, Syria, Israel and other countries, reportedly intends to set up a government in exile to press Moscow for greater autonomy, a unified republic in the North Caucasus and ultimately independence, according to an Israeli journalist who cites unnamed backers of this move.
But because the Circassians have never taken such a step before, because governments in exile have such a poor track record, and because those behind this idea have chosen so far to remain anonymous, this report has raised questions as to whether it is a provocation of one kind or another or a real political move in the increasingly fluid North Caucasus.
On the one hand, such a report could easily be used by the Russian government to justify a broader crackdown on the various Soviet-engineered nations in that region or at the very least to demand that these nations do not take any further steps toward expanding cooperation and thus challenging the territorial arrangements Stalin imposed and Moscow maintains there.
But on the other, some members of the Circassian diaspora are clearly eager to play a more active role in the North Caucasus after Moscow’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia, whose titular nationality they see as closely related to their own, and in advance of the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, an event they oppose because it was the site of a genocide.
Two weeks ago, Avraam Shmulyevich, a Russian-language journalist living in Israel, posted on an Israeli news site an interview with unnamed “Circassian activists” who said that they plan to form a government in exile by the end of 2009 to advance the cause of Circassians in the North Caucasus (www.7kanal.com/article.php3?id=261705&view=print).
Because Shmulyevich quoted them as saying that those behind this move believe that “if Russia does not make concessions, it will lose not only Circassia but the entire Caucasus,” this article naturally attracted attention of Moscow outlets (www.apn.ru/opinions/article21563.htm) and specialists on the region (www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=20050).
The Israeli journalist prefaces his interview by noting that he had predicted last fall that the Circassian question would be acquiring “ever greater sharpness.” And he argues that the plans of the Circassian activists, whose names he does not give, to create in the near future “a Government of Circassia in Exile” have the effect of raising that issue to “a new level.”
The Israeli journalist begins with the most sensitive issue of all: the possibility that the diaspora maintains contacts with “armed groups” or “jamaats” in the North Caucasus and that the proposed Government in Exile might call for an armed uprising if Moscow refuses to make concessions to it.
“We are not asserting,” the unnamed Circassians said, “that we have ties with all jamaats or that we can control them. But with certain of them, we do.” And they added that even if Moscow does not agree to the demands of the exile government, that does not mean that that government will declare “a general mobilization” or seek to destabilize the situation.
A decision to make war, Shmulyevich’s interlocutors said, “will be decided by the people. We are not saying that we will immediately call for general mobilization but permanent bases of resistance will be broadened,” something that they suggested Moscow should recognize when it is presented with Circassian demands.
Moreover, they continued, “we possess sufficient resources for pressure on Russia in all respects – diplomatic, military and otherwise. And if Russia does not make concessions, it will lose not only Circassia but the entire Caucasus. But we would not like to obtain independence through chaos,” but rather through non-violent ways.
Those with whom Shmulyevich spokes said that they had “not yet turned to the governments of Western countries,” although they added that if they do so, they “will receive support. In any case, we are certain that we will find many allies, including in the countries of the former USSR: in the Baltics, let us say and in the countries of the former socialist bloc.”
The interviewees said that they have not yet decided where the government will be based or exactly who will be part of it, but they indicated that they will oppose the Sochi Olympics, seek the reunification of the Circassian republics in the North Caucasus, the repatriation of Circassians to that region, and press ultimately for independence from the Russian Federation.
According to these unnamed people, the government in exile will “operate on the basis of the Declaration of the Independence of Circassia of the times of the Caucasus War (1835) and on the recognition of the independence of Circassia which the General Assembly of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) adopted in 1996.”
In a commentary about this interview on the Caucasus Times portal, Murat Kardnov suggested that the idea of a government in exile may be the latest example of Circassians abroad “to draw the North Caucasus Circassians into a conflict with Russia” and to overstate the ties of the Adygeys, Cherkess, Kabards, and other groups the Soviets split the Circassians into.
That the Shmulyevich interview is likely to have the effect of “drawing” the Circassians in the North Caucasus into conflict with the Russian government is beyond doubt. What remains an open question is who is behind this idea and who will benefit most from its circulation: the diaspora, the Circassians in the North Caucasus or Moscow.
But what is also an open question is whether recent developments in the North Caucasus, including greater activism among young people who did not grow up in an environment defined by the Soviet regime, are not only uniting the Circassians of that region but also expanding the ties of that community ties to the vastly larger Circassian nation abroad
To the extent these things are happening – and close observers of the region like Fatima Tlisova provide convincing evidence that it is – they seem certain to constitute a serious challenge to Moscow’s control of the entire region, whether a Circassian government in exile is actually formed or not.