Thursday, May 21, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Circassians Reaffirm Common Identity on Deportation Anniversary

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 21 – Today, the more than 700,000 Circassians in the North Caucasus and their more than five million co-ethnics in Turkey, the Middle East, Europe, and around the world are marking the 145th anniversary of the expulsion of their ancestors after one hundred years of violent resistance to Russian expansion.
Many of the 1.5 million Circassians who were expelled died in the course of that action, leading their descendents and scholars who have studied that tragedy to label it “the forgotten genocide.” But this year, buoyed by Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia, ever more Circassians are focusing on the future and have put forward five major demands.
First, while seeking official Russian recognition of and an apology for the tsarist expulsion of the Circassians nearly a century and a half ago, their descendents are asking for that not as a standalone measure but as the basis for developing a special program for the rebirth of the Circassian nation.
The Adyge Khase organization issued an appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev calling on him to issue a statement “in which would be given an appropriate assessment of the bestial crime of tsarist autocracy in the North Caucasus” and given those expelled the chance for “a return to the land of their ancestors (
Meanwhile, the International Circassian Association said that while mindful of the past, it does “not intend to turn its back on the future.” Instead, the organization called for the adoption of a special program to help the Circassians overcome the consequences of the Caucasus wars (
Second, because Sochi was the site of the 1864 deportation and because plans for the development of facilities for the Olympics there fail to respect the memory of that event and the life of the Circassians still living there, Circassian organizations have called for the site of the games to be moved (
The Olympics are an especially sensitive issue. On the one hand, Vladimir Putin has made them a centerpiece of his career, but on the other, he and other Russian officials have ignored the sensitivities of the Circassians and the fact that the games scheduled for 2014 will occur on the 150th anniversary of the expulsion and genocide of the Circassians.
Third, Circassians living in the North Caucasus and the more numerous Circassians living in the diaspora are seeking a radical simplification of the procedures for the repatriation of the community and also for dual citizenship, neither of which the Russian authorities seem inclined to grant (
Most Circassians who have tried to return have fallen under the provisions of the 1991 Russian citizenship law which requires that they give up their previous citizenship, live in the country for five years before getting Russian citizenship, and know Russian, all of which limits the attractiveness of coming back.
And their situation has deteriorated as a result of the adoption in 2003 of the Russian law on the legal status of foreign citizens living in the Russian Federation. That measure makes it even more difficult for Circassians from the diaspora to return, even though Moscow officials say they would like to have more repatriates.
Fourth, and with a new urgency this year, the Circassians want to reaffirm their common identity as Circassians. Although many of them are grateful to Soviet power for creating three Circassian republics in the North Caucasus, they are angry that Moscow divided their nation into Adygeys, Kabardinians, Circassians, and Shapsugs.
And consequently, they have resumed the campaign they launched in the early 1990s to have all these subgroups of the Circassian nation eliminated in the upcoming census and to allow members of each to declare themselves as Circassians rather than one of the other Soviet-era identities (
Most Circassians believe, their leaders insist, that “the recognition by the organs of state power of the Russian Federation of the ethnic unity of Circassians living in the Russian Federation and the reestablishment of a single ethnonym (unification) for their designation is at the present time the chief task” on whose resolution depend all the others.
And fifth, following on that, the Circassians in the North Caucasus and abroad would like to see the restoration of a single Circassian Republic, eliminating the ethno-territorial divisions Stalin imposed on the people and allowing the Circassians to resume a separate and distinct national life as they did prior to their defeat and expulsion in 1864.
That would require a dramatic reordering of the North Caucasus, something that the Circassians say is a matter of simple justice but that Moscow views as a threat to stability. And although most Circassians insist that they see their future within the Russian Federation, their enthusiasm for the independence of Abkhazia suggests they have larger plans.
As a result, even if the Russian government is willing to make concessions on all the other points, Moscow appears unlikely to yield on this one, thus continuing a situation in which the increasing nationalism of the rising generation will clash with the increasing authoritarianism of the Russian state well into the future (

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