Staunton, July 20 – The “double standards” behind Russia’s nationality policy -- very much on view “when the Kremlin recognizes a small part of the Ossetian people as an independent state while leaving the larger part within Russia and the right to choose its future” -- are radicalizing the Circassians, according to one of their leaders in exile.
In an interview conducted by Fatima Tlisova and posted on the Kavkaz-Uzel.ru portal, Murat Berzegov argues that what Moscow has done regarding the two Ossetias is radicalizing Circassians across the North Caucasus who are now asking why they are being attacked for demanding that they be treated equally (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/171772/).
This interview is important because it provides the clearest indication yet of the ways in which Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008 and subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states is having an unintended and from Russia’s perspective unwelcome impact in the already troubled North Caucasus.
In the past, Berzegov, founder of the Circassian Congress who received political asylum in the United States earlier this year because of threats to his life in his homeland, has called for Moscow to acknowledge the Russian genocide of the Circassians in the 19th century and to allow the Circassians to combine the various state formations into which Stalin divided them into one.
In this interview, Berzegov reiterates those positions: “The Circassians in their current state fall under the definition of a divided people.” They are split “into five subjects” of the Russian Federation and are “artificially designated by different ethnonyms.” Abroad, “the Circassians are dispersed in more than 50 countries.”
This status, he continues, “contradicts” both the Russian Constitution and international law and must be addressed by “political methods within the framework of the legal field of the Russian Federation and the United Nations.” In so doing, the Circassians are not asking for any “exceptional rights or privileges” or the denigration of the rights of others.
“We seek,” the exiled leader said, “the realization of the right of a people to a single historical territory, to repatriation -- the right to return to the Motherland of the descendents of those forcibly deported, to a single ethnic name which reflects membership in a single people, and through these intermediate steps, we want to achieve the reestablishment of Circassia.”
“None of our demands are radical or contradict the Russian Constitution,” Berzegov stressed. But “unfortunately,” he continued, “all are actions and declarations generate in Moscow a negative reaction, even if we speak only about that which we have the right to under the Constitution of the Russian Federation, that of unity.”
For all the other peoples “who live in the Russian Federation, unity is a natural right and considered a given.” But “when the Circassians speak about unity,” Moscow treats it as “a threat to the integrity of Russia” and “our demands” as “something illegal, as if we were seeking greater rights than other peoples have.”
That simply isn’t the case, Berzegov insists. “We demand equality, but in the Kremlin, this is interpreted as a criminal striving to exclusiveness because we speak about the unity of the people and territory.” And Moscow risks making the situation worse by suggesting that there is some relationship between Circassian aspirations and political Islam, but that isn’t true either.
“Political Islam,” he continues, “has completely opposite goals to ours.” It seeks “the construction of a caliphate, based only on religious unity and completely excluding a national component. I do not think,” Berzegov says, that it is in Russia’s interests to unite Circassian social movements with structures which are involved with terrorism.”
But the most serious threat of the radicalization of the Circassians lies elsewhere, the exiled leader says. “Russia must move away from double standards in nationality policy. Even people far from politics are beginning to doubt the adequacy of the political course” of the Russian government in the North Caucasus.
That is because they can see such double standards very much in evidence “when the Kremlin recognizes a small part of the Ossetian people as an independent state while leaving the larger part of this people within Russia and without the right of a choice over the future” of that people.
This “unequal approach in nationality policy is too obvious,” he says, “and it is sharpening a feeling of injustice among those peoples whose rights are being violated, especially among the more politically active part of the people, its youth.” If something is not done, that could lead to some unwanted consequences.
“Moscow has not been able to develop a mechanism for reducing social tension, there are no organizations which could serve as a bridge between society and the powers that be, and the powers that be lack a will to dialogue with the people,” he says. Instead, “the powers that be prefer to ignore or minimize the Circassian problem, to distort its essence and drive it deeper.
This Russian “tactic excludes the possibility of the legal resolution of the tasks and becomes a platform for their irreversible escalation, [if and] when young people begin to go into the forest.” If Moscow doesn’t respond politically, Berzegov concludes, “then a repetition of the chaos in Ingushetia and Daghestan is unfortunately a real scenario for Circassia.”