The Circassian Tool by Sergey Markedonov

The “Circassian Question” has in recent years been receiving more attention from various quarters around the world. Undoubtedly this has been due partly to the fact that the 2014 Winter Olympic Games will take place in Sochi, a city that for most Circassians, both in their homeland and diaspora, symbolizes what they consider as the “Circassian Genocide and Exile of 1864”.

One day a conference on the theme takes place in Tbilisi and then a counter conference is staged in Moscow.  And one cannot fail to observe that with each year passing the number of Circassians joining protest rallies against Russia in towns and cities of the countries Circassian diaspora lives in is increasing by many fold.

It is in the light of these developments that CircassianWorld (CW) considers it imperative that communication channels between the intellectuals, academics and politicians in Russia and in global Circassian World remain open so that disparate understandings of the issue can be debated in a more rational and healthy manner. Although Circassians worldwide are not really in two minds about the terminology to use to describe the events of 1864, the CW believes that talking and listening are more important than winning arguments at this stage.

With this in mind we re-publish an article originally written for Politcom.ru by Dr. Sergey Markedonov, a Russian scholar whose attention has been extensively drawn to the ‘Circassian Question’ in recent years. In his article Dr Markedonov offers his take on Georgia’s official recognition on May 21st, 2011, of the “Circassian Genocide of 1864”, an event that has the potential to give the debate a new dimension.

The Circassian Tool

The shaping of the new status quo in the Caucasus region has now been added some new elements. The Georgian parliament recognized the so-called genocide of the Circassian people. This decision had a symbolic meaning because the parliamentary resolution was adopted on the eve of the 21st of May. This date is noted as a  tragic date for Circassian communities, both inside and outside of the North Caucasus. For the Russian Empire it was the finale of the Caucasus war but for Circassians it was identified with emigration and human losses.

For many years, Circassian activists made unsuccessful attempts to bring publicity to this matter and to draw the attention of different states or International organizations. In all likelihood, this problem along with other "genocides" would have remained  rogue topics among other politically marginal subjects. However, the coming of the “Circassian question” on the surface has been determined by several factors.

Firstly, the upcoming Olympics in Sochi immediately brought about historical aspects of the Western Caucasus. Secondly, the formal-judicial recognition of independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia set a precedent. According to John Colarusso, "the Circassians could consider recognition of Abkhazia as a gesture of protection and even saved their endangered relatives. This recognition could involve the hope that Russia will wish to provide Circassians with their own ethnic community”. Understandably, the Russian government, which has numerous problems in the North Caucasus, could not take such a step. We just need to remember that such a step apart from its historical and legal aspects would, to put it mildly,  potentially unleash a stream of disputes and conflicts between Circassians and the Turkic populations in the western Caucasus (Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia) and between Circassians and the Russian population in Adygea.

Of course, Moscow could have developed its own approaches to the interpretation of the past. But this work has not been done.

Thus, such factors as the recognition of Abkhazian/South Ossetian statehood, the radicalization of anti-Russian sentiment in Georgia, and the upcoming Olympics accelerated the promotion of the Circassian issue.

Today the prevailing view in the Russian media and among the Russian experts is that the application of the term "genocide" is incorrect in the Circassian case.  However the format in which the “Circassian problem” is discussed in Georgia and among nationalist leaders is not really concerned with academic historiography and jurisprudence. It is impossible to ignore that in the Caucasus of the 19th Century,  Circassians did not identify themselves in categories of nations or national loyalty. They preferred loyalty to the Ottoman Sultan than loyalty to the Russian Emperor. In any case what we have to understand is that using a reference to the historical sources and their qualitative interpretation cannot exclude political relevance of the “genocide” issue.

Had it not been Circassians, Georgia would have come up with something else. For example, it would have appealed to "rescue" Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. Today it is not difficult to find Russian vulnerabilities. In this regard, it is important to understand how effective the "Circassian tool" might be for Georgia and, of course, how dangerous for Russia.

It seems that the practical benefits of the recognition of the "Circassian genocide" for Georgia will not be many. Perhaps, emotionally, it will act as a compensating factor. But the goal of Georgia is not to reintegrate Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea. It is the re-integration of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Georgia.

Undoubtedly, Tbilisi is trying to widen the gap between the Abkhaz and Circassian movements. But this in fact is a potential gap. There have been many cases in the history of the Caucasus, when yesterday's allies became enemies or the other way around. It is unclear how this will bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back to Georgia, though.

We must not forget that the recognition of ”genocide" sets a precedent for other potential claims. In this sense, the question of the recognition of the events of 1915 as “Armenian genocide” in the Ottoman Empire will arise sooner or later. And it will create many problems for Georgia in the triangle of Tbilisi, Yerevan and Ankara.

Will the recognition of the "Circassian genocide" fatal for Russia and its policy in Caucasus? It would probably be premature to draw such conclusions at this stage. Turkey is living with multiple recognitions of the 1915 events as genocide and the complacency on this issue is extremely dangerous and unacceptable.

Obviously, the mere fact of the recognition can strongly revive Circassian political movements within the North Caucasus and to continue with the previous policy of “keeping silent” would certainly be the wrong path. In any case, a new qualitative interpretation of the Circassian issue by the Russian state is needed.