The Sochi Olympics and the Circassian Question, by Arda Inal-Ipa

International Alert

Arda Inal-Ipa

Psychologist, Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Programmes Coordinator, Sukhum

Background on the Circassian question[1]

In order to understand why the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s decision to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi has been controversial in relation to the Circassian question, it is necessary to understand some of the historical aspects and episodes from the Caucasian War – a period in the long history of Circassia where tragic events have been intertwined with moments of surprising recovery. Confronting the expansion of the Russian Empire into the northwest Caucasus and seeking to save its people and defend its land served to consolidate Circassian society and accelerate its development. In June 1861, during the most difficult, final stages of the Caucasian War, a decision was taken at a Congress of Elders,[2] to create a union for political and military consolidation, to maintain internal order, and to address political and legal issues affecting the whole Circassian nation. A governing body was created for the union – a Mejlis, or Great Free Assembly. In practice, these decisions meant the creation of a confederal state administered by a permanent collegial authority with both legislative and executive functions. This remarkable event was both a natural result of development within Adygean society, and a response to external threat, which made it necessary to develop and implement a more coherent resistance policy, to prevent conflicting actions and operations by individual sub-ethnic communities.

At this stage, the outskirts of modern-day Sochi became home to the Circassian state capital. The newly formed confederation almost immediately began to engage in international diplomacy, leading to international support from civil society organisations established in solidarity with the peoples of Circassia: the Circassian Committees of Istanbul and London. Thanks to the government’s activities, Circassia began to acquire the characteristics of a subject of international law. In September 1861 mountain dwellers expressed their readiness to become Russian subjects, if they would be allowed to remain in their previous places of residence. The Mejlis tried to negotiate with Russian Emperor Aleksandr II, but by that time the Russian government had already finalised its policy and did not intend to cease its military operations and end its harsh measures to conquer the Caucasus. In June 1862 a Russian fleet organised a landing near Sochi and, following a bloody battle, the Mejlis and other buildings were burned down. Two years later, in May 1864, following the Tsar’s government’s decision to conduct major military operations in the northwest Caucasus, a Russian military parade was held in the Kbaada plain (modern Krasnaya Polyana, known in Abkhaz as Gubaadey) to mark the end of the hundred-year war with the Circassians.

Interrupted history...

It can thus be concluded that a major spurt of growth in national consciousness; intensive diplomacy between Circassian sub-ethnic groups, related peoples and the great powers of that period (including the Russian Empire); the development of principles of a confederal union; and finally the creation of a state that from the start had the capacity to resolve political and legal issues at national level were all interrupted at launch. An appropriate psychological analogy would be the fate of an individual who survives a deadly threat but fails to complete an act necessary to preserve his security. This interrupted action, this dissatisfaction caused by unrealised intentions, will always cause psychological trauma, and will be a constant worry, implicitly affecting a person’s emotional life and future choices until, at least symbolically, the interrupted action is completed. Drawing an analogy with the processes in the northwest Caucasus at the final stages of the Caucasian War, it can be said that the Imperial war machine did not just halt the action, but actually destroyed the national movement as a whole, at the very peak of consolidation of the forces and soul of a people who stood in mortal danger. Of course, this dramatic event – this historical trauma – could never completely be erased from the national memory and, having been frozen in the Stalinist period and suppressed for decades by Soviet ideology, resurfaced as soon as the Soviet Union gave way to the new Russia. The fact that the war had only been frozen became evident from publications that appeared and public organisations that were created, from Boris Yeltsin’s well-known address to the peoples of the Caucasus on the 130th anniversary of the end of the Caucasian War, from the Circassian appeal for the State Duma to recognise the 19th-century Circassian genocide, and so on. Therefore, it was to have been expected that news of the hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi in the 150th anniversary year of the end of the Caucasian War in practice became the starting point for the Circassian question being raised with new vigour at the international level.

Modern voicing of the Circassian question: the spectrum of positions and opinions

It should be said that, despite the poignancy of the questions raised, there is no absolute unity among the Circassian movement, both about the longer-term prospects of the Circassian movement and about the Sochi Olympics in particular. In order to better understand the current broad spectrum of opinion, we turn to several statements made by prominent Circassian figures. Almost all agree on the main issues on the Circassian movement’s agenda: recognition of the genocide, unifying all the disparate territories of Circassian sub-ethnic groups in one ethno-territorial unit and returning the Circassian diaspora to its historical homeland. However, they differ over how these proposals are to be implemented. Thus, in the ‘Declaration of the Circassian Nation State’ developed in 2008 by a group of Circassian organisations, the paragraph on territorial issues states rather starkly: ‘Currently divided..., rejecting the boundaries of the so-called Russian Federation, we Circassians recognise only the integrity and indivisibility of the Circassian State’.[3] On the other hand, moderate voices can also be heard calling for restoration of the historical cultural territory of the Adyge, highlighting the unreasonableness of emphasising territorial claims to the North Caucasian republics, which would lead to an all-against-all war.[4] There are also significant differences concerning the approach to genocide, as some Circassian public figures have expressed the opinion that the most important outcome is for the Circassian people themselves, rather than the international community, to recognise the genocide.[5] There are also different positions on work with the diaspora – from demands for the return of millions of descendants of the expelled to historical Circassia in the near future, to a focus on developing horizontal ties with the diaspora, taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by modern information technology to create a model of a dispersed nation. Opinions about holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi also vary widely. On the one hand, there have been calls from several members of the foreign Circassian diaspora to the IOC, various states and international organisations to boycott the Sochi Olympics. On the other, representatives of the North Caucasian republics have agreed to participate in the Olympic Opening Ceremony, which, following protests, will include elements of Circassian folk culture. It should also be noted that ‘even radically minded leaders of the Circassian diaspora are not categorically against the Olympics, but in practice are talking about how hosting this sporting forum may lead to more constructive dialogue with Caucasians and local residents’.[6] In this context, it is surprising that the Russian authorities have not come to an accommodation even with the moderate demands of Circassian organisations. Why could the call for recognition of genocide not be countered by an acknowledgement of historical facts and an expression of regret for the cruel measures taken during the Caucasian War and the forced expulsion of the Circassians,[7] and the call for boycotting the Sochi Olympics be countered by timely (though not forced) use in the Olympic symbol and at the Olympic ceremonies of Caucasian, and particularly Adygean, national symbols and characters?

The Georgian connection – a game on several fronts

It is hard to argue with the claim that Russia’s traditional opponents have used the controversy between Moscow and the Circassian movement to destabilise the Caucasus and support centrifugal forces.[8] While it is beyond the scope of this paper to consider the roles of external factors separately, nevertheless we believe it necessary to reflect in brief on the Georgian connection with the Circassian issue in the Sochi Olympic context.

Several political scientists believe that, following the 2008 war, when from a Georgian perspective the country’s Western friends did not prove to be staunch allies, Saakashvili’s Georgia decided to position itself as a regional actor, unexpectedly recalling its Caucasian identity and the value of fraternal relations with neighbouring republics. Drawing attention to the North Caucasus, and in the context of its shattered ties with Russia, Georgia began to develop diplomatic relations with Russian subjects, in particular the North Caucasian republican parliaments. The Georgian authorities were trying to do several things at once: responding to Russia in symmetric fashion following the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia; support separatist movements and anti-Russian sentiment; sow discord in the relationship between Abkhazia and the North Caucasian republics; and pave the way for the creation in Tbilisi of an all-Caucasian centre of gravity that would affirm its role as a regional leader.[9] There was a particular place in this context for contact with the Circassian world. The culmination of the policy was the recognition in 2011 by the Georgian parliament of the Circassian genocide.

In Abkhazia, Georgia’s proactive policy on Circassian issues was viewed with great concern. The Abkhaz were very worried that their North Caucasian brothers could be taken in by the dangerous initiative of their southern neighbour. From the Abkhaz perspective, Georgia’s foreign policy orientation towards the North Caucasus was not based on a sincere desire for friendly relations with the peoples living at its borders, but on the hope that the Circassian card would prove decisive in their game against Russia.

However, despite the importance of taking into account the influence of external forces on any conflict situation, it should be highlighted that no external influence could have an effect if there was no problem on the ground. An underestimation and a lack of profound analysis of the internal reasons for conflict resulted in missed opportunities to react in a timely fashion to internal challenges and prevent a situation developing of which unfriendly external elements could take advantage.

The omissions and errors of the Russian centre: the Sochi Olympics as a reflection of problems in Russian governance

The lack of preparedness for the position taken by Circassian organisations in response to the decision to hold the 2014 Olympics in Sochi raises a whole series of questions for the Russian authorities. Why was the quite predictable reaction of the Circassians such a surprise? Why were flare-ups in the Circassian diaspora ignored for so long? Why did Russia not pay enough attention to the complex dynamics of public attitudes and concerns among different population groups, particularly ethnic groups? Why did Russia react with such unwillingness and inertia to the emerging complications to the governance system supporting to the country’s most important project of recent decades? Why was the obvious need for in-depth dialogue within society, which required the participation of both central government representatives and Circassian organisations, ignored? If a situation analysis had been conducted jointly with regional experts and public figures to forecast challenges and reveal opportunities in advance of deciding to bid to host the Olympics in Sochi, it could have been possible to engage representatives of Circassian society in dignified discussions at an early stage and fundamentally change the context.

Did Circassian organisations have an alternative?

Who was the winner from the hardline resistance to the Sochi Olympics? The plainly anti-Russian tone of the international campaign undoubtedly gave Russia a serious headache. However, there is no simple answer to the question of who won. It would be difficult to say that the Circassian movement won. In my opinion, conducting a loud anti-Sochi campaign instead of trying to resolve current issues on the broad agenda of the Circassian movement has led to great concern that the Circassian movement (primarily its foreign actors) has positioned itself as an enemy to the Russian state. Use of an “all or nothing” approach has made it more difficult to address issues that could have been resolved almost painlessly in cooperation with the Russian authorities. Are those authoritative figures in Kabardia and other North Caucasian republics correct when they say it is easy for people living outside Russia to dictate rules to those who are not residing in virtual forums but with their everyday labour and steadfastness promoting the idea of recreating Circassian unity, a political and ideological task so difficult in the modern-day Caucasus. The Russian-Georgian and the Circassian-Abkhaz relationships were not winners either. The Olympic movement itself is not a winner, as threats and hostile statements mar the days leading up to the Olympics. In this context, how reasonable was the position of the Circassian diaspora organisations that categorically demanded an Olympic boycott? Did Circassian organisations have any alternatives? For example, not to boycott the Olympics, but to form a united Circassian team and campaign for the right to appear under the Olympic flag, basing the demand on their special ties with the land on which the 2014 Games are to be held, and to attempt to gather as many international votes as possible to support this position. Maybe a demand set out in a positive way – not to boycott, but on the contrary to develop and improve the rules and widen participation – would have found more understanding and attracted more support around the world, and may have created conditions for the Circassian question to be heard again.

In sum, what has been the result? Did the campaign help to consolidate Circassian communities living in different entities within the Russian Federation and in foreign states? No. Furthermore, one of the results was a measure of division and disassociation within Circassian society. In short, complications have arisen because of the not always rational activities of several foreign Circassian organisations. The passivity of the North Caucasian public also played a negative role. If we consider the opposing sides in this conflict to be the Circassian diaspora organisations and Russia’s central authorities, the North Caucasian public could have played a more active positive role but chose not to.

Post-Olympic prospects

Though the USSR ended more than 20 years ago, Russia is still searching for its new identity. Judging from today’s territorial restructuring, Russia’s authorities are trying to end the model of a union of republics. However, it is still not clear what model Russian society wants – strengthening the quasi-corporate state, creating a multi-ethnic civic nation, or some third model. In this context, the relationship between Russia’s centre and the North Caucasus (and in particular between Moscow and the Circassian people) is one of the cornerstone problems in the development of the Russian state.

An important issue affecting future modernisation of Russia is which modern challenges the Russian administration believes threaten the country’s interests most. In the North Caucasus, for many reasons, these are ideology and underground radical Islam. In practice, national movements that do not see their future in Islam, which dissolves all ethnicity within itself, are a real alternative to this. In this connection, irrespective of the extent to which ethnically oriented organisations may annoy the centre, they can and should become allies in the real struggle for stability in the Caucasus. Complication of the Circassian question in Russia is a result of mistakes, passivity and underestimation in the long-term forecasting by Russian and Adygean political elites. The events in Chechnya, whose separatism the Kremlin fought so violently and brutally at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, showed how quickly (in historical terms) foreign powers can replace a national struggle with radical Islam. If you do not accept and try to understand the ethno-national vector in Caucasian public attitudes, the Dagestani scenario of widespread penetration and strengthening of Salafism could become more likely in other republics as well.

In the light of the current realities, we believe that all the peoples of the North Caucasus have a profound interest in remaining in a common space, as the layers of conflicts with roots in a distant past – first from the time of the Caucasian War and related expulsions and displacement; second from the heyday of social internationalism, which led to the whole Caucasus being reshaped; and, third, originating in during and after perestroika, when territorial disputes flared up again with new force, and the Chechen war thundered – would inevitably lead to bloody conflict between neighbouring Caucasian peoples. On the other hand, all the current trends – the growth in anti-Caucasian feeling in central Russia and anti-Kremlin feeling on the Caucasian border – indicate that today’s situation cannot satisfy either the authorities or the public. The only solution we see in this context is that all interested parties start searching for a suitable model to reform Russia’s state system into one that would meet the demands of the centre and the republics, and bring development and stability to individual republics and the country as a whole. It may be necessary to reconsider the pros and cons of the currently unfashionable principle of federalism. It may be useful to also consider elements of confederation, as well as the newly appearing trend in international economics of glocalisation.[10] Clearly, managing such a search effectively will require great creativity, extensive knowledge, deep mutual respect and faith in the feasibility of a new stable and equitable order in the


[1] Circassians (Adyge, in their own language) - are an indigenous people of the Caucasus, made up of several ethnic groups inhabiting the vast territory from the northern slopes of the Caucasus to the Central Plains in the West Kuban and Black Sea coast in the South. During the late 19th century, after their defeat in the 100-year war with the Russian Empire, 90-95% of the Circassians were expelled from their land to Ottoman Turkey. Despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Circassians in the Caucasus War and during the forced resettlement, millions of Circassians (various sources estimate from 5 to 10.7 million) still live in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, representing one of the largest and most organised diaspora to have preserved their language and culture. The number of Circassians living abroad amounts to many times more than the Circassian population remaining in their historical homeland.

[2] Representatives of almost all Adygean sub-ethnic groups took part in this historical gathering, along with Ubykh and representatives of various Abkhazian communities.

[3] http://circassia.forumieren.de/

[4] A. Abregov, Interview with Political News Agency (APN). Available at http://www.apn.ru/publications/article28417.htm, 5th November 2013 (in Russian).

[5] A. Beshto, Interview with Political News Agency (APN). Available at http://www.apn.ru/publications/article28417.htm, 5th November 2013 (in Russian).

[7] Podrabinek

[8] This theme is fully covered and analysed in G.N. Kolbaya’s 2013 seminal work Сочинская Олимпиада вглобальной политике [The Sochi Olympics in Global Politics], Moscow.

[9] Sufyan Zhemukhov. Грузия разыгрывает черкесскую карту [Georgia Plays the Circassian Card], Open Democracy, 13th November 2010.

[10] E.M Travina (2007). Этнокультурные и конфессиональные конфликты в современном мире [Ethno-cultural and confessional conflicts in the modern world]. St Petersburg University.

Source: International Alert