Remembering “Circassian Genocide and Exile” in Turkey in 2018: Rival Circassian Organisations Marched Separately!

21 May Circassians in Turkey

As has been the case in the past ten years or so, this year rival Circassian diaspora organisations have held separate rallies and events to commemorate the “21st May - Day of Circassian Genocide and Exile” in Turkey.

KAFFED- The Federation of Caucasian Associations

The first event took place near the small Black Sea settlement of Kefken in the town of Kocaeli during the weekend of 12-13 May 2018 and was organised by the Ankara-based umbrella organisation KAFFED (Federation of Caucasian Associations), which is generally accepted to be the largest Circassian & Caucasian diaspora organisation in the country. The rationale for this early a date for the event was that a large group of KAFFED members would be going to the homeland afterwards to participate in the main event in Nalchik on 21st May 2018, as KAFFED’s official slogan for this year’s commemorative events was “ In the 154th year we are on both sides of the Black Sea”.

At this visually impressive gathering, thousands of pre-dominantly Circassian and, to a lesser degree Abkhazian, activists who had arrived from different parts of the country, descended on a historical beach, namely the Babalı Beach, on the evening of 12th May holding torches and singing laments in memory of their ancestors who had lost their lives during the genocide and mass deportation. The solemn event seemed to be an intra-community affair to remember the fallen during the exile with no obvious desire to attract media attention or raise political issues. 

The Babalı Beach is a historically symbolic location, especially for the local Abkhazian community, for this is thought to be the place where hundreds of Abkhazian deportees arrived, having had to leave Abkhazia following a failed uprising against the Russian rule in Abkhazia in 1878-78. The presumed significance of Kefken was discovered in the mid-1990s when small groups of activists from various diaspora organisations began to visit this place as part of “21 May commemorations” well before these events started to draw masses.

While Kefken provided Circassian and Abkhazian activists solace and solemnity in the late 1990s to grieve privately for the tragedy that had befallen on their communities, after the late 2000s, and especially in the run up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, questions began to be asked about where to hold these events to attract more media interest and to better politicise the “Circassian Question”, for Kefken lies some one hundred miles east of Istanbul and reaching it requires serious off-road skills. The result was to hold these gatherings in locations near the Russian Consulate General in the centre of Istanbul. However, KAFFED did not officially join the protests outside the Consulate but held its own gatherings a couple of miles down the road on the shores of the Bosphorus. After the Sochi Olympics took place in 2014, KAFFED returned to Kefken once again to hold its main commemorative event there, while individual KAFFED member organisations held their own local gatherings in their own localities.

ABHAZFED- The Federation of Abkhazian Associations

Interestingly, the largest Abkhazian umbrella organisation, ABHAZFED (Federation of Abkhazian Associations), which was set up in late 2009 mostly, but not solely, by Abkhazian community centres separated from KAFFED, which they saw as a Circassian organisation, has also been holding its own commemorative events in Kefken for the obvious historical significance of the place for the Abkhazian community as explained above. However, ABHAZFED’s gatherings almost always take place separately and at different dates from those of KAFFED’s. At times, these meetings even took place on 31st May, which, for a while, was accepted as the date symbolising Abkhazians’ deportation from Abkhazia in 1878. This year, however, ABHAZFED held the event on 21st May.

CERFED (The Federation of Circassian Associations), CDP (Pluralist Democracy Party), United Caucasianist Groups 

A large rally, at least on a par with, if not bigger than, that of KAFFED’s in Kefken, took place outside the Russian Consulate General in the Taksim district of Istanbul on the eve of 21st May. This is the location that symbolised much of the Circassian diaspora political activism in the early 2010s when thousands of activists from different informal organisations, such as the Caucasus Forum and Patriots of Circassia / Circassia Movement, marched with banners and Circassian flags chanting demands from Russia to officially recognise “Circassian Genocide and Exile”. After 2014, the informal groupings in question began to be losing ground and saw their members quietly joining formal and established organisations with similar political leanings.

This year, another umbrella organisation, CERFED (Federation of Circassian Associations), has been joined by recently reinvigorated United Caucasianist groupings and community centres as well as members of a political party, CDP (Pluralist Democracy Party), with claims to be representing Circassian political demands in Turkey, to march the Istiklal Street in Taksim to gather outside the Russian Consulate General. These groups are opposed to KAFFED on a wide variety of issues, including those concerning stances taken in both Russian and Turkish politics. In fact, the Russian Foreign Ministry even issued a statement a day before the protest, warning Russian citizens to stay away from the area for potential disturbances where the march would take place.

It seems that even though the composition of the march-goers may change, the marches in Taksim, Istanbul, will continue to take place for the foreseeable future.