Quadriga Prize: the Circassian dimension, by Sufian Zhemukhov

openDemocracy -- An international outcry at the award of the prestigious Quadriga Prize to Vladimir Putin resulted in its cancellation for 2011, thus depriving the 3 other nominees of the honour they were to have received. Political relations between Russia and Germany are not affected, but there is another dimension to the question, explains Sufian Zhemukhov.

The Quadriga Prize

The ‘Quadriga’ is a German prize named after the statue on top of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. It was founded in 2003 in celebration of German re-unification and is awarded in an annual ceremony on 3 October (Reunification Day) to people ‘whose courage tears down walls and whose commitment builds bridges’ and whose ‘thoughts and acts are built on values which promote vision, courage and responsibility’, to quote the Quadriga website. Past recipients have included Mikahil Gorbachev, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Viktor Yushchenko and Vaclav Havel.

This year the Award Committee nominated 4 laureates including the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyed, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa and… Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He was to have been honoured for his ‘service to the stability of German-Russian relations’, but the nomination provoked an outcry from both German politicians and others.

Former recipients, including former president of Czech Republic Vaclav Havel, insisted that they would return their award, if the Russian leader were so honoured and the Committee took the difficult decision (‘in light of the growing and unbearable pressure and the danger of further escalation.’) to cancel the award for 2011.

It was, however, not only international figures who protested so vigorously. There is another dimension to the matter, one rather nearer to Russia.

A Circassian protest

Immediately after the announcement, one of the leaders of the German Green Party, Cem Ozdemir, quickly stated that he had voted against the award and announced that he would leave the committee. Ozdemir’s behaviour was so unexpected that initially other committee members tried to reason with him, but subsequent national and international developments changed their view and the award was withdrawn.

Cem Ozdemir is by origin a Circassian. He is one of the 5 million members of the diaspora, which resulted from 19th century mass deportations by the Russian Army of Circassians from their home in the North Caucasus to Turkey. The Circassian population inside Russia today is about 1 million, but Russia will not allow diaspora Circassians to return, so they remain scattered all over the world. Is it too far-fetched to imagine that Ozdemir could not countenance an award celebrating reunification being given to one of the leaders of a country which will not allow his people to reunite?

The announcement cancelling the award was made on 16 July, on the eve of high-level talks between Russia and Germany. Both sides assert that political relations are not affected. The Russian statement referred to ‘probable internal problems’ in the Award Committee.

Circassian Days at the EU Parliament

Ozdemir had not previously displayed any signs of anti-Russian feeling.  He is a European MP and actively engaged in the Circassian movement, organising annual ‘Circassian Days at the European Parliament.’ He has even taken the Russian side several times, going against the main trend in Circassian and European politics. He did not, for example, support 20 Circassian organizations in their appeals to the Presidents of the European Parliament Josep Borrell Fontelles in 2006 and Hans-Gert Pottering in 2008 for recognition of the Circassian genocide.

He sided with Russia after the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, inviting an Abkhaz delegation to the ‘Circassian Days at the European Parliament’ in October 2008 and organising a meeting for them with 30 members of the EU Parliament, including Jacek Saryusz Wolski, the head of the committee for international affairs. Such meetings were crucial for Russia, which was trying to legitimize its actions after its war with Georgia and recognition of Abkhazia.

Ozdemir cannot be said to have taken the first step against Russia. It was actually the Russians who made the first move: in December 2010, six Circassian organizations from Russia unexpectedly signed a statement against ‘Circassian Days at the EU Parliament’.

Extensive experience of European politics is hardly needed to work out who organized this anti-Circassian campaign. One of the signatories to the statement openly confessed to Caucasus Knot that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was watching the 2010 ‘Circassian Day’ with great attention. Apparently, Russian diplomats had been so pleased by Ozdemir’s support for the Abkhaz question in 2008 that they made him an offer to turn his “Circassian Days at the EU Parliament” into a regular pro-Russian event. He refused and they had clearly decided to punish him by mobilizing the Russian Circassians.

Russia and the Circassian question

There is no doubt that Russian leaders analyzed the Quadriga situation from every angle, but they decided not to respond to the Circassian dimension of the situation. They took a similar decision in May 2011, when the Georgian Parliament recognized the 19th century Circassian genocide, which Russia has always refused to do.

Today, the Russian authorities are unable or unwilling to resolve any of the three main components of the Circassian question – recognition of the genocide, the unification of the multiple Circassian regions into a single republic within the Russian Federation, and the repatriation of the Diaspora. After the wave of demonstrations against Caucasian ethnic minorities in Moscow, it was obvious that any decision in favour of Circassians could stir up Russian nationalism, which is far more dangerous than Circassian nationalism, so the Kremlin apparently decided just to adopt the ‘tactics of silence’ on the Circassian question.

The future

Thus, German politician Cem Ozdemir’s refusal to accept that Putin should receive the prestigious Quadriga award was his first anti-Russian action in public. What might lie ahead for him? In my opinion, he has more than one option.

His success with Quadriga might lead to the formation of an anti-Russian lobby, which has not hitherto existed in Germany. Or he could initiate discussion of the Circassian genocide in the EU Parliament. He could easily do this himself, or via the German-friendly Estonian Parliament, which has recently received similar appeals from Circassian organizations.

There is also the question of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are to take place in Sochi, the last capital of independent Circassia in the 19th century, and which will coincide with the 150th Anniversary of the Circassian deportations. The anti-Sochi movement is fairly strong already and the situation could become immeasurably more complicated if an experienced and well-known politician like Cem Ozdemir were to decide to take matters further.

Whatever strategy he chooses, he would certainly be able to cause Russia quite a headache if he acts in the same way, and with the same success, as in the Quadriga affair. At the same time it is clear that Russian leaders do not regard the problems with Cem Ozdemir as insoluble, as they are, for example, with the Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Given the pragmatism and flexibility of Russian diplomacy, a mutual understanding will probably be re-established with the national leaders of the Green Party. Might the Quadriga affair, which both sides continue to assert has not affected Russo-German relations, serve as a reminder to the international community that the Circassian question remains unsolved?

Sufian Zhemukhov is currently a visiting scholar at George Washington University

Source: openDemocracy