Interview with Paul Goble, March 2008

Paul Goble
March 12, 2008

Background: Circassians, also known as the “Cherkess”, call themselves as “Adyghe” and have very close and strong ethnic solidarity ties with the Abkhazians and Ubykhs as all these three nations originated from a common 'proto-nation' and share many cultural values and customs in all aspects of their national lives. Circassian tribes include Kabardians, Besleneys, Shapsughs, Chemguys, Bzhedughs and others. hosts a series of interviews with Caucasus specialists and researchers, particularly those dealing with issues related to the Circassians. The first interview was conducted with Professor Paul Goble. Interviews will continue with different individuals in the near future. acknowledges with thanks the insights Mr. Goble has shared with us.

Metin Sönmez 

Profile: Paul GOBLE is director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. In 2004 prior to assuming those positions, he worked for more than 25 years in a variety of roles addressing similar issues in both the government and the private sector in Washington, D.C., Read more...

The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Circassian World.

CIRCASSIAN WORLD: At what level in the US administration is the Circassian issue located, so to speak, and what kind of support could be forthcoming to the Circassians considering different future options ranging from the maintenance of the status quo at one extreme and a drive to independence at the other extreme and (negative) modifications in the current ethnic federalism model being in the middle of the prediction scale?

PAUL GOBLE:  The Circassian issue is not an orphan in Washington, but its various aspects mean that it is sometimes the focus of senior people and sometimes of more junior ones who have responsibilities for other issues.  Because Circassians live in many countries and form significant groups in American allies like Turkey and Jordan, they are a major concern, but as a community in the North Caucasus, they probably don’t have any one person in the US government focusing exclusively on them. Instead, as in my time 20 years ago, they are probably followed somewhat erratically by the person responsible for “religion, nationalities and dissent.”  Your can imagine which aspect of that gets the most attention.

What kind of analogies can you draw between the policies of the 19th century British Empire and 21st century USA regarding the Circassians and other North Caucasians?

GOBLE: The British were an imperial power; the United States is not. On the one hand, that means that the US is less supportive of existing arrangements than the British tended to be, something that could work in favor of the Circassians. On the other, the British were far more attentive to ethnic and religious minorities than the US tends to be, recognizing their significance as players in the great game of international politics.

What can the Circassians do to make sure that Moscow does not make another attempt to undo any of the Circassian republics? What about the transitory stage of uniting all the Circassian republics into a region?

GOBLE: Moscow has only itself to blame for its current problems. It was Putin after all who opened the door to combining all the Circassian peoples in a single republic, something Stalin had made sure would not happen. That does not mean that the Circassians will achieve their goals. Some in Moscow understand how significant and thus dangerous that community could be. And they will do what they can, including the use of force, to prevent it. But that does not mean Moscow will be able to stop the Circassian peoples from coming together. 

Do you think it is realistic to believe in the possibility of a kind of North Caucasus wide Unified Caucasus Confederation which may even merge with the Southern Caucasian countries to create a pan-Caucasian union in a way revitalizing the brief Caucasus wide unification experiences in the period between the fall of the Tsarist rule and the arrival of the Bolsheviks between 1917 and early 1920s?

GOBLE: I personally see no chance of a South Caucasus confederation anytime in the near future. I think there could be a Mountaineers Republic in the North, but that the emergence of a new Greater Circassia is far more likely.

What do you think about the Wahhabi factor in the Nalchik attack of 13-14 October 2005?  Could you say that foreign intelligence services were involved in this event?

GOBLE: Moscow chooses to invoke the Wahhabis – its preferred term for any Muslim group it does not like and that does not like Russia – on each and every occasion to prevent the West and especially the US from objecting to its brutal suppression.  I do not think that the Wahhabis or even people close to them were responsible for the attack on Nalchik or for the deaths that occurred there. 

What kind of analogies and lessons should the Circassians draw from the different aspects of the First and Second Russian-Chechen wars especially considering the attitudes of the USA and rest of the international community?

GOBLE: The Kazan Tatars say that what they learned from these two post-Soviet Russian campaigns in Chechnya is that you can be as independent as you want as long as you don’t say so. I suspect that is a useful if temporary lesson for the Circassians as well. 

There is considerable Circassian population in Turkey and several countries in the Middle East, Europe and the USA itself. Do you think that this population has the capacity to be a pressure group (lobby) for political issues related with the North Caucasus in Turkey and/or elsewhere in the near future? 

GOBLE: Absolutely.  Were there not five million Circassians in the diaspora Moscow would be behaving much worse than it has and the Circassian communities now inside the Russian Federation would be suffering even more than they are.  I hope that links between the currently divided Circassian nation will strengthen over time and that those who can will lobby Western governments and in the first instance Western media to pay attention to Moscow’s crimes in the Caucasus.

What kind international mechanisms can be developed that could facilitate the repatriation of the diaspora Circassians back to the Northwest Caucasus in collaboration with the Russian authorities and the support of the international community?

GOBLE: Right now, Circassians are better off with a large diaspora than with many of its members returning. But eventually the right of return must be insisted upon. I hope the Circassians inside the Russian Federation and abroad will exploit the run up to the Sochi Olympics to talk about their expulsion and the need to restore their homeland with them in it.

The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty started its North Caucasus service five years ago, which is a great achievemet in itself, but still the Circassian transmission is restricted to 20 minutes of news per day. The service could be extended to one hour a day by the inclusion of cultural and folkloric programmes. What could the Circassians do to influence the people who determine the kind of service that is transmitted?

GOBLE: As someone who urged the US Congress to create a Circassian Service, I believe that it has played a positive role but must be expanded.  I would like to see it increase its broadcast time but even more I would like to see it expand its online presentations, the best way to reach the Circassians in the region. 

Cultural support could be very important in uniting the Circassians in the diaspora and the homeland Caucasus. The official cultural institutions in the Caucasus were all used in the celebrations of Circassia's so called voluntary 'union' with Russia, which means that these institutions are still held hostage by the Russians and used to propagate Russian hegemony. In this regard, how can the Nart TV, which was recently established by the Circassians living in Jordan, receive international support to provide an alternative source of information without jeopardizing the support and goodwill of the (semi) federal Circassian republics in the Russian Federation, e.g. Adyghey, Karachay-Cherkess and Kabardino-Balkaria?

GOBLE: No one except a few fools in Moscow and the West thinks that the Russian imperial advance in the Caucasus led anyone to think about voluntarily joining the Russian state in the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, the twentieth century or now.  The first rule in this business is to tell the truth, even if that entails some costs. Of course, some officials dependent on Moscow’s sufferance won’t like it and may harm things. But it is wrong to play to them. It is critical to play up the truth. 

Does the USA have any direct communication links with the Abkhazian authorities? Do the Americans and the Abkhazians ever talk and listen to each other face to face without the interference of third parties like the Russians or Georgians?

GOBLE: I have not worked for the government for some time so I cannot say. I hope that someone in Washington is paying attention, including talking to people. It is important that everyone knows what is going on. Of course, such meetings must take place in a way that does not subvert their purpose, that is, they must occur so that they will not generate the kind of reaction that no one who supports the ideas of the right of nations to national self-determination could not possibly want.

The last time Abkhazia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba was due to visit the UN to present Abkhazia’s case he was denied a visa by the US authorities. Is it acceptable that one side’s representatives should be denied access to the UN in this way, and is it likely that there will be any change in the US position once the presidential elections are out of the way? Which party (Republicans or Democrats) will more equitably treat the Abkhazian case, or does it not really matter?

GOBLE: I would hope that visas would not be used in that way in the future.  As far as the future is concerned, there is a big range of views within both parties, and consequently, it is difficult to say which one would do what until we know more than we do now.

There is a very big ethnic Armenian community living in Abkhazia - probably even outnumbering the ethnic Abkhazians. These Armenians are clearly known to have been living in peace with the Abkhazians for a very long time. They are taking important roles in the economic and political life of Abkhazia, and, most importantly, during the Abkhazian-Georgian war, they actively fought together with the Abkhazians against the Georgian forces and since then they are openly supporting the Abkhazians’ bid for independence. How do you perceive this pro-Abkhazian Armenian reality about which nobody talks?

GOBLE: You are right; no one talks about this. It is important that people start talking about it. Such knowledge will complicate the lives of those who oppose the rights of peoples in this area to live freely and in their own ways.

What differences have you detected in attitudes towards the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict between America (and Western Europe) and the Russian Federation (and the former USSR)? How do you account for these differences, and which more accurately reflect the essence of the problem?

GOBLE: As far as one can judge from official statements, Moscow wants to use Abkhazia as a lever against Tbilisi rather than support the aspirations of the Abkhaz people, while the United States believes that a Georgia that offers all of its citizens equal rights is a better choice for everyone concerned than further fragmentation.  In many ways, the Russians are more worried about territories; and the US is more worried about people.

Is it likely that the Transcaucasian ‘hot spots’ (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabagh) can be settled one by one, or will there be a holistic resolution to these problems?

GOBLE: Each is different, but each will require a comprehensive approach rather than the step by step one now being employed. There are just too many questions that have to be answered and too many things that have to be lined up to assume that this is possible in a  step by step approach.

Given that the West does not wish to see the Russian Federation consolidating/widening its influence in Abkhazia, has its pro-Georgian position since the start of the war in August 1992 not produced precisely the opposite outcome?

GOBLE: I disagree. While I am critical of the US approach which seems to me too deferential to Moscow, I think more and more Abkhaz recognize that Moscow is not their friend. It wants their territory and it wants to use them as a tool to advance Russian interests, not theirs.

And finally, do you believe that the relevant experts of the diplomatic service and the academic community of the USA really have sufficient, in-depth knowledge of the Abkhazians’ political history with the Georgians? The same question can be also asked about Circassian-Russian relations or other North Caucasus related issues.

GOBLE: In 1989, the US government had only one person working fulltime on all the non-Russian peoples of what was then the Soviet Union. I was he, and I know how ridiculous that was. There are more people working on these issues, but there need to be still more.  Only with better knowledge will come better policies, although we need to recognize that better knowledge by itself will not guarantee, only make possible, better outcomes.

Thank you.