Staunton, May 21 – No nation more skillfully used an international event than did the Circassians during the Sochi Olympiad to call attention to the Russian-orchestrated genocide of their people 150 years earlier. Despite Moscow’s best efforts, few independent reporters talked about Sochi without talking about the continuing crimes against the Circassians.
In the past year, the Circassian issue has receded from the front pages of the world’s press given that there is no event equivalent to the Sochi Games which were held on the killing fields of 1861. Moreover, unlike the 150th anniversary, the 151st which takes place today is not a “round” one and thus not surprisingly attracts last attention.
But actions over the past year – both those taken by the Circassians in the homeland and in the diaspora and those employed by Moscow to try to block their activism – not only show that the Circassian issue isn’t going away but also suggest that the Circassians are now building on their successes of last year, albeit in ways that have so far attracted less attention.
As the world learned in the run up to the Sochi Olympiad, the Circassians were expelled from the Russian Empire in 1864 after resisting the expansion of Russian power into the North Caucasus for 101 years. In the course of that expulsion, thousands were killed or died in the process.
Not surprisingly, that event much like those of 1915 for the Armenians and the Holocaust for the Jews has defined both Circassian national consciousness and the Circassian national aspirations ever since with the Circassians seeking international recognition and condemnation of this crime, the re-unification of their nation, and the ultimate restoration of their state.
Over the past 12 months, the Circassians in the homeland, who number approximately 500,000, and those in the diaspora who exceed five million, have continued to pursue all three of these goals; and equally not surprisingly, they have taken advantage of other developments and been opposed by Moscow in their pursuit of justice.
The last year has brought three reasons for optimism among Circassians, each of which has dictated their specific tactics, three reasons for adjusting their longer-term strategy, and three reasons why they now face more resistance from Moscow, resistance that in fact underscores the amount of progress they are making toward their goals.
The three reasons for optimism among Circassians have been expanding international recognition of the events of 1915 as genocide, a new uncertainty about borders in the post-Soviet space given Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, and renewed tensions between east and west that means the messages of those oppressed by Moscow have a larger audience.
The Circassians see themselves and present themselves to others as a people who were victims of a genocide even before the Armenians and believe that if Armenians can gain the recognition of the international community on that point, so can they. Moreover, the Circassians, a large number of whom live in Turkey, have a particular advantage in that they can be useful to Turkey in balancing Armenian claims and putting the events of 1915 into a broader context.
The new uncertainty about borders in the post-Soviet space also provides hope for the Circassians, a people that first the tsars and then the Soviets divided and that the Russian Federation has refused to do anything about. Once borders are seen to change, the possibilities for border changes elsewhere clearly increase.
And the Circassians have benefitted as well from the new rise in east-west tensions: During the Cold War, many in the West displayed particular sympathy to ethnic minorities in the USSR; but after 1991, most of that sympathy disappeared because Western governments were focused on Moscow and did not want to rock the board. That has now changed.
Each of these developments has dictated the tactics of the Circassians over the past year. Circassians have sought to piggyback on Armenian claims, they have talked even more about the injustice of the divisions of the Circassian nation in the North Caucasus, and they have focused on those countries, such as Ukraine and Estonia, who are most at odds with Moscow.
Circassians regularly appear at Armenian rallies. They have published numerous maps about what the borders of Circassia looked like before the Russian conquest and promoted contacts among Circassians in the North Caucasus, and they have sent requests to the parliaments around the world calling for recognition of the genocide.
The Russian government has not stood idly by. It has pursued a policy of carrots and sticks in the Caucasus itself, a divide and rule strategy against the diaspora, and a propaganda campaign against Circassians as such. In each case, Moscow has had some success, but over the past year, the limits of its ability to affect the situation have become ever more obvious.
The Kremlin would like to keep the Circassians quiet in the North Caucasus lest their activism intensify Russia’s problems there, but because the Soviets chose to include the remaining Circassians in two bi-national republics, anything done to or for the Circassians there has the effect of exacerbating Russia’s relations with the Turkic nations with which the Circassians are currently paired.
Russia has always used its own agents abroad to divide and disorder ethnic and other groups. In the past, it has had some success among the Circassians, but over the past year, Circassian leaders in many countries have become more sensitive to this threat and far more ready to respond, thereby limiting Moscow’s abilities in this direction.
And Russian propaganda about the Circassians has become ever less successful because it is seen not only by them but by others as part of the broader and fundamentally dishonest disinformation campaigns that Moscow is deploying against Ukrainians and other nations. As a result, what might have worked 18 months ago is not working now.
The Circassians recognize that their task is enormously difficult and will take a long time to achieve, but the past year has brought them what may be the most important victory they have won in a long time: they recognize this reality, and they are acting in a step by step way to pursue their goals.
As a result, the Circassian issue is not going away, whatever Moscow propagandists say, and the future for Circassians and Circassia is brighter now than it was before Putin’s spectacle in Sochi allowed that nation to capture the imagination of much of the world.