Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: ‘It’s Hard to Be a Circassian’ -- and Moscow is Making It Harder

Paul Goble

            May 21 – On the 149th anniversary of the genocide of the Circassians in the Russian Empire tomorrow, their descendants both inside the borders of the Russian Federation and beyond are insisting that “it’s hard to be a Circassian” today and that the Russian authorities are doing everything they can to make it harder still.
            Many Circassians say that Russia has done everything it can to ignore or downplay the Circassian issue, but others note that as the Sochi Olympiad approaches, Moscow has increasingly adopted a policy of openly falsifying the history of the Circassians in general and the events of 1864 in particular.

            An especially egregious example of the latter is a two part article by Nikolay Sevostyanov in Moscow’s “Segodnya” newspaper entitled “The Myth of the Genocide of the Circassians” which ignores the historical record and seeks to bury it in a mountain of myth-making (segodnia.ru/content/122341 and segodnia.ru/content/122381).

            Faced with this upsurge in anti-Circassian rhetoric, an interview with Igragim Yaganov, a Circassian who serves on the Social Council attached to the North Caucasus Federal District plenipotentiary Aleksandr Khloponin, as published in “Kavkazskaya politika” under the title “It’s Hard to Be a Circassian” (kavpolit.com/tyazhelo-byt-cherkesom/).

            Yaganov said that he was “a supporter of the national movement in the 1990s” and kept up with that issue then. But unfortunately, “in the Russian interpretation the nationality question is a crime and the worse nationalism and separatism are curses.” In other countries, things proceed in legal channels and that is “significantly better” than what is the case in the Caucasus.

            Whenever and wherever ethnic issues are dealt with in a legal framework, everything is possible, but in the Russian case, attempts to raise the most innocent issues are criminalized, thereby making progress toward a resolution of those and larger issues difficult if not impossible and radicalizing both sides.

            “That which is taking place in Mocow with these ‘skinheads,’” Yaganov continued, “is not nationalism; it is fascism and chauvinism.  A national idea is a completely different thing.” Georgia shows how that is possible: There the nationalists were in power over the last decade, but at the same time, Georgia became a European legal state.”

            According to Yaganov, “if the state in which I live is not called Circassian, it doesn’t matter very much whether it is called: Russia, Turkey or America. I have the legitimate right to dream about statehood just as ‘a good soldier dreams of becoming a general.’” Like all peoples, “the Circassians want to live in a democratic and legal state,” and they “will seek to promote that rather than destroy the state within which we live.”

            The Circassian activist says he works with various social organizations, including with the No Sochi movement since “we are against the Olympiad” because “we completely support Olympic principles” and believe that Sochi is the wrong place at the wrong time: the wrong place because it is a subtropical, and the wrong place because of 1864.

            As the world must know, on May 21, 1864, the act on the subordination and unification of the Caucasus with Russia was signed. Having a sports competition on the 150th anniversary of that is simply inappropriate, although Russians and others should know that the Circassians remain proud of what they did.

            “Hitler struggled against Russia for four years; Napoleon for a year and a half,” Yaganov says. ”The Circassians in contrast fought for 101 years and in the end, were defeated [only] after a plague epidemic. That has been scientifically shown.”

            The Circasssians today are very much aware that the 19th century was an age of European empires. But the other countries apologized to those against whom thy committed a genocide.” That has allowed both to move beyond the sad history of the earlier century. “But Russian cannot go beyond this period because it denies or at least minimizes the fact of the Caucasus war.”

            What happened to the Circassians 150 years ago was a tragedy because they were expelled from their own lands.  It was the result of a conspiracy of the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire: “Russia needed the Caucasus without Caucasians; Turkey needed the Caucasians.” And that led to the expulsion.

            Now, “it is Russia’s responsibility to recognize all these facts and to help the peoples who suffered.” Right now, thaat means in practiular helping the Circassians of Syria to escape the bloodshed in that country. But it also means that Russia must acknowledge its role in the crimes against the Circassians in the 19th century.

            Acknowledging that he fought for the independence of Abkhazia because he believed this could be the path to the sea for a revived Circassia, Yaganov insisted that he did not “fight agains thte Georgian people but rather agains the State Council of Georgia,” whose behavior did not reflect Georgian interests either.

            Georgia has been most supportive of Circassian issues, Yaganov continued, noting that the change of government has not changed that nearly as much as many seem to think and that the Circassian Center, media reports to the contrary, continues to function and Georgians continue to be welcoming.

            As far as the international Circassian movement is concerned, Yaganov said that “the International Circaassian Association simply does not exist.”  It arose as a public organization but it has been taken over by the powers that be. That destroyed it and consequently, he said, he refuses to have anything to do with it or take the compradore statements of its leaders seriously.

            Right now, Yaganov argued, the primary responsibility of Circassians is to keep their nation alive and hopeful for the future. “In Russia, many seriously processes are taking place, and we cannot interfere. We cannot destroy it or save it from destruction. Our task to survive, to preserve outselves as an ethnos, to keep alive our traditions, religion, culture and territory.”

            That requires often unglamorous cultural activities. But it also means that Circassians must be ready to take advantage of situations, one of which is “the inevitable” amalgamation of regions in the North Caucasus.  At present, the rulers there act on Moscow’s behalf rather than on the behalf of the people. But a new Circassian Republic could change that.

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