Friday, April 19, 2019

Circassian National Movement Saved and Empowered by the Internet, Kabard Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 17 – Moscow might have been able more or less indefinitely to continue its divide-and-rule strategy against the Circassian nation had it not been the Internet, a technology that allowed the members of a community Moscow had artificially divided up into various “nationalities” to come together as one, Andzor Kabard says.

            The Kabard activist who lives in New York exile says that even with the upsurge of national feeling at the end of Soviet times, Moscow was keeping the Circassians divided. But it had not counted on the power of the Internet which the Circassians used to raise both their issue at the Sochi Olympics and their national consciousness (

            Kabard’s powerful words on this point merit extensive quotation:

No one can say how long things might have continued in this way, but eventually Circassian nationalists were rescued by American technology. This painful picture was radically changed by the rapid spread of the internet and Russia’s success in winning the competition for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, which coincided with the rise of a new generation.

During the 2000s, Circassian youth had full access to the possibilities provided by the internet, which had finally spread like wildfire among them. First internet forums, and then social media groups became a focus for meeting people and exchanging ideas for crystallising a core of a new generation of Circassian nationalists.

For the first time in 150 years, people living in dozens of countries around the world, but mostly in Turkey and Russia, suddenly had an opportunity for direct contact and could coordinate their positions and plan public actions together without any mediation from “professional Circassians” in the pockets of the Turkish and Russian authorities.

The majority of Circassian activists who appeared in the 2000s and 2010s were trained in the school of internet battles. All that was left was to find an agenda to organise around. And one soon appeared. It was presented to them by Russia itself, when Sochi chosen to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The Black Sea city of Sochi holds a special place in Circassian history. It was the home of the “Great Free Assembly” (1861), i.e. the parliament of the independent Circassian Confederation. The last battles of the Caucasian War took place here. The whole of the city’s famous beaches are one big cemetery, where thousands of people lie in common graves. These people were driven onto the shore by Russian troops and died as they awaited deportation to the Ottoman Empire. Here, in the mountains, Grand Duke Mikhail Romanov took the victory salute in 1864, celebrating the destruction of Circassia and the culmination of the colonisation of the Caucasus.

The Sochi Olympic Games were planned to coincide with the 150th anniversary of those celebrations, although, as it turned out afterwards, there was no specifically Circassian component planned for the event. The whole thing appeared to be – and indeed was – an attempt to comprehensively wipe the memory of the Circassian people from the history of these parts.

But it had the opposite result.

In 2007, the news from Guatemala announcing the choice of venue for the Olympics brought an instant reaction on the internet. At first, no one knew what to do about it, but soon a protest action was put together, demanding the recognition of the Russian Empire’s genocide of the Circassian people. This demand, breaking like thunder during the 1990s but gradually becoming quieter in the 2000s, spread through the international press.

These events gave new momentum to the process of integration in the Circassian community, mobilising the most active people. They also coincided with a campaign leading up to the 2010 Russian census, when the internet provided opportunities for publicity and recruiting of supporters, as well as coordinating activists’ efforts in other countries were used to their fullest.

Both these subjects later dropped from the headlines as the Circassian community’s attention switched to helping evacuate people from Syria, home to one of the largest Circassian diasporas in the world. Thanks to the efforts of private donors, coordinated through social media, around 2,000 Syrian Circassians were repatriated to their historic homeland, albeit as labor migrants and restricted by quotas originally allotted to Adygea and Kabardino-Balkaria.

This tragedy allowed the subject of Circassian repatriation to be raised with Moscow, but in 2012 it was already clear that Russia wasn’t interested in talks. The futility of hoping for a constructive dialogue with the current Russian government had already been proven.

Later, in correspondence with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, a problem emerged: Syrian Circassians are nowhere officially treated as Circassians in Russia. This has complicated the assertion of their interests, which in its turn has reminded Russian Circassians of their own situation.

Today, when a new campaign for a single Russian language term for Circassian ethnic identity has started in the run up to Russia’s national census in 2020, a new hashtag, #ImACirassianAreYou (#яЧеркесАты)? has appeared - and a new resource devoted to this issue has been opened, a thematic mail-out has been organised and now there is an entire galaxy of Circassian groups on social media and messaging services, as well as close coordination with the media. Today’s technology and resources are reaching their target audiences so much more easily than nine years ago, helped, apart from anything else, by the appearance of smartphones.

The arrival on the internet of new people, including members of an older generation who knew life in the USSR and have little idea of today’s Circassian national discourse, makes it imperative to repeat a lot of stuff that internet veterans have known for ages. But at the same time, practically every Circassian family in Russia is now aware of the issues.

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