Staunton, March 27 – There are some 700,000 Circassians in the region of their North Caucasus homeland and more than seven million of them in diaspora communities around the world. The former have been forcibly divided by Moscow into separate nations, and the latter have become part of the peoples among whom they live.
Those divisions have been their greatest weakness allowing a series of Russian governments to play divide-and-rule tactics against them, but their very dispersal can be a source of strength, allowing those abroad to act in support of those at home and those at home to stand as symbols for a new national rebirth.
Until the age of the Internet, it was difficult for these various communities to come together to reinforce their common identity and to decide on common strategies to achieve their goals. Over the last two decades, that has changed. And Circassians in the homeland and in the diaspora have created and maintain a multitude of portals.
Now, the Circassians have taken a critical next step: they have brought together online ten activists and national leaders who reflect a variety of views for a discussion about where the Circassians as a nation are today and what they hope to become in the future. At the risk of a certain grandiosity, their conversation is a kind of Constituent Assembly for the nation.
The 12,000-word report on the responses of ten Circassians from the homeland and throughout the diaspora to questions prepared by Avraam Shmulyevich, an Israeli specialist on that nation, contains a wealth of ideas about where the Circassians are and what they may do next (aheku.net/news/society/cherkesskij-krug).
To give some idea of the richness and thoughtfulness of their comments, I have decided to focus on the response of one of them, Zeynel Abidin Besleni of SOAS, to two questions: “What are the political and cultural goals and tasks of the Circassiuan national movement?” and “What must be done to achieve them?”
He argues that the Circassians face a critical choice as to whether they want to be a cultural or political nation. If they choose the former, those in the North Caucasus can “continue their efforts for the preservation of the current status quo,” one in which they have state institutions, borders and some language and cultural supports.
But for Circassians in the diaspora, such an approach leads to two dead ends, an obsession with Abkhazia based on cultural similarities with it and a neglect of developing with relations with neighboring nations, few of whom want to see a Circassian cultural nation take political shape on lands in which they too live.
“For those who are concerned about the future of the Circassian nation and its survival not only as cultural but also as a political formation in the centuries ahead, there exist various strategies which must be followed and also priorities to be set and choices to be made,” the London-based Circassian says.
They must make a choice between the two main dialects of Circassian and stick with it, they must reduce their focus on Abkhazia, and they must focus instead on their relations with the Karchays and Balkars who live among them. And as a start, they must insist in the homeland and in the diaspora that they are “Circassians and only Circassians.”
They should revive the idea, widespread in the early 1990s, of uniting the three Circassian republics and make it the focus of their efforts, recognizing that “this is not Greater Circassian. This can be only a new double Circassian-Karachayevo/Balkar republic where Circassians and Karachayevo-Balkars would be titular nations.”
“This new republic would have an area of more than 35,000 square kilometers, that is, more than Armenia, and have about 1.8 million residents, including about 700,000 Circassians and 320,000 Karachayevo-Balkars, 600,000 Russians, and also thousands of Abazas, Nogays, Ossetinas, and other ethnic groups,” Besleni suggests.
“No one ethnic groups would dominate but each would take part in the future of this republic,” he says, adding that “this would be useful for Russia because in the Western Caucasus would appear a more effective form of administration with all its economic and social advantages. Political stability would grow and inter-ethnic relations would be calmer.”
“This new formation also would raise the political significance of both the Circassians and the Karachayevo-Balkars in the eyes of the federal center” and “could even stop the outflow of young people from these republics to Moscow and St. Petersburg in search of work and other opportunities.”
In the early 1990s, North Ossetia added Alaniya to its name. The Circassians must do the same now. They already have Karachayevo-Circassia, but they need to rename Adygeya into the Republic of Adgyeya-Circassia as it was in the early 1920s, and Kabardino-Balkaria should be renamed the Republic of Eastern Circassia-Balkaria.
In support of this, Circassians need to declare themselves Circassians in the upcoming census.
Other participants gave equally thoughtful discussions of these issues. Besleni’s remarks are offered as evidence of the new seriousness of Circassian thinking rather than as the only way forward. But they are certainly suggestive that the nation has evolved to the point that it is thinking in this way and not only in terms of the past or its emotions.