Saturday, February 20, 2021

Circassians’ Appeal to Navalny May Boost Russian Attention to Their Interests, Sokolov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 19 – Circassian support for Aleksey Navalny reflects the attention his film about Putin’s palace in Gelendzhik, an historically Circassian location, and their sense that talking about those links will help increase the attention of Russians to the plight of their nation, Denis Sokolov, a Russian specialist on the Caucasus at CSIS, says.

            The open letter Circassians sent to Navalny has given them a chance to “remind the international community about the tragedy of the Circassians and to put this issue in the context of the advancement of democratic values, the struggle with corruption and crimes against the individual,” he continues (

            (On the open letter itself, which the author of these lines also signed, see and

            “I do not think that this initiative by a segment of the Circassian activists will split the Circassian world,” Sokolov says. “For those who live in Russia or travel there, support for Aleksey Navalny is fraught with problems with the special services, but why shouldn’t others use this opportunity to raise the Circassian issue?”

            In fact, “in this, the mosaic quality of the Circassian trans-national network is an advantage. Of course, Navalny and his agenda are not in accord with the ideas of the Caucasus peoples. For them, what is important in the first instance is real federalism and an end to arbitrary actions by the siloviki.”

            According to the analyst, “far from everyone in the Caucasus sees a cause-and-effect connection between democratization and sovereignty.” But it is widely recognized that “for civil society in Russia, the problems of the Circassians never were in the center of attention.” Thus, raising their issues now in this context is a way of changing that.

            Other experts on the Circassian question have also addressed these issues in comments to TRT journalist Magomed Tuayev. Most of them say that Navalny doesn’t have positions that satisfy the main demands of the Circassian people and therefore can’t count on having overwhelming support among its members.

            Zeynal Besleney, the author of The Circassian Diaspora of Turkey (in Russian), says that the open letter and its organizers who are linked together by the Justice for the North Caucasus portal based in Jordan and led by Adel Bashqawi and Iyad Youghar represent only one part of the Circassian nation, a people still lacking any single organizational center.

            The Istanbul-based scholar says that Circassians overwhelmingly agree on certain things, however. These include freedom for political activity, the right of Circassians to return to their historical homeland, Russian citizenship for Circassians, and the idea that they should be recognized as a single people and live in a single federal subject in Russia.

            But beyond these goals, Besleney says, the community divides on many issues, including whom to support in Russia and how to proceed in dealing with Moscow. And he suggests that support for Navalny among them has certainly not reached the point of “critical mass” at least in the North Caucasus.

            As far as “the Circassian aspect” of Putin’s palace is concerned, the analyst continues, it is unlikely that many Russians take that into consideration at all. “For the outside world, the question underlying this case is not on whose land the palace has been erected but who owns or built it now.”

            “On the other hand,” Besleney says, “from an internal Circassian point of view, Gelendzhik really is located in historical Circassia; and while few Circassians live there now, these lands all the same enjoy great admiration and respect in the historic memory of the broader Circassian community.”

            A third commentator, Murat Papshu, a professor at Istanbul’s Okan University and editor of the Journal of Caucasian Studies, says that “neither Navalny, nor Justice for the North Caucasus and its appeal define the agenda for the Circassians.” No one is in a position to speak for all Circassians, but that diversity is a source of strength not weakness, he suggests.

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