Saturday, February 6, 2021

Pandemic Failed to Eclipse Circassian Movement and has Given It New Opportunities, Activists Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 5 – The pandemic has not only overwhelmed many other issues in the concerns of ethnic groups but has cost many of them leaders who have died from the coronavirus and will be difficult if not impossible to replace. As a result, Madina Aliyeva says, there is a risk that Covid-19 will overwhelm their movements at least for a time.’

            The commentator draws that conclusion on the basis of her conversations with Circassians who acknowledge that worries about the pandemic have overwhelmed all other concerns, including ethnic ones, and taken from the community important leaders (

            But the remaining leaders say and Aliyeva agrees that there are still many in the community who are working to promote the Circassian cause and that the pandemic’s weakening of old movements has opened the way for new ones. Indeed, they say that certain events in 2020 despite the pandemic make that a certainty.

            Murat Temirov, a Circassian activist in Prague, says that the pandemic did less damage to the movement than might have been expected because it had already been in some difficulty because of Moscow’s penetration of the movement via its own agents and those it has recruited to work for Russia.

            That pattern, which began in the run-up to the Sochi Olympiad, continued over the past year; and because that was the case, “2020 in no way was distinguished from the previous six or seven years” when Moscow has worked to disorder the Circassian movement. But despite that, several events over the last 12 months have once again elevated the Circassian issue.

            Perhaps the most immediately significant was an interview Aleksey Yerkhov, Russia’s ambassador to Ankara, gave in February in which he dismissed Circassian charges of a tsarist-era genocide against that nation as “a beautiful legend” with no basis in fact (

            That suggestion had two effects, both of which were positive, Temirov says. On the one hand, those Circassians who supported him showed that they were little more than agents of Moscow and thus stood discredited. And on the other, Circassians around the world denounced Yerkhov’s words and demanded an apology and that he be dismissed.

            Neither happened, but the Prague-based commentator says that despite that, Yerkhov’s words unintentionally helped to attract attention to the Circassian cause around the world and stimulate a sorting out of pro-Moscow as opposed to genuine national leaders among the Circassians both in the homeland and in the diaspora.

            Other developments during the pandemic year also contributed to a rise in Circassian activism, including the insulting installation of a monument to Russian soldiers who fought the Circassians more than 150 years ago, one Circassians succeeded in having removed (

            Even more important, Moscow took action which highlighted the second class status it has decided Circassians must occupy in Putin’s Russia. The Kremlin eased rules governing the return of compatriots to Russia for ethnic Russian but not for the millions of Circassians now living outside the current borders of the Russian Federation.

            Putin amended the constitution with a declaration specifying that the Russian language is the language “of the state-forming people” of the country, thus providing the basis for further attacks on non-Russian languages including Circassian in the future and sparking widespread protests against this move.

            Nusret Bash of the Circassian Federation says that the pandemic has led to “a number of important changes including in the organization of civil society and the relations between Circassians in the diaspora and those in the motherland.” Both have gone online and become closer together (cf.

            “This experience,” he says, “gives one the confidence to assert that the time of customary social organizations of the post-Soviet type has irreversibly passed and that in their place will come completely other organizations,” less controlled at least for a time by the Russian security services than has been the case in many instances up to now.

            To the extent that happens, Aliyeva suggests, the pandemic will have made a major contribution to the growth of the Circassian national movement rather than being its death knell as some in Moscow had hoped and many Circassians had feared. 


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