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Rift Emerges Within Pro-Moscow Circassian Organization

  • Liz Fuller

Yury Kokov, the head of Kabardino-Balkaria

Yury Kokov, the head of Kabardino-Balkaria

For the past 24 years, the International Circassian Association (MChA), which has its headquarters in Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), has sought to function as a bridge between the Circassian population of the North Caucasus and the far larger diaspora comprising the descendants of Circassians expelled from their historic homeland during the brutal 19th-century tsarist wars of conquest.

But its effectiveness and cohesion are now in the balance in light of mushrooming disagreements between rank-and-file activists committed to continuing their campaign to induce Moscow to apologize for the mass killings and formally acknowledge them as genocide, and the more cautious leadership that prefers to focus primarily on apolitical issues such as the preservation of the Circassian language and culture, both within Russia and among the various diaspora communities worldwide.

Those disagreements have reportedly culminated in the withdrawal from the MChA of the khases (councils) representing the Circassian minorities in Adygheya and Karachayevo-Cherkessia. They did so to protest the reelection unopposed at an MChA congress on September 19 for a second term as its president of former KBR Deputy Prime Minister Khauti Sokhrokov.

At the same time, Sokhrokov's insistence that Russia should facilitate the resettlement in the North Caucasus of Circassians fleeing the civil war in Syria could bring him into conflict with KBR head Yury Kokov. Kokov, a former head of the federal Interior Ministry’s Antiextremism Directorate, warned recently of the possibility that members of "international terrorist organizations," presumably meaning the militant group Islamic State (IS), could seek to enter Russia under the guise of refugees.

Meeting on September 18 with MChA congress delegates, Kokov refrained from either personally endorsing Sokhrokov's candidacy for reelection or formally asking them to vote for him, according to MChA Vice President Adam Bogus, who heads the Circassian Khase in Adygheya.

As indicated above, the MChA was originally established at the height of then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's liberalization policies that made possible for the first time in decades unrestricted communication between the estimated 800,000 Circassians of the KBR, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Adygheya, and Krasnodar Krai, and the diasporas in Turkey, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Europe, and the United States.

Initially, it sought primarily to foster such ties, with the aim of keeping the Circassian language and culture alive within diaspora communities and thus preventing their total assimilation. At the same time, it called for a reassessment of the 19th-century war of conquest that would acknowledge such varied factors as "Tsarist Russia's colonial policy in the Caucasus,” the geopolitical interests of the Ottoman Empire and the United Kingdom, and infighting among the Circassian nobility.

Over the past 15 years, however, a new generation of young Circassian activists has emerged in Russia who have espoused more radical and unequivocally political demands. In November 2008, for example, some participants at a congress in Cherkessk, the capital of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, advocated redrawing the map of the North Caucasus to create a separate Circassian republic.

In 2006, Circassians both in Russia and abroad mounted a concerted campaign denouncing the choice of Sochi, their ancestral homeland, as the venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Consequently, the MChA has found itself increasingly constrained to defend, and try to impose on the dissenting factions, Moscow's take on what has become known as "the Circassian question." Earlier this year, the MChA unsuccessfully solicited a grant from Russia's Public Chamber to counter and subvert those "nationalist" groups.

Sokhrokov was installed as MChA president at a congress in Nalchik in October 2012, apparently with the support of then-KBR President Arsen Kanokov, who was constrained to step down a year later halfway through his second term.

Since then, Sokhrokov has incurred the ire of his more nationalist co-ethnics by his clear reluctance to antagonize Moscow by expressing support for the protests against the Sochi Olympics. On the contrary, he invited a group of Circassians from the diaspora who had no formal connection with the MChA to represent the entire Circassian nation at the Winter Olympics.

Sokhrokov also caused a furor in early 2013 when he was quoted as saying no genocide of the Circassians took place. His supporters subsequently denied he had said any such thing.

In addition, Sokhrokov is said to have adopted a high-handed leadership style, taking key decisions single-handedly without consulting the various territorially based khases (councils) that compose the MChA.

Among Sokhrokov's most vocal critics are Bogus and Mukhamed Cherkesov, who heads the Adyghe Khase (Circassian Council) in Karachayevo-Cherkessia. Circassians constitute a minority in both Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Adygheya (19.6 percent and 25 percent, respectively), in contrast to Kabardino-Balkaria, where they account for approximately 57 percent of the population of 860,000.

As a result, the khases in those two republics are particularly sensitive to what they perceive as ethnic discrimination and official indifference to the need to preserve the Circassian language. Bogus's predecessor as chairman of the Adygheya khase, Aramby Khapay, threw in the towel three years ago because he saw "no hope" of any progress in that sphere as long as Aslanchery Tkhakushinov remained republican president.

Citing "disagreements in principal" with Sokhrokov's policies, Bogus and Cherkesov suspended their membership in the MChA in early July. Bogus complained at that time that Sokhrokov's statements and actions "run counter to common sense and the statutes of the MChA" and accused him of ignoring criticism and of unwillingness to come to an understanding with other members of the organization. He blamed Sokhrokov for the rift emerging within the MChA.

On the eve of the Nalchik congress, Bogus further criticized Sokhrokov for having admitted to membership of the MChA a new union of four Circassian public organizations based in Karachayevo-Cherkessia. Bogus pointed out that the MChA statutes specify that the Circassian population of any given geographic region cannot be represented within the MChA by more than one organization. In the case of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, the khase headed by Cherkesov fulfilled that role.

Some observers suspect the new union, which was cobbled together in early July by then-Karachayevo-Cherkessia Prime Minister Murat Kardanov, was created in response to criticism of republic head Rashid Temrezov (a Karachai) at a congress of Cherkesov's khase in late June. The new union immediately affirmed its desire for "dialogue" with the republic's authorities.

Several representatives of the new union attended the Nalchik congress, where they voted for Sokhrokov's reelection. The delegations from the Adygheya and Karachayevo-Cherkessia khases voted against, as did a handful of delegates from Turkey. Bogus was not present, having been summoned twice within a 24-hour period by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to answer questions about what he termed a legal misunderstanding.

Also not present in Nalchik was Erdogan Boz, a Circassian academic and member of the Ankara khase. Boz was taken into custody in November on his arrival in Russia to deliver a paper at a symposium on Circassian folklore and denied entrance to the country. The reasons were never made clear. Metin Sonmez (Kodzoko), who launched the now-defunct website Circassian World, quotes Boz as saying he was not invited to the Nalchik congress, and would not have attended if he had been.

Asker Sokht, who heads the khase in Krasnodar Krai, downplayed the disagreement between Sokhrokov and Bogus and Cherkesov. He affirmed that the plight of the Syrian Circassians and the need to help them overshadows all other issues.

The fact that the delegations from Turkey, Syria, and Jordan supported Sokhrokov's bid for a second term, despite having told Bogus earlier they were categorically against his reelection, suggests Sokhrokov managed to convince them that despite Kokov's reluctance, he can secure Moscow's consent to the resettlement of a further 5,000 Circassians from Syria in addition to the estimate 2,000 who have arrived in the North Caucasus over the past 2 1/2 years.

Sooner or later, however, Sokhrokov will have to face the challenge posed by the khases in Adygheya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and elsewhere that no longer recognize his authority.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.

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