Circassian organizations both in Russia and abroad have for years argued that holding the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi is inappropriate and morally wrong, given that it is the site of a 19th century battle in which tens of thousands of Circassians were killed by Tsarist Russian forces and hundreds of thousands more driven into exile. But last week’s statement does not reiterate this point. It does, however, note that “extremist websites and groups” adduce that massacre as the justification for terrorist attacks. Self-styled Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov appealed last summer to Islamist fighters to do all in their power to prevent the holding of the Olympics “on the bones of many, many Muslims buried on our land by the Black Sea."
Mukhamed Cherkesov, chairman of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia public organization Adyghe Khase, similarly told the website kavpolit.com that “the Circassians as responsible people have no intention of trying to blow up or create obstacles to the holding of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Even if we say that we do not approve of holding them [there], that does not mean that you can expect from us provocations and terrorist attacks.”
Metin Sonmez (Kodzoko), who launched the now defunct website Circassian World, assured this writer that Circassian organizations representing the world-wide diaspora (estimated at between 3 and 5 million) unanimously repudiate any recourse to terrorism in pursuit of their aims.
The nine signatories to the joint statement further describe as a bid to discredit them attempts to link the Circassian national movement to “manifestations of extremism.” That is a thinly veiled allusion to the detention in mid-December of one Abazin and a dozen Circassian activists from Adygheya, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, the three North Caucasus republics with a significant Circassian population.
The men were taken to police headquarters in Krasnodar Krai for interrogation and their homes were searched, purportedly as part of a man-hunt for an ethnic Russian convert to Islam identified only as Chernyshev who had allegedly joined the ranks of the North Caucasus insurgency. All were released hours later.
Both the detainees and Human Rights Watch surmised that the purpose of the detentions was simply to intimidate One of the detainees, Ruslan Kambiyev, who heads the Abazin National Cultural Center, made the point that the various organizations they head have diverging views on the Sochi Olympics, with some opposed, some resigned, and others indifferent.
Two of the nine signatories to last week’s joint statement, Ibragim Yaganov, chairman of the Khase (Council) public movement in Kabardino-Balkaria, and Ruslan Kesh, a coordinator with the Cherkess Union public movement, were among those detained. Yaganov has campaigned openly against the Sochi Olympics. His computer and phones were confiscated.
Both Yaganov and Kesh have previously been assaulted and seriously injured, apparently as a direct consequence of their engagement for the Circassian cause over the past six years. Kesh sustained a broken arm and broken nose when he was attacked in Nalchik in November 2009. Yaganov was attacked by a group of up to 10 men in his office in Nalchik in early December 2009, then outside his home by a solitary assailant five months later.
Both Kesh and Yaganov had attended a congress of the Circassian people in Cherkessk in December 2008 at which delegates adopted a resolution appealing to Moscow to redraw the existing borders between the North Caucasus republics in order to create a Circassian republic. By no means all Circassian activists view that idea positively, however: Almir Abregov, the former director of the Adygheya National Museum, warned a year ago that any attempt to implement it would inevitably lead to “a war of all against all."
The “statement of the nine” does not raise that demand for a separate Circassian republic, or the equally sensitive issue of formal recognition by the Russian leadership that the Circassians were the victims of genocide. Nor does it endorse the demand by some diaspora Circassian organizations for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics. In that respect, what it does not say serves to underscore the diverging agendas and priorities of the various groups.
Yet even though the possibility of redrawing borders between the republics of the North Caucasus remains taboo, recognition of the Circassian genocide has been discussed at the official level. In early May 2013, the Adyghe Khase (Circassian Council) organizations in Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Adygheya and Krasnodar Krai addressed a joint appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Federation Council to recognize as genocide the 19th century slaughter of the Circassians.
Later that month, at a formal ceremony that was attended by Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic President Rashid Temrezov (a Karachai) to honor the memory of those Circassians killed in the 19th century Russian conquest, prominent academic Muradin Besleneyev publicly argued that Moscow has “a moral duty to recognize and condemn at the state level the genocide of the Circassians during the Caucasus War. As a first step in that direction, the KChR parliament voted in June 2013 to submit to the Russian State Duma a draft law on amending the Russian Federation constitution to designate denial of genocide a criminal offence.
Whether that vote was intended as an inducement to the Circassians to temper their criticism of the Winter Olympics and demands for a separate territorial entity, or whether it constituted a belated response to the formal recognition of the Circassian genocide by the Georgian parliament in May 2011 is impossible to say.
-- Liz Fuller