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Fostering Dialogue About The Circassian Cause Among Academic Intellectuals In New York City

posted by eagle on May, 2009 as CIRCASSIA ADIGA

Fostering Dialogue About the Circassian Cause Among Academic Intellectuals in New York City

By: Kattina Barsik


The Association for the Study of Nationalities, a well respected group which strives to bring attention and understanding to the issues of several nationalities around the world, commenced their annual convention at ColumbiaUniversity last week. On Thursday, April 23, 2009, a panel entitled “New Lenses for Viewing Circassian Identity” was held. Participants included Mr. Nathaniel Knight of Seton Hall University as Chair of the panel, Ms. Julie Fairbanks of theUniversity of Akron, Ms. Lidia Zhigunova of Tulane University, Mr. Lars Funch Hansen of the University of Copenhagen, & Mr. Ryan Gingeras of Long Island University as a discussant.

Mr. Knight opened the panel with a brief introduction, then directed the panel over to Ms. Fairbanks, who discussed her paper entitled “Adyg Artists, Representation and Social Change”.

Ms. Fairbanks discussed her meetings with a number of Circassian artists from the homeland, many of whom had positive hopes for their work. One artist discussed the goals he wished to achieve through his work, which were to mainly to promote harmony in the Caucasus and to promote the vitality of the Circassian community (namely revival of the language and cultural values of the Adyga people). Another artist used her Circassian background to create beautiful pieces of clothing, fusing Circassian art with Slavic, Indian, and other styles of fashion. Yet another young artist hoped to use his art to promote social change to the community as well as to present the Circassian culture to the outside world. All three individuals shared the same hope to present a well-cultivated image of what Circassians should appear as to the rest of the world.

Ms. Fairbanks commented on how the opportunity for publicity was sought at the Russian celebration of the 450thanniversary of solidarity between the Kabardians and the Russians, held in 2007, while protests opposing the event were held in Turkey and in the United States. She observed that while the artists’ role was to engage the state and create works of art, publish books, and so forth, the role of the state was to provide funding for these projects. Inevitably, these actions would then lead to further preservation of the Circassian culture. This would also call attention to Adyga history and culture, both of which are surprisingly unknown to the rest of the global community.

The next participant, Ms. Lidia Zhigunova, discussed her paper, entitled “Creating Cultural Identity and Myth: The Representations of the Circassians in Literature and Arts”. Ms. Zhigunova commented that one of the main features of her paper focused on gender identity/ethnicity of the Circassian female. Circassian women had inevitably experienced shattered pasts and fragmented identities as a result of the Russian expansionist campaign they fell prey to in the mid 19th century. Ms. Zhigunova stated that there is no homogenized identity among Circassians, and that the ones living in the Caucasus were divided by borders and other ethnic groups living among them. This in itself was a Russian tactic devised to keep the Circassian peoples separated from one another. This is manifested in three republics currently thriving in the Caucasus: Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessk, & the Adigeya Republic. Her paper mainly focused on the myths perpetuated by European writers in the 18th and 19th century of the typical Circassian women, who was frequently featured in art and literature during this time period.

Mr. Lars Funch Hansen, a professor from Denmark, spoke next about his paper, entitled “iCircassia…or the Virtual Reterritorialisation of Circassia”. With the exile of well over 90% of the Circassian population in the Caucasus, Circassia’s existence had been literally wiped off the map. However, thanks to the continuing popularity of the Internet, the Circassian people are now rediscovering their roots and past through their computers. The number of Circassian websites has exploded in recent years, resulting in hundreds of websites discussing several Adyga-related topics from history, geography, art, & contemporary issues. The content of these websites have also increased and improved dramatically along with increased knowledge of Circassian history. An increase in outreach to other groups worldwide has also been noted, helping to contribute to the growing identity of the Circassian people. The Internet thus has helped in some sense to reimagine the Circassian homeland after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The psychological aspects of this phenomenon are notable, helping those who have imagined returning to their homeland see it happen online. On the other hand, Mr. Hansen noted that this also could result in the desire to see theCaucasus decrease as well. While the love of the homeland increases for Circassians living around the world, assimilation then becomes a dreaded force to avoid.

Mr. Hansen commented on the powerful effect of using imagery and symbols in such websites, noting that digital and linguistic divided among the Circassian diaspora must still be overcome. Most Circassians are scattered throughout the world, with large numbers of people living in countries like TurkeyGermanyJordanSyria, and the United States. He also mentioned an occurrence which happened at the 2008 Circassian Congress meeting in Maykop, which is located in the Adigeya Republic. Several Circassian youth managed to burst into a session, demanding that the idea of creating a Circassian homeland including the three major republics in which Circassians primarily live in today be included on their agenda. Amazingly, the board agreed to this, and also discussed the issue at length.

The British and the Russian empires were the two leading factors involved in the Circassian dilemma in the 1800’s. Both provided comparatively different versions of what the Caucasus was like. The Russians held the view that theCaucasus was a wild frontier that needed to be tamed through modern European civilization, while the British view was starkly different.

The Internet is now also helping to build bridges between the Circassian diaspora and the ones remaining in the homeland- a process that was not available up until very recently. The Adyga people now have a chance to learn from another one and come closer together in their respective identity.

With this, Mr. Ryan Gingeras, a postgraduate student from Long Island University, offered his commentary on the topics that were presented. He noted that North Caucasian nations had played the roles of bit players in larger conflicts, which in essence helped to exasperate the loss of language and culture for many of these groups. This then resulted in a broader challenge of looking for one’s origins as a person living in diaspora.  The question of relevance in mobilization highlighted the existence of the group, promoting it in the world.  

The panel then ended the discussion and took questions from the audience, which resulted in lively chatter about the Circassian dilemma.

The small group then headed off to the next panel titled “International and Domestic Dimensions of Nation-Building”. Participants included Mr. Omar McDoom of Oxford University as Chair of the panel, Mr. Arman Grigoryan of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Mr. Pierre Jolicoeur of the Royal Military College in Canada, Mr. Harris Mylonas of George Washington University/Harvard Academy, & Mr. Andrew Radin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a discussant.

The panel started off with a brief introduction by Mr. McDoom, and then led quickly to the first speaker, Mr. Grigoryan. His paper, entitled “Why Were There Wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but not in Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli?” encompassed several key as follows:

  1. When multi-ethnic states collapse and new ones form, minorities within these new countries experience anxiety and pressure regarding their rights. Even if these new countries guarantee no mistreatment, such promises usually turn out to be non-credible.
  2. With time, power shifts go against minorities, going back to the previous point about minorities not having faith in their governments in the first place.
  3. The best chance a minority has to secede from their host country is usually when the balance of power has not yet shifted in a state.
  4. States usually react in ways that garner mistrust from minorities (i.e. preference for a dominant language or culture that does not include the minority one)

Mr. Grigoryan noted the case of Tatarstan, in which Russia had reassured of security, hence the reason why it did not go to war with its host country at a time of high tension in the minority state. Georgia, however did not do this, and implemented massive variations between its treatment of its minorities (notably Abkhazians and Ossetians, with which it went to war with, and Armenians and Azeris, with whom they noted a sense of passivity). 

Another point made by Mr. Grigoryan was that states at times are incapable of reassuring minorities of security, without placing themselves in a vulnerable position.  Moreover, if third parties get involved, the situation usually worsens for all involved.

When the USSR collapsed, it was noted that when Abkhazians demanded a confederacy (rather than outright separation) from their Georgian compatriots, this notion was rejected and led to the Georgian army entering Abkhazia with the intent of attacking the locals for their demands.  There were suspicions that Russia may have been involved in these actions, but this has not been proven. If Georgia did indeed fear Russian exploitation so much, then it is most likely undeniable that they knew that Russia would not remain indifferent about an attack on Abkhazia. At the time, Russia also feared sending the wrong signals to the West, and had other minority issues to deal with as well.

Mr. Grigoyan ended his presentation noting that if the current Nagorny Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan andArmenia ended, problems would most likely be exasperated between GeorgiaArmenia, and Azerbaijan.  Mr. Grigoyan believes that the dormant issues regarding GeorgiaArmenia, and Azerbaijan’s minority groups living in the former country would rise again. One suggested way to stop this would be by Georgia improving its relations with Armenia, however, this may not be enough to ward off potential conflict between them.

Mr. Pierre Jolicouer, the next participant in the panel, then spoke of his paper, entitled “Post-Westphalian Statehood:  Is Georgia Really a State?” He started off by naming the four basic elements of what a state constituted: a population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity of the state to engage in diplomacy. In Mr. Jolicoeur’s opinion, Georgiadid not meet these criteria, and hence, its statehood remained a doubtful question. This can be argued by noting that Abkhazia and South Ossetia ceded from the newly created Georgian state in the 1990’s, declaring independence and enjoying a de facto status until September 2008, when the Russian Federation was the first state to recognize both their statehoods. He also noted that when every former Soviet republic that gained freedom after the collapse of the USSR was recognized as states internationally, the decision for Georgia was delayed. This decision was based on instability in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (incapability of controlling these territories, which the Georgian government deemed as their property) and accusations of mistreatment from these minority groups and others.

Sovereignty can be broken down into four areas:

  1. Domestic Sovereignty (the organization of public authority within the state)
  2. Interdependent Sovereignty (the ability of a state to control cross border activity)
  3. International Legal Sovereignty (mutual recognition of states)
  4. Westphalian Sovereignty (the international norm of non-interference in domestic affairs)

Mr. Jolicouer also talked about internal sovereignty (which encompassed the three previous requirements of statehood) and external sovereignty (which encompasses the Westphalian characteristic) within Georgia and how both these elements were in dire straits in regards to its statehood. Georgia was also unable to defend itself when it was established, being notably weak and susceptible to external influence. Georgia may perhaps be better described as a “quasi-state”, a term coined by Mr. Robert Jackson, a professor from Boston University. Quasi-states enjoy both positive (a capability in which governments are their own masters) and negative sovereignty (freedom from outside influences).

Mr. Jolicoeur ended his words by noting the main focuses of his paper, which include the following:

  1. Georgia as a state has never existed according to the above criteria established by the international community for what constitutes a legal state.
  2. Georgia was granted international recognition from what the world believed it could be rather than what it really was. The international community, while giving Georgia a mandate to comply with to join them, never gave the South Caucasus state the proper tools with which to establish themselves.
  3. His paper was a warning to the international community about ensuring the four major points of sovereignty before granting a state the right to call themselves as much, and how this would be in their best interests to do so.
  4. While Kosovo has been mentioned as a precedent for the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, perhaps Georgia itself may have been a precedent for Kosovo (when noting the above regarding the chaotic situation of the Georgian state during the early 1990s).

Mr. Harris Mylonas, the final speaker of the panel, then took control of the discussion, bringing focus to his paper entitled “External Support for Non-Core Groups and the Politics of Nation-Building”.

Mr. Mylonas explained that while there may be variations in nation-building policies, there are three which are most popular and which may help explain why one minority may be treated one way while another is treated in a different way.    

The first nation building policy that was explained is “Assimilation”, which involves the keeping of the non-core group but altering their culture in order to make them more like the majority of the population.    Next, Mr. Mylonas discussed the nation-building policy of “Accommodation” which involves keeping the non-core group and allowing them to maintain their differences among the majority of the population while still giving the same rights.    Finally, the last nation building policy he discussed was “Exclusion” which involves the physical removal of the non-core group.  

Mr. Mylonas stated that the variations in these policies were based primarily on the non-core group’s cultural differences in comparative to the majority’s culture.   The bigger the differences the more likely the group would be excluded, while the more similar the non-core group was to the majority the higher probability of an assimilation-based policy would be implemented.  

In the alternative, Mr. Mylonas stated that actions of external countries or powers and interstate relations may also have an effect on nation building policies.    Non-core groups may be mobilized by the presence of enemy exclusion or by ally-assimilation tactics.    As an example, Mr. Mylonas stated that the Armenians received 80% of their backing fromFrance and Russia in 1915 (provoking the Ottoman Empire at the time).

Mr. Mylonas stated that the key actors in Nation-Building are the non-core group, host state, and an external power (rival or ally of the host state).   He stated that local groups who had been “assimilated” are usually less likely to be targeted by outer forces, because they are receiving the benefit of being part of the host state and any alliances the host state may already have.  Moreover, an ally backed non-core group is less of a threat. 

In closing Mr. Mylonas discussed several suggestions for improvement of policies and predictions of what may be more effective choices of actions for the future.  First, he suggested that improved relations between the non-core and core groups will most likely help improve relations between the states.  Next, he suggested an increase in inter-state alliances such as groups like ASEAN and the U.N.  Finally, he suggested a minimalization of border changes.

The panel ended with a few closing words from Mr. Andrew Radin from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who posed many questions and concerns about the topics that were brought forward. The discussion then lapsed into a lively debate between the audience and the panel participants regarding the security of the South Caucasus, state recognition, and so on.

With awareness among the Circassian Diaspora growing to not only focus on cultural awareness, but in political awareness, there is a chance that the future of Circassia is secure with lively dialogue being discussed at conferences around the world. The Columbia conference was one such step in fostering this awareness among Circassians and non-Circassians alike. It is with this hope that this small nation can step forward and open channels to press their issues forward to the global community.

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