By Demis Polandov, special to Prague Watchdog
During 2009 the so-called "Circassian question" came quite unexpectedly to the fore. The closer we get to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the more discussion there is going to be about what was done to the Circassian people (Agyghe) by the Russian Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (some have called it a genocide).
Cherkessia is currently a virtual project only. This is not a pejorative description, but simply a statement of fact. The Internet has become the platform on which Circassians living in different parts of the world are able to meet and attempt to build something like a national ideology. Briefly that ideology can be described as follows: international recognition of the Circassian genocide, the right of Circassian emigrants to return to their historical homeland, and the rebuilding and renewal of Circassia.
It might be supposed that an important part of such an ideology would be the setting of targets within a specific plan of action. Yet 2009 has clearly demonstrated that no such programme exists, and that it is highly doubtful whether it will be created at all. This is the conclusion that can be drawn not from the idealistic debates on the Internet forums but from the very real events that took place late in the year. The incidents in which leaders of the national movement in Adygeya and Kabardino-Balkaria were assaulted and beaten have received no response from the Circassian community.
The anger at the beatings apparent on Circassian Internet forums stood in radical contrast to the complete indifference that was shown in the non-virtual world. There were no demonstrations, no public protests.
For this, perhaps the leaders have only themselves to blame? But who are the Circassian leaders for whom people are willing to engage in action? For the national activists, the answer must be a source of some frustration. A rally held two months ago in the capital city of Cherkessk, at which around two thousand people demanded the division of Karachayevo-Cherkessia into separate republics was clearly sparked by an event that received wide publicity in the republic – the rejection of the parliamentary candidature of the oligarch Vyacheslav Derev (who was nominated by leaders of the United Russia Party to the post of representative of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia National Assembly at the Russian Federation Council), the entrepreneur Raul Arashukov being appointed in his stead. I do not want to offend the Circassian activists who come out to attend the rally in Cherkessk – many of them probably took part in order, as they saw it, to defend their national interests, and were quite sincere – but the fact that the rally was held at all, and that the activists were not arrested before it could take place, was due to Derev. The authorities were well aware who was behind the rally, and why it needed to go ahead.
Circassia also has other leaders – the Islamists (also known as “Salafists”). These are often individuals whom no one actually knows in person, but the results of whose activities – suicide bombings, attacks on officials and security personnel, murders of traditional Islamic clergy, and so on – are plainly visible.
Circassia has its oligarchs and its Wahhabis, but of national Circassian leaders there is no sign. And there are reasons why that is so. The scattering of the Circassians in Russia (let us leave the question of the diaspora for now) into three distinct Federal entities led to the creation of three elites. In Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygeya they are the government elites. In Karachayevo-Cherkessia they are the business elite. In addition being entirely controlled by the Kremlin, these groups have interests which simply cannot coincide with the interests of the Circassian nation. The idea of a united Circassia merely calls forth all the idiosyncrasies of the Russian authorities, and to articulate it in public is simply tantamount to political suicide. Furthermore, the creation of such an entity would mean three times less employment for the local bureaucrats.
The situation in Kabardino-Balkaria needs to be dealt with separately. This is the only region where Circassians constitute an absolute majority of the population. Not only the ruling elite is anxious not to lose this status, but also a considerable number of Kabardians. These Kabardians are, indeed, the force that keeps President Kanokov in power. In the context of Circassian nationalism this self-determination by Kabardians can only be called internal separatism.
The question of the diaspora – or, as Circassian activists like to say, “the multi-million-strong Circassian Diaspora” – is actually a very complicated one. The diaspora is indeed many million strong, but it is highly fragmented and also very passive. In fact, for first time in twenty years the diaspora recently made an expression of displeasure, when the Congress of the International Circassian Association (ICA) elected Kanshobi Azhakhov, a banker from Kabardino-Balkaria and henchman of the Kabardian President, as its chairman. Observing with horror the "voting procedures" that prevail in contemporary Russia, the diaspora even said a few words about it ... but voted in the way it was expected to. In fact, it can still be said that the representatives of 700,000 Russian Circassians continue to dictate the terms of the existence of the "multi-million-strong Circassian Diaspora", which is clearly not capable of taking the movement into its own hands. And as for who dictates the terms to Russia's Circassians, I think that will be clear to everyone.
Incidentally, it was less than two months after Azhakhov’s election that the beatings of Circassian activists began in Kabardino-Balkaria – with the complete silence of the ICA. Since the election, the ICA’s only action has been an Appeal to President Medvedev which says that Circassians might take part in the 2014 Olympics, especially the cultural programme. A worthy conclusion to the organization’s activity, uniting all the Circassians of the planet.
The Islamists managed to exploit this appeal in stylish fashion. Anzor Astemirov, the notorious Wahhabi leader, wrote an open letter in defence of Askerbi Melinov – the only person to speak against the document. Astemirov wrote : "Ziuskhan Askerbi, you are the only Circassian who voiced a protest at the rally organized by the colonial structures and Kremlin puppets. The only one who has officially protested against the holding of the filthy "Swiniada 2014" on the bones of our ancestors! ... You are our Sausyryko (legendary Circassian warrior, tr.) in today's dark and troubled times. It is our hope that the sparks you have struck will ignite the flame.” An elegant change of style, tone and vocabulary for a man who until quite recently was the scourge of Circassian nationalism, Islamist ideology’s only real competitor in the Circassian world.
Perhaps the only "positive" moment for Adygeyan nationalism in 2009 was the growth of interest in the "Circassian question" among Russian political analysts. I set the word "positive" in quotes quite deliberately, because Russia’s columnists have little that is positive to say about the Circassians. The political analyst Mikhail Tulsky, who earlier in the year had advised the distribution of condoms in Chechen villages, explained at great length and with his characteristic expressiveness that the deportation of the Circassians was voluntary. Admittedly he said it over an Internet phone. Against the Circassians, artillery of a heavier sort was brought to bear in the person of Andrei Epifantsev, who two years ago explained to the Russians all the vileness of Georgian politics for the last 600 years, published an enormous Internet article entitled "The Genocide that Never Was."
Unlike Russia’s political analysts, the Russian government made few open attacks on the Circassian nationalists during the year. There were meetings with the diaspora, a bill in the State Duma conferring the status of “compatriots” on the Circassianss – the government made gentle overtures, aware of the uniqueness of the pre-Olympic moment. The main thing is to preserve peace, which, of course, also does much to help the government’s recognition of Abkhazia's independence last year. But how long it last? And when will the “Virtual Circassia" project develop into something real? These are difficult questions, and no disinterested bystander would dare to give them unequivocal answers. We shall see.
(Translation by DM)