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
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
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)
© 2010 Prague Watchdog (see Reprint info).