Thoughts on the Current Political Situation
of the Circassians
The August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia
is having and is slated to have profound and long-lasting effects on the
political situation and attitudes in the whole of the Caucasus. One outcome
that is of fundamental importance – and a source of great joy – to the
overwhelming majority of Northwest Caucasians (Circassians=Adiga,
Abkhaz-Abaza=Apswa, and Ubykh=Pakhy) in the Caucasus and diaspora is the
recognition of Abkhazia’s independence by Russia (and a few days later
also by Nicaragua and a number of internationally unrecognized entities). The ancient Abkhaz nation, which
is steeped in tradition and classical history, seems to have taken yet another
big step in the arduous path towards full independence.
The primordial will of a vigorous and lively nation has won yet another battle
in the long war against the dark forces of hegemony and negation of the other.
This exciting development has opened the door
wide for the Circassians to openly express and co-ordinate their efforts to
substantiate their demand for independence. Surely, if Russia could extend
sovereign recognition to the 200,000 Abkhazians, then it would also be
receptive to the justified demand of the more than one million Circassians in
the Northwest Caucasus (and the multi-million strong Circassian diaspora) to
consolidate and reunite their country ‘Circassia’, which had existed for
millennia prior to Russian occupation in the 19th century, and to declare
The first palpable ‘nationalistic’ response by
the Circassians to the cataclysmic events in the Caucasus took place in
November 2008, when a group of Circassian youth in the Northwest Caucasus demanded
the unification of the Circassians into a single republic. During a meeting of
the International Circassian Congress (ICC) on 23 November in Cherkessk, the
capital of the Karachai-Cherkess Republic, convened to discuss the failure of
the new (Karachai) president of the Republic, Boris Ebzeyev, to appoint a Circassian to the position of
prime minister (as is required by political convention in the multi-ethnic
Republic), hundreds of Circassian youth forcibly voiced their demand for the
creation of a united Circassian republic (within the Russian Federation). The
demand was adopted as a proposal by the Congress.
response to Abkhaz independence
In Turkey, the substantial and
influential Northwest Caucasian community stood firmly on the side of the South
Ossetians and Abkhazians in the August 2008 War. The Cherkess identity in
Turkey comprehends all the North Caucasians, including the Ossetians, and the
Abkhaz. The Adiga gave full and unconditional support to the Abkhazians and
South Ossetians. They were also vocal in their demand that the Turkish state
should recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
However, the Vainakh in Turkey
(the Ingush and Chechens) did not identify with the plight of the South
Ossetians, for the memories of the Ingush pogrom of October 1992 at the hands
of the North Ossetians and the Russian army which resulted in the expulsion of
the Ingush from Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, and the Prigorodny
District, historical homelands of the Ingush which the North Ossetians claimed
for themselves during the Ingush forced exile in 1944. The Ingush are trepid of
the prospect of a unified Ossetia, which would make their struggle to reclaim
their historical lands occupied by the Ossetians that much more difficult. It
is safe to assume that the sympathies of the ordinary Chechens in this regard
would be with the plight of their kin, the Ingush.
In this context, it should be
mentioned that in this most recent of conflicts in the Caucasus, the predicted
stream of North Caucasian volunteers rushing to help out the South Ossetians in
their struggle against the Georgians did not materialize. The Chechen
contingent that took part in the war on the Russian side in South Ossetia and
Georgia was the Vostok Battalion of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main
Intelligence Directorate (GRU) (although there was talk of a rift between
Chechen President Ramazan Kadyrov and the commander of the contingent, Sulim
Yamadaev). No Circassian volunteers took part in the fighting in South Ossetia.
In Abkhazia the situation was
different. Veterans of the 1992-1993 Abkhaz-Georgian War and newer blood took
steps in co-ordination with the Abkhaz authorities to defend Abkhazia and stand
shoulder to shoulder with their co-ethnics in their ordeal. The Kabardians are
only too aware of the fact that a significant portion of historical Little
Kabarda (Qeberdey Ts’ik’w, or Jilax’steney), including the town of Mozdok
(Mezdegw), has been carved out of Kabarda by the Russians and incorporated with
In the Northwest Caucasus,
the Circassian authorities, nationalists and NGOs were unitary in their
supportive stance for the South Ossetians and Abkhazians. Although relations
between the Circassians and Georgians have generally been cordial throughout
history and the two nations have benefited from mutual influences, the dogged
intransigence of the Georgians vis-à-vis the Abkhazians gave the Circassians no
choice but to throw their lot with the Abkhazians in the fray. The
International Circassian Association (ICA), which was established in 1991, and
which represents organizations from the Caucasus and the diaspora, issued a
statement on 11 August 2008 addressed to ‘Leaders of Countries’ urging the
international community to recognize Abkhazia’s independence. No mention was made of Circassian
It would be fascinating to hear
the opinion of Yura Schenibe (Shanibov), the charismatic leader of Circassian
drive for independence in the early 1990s, now that the constraints imposed on
him in the mid-1990s have been somewhat eased, on the recent events. It
is safe to assume that many Circassian nationalists in the Caucasus are
seriously contemplating independence and are waiting for the opportune occasion
to express their aspirations. We shall be listening carefully to their comments
on and arguments for Circassian independence. It could be that the reluctance
to openly espouse independence ideology is that first historical Circassia
should be formed, and any declaration of independence prior to reclamation of
all Circassian lands will leave most of Greater Circassia in Russian hands.
The recent conflict has
emphasized the fact that change (and upheaval) is only a heart beat away. Who
had expected that Russia would recognize Abkhazia so soon after the end of
hostilities? The odds were on Russia touting the issue of Abkhaz independence
(shy of actual recognition) to its advantage indefinitely. The real lesson for
the Circassians is that they have to be ready for all eventualities, even the
sudden roll back of Russian hegemony and the formation of a power vacuum for a time.
This happened in the North Caucasus before, following the communist revolution
in Russia in 1917. For a few years the North Caucasians were able to manage
their affairs in an independent manner, but, upon recuperation, Russia, in a
different guise, was able to reoccupy the area. The Russians are well aware of
the swirling undercurrent of Circassian subtle resurgence in the cultural and
political spheres, and they are fearful of the inexorable Circassian drive for
increased self-expression and autonomy, and hence the Russian response of
eradicating Adigea as a first step towards completely diluting Circassian
presence in the Russian sea.
In Jordan, the Circassian and
Abkhaz-Abaza communities were very vocal in their support of the Abkhazians.
However, the Russian media (mainly the Arabic Service of Russia Today TV)
succeeded in soliciting from select interviewees blanket support for Russian
policies in the Caucasus and condemnation of Western role and influence
therein. No mention was made of Circassian independence or the fate of
Circassia despite the fact of the lack of any constraints. Circassians should
always be mindful that those who condemned Russian interference in the Caucasus
(the West, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States, and perhaps even Georgia) will
whole-heartedly support Circassian independence, if ever the Circassians decide
to lift the banner of freedom and rid themselves of dependence complexes [Read
a short bio of Ludwik Zierkowski-Lenoir
(1803-1860) for an example of a Pole advocating and promoting Circassian
independence in the 19th century]. The conundrum of lack of support of these
countries for the Abkhaz and their historical support for the Circassians
should be delicately resolved. Nobody claims that this would be easy. The
dilemma will undoubtedly obscure lucid thinking for some time to come.
Beyond the Middle East, a
Franco-Egyptian lady of Circassian origin based in Paris gave a measured
response to the ‘Russia Today’ question as to her views on the August 2008
events in the Caucasus. She wisely advocated the creation of an independent
Caucasian federation as an antidote to outside interference in the Caucasus.
This self-same lady also presented the Caucasian case in another interview by
the French channel ‘France 24’. In contrast, another Circassian lady wanted
mother Russia to wrap her warm shroud around all her Caucasian children!
Fawning at its ugliest.
The Circassians of Syria have had
a muffled voice on Circassian national issues since the 1930s. In the second
Chechen war (started 1999 and still raging) the Russians extracted ‘support’
for their brutal campaign against the freedom-loving Chechens from the
Circassian Syrians (by crook, in my estimation; ‘Circassian diaspora in Syria
condemn militant operations in Chechnya’, in Pravda, 3 July 2002; <http://english.pravda.ru/hotspots/2002/07/03/31724.html>).
The Circassians in Syria are a very important element in the world-wide
Circassian make-up. There are still indigent villages that can do worse than be
transferred to the Caucasus to find a new life in the homeland and bolster the
precarious gene-pool in the process. Of course, the same could be said about
the hundreds of Circassian villages strewn across rural Turkey. All is needed
is national vision and political will (and lesser Russian interference in
Perhaps the only international
organisation to voice express support for Abkhaz independence is the
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), which was created in
1991 in The Hague to represent ethnic groups around the world that are barred from
joining the United Nations for whatever reason.
The Circassians are represented in the UNPO by the International Circassian
Association, which joined the Organisation in 1993. No statement on Circassian
independence was issued by the UNPO, in the absence of demand by the concerned
of Western scholars
Professor William G.
Clarence-Smith, from the School of Oriental and African Studies, in a letter to
the editor of the Financial Times of London entitled ‘Russian
cynicism revealed in Caucasus strategy’ published on 14 August 2008
South Ossetians and Abkhazian
Circassians have an undoubted right to self-determination, which the Georgian
government has violently and wrongly denied them, but Russian cynicism in this
conflict knows no bounds. If Moscow was really concerned with Ossetian and
Circassian rights, it would allow its own populations in the Caucasus,
including Ossetians and Circassians, the right to secede. Instead, Russia has
recently fought one of the nastiest wars in modern history to prevent the
Chechens of the north-eastern Caucasus from achieving independence. This
follows centuries of colonial conquest and rule in the Caucasus, in the course
of which the Russians deployed a shocking degree of brutality. Moscow also
cites the example of Kosovo to justify its war against Georgia, and yet refuses
Kosovo the right to self-determination.
Prof. Clarence-Smith’s succinct
letter, a spontaneous expression of humaneness and scholarly wisdom, captures
in a hundred words or so the essence of Circassian independence ethos.
In a newspaper article in The New
York Times (9 September 2008) entitled ‘Russia’s
Recognition of Georgian Areas Raises Hopes of Its Own Separatists’,
Professor Charles King of Georgetown University, a specialist in international
affairs and government, alluded to the Circassian demands for separation in the
early 1990s and their subsequent suppression. Quoting the Professor’s take on
But few people have watched events in
Abkhazia more closely than their ethnic kin, the Circassians. Many Circassians
still live in Russia, in the republics of Kabardino-Balkariya,
Karachayevo-Cherkesiya and Adygeya; the vast majority live outside Russia yet
look back at the Caucasus as their homeland. “They’re ecstatic,” said Professor
King, author of The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. “Their cousins
have gotten independence. They see this as something quite big, that could have
real implications for Russia.”
Some Circassian groups are
striving to make the Circassian issue more internationally known. The
Circassians cannot forever remain ‘as if silent and absent’ and let our
proverbial reticence detract from our chances for world recognition.
Our self-expression on the most accessible (and fiscally cheapest) medium, the
internet, is practically insignificant. The ‘Boris Johnson affair’ (Gaby
riddle of Boris’s slave roots’, in The Observer, 9 March 2008;
and Andy McSmith, ‘Boris
the Circassian’, in The Independent, 10 March 2008;
and the indignation felt by the Circassians that British journalists were
unable to locate Circassia and Circassians in the 21st century and that ‘Circassian
women’ are ‘more available on the web’ than ‘Circassian men’ have demonstrated
that despite valiant individual efforts to spread the word, as it were, much
more needs to be done at the institutional and state levels. The separation of
the ‘Circassian’ republics and nominal diversity (where the Circassians are
variously designated as Kabardians, Cherkess, Adigeans, and Shapsugh in their
respective republics and areas: the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, the
Karachai-Cherkess Republic, the Republic of Adigea, and the Shapsugh Region)
partly explains the obscurity of the Circassians (even though they are in the
process of becoming the largest ethnic group in the North Caucasus, pushing one
million in total population) and the ‘inability’ of journalists, amongst other
people, to locate present-day Circassians and Circassia. Unfortunately, the
output from the Caucasus in major languages (apart from Russian) is
non-existent. The work of the Federation of European Circassians ‘EuroXase’
commendable in this respect (perhaps the addition of a Circassian edition would
be considered next to send the signal that Circassian matters).
A check of the incidence of the
word ‘Circassians’ in the news on the recent conflict yielded less than 5
counts! As Circassians, do we have a common issue with regard to our future in
the Caucasus? Do a majority of us conceive of a Circassia of sorts in the
Caucasus? Is independence an issue that a significant number of us contemplate?
Is there a creed or an ideology that guides us in our path? Only one person
mentioned the issue of Circassian secession and independence, and he was not
even Circassian. But where is the voice of the Circassians on their issues? Of
course, they were vocal, nay, vociferous in the support of the Abkhaz struggle
and independence. It could be that thousands of Circassians internally
envisioned a free Circassia, and in their wisdom chose to mute the issue until
better circumstances. Unfortunately, countries are not structured on wishful
thinking. We need to speak out loud so as to be heard and make people take
attempts to undo Adigea
The Adigeans in the Republic of
Adigea have been under tremendous strain for the past three years trying to
save their republic from liquidation and insidious attempts by Moscow to
incorporate it in the Krasnodar Region. It is true that the Circassian
nationalists in the Caucasus stood as one in the face of this latest Russian
attempt to eradicate Circassian presence in the Caucasus. The diaspora,
especially in Jordan, also played a positive role in tempering Russian
aggression. The Circassians in the USA were brilliant in drawing political and
scholarly attention to this issue. However, with the whole world focused on the
Caucasus, wouldn’t it have been opportune to advocate the Circassian issue in
all its manifestations? Not a single article by any Circassian was written to
turn the table on the Russians and demand that the will of the Circassians in
the Caucasus should be respected (I stand to be corrected on this, and other
assertions that I make). It was gratifying seeing the Circassian flag (green
background with twelve golden stars and three crossing arrows) raised in the
mass gatherings in both Turkey and Abkhazia, but is the symbolism clear to
world viewers? The Circassian lobby in Turkey, which showed itself to be
vigorous and self-asserting, should be more eloquent still and should focus on
Circassian issues that would also bring benefit to the host country. The matter
of Turkish investment in the Circassian republics in the Caucasus and Abkhazia
should be pushed into centre-stage. The scare tactics of the Russians and their
cronies to drive away potential investors should be exposed. Yet a more
important issue is the rights of the diaspora Circassians in the Caucasus.
Besides the right of automatic citizenship in any of the Circassian republics
without hindrance and obstacles and with all the rights and duties associated
with this, diaspora Circassians need to press their claim to their ancestral
lands. They should be allotted land plots in restitution of their loss of land
and expulsion and subsequent suffering in exile.
Historical precedents for Circassian
Independence is not an alien
concept in Circassian history and ethos. Here are some precedents from the past
three centuries, keeping in mind that the Circassians had lived in their lands
for thousands of years, creating civilizations and states that preceded any
Russian entity by millennia. The myth of Kabarda’s ‘Voluntary Union’ with Russia
in the 16th century is discussed/dispelled in ‘The Story of a Bronze Idol’ <http://jaimoukha.synthasite.com/statue-of-maria-teimriqwe-yidar.php>.
Treaty of Belgrade
In 1736, a war broke out between Russia and the
Ottoman Empire due to the latter’s intervention in Kabarda. In the Treaty of
Belgrade of 18 September 1739, the independence of Kabarda was formally
guaranteed. Article six of the Treaty stated:
As for the two Kabardas, Greater and Lesser, and the nations that inhabit
therein, the two parties agree that the two Kabardas shall remain free, and
will submit to neither of the two empires, but will be considered as a boundary
between the two; and on the part of the Sublime Porte, neither the Turks nor
the Tatars shall interfere in [the internal affairs of] of these [two]
countries, and, according to old custom, the Russians shall continue to have
the right to levy hostages from the two Kabardas, the Sublime Porte being also
free to levy the same for the same purpose; and in case the above mentioned
peoples of the Kabardas give ground for complaint by either of the two powers,
both are permitted to punish them. (B. Nolde, 1952-1953, p341)
The Russo-Circassian War
The Circassians declared
independence in 1836 (encouraged by the Circassophile Scotsman David Urquhart)
and a national flag (green background, twelve gold stars, three crossed golden
arrows) was adopted as one of the symbols of independence (A. Jaimoukha,
The Circassians: A Handbook, London and New York: Routledge, 2001, p64. The
following account is from the self-same book). The looming shadow of Russia and
her gradual encroachment into their country convinced many Circassians of the
importance of tribal solidarity. Counsels of British ‘Envoys’ in Circassia,
especially that of Urquhart, were instrumental in fostering unity. The NW
Caucasians established a federation that included twelve tribes, nine of which
were feudalistic and three egalitarian ones.
adopted in the 1830s.
Concerted campaigns were mounted
in which some notable successes were scored and many fortresses were reduced to
dust. This period of co-operation and optimism culminated in the declaration of
independence of Circassia in 1836, which event became a landmark in Adiga
history. Ismail Zeus, representative of the ‘Great Free Assembly,’ was sent to
Turkey, Paris and London to solicit support. General mobilization was declared.
The Circassian declaration of independence was published in 1836 in Portfolio.
This was of particular significance as the Journal was closely associated with
the British Foreign Office, and Circassia was shown as an independent country
on the appended map edited by none other than Lord Palmerston, the British
Foreign Secretary. Some three decades later fate delivered a crippling blow to
Circassia and her children. Circassian independence was finally undone by the
Russians in 1864. Most European press marked this bleak event and Urquhart
suffered severe personal anguish.
During the tsarist years, Kabarda was subsumed under the Stavropol
Province. Cossack and Slav settlers found a new home in the north-eastern parts
of Kabarda in the last years of the 19th century. There were about 70,000
Kabardians in Kabarda in the early years of the 20th century.
In the years preceding WWI, feelings were running high across the whole
empire against the ever more intrusive policies and imperialist institutions.
In 1912-13, there was a minor revolt in Kabarda against Nicholas II called ‘Dzeliqwe
War’, but it was quickly put down.
In the Soviet period, this uprising was looked upon favourably and was
interpreted as a class struggle between the aristocracy and oppressed masses
yearning to establish a socialist state. Russia escaped invective.
The Russian Revolution
The Communist revolution of 1917
gave the North Caucasians the chance to reclaim their independence through the
establishment of the North Caucasian Mountain Republic. In May of that year,
the First North Caucasian Congress elected the Central Committee of the Union
of the North Caucasus and Daghestan as a provisional Terek-Daghestan Government
to prepare for an independent state. Both aboriginal North Caucasians and Terek
Cossacks were united in this aim. The Central Committee met on July 28th 1917
in an extraordinary session to prepare for the Second Congress, which was
scheduled to take place in the Daghestani town of Andi. The main resolution was
the set up of a committee to prepare for the creation of a standing army. Local
meetings were held in August 1917 to elect delegates to the Andi Congress. In
Nalchik the meeting was attended by the Central Committee member Tawsulht’an
Shakman (Shaqmen), a Kabardian. In Batalpashinsk (Cherkessk), Simon Basarya, an
Abkhaz, supervised the meeting. In Hakurina-Habla in Adigea the meeting was
attended by Circassian delegates and representatives of the Armavir Armenians
from the village of Urupsk and Jews from Dzhekhanas. These two groups had been
assimilated by the Circassians to some extent and identified with their cause.
In September 1917, a provisional constitution was ratified by the Second
Congress of the ‘Union.’ The Republic of North Caucasus seceded from Russia in
1917, and declared its independence on May 11th 1918. It signed an alliance
with Turkey and was formally recognized by the Central Powers, Germany,
Austria-Hungary and Turkey, and by Great Britain. On June 8th 1918, a
contingent of instructors from the Turkish Army arrived in Daghestan to
organize a North Caucasian force. All members of this group were of North
Caucasian origin, the leader being Ismail Berkuk, a Circassian. This force
together with the help of fifteen Turkish divisions under Izzet Yusuf Pasha,
another Circassian, routed the forces of General Bicherakhov. However, before
consolidating the position of the North Caucasians, the Turkish Army had to
withdraw from the Caucasus under the provisions of the armistice. Another
attempt by diaspora North Caucasians to free their lands was blotched.
Simultaneously with the setting
up of the North Caucasian Republic, left wing Ossetian radicals, together with
socialists from other North Caucasian peoples, established the Soviet Terek
Republic, but it was soon overthrown by the Terek Cossacks. In September 1919,
Kabarda, Ossetia, Chechnya and Daghestan declared the North Caucasian Emirate
as an independent state under the conservative Sheikh Uzun-Hadzhi, a Naqshbandi
Chechen who had led a revolt that succeeded in liberating some mountainous
territories. He sided with the Bolsheviks against the nationalist Mensheviks.
The communists recognized his government de facto and promised full autonomy.
In September 1921, the Reds defeated the White Army. The communists reneged on
their promises and abolished the Emirate soon after.
Both the short-lived North
Caucasian Republic and Emirate were able to unite most North Caucasians under
one banner, which is no mean feat by all standards. The peoples of the North
Caucasus had been weary of Russian Tsarist rule and they longed for the
creation of an independent republic in which their aspirations and dreams of
freedom could come true. The Communist Revolution offered them the opportunity
to cast off the oppressive yoke. However, these aspirations ran contrary to the
schemes of the communists, and when the Red Army crushed White resistance, the
North Caucasian Republic was violently destroyed. This period has become the point
of reference when the emotive issues of North Caucasian unity and freedom are
There is a poignant lesson in
this episode of North Caucasian history. Although both Reds and Whites were
engaged in a mortal fight, both parties were united in their goal of destroying
Caucasian independence and freedom. Each time the North Caucasians sided with
some faction, they ended up with the short end of the stick. This pattern was
to be repeated after the demise of the Soviet Union, when Rotskoy and Yeltsin,
the bitter enemies, were united in their stance against Chechen independence.
History keeps repeating itself. It is the wise who takes heed.
International Circassian Congress &
The first International Circassian Congress (ICC) was held in Nalchik on
19-21 May 1991. The Congress was attended by representatives of the Adige Xase in
Kabardino-Balkaria, Adigea and the Karachai-Cherkess Republic, by delegates
from the Abkhaz Popular Movement, the Motherland Association (Rodina or Xekw),
and by envoys from the Circassian associations and cultural centres in Turkey,
Syria, Jordan, Israel, Germany, the Netherlands and the USA. In this context, ‘Circassian’
denotes both Adiga and Abkhaz-Abaza.
One of the principal resolutions of the Congress was the establishment of
the International Circassian Association (ICA; Дунейпсо Шэрджэс Хасэ; Duneypso Sherjes Xase). This
body was formed of elected members representing the republics in the Russian
Federation and the diaspora. Its main task was to co-ordinate efforts
directed at setting up and developing cultural relations among all Circassian
communities around the world. The ICA was tasked with the preservation and
development of national culture and folklore, and promoting the status of
Circassian, which had been under tremendous pressure.
The Congress declared that the ICA was to be entrusted with the study and
solution of the general problems facing all Circassian peoples, the research
into and writing of the actual Circassian history, guarantee of religious
freedom, and the preservation of the national character of the Circassians. It
also purported to offer all possible assistance to the Circassians who want to
return to their ancestral lands, and to repatriate and restore all Circassian
historical and cultural treasures that are dispersed around the globe.
The Congress ratified the charter of the ICA and elected the Association’s
leadership. The first president of the ICA was the late (Cherkess) Yura Kalmyk
(Къалмыкъ Юрэ), who later
became Minister of Justice in the Russian Federation (until his resignation in
1995, in protest against the Russian invasion of Chechnya). It was decided that
the centre of the ICA would be in Nalchik. The ICA published a journal ‘Circassian
World’ in three languages: Russian, English and Turkish. The journal, which was
intended to depict the situation of the Circassian, Abaza and Abkhaz
communities and to foster consolidation, was distributed in the three
Circassian republics and other Circassian regions, as well as in the diaspora.
The journal was conceived by Kalmyk, one of the Circassian nationalist greats
of the 1990s. It is still published in Cherkessk in the Karachai-Cherkess
of Circassian nationalism
By the mid-1990s, the Russians had been able to neutralize the Kabardian
(and the wider Circassian) nationalist movement through foul means and by
placing their ‘men’ in key positions in its leadership. Nationalist issues were
excluded from official newspapers and media, and nationalist newspapers were
guillotined. One of the main victims of the anti-nationalist drive was the
newspaper Sherjes Xexesxer, which was geared to broach issues of concern
to, and concerning, the Circassian diaspora. The homeland Circassians were no
longer allowed to discuss the matter of the ‘Circassian diaspora’, let alone
conceive of schemes to lure their co-ethnics back home.
Most of those who rode the nationalist band wagon jumped off just before it
was derailed and set on fire. Some of them even went on to become staunch
henchmen in the implementation of Russian campaign against Circassian
However, there is still a rump of sincere nationalists who still hold the
ideals of the ICC and ICA.
Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus
In the early 1990s, the idea of a
North Caucasian federation was revived as the vehicle for the people in the
area to reach their political aims. The North Caucasians, especially the Abkhaz
leadership, were aware of the limitations imposed by fragmentation and the
advantages of concerted action. Georgia had been single-minded in demanding the
abrogation of Abkhaz autonomy, and started to beat the drums of war. The
Abkhazians sought safety by allying themselves with their Abaza and Circassian
kin across the mountains. The Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the
North Caucasus (KGNK) was recreated in 1990 to fill the vacuum left by the
ebbing Soviet power. In October 1992 it changed its name to Confederation of
the Peoples of the Caucasus (KNK). It was a voluntary conglomeration of the
indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus, excluding the Daghestanis. Its
principal aim was the (re-)establishment of the North Caucasian (Mountain)
Republic. It had always been independent of, and sometimes at loggerheads with
the local authorities, which were inimical to any form of political change.
At first, the KGNK enjoyed
overwhelming popular support and it scored some notable successes. In August
1992 the Parliament of
KGNK declared war on Georgia and pledged support for the Abkhaz. Together with
the International Circassian Association (ICA) and the Congress of the
Kabardian People, the KGNK mobilized the North Caucasians. On August 18th, an
ultimatum was issued by the KGNK parliament that if Georgian troops did not
withdraw from Abkhazia, war would be declared. Yura Schenibe (Shanibov),
President of KGNK, declared war three days later. A few thousand Abaza,
Adigean, Cherkess, Kabardian and Chechen volunteers joined forces with Abkhaz
army units. This intervention played a decisive role in the spectacular Abkhaz
victory and cemented the ethnic unity of the NW Caucasians.
The onset of the Chechen war at
the end of 1994 disrupted the tacit and coincidental alliance between Russia
and the North Caucasians. Now that the tables were turned against them, the
Russians showed their true colours. Russia, which had been turning a blind eye
to the activities of the Confederation in Abkhazia, started to view them as a
major threat to its domination in the North Caucasus when attention was
switched to Chechnya. Thenceforward, neutralizing the pan-North Caucasian
movement became a priority in Russia’s Caucasian policy.
Other non-Russians demand independence
It would be desirable and useful
for Circassian intellectuals and elites to read Tony Wood’s Chechnya: The Case
for Independence, Verso, 2007. Online. Available HTTP: <http://www.chechenpress.co.uk/content/2008/03/16/Chechnya_The_Case_for_Independence.pdf>
(accessed 22 January 2009). Although there have been some problems between the
Chechens and Circassians in the last fifteen years or so, the trajectories of
the two peoples are essentially the same. The Chechen claim to a special status
due to their being the largest nationality in the North Caucasus is nowadays
untenable because the Circassians have overtaken the Chechens in the numbers
game. The vast Circassian diaspora, despite everything that has been said about
its shortcomings, is potentially the most critical factor in a post-Russian
North Caucasus. A free North Caucasus would attract a significant portion of
the Circassian diaspora to relocate back to the fatherland. In the past few
years, the Circassian diaspora, especially in Turkey and Jordan, has
demonstrated that it is a political force to be reckoned with. It is essential
that the secular elites and intellectuals of the Circassians and Chechens
should hold close relations to convey to the masses that North Caucasian unity
is the path to a viable future devoid of Russian colonialism. [Perhaps the
Circassians should heed Paul Goble’s call to ‘cultivate elites abroad’ (‘Beijing
Olympics Have Brought Only Misery to China’s Muslims’, Window on Eurasia, 7
May 2008) to engage the nations of the world in dialogue concerning issues
pertinent to their future.
Unlike the Abkhazians, the Circassians enjoy sympathy from many quarters of
Another group in the Russia
Federation that has been vocal in its demands for independence are the Tatars
of Tatarstan. For a concise article on the (most recent) Tatar demand for
independence, refer to ‘Russian
Actions in Georgia Show Why Tatarstan Must Be Independent, Activists There Say’,
Window on Eurasia, 24 August 2008.
Tatarstan was subdued and colonized by the Russians in the 16th century, fully
three centuries prior to the occupation of Circassia by the Russians in the
19th century, yet the yearning for freedom has never been extinguished in the
Tatar soul. Exchanging notes with Tatar ideologues is perhaps a worthwhile
It is obvious that the Russians
are worried about their soft underbelly in the North Caucasus. They are losing
the numbers game in the region and their rough-shod attitude is alienating
large sections of North Caucasian societies. It is highly unlikely that the ‘Russian’
North Caucasus will tolerate Russian imperialism much longer.
North Caucasian intellectuals and activists
in the West in the 20th century
Circassian intellectuals were
active in the West in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s, when, together with other
North Caucasian elites, they spread the word about the atrocities committed by
the Soviet regime in the North Caucasus and advocated North Caucasian
independence and federalism. They were based in cities of countries most
sympathetic with the cause of the North Caucasians: Warsaw, Prague, Paris, and
Munich. They used to publish journals that articulated their secular ideologies
and yearnings for freedom. In 1924 the monthly magazine Kavkazski gorets
[Caucasian Mountaineer] was published in Prague. In the period 1934-1939, Severni
Kavkaz [The North Caucasus] was published in Warsaw and the monthly
magazine Le Caucase. Kavkaz [The Caucasus] was published in
Paris. L’Union Nationale des Émigrés de la Republique du Caucase du Nord
(The National Union of the Émigrés of the Republic of the North Caucasus) was
most active in the 1920s and 1930s. The Information Bureau of the Party of the
People of Mountaineers of the Caucasus (Bureau d’Information du Parti du Peuple
des Montagnards du Caucase) published the book Le Caucase du Nord [The
North Caucasus] in Paris in 1931.
However, it was the 1950s that
witnessed the most intense North Caucasian activism in the West (most probably
with support from Western governments in the framework of the Cold War). A
number of journals were published, such as The Free Caucasus. Svobodni
Kavkaz (1951-1954; edited by the Chechen legend Abdurahman Avtorkhanov), United
Caucasus (1953-1954), and Caucasian Review (1955-1960; Institute for
the Study of the USSR), all based in Munich. Caucasian Review was
absorbed by Studies on the Soviet Union.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s
(RFE/RL) Chechen service, which was inaugurated in the 1970s under Abdurahman
Avtorkhanov directorship and discontinued late in the decade, was re-launched
in April 2002, together with Circassian and Avar services. Moscow reacted
negatively to this development, perceiving outside broadcasting to the North
Caucasus in languages other than Russian as a threat to state security! (RFE/RL
also publishes the weekly ‘Caucasus Report’, which is also available on line.)
However, with the demise of this special crop of activists, born and raised in
the North Caucasus, this ebullience of North Caucasian free spirit found
perdition for lack of disciples to take up the torch.
Lustrous personalities and
writers from the 1950s include R. Abaza, R. Adighe (pseud. R. Traho), R.
Ashemez, V. Astemirov, T. Aydamyrkan (pseud. R. Traho), Haidar Bammate (born in
Temur-Khan-Shura, North Caucasus, in 1890; published Le Caucase et la
révolution russe: Aspect politique, Paris: L’Union Nationale des Émigrés de la
Republique du Caucase du Nord, 1929), V. Djabagui, R. Karcha, P. Kosok (Kotsev,
Kwetse), Aytek Namitok (Nemitiqw; published seminal books and articles and
collaborated linguistically and culturally with the legendary Georges Dumezil),
I. Natirboff, T. Tatlok, R. Tra(k)ho (used a number of pseudonyms). These great
and highly charismatic men believed unconditionally and passionately in North
Caucasian unity and federation (however, sometimes their passion got the better
of them when certain themes were twisted a bit to fit the dogmas). Perhaps the
fresher generations of North Caucasians should take several leaves from the
unionist book to counteract the present-day fractiousness and antipathy. North
Caucasian activism and activists in the West in the 20th century deserve
The Federation of European
Circassians ‘EuroXase’ is a modern manifestation of highly-civilized and
secular activism in the West. However, this is purely a Circassian affair and
other North Caucasians are not privy to the work of the organisation. The
Circassians in the USA are also crystalizing (benign) activist means to put
forward the Circassian case.
The independence imperative
The Circassians should press
their claim to independence and should also convince the world that they are
ready to take control of the reins of their destiny. This would be the time for
Circassian intellectuals and organisations to float and advocate the concept of
Circassian independence. It is time to stand up and be counted. Failure to do
so in a clear manner would mean the missing of a golden opportunity, and may
perhaps indicate the extent of Russian success in containing and neutralizing
the Circassian issue. However, the response of the Circassian youth augurs well
for the future of the Circassian issue.
It could be that at a later stage
following their independence the Circassians would want to enter into
confederation with their Abkhaz kin. Relations with Russia need not suffer on
account of Circassian independence. If Russia sheds its colonialist instincts
and puts some trust in other nations, both Circassia and Russia would benefit
as co-operative neighbours. Russia’s geopolitical interests need not be
adversely affected by the spread of freedom. The Circassians need to draw
lessons from Georgia’s behaviour in the last few years and chart a more prudent
path, more akin to neutrality.
Alternatively, the West’s
strategic option to ‘cut Russia down to size’ (by leaving to the Russians only
their historical lands and liberating all its colonies and giving them back to
their rightful owners) would rid the North Caucasians of a bugbear that has
been inimical to their peaceful existence for centuries. One understands that
small peoples are easy prey and are point-blank targets for co-opting and
manipulation. The Russians have been co-opting and manipulating the Circassian
elites for centuries, and they are past-masters in this game. The Americans
have recently entered the fray using highly sophisticated and attractive means
to win the hearts and minds of the Circassians. One would expect the American
endeavour to become even more vigorous in consequence of the recent events in
the Caucasus and Russia’s violent recalcitrance against increased American
influence in the Caucasus. This crucial counter-balancing act is spearheaded by
the Jamestown Foundation, which has held landmark conferences dedicated wholly
to Circassian issues.
Freedom and independence for the
Circassians have never been as tenable as they are now. The West’s recognition
of Kosovo’s independence has opened the door for a Russian reciprocal
recognition of Abkhaz independence. The Circassians and Chechens (and other
peoples in Russia) can employ the same argument used by the West and Russia to
claim independence. Of course, it would be extremely naïve to expect Russia to
conform to such demands and declare the peoples who wish to be rid of its heavy
yoke independent nations. Obviously, there is a difficult path to tread in this
regard. The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, whose specialty is
thwarting North Caucasian aspirations for freedom, alluded to NGOs in the North
Caucasus demanding independence as an undesirable outcome of the conflict. He
specifically referred to ‘the Russian North Caucasus’. Obviously, the colonial
mind (and the subservient military and administrative juggernaut) is still at
work to extirpate any notions of independence.
According to a report in North
Caucasus Weekly (vol. 9, issue 33, 5 September 2008), a publication of the
Jamestown Foundation, John McCain, the U.S. presidential candidate for the
Republican Party in the 2008 election campaign, has suggested that the West
should consider recognizing the independence of Chechnya and the other North
Caucasian republics in response to Russian recognition of Abkhaz and South
Ossetian independence. The report goes on to say:
This is not the
first time that an American politician or government official has linked
Chechnya with the issue of the two Georgia’s breakaway republics, Abkhazia and
South Ossetia. In December 2007, Deputy Secretary of State for European and
Eurasian Affairs Matthew J. Bryza said in an interview with the Azeri TV
channel ANS that recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia
by Russia could negatively influence the situation in the Russian North
Caucasus, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria [one of the Circassian republics with
some 600,000 Circassian citizens, the largest concentration of Circassians in
the world], Dagestan and North Ossetia... If anyone is really interested
in what people in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus think about
their independence from Russia, one should first of all listen seriously to
people in the streets and only after that to Ramzan Kadyrov’s declarations. The
interviews taken by Kavkazky Uzel demonstrate that if the United States ever
recognizes Chechen independence, it could make the Chechens the best friends
the U.S. has ever had. These interviews also confirm again that the issue of
Chechen independence is still alive.
The Circassians must transcend
vestiges of their narrow differences and embrace and engage the open world. The
Circassian issue (in association with other, more pressing issues) is now being
considered in the political world. The responsibility on the shoulders of
Circassian intellectuals and politicians is immense. Are we ready to deal with
independence matters? Can Circassians start talking to one another to attempt
to present a united front and be up to the tremendous challenge.
Culture is a crucial unificatory
catalyst in the case of the scattered Circassian communities that have been
subject to disparate exotic influences for some 150 years. A solid grounding in
Circassian culture and folklore is called for.
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the artist Geissler) in a scientific journey along the Volga to Astrakhan, the
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the entire second volume is dedicated. This is a handsome production due mainly
to the numerous attractive and charming hand-coloured illustrations which
appear as vignettes in the text as well as additional plates. They depict the
natives of the regions traversed, their costumes and occupations, the scenery
and landscapes, showing for example fine views of Bakhchisaray, the Sebastopol
and Balaklava bays]
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l’empire ottoman, vol. 1, Paris, 1897, p261. [4 vols, 1897-1903]
The Jamestown Foundation’s website <http://www.jamestown.org/> is a
treasure trove of information on North Caucasian issues.