By Gordon M. Hahn
Readers may recall that in the wake of the August 2008 five-day war in South Ossetia and Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Georgia’s other breakaway republic, Abkhazia, as independent states, then U.S. presidential candidate Sen. John McCain proposed that the U.S. support separatism in Russia’s North Caucasus. On March 20-21, the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and Ilia State University in Tbilisi co-sponsored in the Georgian capital a conference titled "Hidden Nations, Enduring Crimes: The Circassians and the Peoples of the North Caucasus Between Past and Future.” The Jamestown Foundation is a think tank with ties to unidentified U.S. corporations and "foundations,” which may receive U.S. government funding. The conference adopted a resolution calling on Georgia’s parliament to adopt its own resolution that would recognize as "genocide” the killing and exile of thousands of ethnic Circassians by the Tsarist regime a century and a half ago (Giorgi Kvelashvili, "Should Georgia Recognize the Circassian Genocide?,” Jamestown Foundation, 22 March 2010).
To be sure, Russian forces used great violence to establish St. Petersburg’s control over the North Caucasus much as Washington did during our own Indian wars and conquest of the American West. If the former was genocide, then the latter is. So why should Russia not push the adoption of parliamentary resolutions that recognize the American conquest of native American tribes? But this is not the main problem.
The conference seems to have been designed to put Sen. McCain’s aforementioned idea into action. By recognizing a Russian genocide of the Circassians, the stage would be set for recognizing, under certain interpretations of international law, the right to independence of several of Russia’s North Caucasus republics, including the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria or RKB, where Circassian Kabards live, and the Republic of Karachevo-Cherkessia or RKCh, where Circassian Cherkess live. Also, the Circassian Adygs comprise 26 percent of the population of Russia’s republic of Adygeya, which is embedded inside and completely surrounded by Russia’s Krasnodar Krai. A small number Circassian Kabards, Cherkess, and Adygs seek a unified Circassian republic within the Russian Federation. A smaller number seek an independent Circassian state for one or more of the ‘Circassian’ republics. An infinitessimally small number of radical nationalist Circassians would claim Krasnodar lands stretching to the Black Sea resort of Sochi where the 2014 Olympics are scheduled to be held. Most Circassian nationalism is expressed in demands for re-districting between Circassian and Alan areas in the KBR and KChR and for Adyg privileges in Adygea.
The joint American and Georgian gambit seeking recognition of the right of Russia’s Circassians to independence is clearly an attempt to take revenge for Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia’s independence. The ethnic Abkhaz who populate Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia are a Circassian people and kin of Russia’s Circassian peoples. Does anyone besides the present author find it at all ironic and cynical that the Georgia that has sought to deny Circassian autonomy, no less independence for two decades in Abkhazia is the same Georgia that is playing at being an honest broker or champion of the Circassian interests and an ostensible cause of Circassian independence from Russia?
The American-Georgian gambit deletes some important history. At the time of the Circassian massacres and exiles in the 19th century, Georgia was part of the Russian empire and helped Russia defeat the Circassian tribes and conquer the North Caucasus. Later, Georgians were among those ethnic groups that resettled in Circassian lands after the exile of Circassians to Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere. I will let an Abkhaz commentator on the Johnstown.org blog where the conference was covered describe the Georgians role during the Stalinist deportations of Circassians: "(T)here was one notorious incident in the village of Khaibak, where in 1944 hundreds of people were herded into a barn which was then set on fire; any one escaping was shot. The commander of the NKVD group responsible was a Svan (Gvishiani), acting under the general directorship of Beria (Mingrelian), who was himself responsible to Stalin (Georgian).”
In more recent times, the Abkhazians were driven to separatism from Georgia by Tbilisi’s oppression and violence against them. We will put aside a detailed account of Georgia’s oppression, violence and calls for genocide against the Ossetians, Abkhazians, and Ajarians perpetrated by its late perestroika era and early post-Soviet government under ultra-nationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia (see Robert English, "Georgia: The Ignored History,” The New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 17, November 6, 2009). Suffice it to say that Gamsakhurdia and his ministers, denied Abkhazia and the other ethnic regions autonomy, called for genocide of the Abkhaz and sent unregulated militia to the region where they beat and shot people. We will not detail Gamsakhurdia’s invasion of Abkhazia in 1992, but one can see the videotape of the Georgian army commander’s television broadcast announcing that prisoners will not be taken ("The Georgian Commander-in-Chief on TV threatens the Abkhazian nation with genocide,” YouTube, accessed 25 March 2010). One can also read the April 1993 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique in which Georgi Khaindrava, Georgia’s war minister Minister of War at the time, warns that Georgian forces "can easily and completely destroy the genetic stock” of the Abkhaz nation. (Le Monde Diplomatique, April 1993). One can also see a videotape of Georgian forces destroying the Abkhaz National Library in Sukhumi, which held much of the documentary record of Abkhaz nation’s history and that of ancient Greek communities in the region ("A history erased - Abkhazia's archive: fire of war, ashes of history,” Abkhaz World, 17 March 2009, 9:18). Breakaway and de facto independent Abkhazia was the target of an attempted 2004 coup organized by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004 and would certainly have been the target of an invasion had his attack on South Ossetia in August 2008 been allowed to stand.
More ominously, the Circassian separatist nationalism that the American-Georgian conference seeks to whip up can quickly morph into jihadism, just as nationalism transformed into jihadism in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan. The strongest communalist movements in the North Caucasus are no longer nationalist but Islamist and jihadist; and Chechnya, Ingushetia and Degaestan are not the only regions where jihadism has raised its ugly head.
Russia’s North Caucasus Circassian-populated republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and Adygeya have also seen a smattering of jihadi terrorists. All of the North Caucasus mujahedin are part of a 1,000-strong network of mujahedin cells united under the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate (CE), spearheaded by ethnic Chechens, Ingush, and various Dagestani jihadists. Its ethnic Circassian as well as Alan (Balkar and Karachai) mujahedin in the RKB, RKCh, and Adygea are united under the CE’s so-called "United Vilaiyat (Governate) of Kabardia, Balkaria and Karachai”, the amir of which is Anzor Astemirov or Seifullah, an ethnic Kabard and the head of the CE’s Shariah Court. In the last three years the CE’s mujahedin have killed more than a thousand and wounded several thousand more Russian citizens. Most of the casualties have been among Russian and North Caucasus security, police and military personnel and civilian officials, but hundreds of civilian casualties have been documented as well. The CE is allied with Al Qa`ida and other organizations that comprise the global jihadist social movement and has declared jihad on the U.S., Great Britain, Israel, and the any country fighting Muslims anywhere in the world. The CE has also sent operatives to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Azerbaijan, which also confronts a still less potent jihadi threat.
Like the U.S. mainstream media, Jamestown’s reporting on the North Caucasus mujahedin does its best to avoid references to the CE, the structure and geographical scope of its network, its pronounced jihadist theology and ideology, and its alliance with the global jihadi social movement and the likes of AQ. One article emphasized that the CE was more virtual than real (Mikhail Roshchin, "Caucasus Emirate: Virtual Myth or Reality,” Jamestown Foundation North Caucasus, Issue 10, No. 10, March 13, 2009). Despite the fact that Seifullah regards all non-Muslims as infidels worthy of death, unless they refuse to convert to his Salafist brand of Islam, he granted an interview to the Jamestown Foundation a year ago. The interview was published on the main CE website as well ("Amir Seifullakh (Anzor Astemirov) dal interv-yu Dzheimstausnomy Fondu”, Kavkaz tsentr, 26 March 2009, 13:41). This could be considered the aiding and abetting of terrorist propaganda, which in some democratic states is regarded as a crime.
The Jamestown article on the conference acknowledged that "if Georgia agrees to recognize the mass killings of Circassians as genocide, it will infuriate Russia and risk further worsening the already-strained Russo-Georgian relations.” But then argued the recognition could benefit Tbilisi "in other ways which could outweigh the Russian ire.” It "could strengthen the image of Georgia as a defender of ‘the Caucasus cause’ in the eyes of not only Circassians but other ethnic minorities in the North Caucasus too.” Jamestown went on to propose that Georgia lead the "Caucasus cause’ in concert with countries with a large Circassian diaspora. This would mean Turkey’s involvement and more NATO meddling along and inside Russia’s borders. Elements within Turkey’s Circassian diaspora have already bankrolled the Chechen separatist movement and perhaps people like Seifullah inside the CE jihad as well.
Americans and Georgians would do well not to play with the fire of nationalism among Russia’s Muslim peoples, especially where jihadism is close by. After all, the CE has declared jihad against the U.S. We also would do well to remember that the 2014 Olympic Games to be held in Sochi will take place just a few hours drive from the heart of the CE jihad. And there are many more soft Western targets for the CE’s jihadists to target in Russia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Be careful what you pray for; you just might get it.