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Moscow Faces Increased Difficulties in Countering Circassian National Movement

Despite increased resistance from Russia, the Circassians annual demonstrations went ahead on 21 May.

Moscow Faces Increased Difficulties in Countering Circassian National Movement

Image: fulya atalay/Shutterstock 

Original article: Paul Goble, The Jamestown Foundation. Many thanks to The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor for their collaborative spirit. 

May 21 marks the anniversary of the 1864 expulsion of the Circassians from their North Caucasus homeland after more than a century of resistance to Russian imperial expansion, an action most Circassians and many others consider an act of genocide. It is the most important day on the calendar as far as that nation is concerned and traditionally the moment at which tensions between the Circassians, on the one hand, and the Russian state, on the other, reach a fever pitch. This year, as in the past, the Circassians recalled this tragedy and expressed hope that they will be able not only to gain international recognition of this “genocide” but also overcome the divisions the Russian state has imposed on them. This in turn would open the way for the return of many of the more than five million Circassians living in exile and the restoration of a single Circassian state in the North Caucasus. At the same time, the Russian state has sought to discredit and suppress this movement in every way. And some might be tempted to see this as a clash that will be repeated again and again with little change on either side.   

Yet, that would be a mistake: there is a clear trajectory here, one in which the Circassians are increasingly willing to take the risks of ignoring Russian prohibitions and gathering ever-more support abroad, even as Moscow and its representatives in the North Caucasus and elsewhere are finding it increasingly difficult to stem the growth of Circassian activism and the support that this nation is receiving. Indeed, what is going on appears to be a confirmation of the observation attributed to Indian national leader Mahatma Gandhi: “First, the imperial authorities ignore you; then, they laugh at you; then, they fight you; and then, you win.” This suggests that Moscow is increasingly on the defense, and the Circassians, despite their current travails under Vladimir Putin’s government, are one step closer to achieving a breakthrough in their goals.   

This year, on May 21, Moscow had particular reasons for working hard to prevent any demonstrations, to penetrate and discredit independent Circassian organizations, as well as to attack the entire Circassian movement as an agent of Ukraine and the Western powers. Not only have Circassians become more active in mobilizing their own diaspora to gain international recognition of the events of 1864 as a “genocide” and stepping up their demands to allow some of its members to return, but over the past year, the Circassians have also played a key role in resisting Putin’s efforts to mobilize Russia for its war against Ukraine. They have even offered their support for Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression, and, undoubtedly, the Kremlin leader finds these moves infuriating and unforgiveable.   

Russia’s reaction to these Circassian actions increasingly has taken three forms: an effort to block any commemoration of May 21 either in the North Caucasus or abroad, especially where Moscow has influence; a broader move to penetrate Circassian organizations to geld them in their struggle with the Russian occupation of Circassian lands; and an increasingly hyperbolic ideological campaign to label Circassians as illegitimate agents of Ukraine and the West. The events surrounding May 21 this year show that all three of these efforts are failing.   

First and most obvious, the authorities in some republics in the North Caucasus—but significantly not in all—sought to ban commemorations of May 21, and Moscow appears to have weighed in to lead some, but again not all, officials in Turkey to block any memorial meetings there. But the Circassians went ahead anyway in both places with marches and meetings, and the authorities apparently felt it was best not to try to disperse these events lest they spark broader protests or even create a new group of martyrs.   

Second, Moscow ramped up its efforts to penetrate and disorder Circassian movements both inside the homeland and abroad. Those efforts are longstanding, but they have increased in recent months. However, today, more so than in the past, Circassian leaders are fighting back and exposing the Russian efforts for what they are. Every time Moscow appears to have succeeded in penetrating one Circassian organization, the Circassians have formed another, forcing Moscow to regroup and start over.   

Third, and perhaps what will be the dominant feature of Moscow’s approach to the Circassians in the coming months, Russian sources have sought to discredit the Circassian movement by arguing that it is an agent of Ukraine and the West against Russia rather than a self-standing effort. Among the most prominent exponents of this view is Yana Amelina, a pro-Moscow expert on the North Caucasus. But despite her goals, she is reduced to making claims about foreign funding and direction without evidence and listing the Circassians as one group among many, an indication that her “evidence” of such collusion is less than overwhelming.   

Having failed with these direct ideological attacks, which Circassians and others can easily see are false, Russian officials have now turned to one of their favored methods of undermining any movement they do not like: the creation of organizations and rituals alongside it that can be used either to ensure less media coverage of the Circassians or that the Circassians will be discredited in the eyes of some because of this new movement. An obvious example of this is the decision of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia authorities to hold a Day of Remembrance of the Victims of HIV/AIDS at the same time the Circassians mark the tragedy of 1864. That, too, is another indication that Russia’s efforts against the Circassians are failing and that the Circassian national movement is growing in strength.  

It would be foolish to predict on the basis of what has happened this May 21 that the Circassians are about to achieve all their goals anytime soon. But it seems fair to suggest that, this year, the Circassians have moved along the continuum Gandhi described and the Russian efforts to fight their movement will be increasingly unsuccessful and even counterproductive. If that is the case, the Circassians are likely to claim new victories at home and abroad in the coming year, and the commemoration of May 21 in 2024 is likely to find them far better situated than they have been this year or in years past.