32586 The first wave

The Circassia’s are one of the indigenous peoples of the North West Caucasus. Their self-appellation is Adyge and they are titular nations in the republics of Adygeya, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Smaller numbers of them are also found in adjacent Russian regions. Circassia’s, as much scattered in their homeland as in diaspora, live in several constituent units of the Russian Federation (RF) that are cut off from each other both geographically and administratively. According to the 2002 census, there were a total of 720,000 Circassia’s living in the Russian Federation at the time.

In both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, the terminology used in Russian academia and the administrative structures to define the Circassia’s was somewhat inconsistent. The Soviets defined them as Adygean, Cherkessk, Kabardian and Shapsough depending on their place of residence and the dialect of the Circassia language spoken.

The first of these terms is a derivation from the Circassia self-designation. The second is the pre-Soviet exonym in Russian, while the third and fourth terms are the names of two Circassia sub-groups. The post-Soviet Russian administrations have carried on with this terminology, but in recent years the Adyge themselves have begun to advocate the official use of Circassia to denote their unity as one people. In fact some Circassia activists are currently running a campaign for that objective in the upcoming All-Russian population census, which is planned for October 2010.

The Circassia Diaspora came about because of the Russian conquests in the North-West Caucasus in the mid1860’s, when approximately a million people were removed from their land and deported to the Ottoman Empire. Up to a third perished from hunger and disease in the Russian controlled coastal areas before their departure, on overcrowded ships or in refugee camps on their arrival in Anatolia and the Balkans. The descendants of those who survived the ordeal, which Circassia’s and an increasing number of scholars and journalists call the “Circassia Genocide,” currently number is estimated but not confirmed of around 3 million in Turkey and 500,000 elsewhere in Middle East, the USA and the Western Europe.

While all kinds of political activists are utilizing the internet intensively in the contemporary Northwest Caucasus, the secular Circassia nationalist activists are emerging. For the past few years they have been heavily present on the internet, not only to obtain and disseminate news about the Circassia world, but also to propagate their manifesto and to debate and analyze old and new texts & books dealing with various aspects of Circassia history and politics - a practice that has a visible impact on their political manifesto.

The first wave of Circassia nationalist activism appeared in the early 1990s during Yeltsin’s reign. It gained popular support and became a potent actor in the struggle for power in the early post-Soviet era. This was activated by the participation of up to two thousand Circassia volunteers in the Georgian-Abkhazian war started by Georgia in 1992 were the fought on the side of the Abkhaz, who are ethnically very close to them. Most of the demands of the nationalists were heard and mostly acted upon by the local and central authorities. The exception is that of Karachay-Cherkessia, where they were in the minority and locked in a struggle for power with the Karachay. For instance, Adygeya’s status was upgraded to a republic; mechanisms for administrative parity between Circassia’s and Russians were put in place, even though Circassia’s only constituted 22% of the population. Circassia elites dominated the political scene in Kabardino-Balkaria and the citizenship process was made easy for returnees.

In time, however, former local bureaucratic elites, who by then had already adapted to post-Soviet conditions and firmly restored themselves to positions of power, absorbed these nationalist movements into the establishment.  After Putin became President, the largest organisation, the International Circassia Association (ICA), was gradually taken over by the functionaries of the governing Kabardian elites.  By the end of 2000 some of the leading members who refused to be co-opted, had been eliminated from the political scene, leaving no functioning independent nationalist organisations.

The Chechen War 1994-96 also had a negative impact on the overall political environment in the whole of the North Caucasus, including the Circassia part. Various religious movements began to fill the social vacuum that had been created first by the collapse of the Soviet order and then by the diminishing appeal of nationalism, especially in Kabardino-Balkaria, where an Islamic movement began to take root amongst the Circassia’s. Indiscriminate police brutality and political oppression at the hands of the local security structures radicalized the followers, who were mostly alienated youngsters affected by social issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, a breakdown of moral values and lack of career prospects locally. Their frustration was galvanized by the leaders of the movement into making the Islamists a formidable contender, the 2005 raid on Nalchik (RU) those fateful events, by a large group of militants on Nalchik (pop. 250,000), in the Karbadino-Balkar Republic (KBR) in the south of Russia, on 13 October 2005. A number of buildings associated with the Russian security forces were targeted. At least 80 people (142 according to official tallies), including at least 14 civilians, were reported to have been killed during the ensuing shooting, which continued into the next day. At least 240 wounded. Russian media subsequently drew the conclusion that at least drugs (heroin), due their delayed reactions to grenade blasts, et al, stoned some of the fighters. The Islamists began to lose support and a new breed of nationalist organisations began to appear on the scene.

Despite the fact that some of the current leading figures in the Circassia nationalist movement are veterans of early 1990s activism, the bulk of the current activists are by and large new to the scene. They are typically aged between 18 and 28 and, unlike the veterans, have no memories of the war in Abkhazia. When it comes to political issues they are unrestrained by the traditionally unquestioned authority of the elders in Circassia society. There are currently two major activist groupings in Circassia politics in the Northwest Caucasus:

The ICA, which was founded in 1991, is actually an umbrella organisation comprising the main Circassia organisations of the time in the Caucasus and in the diasporas in Turkey, Europe, the USA, Syria and Jordan. It was very influential during the war in Abkhazia in 1992-93 between the Karachay and Circassia’s.

After coming under the full control of the pro-Moscow Kabardian elites in 2000, the ICA leaders have repeatedly stated that they no longer want to engage in political matters and are merely concerned with the cultural and linguistic needs of the community. However, of late the Adyge Khases [Хасэ –assembly ed] in Adygeya and Karachay-Cherkessia, under the respective leaderships of Arambi Khapai and Mukhammed Cherkesov, have begun actively engaging in ethnic politics.  Their position on political issues such as the unification of Circassian republics or the Circassia Genocide thus differs greatly from the official position of the ICA, of which both organisations are members. It may be misleading to call these organisations second generation, because some of their leading figures actually belong to the earlier generation of the activists of the 1990s.  I use this term as they now have a different follower base, pursue different recruitment strategies and are very keen to engage with international political actors for their cause, all of which distinguishes them from the ICA.

“The Cherkessk Congress”, “Youth Khase” and “Khase” in Adygeya, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria come into this category as all of them have come into being in the last decade. In general, they were born out of frustration with established organisations and their perceived political inactivity. The leading figures are Ruslan Keshev, Ibragim Yaganov, Murat Berzegov and Fatima Tlisova.  The last two have recently moved to the US after being repeatedly subjected to threats and physical attacks for their political and journalistic activities.

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