BACKGROUND: On February 10, Russia's President Vladimir Putin for the first time publicly mentioned the Circassian issue as related to the Olympics in Sochi. In accordance with the worst traditions of the Soviet regime and the Russian Empire, Putin claimed that there was no Circassian issue as such and that hostile foreign forces were trying to use the locals to harm Russia. Russia’s leader blamed the West's Cold War era containment policy against the Soviet Union that was now used against Russian Federation to stall its development. “Regretfully, we see the atavisms of that theory of containment now, as they surface here and there. When Russia demonstrates some positive development, this understandably indicates the appearance of additional strong players, competitors and overall causes [the West] to be concerned about its economy, politics and security. And attempts to contain Russia appear here and there. Including, of course, unfortunately the Olympics project and as an instrument – using the Circassian factor,” Putin said at a meeting with civil organizations of the city of Sochi. The Russian president then went on to reassure his audience that the attempts to undermine Russia’s development using the Circassian factor “simply had no prospects” as the Circassians were extremely loyal to Russia.
The authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria that has the largest proportion of Circassians in the North Caucasus apparently did not share Putin’s optimism. On February 7, the police cracked down on Circassian activists that protested against the start of the Olympics in Sochi. Dozens of people went out into the streets with the slogan "Sochi is the Land of Genocide!" The security services broke up the protesters’ ranks, detaining them along with some bystanders. The majority of the detained people were released after intensive questioning, but several people remained in custody. The authorities also announced they would deport three Circassian students from Syria who say they did not participate in the protests. Circassian activist Abubekir Murzakan told the news agency Caucasian Knot: “During the questioning they asked us why we are against the Olympiad and the leadership of the country, about our attitude toward the last three governors of Kabardino-Balkaria. Also they asked us about our faith and the Circassian national movement.”
A dozen prominent Circassian activists were previously taken into brief police custody in December 2013. After taking them to the capital city of the Krasnodar region, where the Olympics are held, the police questioned them about the whereabouts of an obscure member of the insurgency in the North Caucasus and quickly released them. The harassment of Circassian leaders may have prevented them from staging large protests, but young Circassians, largely unaffiliated with the existing civil organizations, still self-organized via Facebook and delivered their message to the public on February 7.
IMPLICATIONS: Many Circassians believe that Russian Empire indulged in genocidal practices in historical Circassia in the nineteenth century. Circassia of that time extended to Sochi and far beyond. Russian historians and eyewitnesses have documented fairly well that Russia’s policy toward the Circassian population around the Black Sea was especially harsh, as Moscow considered this a strategically important region and wanted to replace the local Muslim population with Christian, mainly ethnic Russians.
Putin’s statement on the absence of grievances among the Circassians is an ominous sign. Given the previous history of the impunity of the Russian security services in the North Caucasus, this means that the Russian government is bound to continue its crackdown on civil organizations and activists. Although the Kremlin does not favor civil organizations in the country in general, ethnically based organizations and expressions of ethnic culture in the North Caucasus are considered especially dangerous. Moscow's attitude was demonstrated in the government’s promises to feature an element of Circassian culture as an indigenous people of Sochi in the opening ceremony. However, at the opening of the Olympics, the Circassians discovered to their dismay that they did not occupy even the slightest portion in the presentation of Sochi to the world. This came as a shock to many Circassians, including among individuals that are entirely loyal to Moscow and supported the Olympic Games in Sochi from the very beginning. One such Circassian leader, Asker Sokht, said that “The organizers of the Olympic Games clearly demonstrated that contemporary Russia is wary of its multiethnic, multi religious character,” while “playing along with the xenophobic attitudes of a marginal part of Russian society is becoming the state policy.” Within days after this statement, on February 14, the police arrested Asker Sokht and he was promptly sentenced to 8 days in prison for “resisting the police.”
Despite the fact that the Olympics will soon be over, the profound effect it had on the Circassians is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. This result is due not only to the grievances currently harbored by Circassians, but also to the rising Russian nationalism that prevents Moscow from pursuing accommodating policies toward ethnic minorities, especially those located in the North Caucasus. Circassian activism will inevitably be seen by Moscow as “treachery” and a security threat to Russia, so more government pressure against locals is likely to ensue.
Putin’s statement practically rendered the Circassian issue as part of Russia’s traditional struggle against Western imperialism that is depicted as both extremely dangerous as well as decadent. The statement was most likely addressed to both the domestic audience and the West. For the domestic listeners, Putin’s words imply that the Russian government plans to eliminate the handful of Circassian activists that are unhappy with Moscow’s policies in the region. The message to the West is that if they provide support to the Circassians, they will confirm Putin’s assertion that Circassians are being used "to contain Russia.” Absent such support, Moscow will feel more comfortable to proceed with its plans to crack down on Circassian activists after the Olympics. Hence, Putin’s warning is essentially a rhetorical tool to place the West in an inconvenient zugzwang position that should prevent greater Western engagement with the North Caucasus, in particular with regard to the Circassian issue.
CONCLUSIONS: As the Olympics put the spotlight on the Circassians in the North Caucasus, Russia has become especially concerned about foreign involvement in the region. The pretense invoked by President Putin and more generally by the Russian government, dates back at least to the 19th century and includes denial of internal problems, claiming foreign meddling in Russia’s affairs, and a low profile campaign of violence against the leaders of the opposition movement. Despite all the trump cards Moscow has in its hands, Circassian activism is unlikely to subside soon, because apart from widely shared grievances, the Circassians along with other North Caucasians, contemplate the rise of ethnic Russian nationalism. Having the benefit of extensive ties abroad among the Circassian Diaspora and some freedom of movement, the North Caucasian Circassians appear to face a long campaign to win concessions from Moscow.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.