Circassian theme of Syria’s tragedy

The currently tense situation in Syria and around it has galvanized the propaganda clichés that the West is using to stigmatize Russia for the so-called “Circassian question”. The Circassians is a general terms for the kindred languages and cultures of the Kabardians, the Cherkess, the Ubykh people, the Adygs and the Shapsugs of the North Caucasus. Individual members of the Circassian diaspora in different countries have repeatedly manifested their wish to be repatriated to their historical homeland, – to Russia, and Circassians in Syria are no exception. On January 31st 2012, three officials of Syria’s Circassian community arrived in the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria to meet the Head of the Republic, Arsen Kanokov, who pledged his support for the guests. “We think highly of the stand that Russia took during the discussion of the Syria issue at the United Nations. Russia’s stance is unbiased, based on justice and seeks to prevent Syria from being turned into another Iraq or Libya”, said one of the messengers (1). Before that, Syrian Circassians had visited the Republic of Adygea. From December 2011 to January 2012, a total of more than 200 Syrian Circassians asked Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the Heads of Government of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia for assistance.

Some 100,000 Circassians make their home in Syria as of today. The Arab country is engulfed in bloody riots and is on the threshold of a humanitarian disaster that the Pentagon strategists have carefully tried to prepare for the people of Syria. It is only natural that Syrian Circassians are seeking to leave the hazardous area, but some countries, above all the United States, are obviously trying to make hay of other people’s misfortune and receive political dividends in their struggle against Russia. They are using the Circassian issue as yet another pretext for biting Moscow. That is why the US is trying to have the Circassian issue “entwined” with the “lining” of the Syrian problem. If the Russian authorities decide in favour of repatriating the Syrian Circassians (some 1,000 of them have thus far opted for repatriation), Washington will claim that Russia has tacitly acknowledged the fact that the Bashar Assad regime is incapable of guaranteeing safety to his own citizens and has taken the country to the brink of civil war (carefully keeping a low profile with regard to the US own role in creating the crisis). Conversely, if Moscow finds it impossible for some reason to address the issue of Circassian repatriation, Washington will come up with the same old story of criminal indifference to the anguished Circassian people in Syria (again avoiding any mention of who has brought about this kind of situation in the peaceful Syria). The United States, Canada, Turkey and even Georgia have already signalled their wish to offer shelter to Circassian refugees. Now, if Circassians choose to go to these countries, rather than to Russia, this will again trigger a West-orchestrated anti-Russian campaign. As to the US, it will clearly pose as a benefactor of the entire Circassian people. Georgia will follow in the US footsteps, given that Tbilisi has already recognized the genocide of Circassians. All signs are Canada and Turkey are prepared to make a goodwill gesture, but they, too, may eventually join in the Russophobic choir, as it were, harping on the “Circassian theme” under the baton of US conductors.

Washington is now trying to make the Circassian issue gain international prominence. In 2011, a Circassian delegation from the United States made a report to the 9th forum of the International Association of Genocide Scholars on the situation of ethnic Circassians in Russia and in exile. The conference, titled Truth. Memory. Justice. Recovery took place in Buenos Aires. Professor Walter Richmond of Occidental College, California, the author of the book The Northwest Caucasus: Past, Present, Future, told the conference that including the Circassian genocide on the programme would put the problem on the same footing with other well-known and carefully studied genocides in the history of mankind, which would make the world academic community take a keen interest in the issue.

Walter Richmond’s report to the conference was titled Debunking the Russian Narrative: the Circassian Genocide in Light of the Georgian State Archives. He based his report on what information he had been offered by his Georgian colleagues to tell those present that he had defeated official Russian historiography on the Circassian genocide. Professor Richmond makes his home in California, thousands of miles away from Circassia, but he is interested because he majors in such things as Muslims of Russia, as Soviet Dissident Culture, or as the Caspian Sea Basin Oil Politics. – Those were some of the subjects that he either published or lectured on. Now, his statement that the International Association of Genocide Scholars should expand its geographic reach to all corners of the world should be seen as more than just a threat to Russia.

The Voice of America was quick to trumpet the details of the discussion at the conference. The Voice of America, known for its energetic and effective efforts to advance US interests around the world, has come to grips with the Circassian issue in recent years. “Circassians and Russia: To Ignore Impossible to Control”, “Russia and Circassians: European and Estonian MPs call for Dialogue”, “The Circassian Genocide Taken up in Argentina”, – these are but some of the VOA news headlines. Experts invited to elaborate on the issue are John Colarusso, a McMaster University Professor in Canada; Paul Goble, a former Analyst on Soviet Nationalities with the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, currently the Director of Research and Publications with the Azerbaijani Diplomatic Academy (he is a veteran of the US Intelligence Community, and an expert on re-carving borders in the Caucasus; Glen Howard, President of the Jamestown Foundation. Today, the Circassian problem is carefully studied at the Occidental College in California, the George Washington University, District of Columbia; the New Jersey Centre for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights. But these are by no means all western centres that are drawing up the strategy and tactic of tearing the North Caucasus away from Russia. The Jamestown Foundation President, Glen Howard, has already said that Tbilisi should be seen as the capital of the entire Caucasus. Georgia should, with the US assistance, offer an alternative to Russia and become a pole of attraction for all Caucasus republics. To attain the objective, Georgia’s First Caucasus Channel makes enormous daily efforts; butcher Saakashvili sheds crocodile tears over the plight of Circassians; Georgian and western film directors shoot no end of movies portraying Russian troops in Chechnya as either maniacs, or disillusioned defectors; innumerable pieces of writing on the 19th century Caucasus War come off the press etc.

But Russia has a positive experience of repatriating Circassian families. It was thanks to Moscow’s goodwill that several dozen Kosovo Circassians were able to move to their historical homeland (Aul Mafehabl, or Aul of Happiness), once fighting broke out in Kosovo. The Circassian Land website elaborates on the events of those years in a story titled “Kosovo Adygs: A Return Home”. The author writes, in particular, that Turkey stood to gain by the mountaineers’ moving from the Caucasus to Turkey’s European land holdings. First, they were a perfect combatant force. Secondly, the muhajirs were embittered after they had endured untold suffering and lost their home country. They saw the Balkans’ Christian population as coreligionists of the Russians, who drove them from the Caucasus. Subsequently, the units of Adyg muhajirs were actively involved in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 in the Balkans (2). You may remember that Turks made short shrift of Serbs and Bulgarians by turning entire villages into scenes of terrible carnage (consult The Diary of a Writer by Fyodor Dostoyevsky). Bulgarians and Serbs gushed out by the thousand to the only safe haven they had, to Russia. Therefore, the Circassians’ assistance for the Turkish occupation of the Balkans is a sensitive issue, yet it will never occur to anyone to delve into the records of 150 years ago only to foment an anti-Circassian conflict. But let’s get back to the website story, whereby Kosovo Albanians brought constant pressure to bear on Adygs, pursued a policy of discrimination, demanding that Adygs should change their nationality to become Albanians. Kosovo Albanians kept calling them ‘Russians’, urging that Adygs should leave for Russia. The pro-Serbian Adygs were told time and again that there was no home for them in Kosovo. The Serbian authorities armed Adygs so the latter could defend themselves amid incessant threats and blackmail. Their plight grew still worse once the Kosovo Liberation Army started fighting. Albanian militants demanded that Adygs should pay taxes in favour of the Army, threatening bodily harm. Adygs were treated as nobodies by Albanians, who told them that the Circassians would have to leave their property to Albanians sooner or later, since Albanians would make Adygs pull out of the area of Pristina.

It was then that Russia stepped in. According to the Soviet Adygea newspaper, an anti-war rally was held in the Aul. The protesters held posters saying that they were tired of the war, and thanked Russia for their saved lives. One of the older Adygs, Iskander Tsei, said that if Russia had not helped them return to their home country, God knows what may have become of them in Kosovo. He added that he hoped that “our great country, Russia, and the Republic of Adygea will prosper for good and will never allow anyone to push their multi-ethnic people to enmity or a standoff”.

Back in 1884, Russian traveller A. Eliseev wrote about Syrian Circassians that they were terribly missing their home country, cherishing the memories of the mountains they had left behind. It was the memories of their dear Caucasus that made those daredevils and cutthroats receive the humble Russian traveller as a guest of honour and offer him such generous hospitality that it was impossible to question their sincerity.

As you can see, the Circassians do not look at Russia and the Russians with a jaundiced eye, and are not about to get at their throats. The greater someone’s desire to do this instead of Circassians, but using them as their cat’s paw.





Vladislav GULEVICH, Strategic Culture Foundation

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