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The politics behind the Georgian parliaments recognition of the Circassian genocide, by Inal Khashig

International Alert

Caucasus Dialogues: Perspectives from the Region‏, July 18, 2011

On 20th May 2011, the Georgian parliament passed a resolution at a plenary session recognising the events of 1860–1870 in the Western Caucasus as ‘genocide committed by the Russian Empire against the Circassian people’. This was the culmination of 18 months of discussion among the Georgian political elite – a discussion which, we should emphasise, was not over whether the events occurring in the second half of the 19th century had actually taken place, but which was rooted in current relations between Russia and Georgia. Even in Georgia itself, no one denies that the resolution is the product of a political decision by the Georgian administration and has nothing to do with historical justice for the Circassian people. In fact, the document is merely considered part of a strategy developed by the official administration in Tbilisi following the events in August 2008; the latter events resulted in Georgia suffering a crushing military defeat at the hands of Russia and in Moscow, subsequently recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

It was these new circumstances that forced Mikheil Saakashvili to undertake a complete rethink of Georgia’s strategy. Up to that moment, the Georgian president’s actions had differed little from those of his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. Despite its public commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts, the official administration in Tbilisi had never quite shaken off the idea that the only way of recovering the lost territories was by force. Failures such as the week-long war in the Gal district in May 1998 and the joint Chechen-Georgian raid on the Kodor gorge in 2001 by a division commanded by Ruslan Gelayev had merely whetted the Georgian authorities’ appetite and reinforced their belief that they remained on the right track. All this changed following the 2008 war, which was fought on the Georgian side not by partisans as in 1998 or by Chechen divisions as in 2001, but by the regular army, which was well equipped and trained. This dispelled once and for all any illusions that the conflict with Abkhazia and South Ossetia could be resolved by force. All the more so considering that Russia is acting as a security guarantor for these republics, now recognised as independent states by Moscow.

Russia then has become enemy number one for Georgia, since in Tbilisi’s view it is preventing it from restoring its ‘territorial integrity’. Defeating Russia militarily is not a realistic option. However, if Georgia can secure the support of the peoples of the North Caucasus and systematically erode Russian sovereignty in its North Caucasian republics and perhaps even achieve secession – while simultaneously driving a wedge between the Abkhaz and the peoples of the North Caucasus and particularly with their Kabardinian, Circassian, Adyghe cousins, etc. (who actively supported Abkhazia both during and after the war with Georgia) – then the Georgian administration believes that recovering the lost territory could be an entirely reasonable prospect. This is indeed how the strategy pursued by Georgia is being perceived from Sukhum.

The creation of the ‘First Caucasian’ (Pervy Kavkazsky, PIK) television channel aimed specifically at the North Caucasus, the waiving of visa requirements for residents of the North Caucasus republics[1] and now the recognition of the Circassian genocide only serve to confirm the direction in which Georgia’s current strategy is heading. Indeed, even in discussions within Georgia, no attempt is made to conceal this, although the emphasis differs. In particular, the well-known Georgian political scientist, Aleksandr Rondeli, commenting on the resolution on the genocide, explains it in terms of Georgia’s wish to improve its image in the North Caucasus. The expert outlined in a Radio Svoboda interview: ‘That is why they are doing these things – setting up PIK and waiving the visa requirement. The North Caucasus is a huge issue for us: in future any instability or deterioration in its relations with us will have negative consequences.’[2]

Based on the positive response from the Circassian peoples, Georgia’s image as perceived by them does appear to have improved sharply following the recognition of the genocide. Tbilisi will certainly endeavour to build on this success immediately by playing the ‘genocide’ card and keeping it afloat by organising a boycott of the Winter Olympics scheduled for 2014 in Sochi. The boycott is being attributed to the fact that the Olympics are to be held at the place from where the Circassian peoples were forced to flee in the 19th century as a result of the Caucasian War. Georgia is hoping that the boycott will be supported not only by the worldwide Circassian diaspora, but also by various European states, in particular the Baltic republics. Realistically, there is little chance of the boycott disrupting the Olympics, something even Tbilisi must realise. However, the media hype around this topic allows Georgia to continue to drive a wedge between Abkhazia, whose collaboration with Russia is on the increase, and the Circassian world, which has its own score to settle with Russia as the successor to the Russian Empire.

The mere act of recognising the genocide has already achieved some results for Tbilisi. There is already some evidence of a cooling in relations between the Abkhaz and the Circassians. The Abkhaz cannot understand the Adyghes’ jubilation at Georgia’s action, since Abkhazia sees Georgia as the principal enemy; the Circassians cannot understand why the administration in Tbilisi should recognise the genocide while their Abkhaz counterparts remain silent and do not respond in any way to this issue. Indeed, the authorities in Sukhum did not respond in any way to the debate over Georgia’s recognition of the Circassian genocide. When called on to state their position on these events – which occurred almost 150 years ago – local experts dredged up a resolution passed by the Abkhaz parliament in 1997 ‘On the deportation of the Abkhaz-Abaza in the 19th century’[3]. This resolution recognised the mass murder and deportation of the Abkhaz-Abaza to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century as a severe crime against humanity. However, bearing in mind that this was back when Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia – at a time when the Kremlin’s attitude to Abkhazia was, to put it mildly, far from benevolent – it is perhaps reasonable to wonder whether such a resolution would stand any chance of success today, when relations between Moscow and Sukhum have never been better. This is a hypothetical question, but one to which the answer is far more likely to be ‘no’ than ‘yes’. However, there is no chance of the resolution, which in effect accuses the Russian Empire of committing genocide against the Abkhaz, being repealed.       

On the other hand, the Abkhaz are making every effort to impress upon the Circassians that Georgia’s real agenda in recognising the genocide is dictated by current Georgia-Russia relations and has nothing to do with re-interpreting events in the second half of the 19th century. The resolution is clearly politically motivated, since it omits any reference to the genocide of the Abkhaz, who suffered roughly the same fate, and is limited to the Circassians. In that distant Caucasian War, the Circassians and the Abkhaz stood together against the Russian Empire, both paying dearly with most of their population fleeing to Turkey.

Georgia could have recognised the genocide of the Abkhaz as well as the Circassians but appears to have succumbed to political calculations. If it had done so, this might well have imposed material obligations on the current Georgian administration. After Abkhazia was depopulated at the end of the 19th century, it was later settled by Georgians, among others. But the Georgian administration was clearly reluctant to touch on this slippery topic just for the sake of increasing its standing with the Abkhaz.

By pointedly restricting its recognition of genocide to the Circassians – even if this does smooth relations with the Adyghe peoples (since the only benefit the Circassians can draw from the Georgian resolution is a moral one) – Georgia may have set the scene for future difficulties in its relations with its other neighbours. Armenia may now demand recognition of the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks. Moreover, within Georgia itself, the question of genocide could be brought up in relation to the Pontic Greeks and the Meskhetian Turks.

Inal Khashig is chief editor of the independent newspaper ‘Chegemskaya Pravda’


The Georgian perspective on the same issue from Ivlian Haindrava, Director of the South Caucasus Studies Program at the Tbilisi-based Republican Institute

[1] At the time this article went to press, Georgia was changing its visa requirements [for Russian citizens] at the Kazbegi – Upper Lars border checkpoint. See ‘Georgia makes available visa for Russian citizens at Larsi’, Civil Georgia, 4th July 2011. Аvailable at http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=23700.

[2] This interview and other views on the topic are available in Russian at: http://www.ekhokavkaza.org/content/article/24184058.html and http://www.svobodanews.ru/content/transcript/24214015.html.

[3] Available in Russian at http://aiaaira.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1458%3A-xix-&Itemid=116.

Source: International Alert

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