Gazete Duvar — There exist individuals who have devoted their entire lives to the Circassian cause, yet they've never set foot in the Caucasus. What does this convey? It appears that some don't wish to disrupt the image of the Caucasus they've idealised in their minds. They hold on to an embellished version of history and a glorified cultural heritage. The apprehension of not encountering the identical ideals in reality discourages them from making the journey. Like their forefathers, they spend their lives in anticipation of a liberated Caucasus.
The Circassians recently marked the 159th anniversary of the May 21, 1864, genocide and subsequent exile with a host of commemorative activities. Among these was a noteworthy event hosted by the Federation of Caucasian Associations (KAFFED) within the European Parliament.
During the panel discussion facilitated by the Greens/European Free Alliance Group on May 22, KAFFED President, Prof. Dr. Ümit Dinçer, delivered a poignant speech. He reignited a dialogue on the largely unaddressed process of genocide and exile, whose ramifications are still palpably felt within the Caucasus and diaspora communities.
Contributing to the panel under Dr. Sergey Lagodinsky's moderation, Dr. Zeynel Abidin Besleney, the Director of the Circassian Research Centre, evaluated the impact of the genocide on Circassian politics and identity. His insights were particularly illuminating against the backdrop of the current discussions surrounding the Russian occupation in Ukraine.
Also present on the panel, KAFFED Vice President, Dr. Yasemin Oral, delineated the construction of diasporic identity, persisting influences of the events of 1864, and the expectations the Circassian community holds towards Russia, Turkey, and the global community.
I too contributed to the dialogue, focusing on the intricate predicaments that the Circassians face within the complex dynamics of Caucasus-Russia and diaspora-homeland relations. I feel compelled to share these observations and insights with you.
The concept of "coexisting within or alongside Russia" in the autonomous republics of the Caucasus has been not only idealised but also actively promoted by the state. The purpose of this? It's to minimise the heavy historical context of warfare, occupation, and colonisation that marks the region, to curb any aspirations for national independence, and to foster allegiance to the central power. Over time, society has, to a large extent, assimilated this narrative. Certain historical incidents are employed as symbolic references to reinforce this idea. One such tale begins with the marriage of Princess Gosheney (Maria Temryukovna) to Tsar Ivan the Terrible. The alliance formed through this marriage is portrayed as evidence of the voluntary integration of Circassia into the Russian sphere. Grand celebrations marked both the 400th and 450th anniversaries of this unification in 2007. Today, these events underscore the central authority's need to bolster its control. Additional narratives have been crafted to help the population forget the genocide. Among these, the establishment of autonomous republics within the Soviet Union, formation of local parliaments and governments, provision for education and broadcasting in native languages, and the maintenance of national music and dance groups, museums, and cultural centres using public funds, are notable examples.
Indeed, with the rise of centralisation during Vladimir Putin's era, the essence of autonomy began to be undermined. Presidents are no longer elected, but are instead appointed by the Kremlin. The practice of education and broadcasting in native languages is gradually becoming more symbolic than substantive. With the enactment of a language law in 2019, mandatory education in the native language has been relegated to an optional course, with its hours also reduced to a meagre two per week.
Nonetheless, autonomy still cultivates a degree of consensus in favour of the central authority. The recurring argument is this: While those residing in the Caucasus are preserving their language and culture, the Circassians in the diaspora are undergoing a form of cultural genocide. In this sense, the enduring legacy of genocide has been transferred onto the diaspora.
Counter-arguments to this narrative are not being sufficiently articulated. The foundations for national movements among Circassians in the Caucasus have been largely dismantled. There no longer exists the personnel, resources, or motivation to spark national movements as was the case in the 1990s.
Several factors have contributed to the dissipation of potential for national movements. A discourse index that elucidates the situation can be constructed as follows:
- Yes, the gains are modest, but they must be defended. Any attempt to settle scores with Russia would obliterate them.
- Russia is a potent state. There is no local equivalent to the scenario of Russia fracturing.
- Achieving political unity in the Caucasus is unfeasible. Ethnic fault lines are highly volatile. The potential for internal conflict in a hypothetical state of turmoil is considerable.
- Relying on international actors who encourage independence is unreliable. The Caucasus has been abandoned several times in the past.
- Russia has adversaries who want to manipulate the Caucasus as a pawn.
These arguments are, of course, subject to debate. However, they are vital for understanding the dynamics of the Caucasus, as they fundamentally shape the region's relations with Russia.
When we assert that "Relations with the Caucasus in the diaspora are trapped between nostalgia and harsh realities," we ought to discuss the policies implemented by Russia. Primarily, Russia does not wish for the Caucasus to undergo a demographic transformation, which could be termed as "Circassianization". The Circassian population emanating from the diaspora is perceived as a "potential catalyst for separatism". A second concern is the possibility of Islamization. Consequently, obstacles are being erected to hamper repatriation. While the return of ethnic Russians to Russia is facilitated, the process for Circassians to acquire residency and citizenship demands the same rigorous procedure applied to any foreigner. Russia's definition of citizens outside its borders includes Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians who speak Russian, but noticeably excludes Circassians. The immigrant quota allocated by Russia for the Caucasian republics is limited to a mere 3,000 individuals per year, a quota that is practically never fulfilled. Over the span of decades, the total number of those returning to the Caucasus does not surpass 5-6 thousand. The only state-endorsed repatriation took place during the Kosovo war.
A related issue; the primary destination for Circassians fleeing the war in Syria should have been their ancestral homeland, the Caucasus. In addition to the laws applicable to foreigners, Circassians are required to overcome an unstated 'objectionable' barrier. Of course, this is challenging. Only about 3,000 Circassians from Syria managed to reach the Caucasus, with some who failed to overcome the obstacles either returning to Syria or migrating to Europe.
Regarding the historical process of repatriation, Circassians in Turkey found themselves at a distinct disadvantage compared to their counterparts in Jordan and Syria. While the journey back to the Caucasus from Syria and Jordan commenced in the 1960s, courtesy of favourable relations with Soviet Russia, those in Turkey lagged behind this process by at least 20 years.
The hurdles faced by those who have managed to return to the Caucasus also serve as a deterrent. Cultural disparities, difficulties in acclimatisation, and a dearth of job opportunities have compounded the struggles of those trying to settle in the Caucasus.
Another facet of the harsh reality I alluded to earlier involves the assimilation experienced by Circassians in the diaspora. After their exile, Circassians became so integrated into the social, political, and economic structures of their adopted homelands that they lost sight of their own cause. In politics, they became more Turkish than the Turks, more Arab than the Arabs. The survival struggle of the Circassians in the diaspora has become limited to preserving dance, music, food, and other folkloric elements in associations or weddings.
Among them are individuals who have lived as Circassian idealists their entire lives without ever setting foot in the Caucasus. What does this imply? Evidently, some are hesitant to disrupt their idealised perception of the Caucasus. They carry an exalted version of their culture and a romanticised rendition of their history in their memories. The fear of not finding what they have imagined prevents them from making the journey. Consequently, their lives pass by in anticipation of a liberated Caucasus, echoing the hopes of their fathers and grandfathers.
Contributing to this hesitation is a phobia of Russia or the fear of being pursued and mistreated. For Circassians who have dedicated themselves to the causes of their host countries, asserting their national identity has become a challenging feat. The attempt by Circassians in Turkey to carve out a political space with their own parties was met with little success. In the most recent elections, Mutlu Akkaya, a candidate who campaigned under his own ethnic identity in Kayseri, failed to secure a win, marking a significant disappointment. Why did this occur? The reason lies in the lack of a consistent Circassian public opinion on numerous issues.
The political perspectives of Circassians, scattered across various spectrums, diverge significantly on matters concerning their homeland and Russia. Their reactions are moulded by their political alignments, and as a result, a shared vision seldom emerges. Within the intellectual framework of the diaspora, reactions oscillate between prioritising the preservation of achievements in the Caucasus alongside Russia and seeking historical reconciliation.
Two main thought streams surface regarding the reckoning with Russia: Nationalist tendencies and Islamic formations. These two are often discordant. The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states by Russia after the 2008 war caused a shift in Circassian attitudes towards Russia. Some interpreted this as minor reparation for historical grievances. This move, however, also began to sow discord among Circassians. The campaign for recognizing the genocide, which gained momentum during the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014, was a source of concern for some. It became clear that the shared Circassian umbrella was insufficient for everyone.
The discourse shifted from discussing return to the Caucasus to contemplating escape from the Caucasus following the war in Ukraine.
(Note: The war in Ukraine also reverberated across the diaspora, aligning with its divisions. We can categorise the reactions into three broad groups: Those who justify Russia due to their opposition to the West; those who view the situation as an imperialist face-off and urge, "Let's not be a part of this war"; and those who stand in solidarity with Ukraine. However, the third category didn't live up to expectations paralleling the actions of the Chechens — they didn't form a military unit and participate in the war in Ukraine. Appeals for this action didn't resonate. The assumption that "Circassians are historically the enemies of the Russian Empire" and therefore would automatically oppose Russia in the Ukraine war does not apply here. Diaspora communities tend to hold more radical views than those who stay in their historical homelands, but this proposition doesn't entirely hold true for the Circassian diaspora.)
RUSSIA'S TIGHT MONITORING
When discussing the paradoxes of diaspora culture, it's important to note that Russia also seeks to maintain close surveillance of the Circassian diaspora. Ever since the commemorative events for the Circassian Genocide in Turkey have been brought into the public sphere, Russia has kept a close watch on the diaspora. This scrutiny intensified around the Sochi Olympic Games, with concerted efforts to influence the diaspora. Certain civil society organisations and business people were leveraged for this purpose. During this period, Russian officials began to refer to the Circassians as "our diaspora". However, this was clearly a manipulative tactic and never served to ease Circassian relations with the Caucasus.
This article was published by Gazete Duvar, and is translated from Turkish.
Fehim Taştekin is a Turkish journalist and a columnist for Turkey Pulse who previously wrote for Radikal and Hurriyet. Taştekin specializes in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, the Middle East, and EU affairs.