A Caucasian Home as Designed by Tbilisi

24 june 2012

The Objectives of Georgia’s Policy in the North Caucasus

Ivlian Haindrava is Director of the South Caucasus Studies Program at the Tbilisi-based Republican Institute.

Resume: Georgia was the first sovereign state to recognize the genocide against the Circassians. However, the recognition did not occur all of a sudden; certain steps were made back in the 1990s by parliaments of the North Caucasian republics.

Until 2008, it was hard to say that Georgia had been conducting a prudent and coherent state policy towards the North Caucasus. The first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, once proposed an idea of a “common Caucasian home,” but it was never materialized. Gamsakhurdia did not stay long in power to implement his plans, which were rather contradictory and often dangerous for the Georgian statehood. In addition, no one really understood on what foundation this “common Caucasian home” should be built and what it may look like. On top of that, Moscow countered this extravagant idea with the establishment in 1989 of a Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, headquartered in Sukhumi (later it was named the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus).

The architect of the “Caucasian Home” assigned the leading role in it to Georgia, while the CMPC was in fact an anti-Georgian project (even though Gamsakhurdia sent his representatives to its congresses). The Confederation left only one mark in history, namely, its active participation in a Georgian-Abkhazian conflict of 1992-1993 on the Abkhazian side. Aside from the fact that after his overthrow Gamsakhurdia found refuge in Chechnya’s capital Grozny, one can say that the early 1990s, marked by conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was a period of a sharp deterioration in relations between Georgians and North Caucasians (although this concerns different ethnic groups of the region to varying degrees).

The second president of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze, turned his eyes to the North Caucasus only when he simply could not ignore it, that is, when developments there had a direct impact on Georgia. The main problem was the situation over the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, which was a real headache for Tbilisi. Chechens fled the “establishment of Constitutional order” by Russian troops in Chechnya and settled in the gorge. It was impossible for Tbilisi to seal the Georgian border for them from a moral point of view, and it would have been short-sighted politically. In addition, Georgia lacked forces to erect barriers on the border and filter out militants from the Chechen refugees. Due to the Pankisi Gorge, Georgia was under constant pressure from Russia, which even permitted itself to bomb the territory of the neighboring state, citing the need for pre-emptive strikes against the militants’ bases.

In the long run, Shevardnadze sorted out the situation – but not without help from Americans: the U.S.-sponsored Train and Equip program helped to create prerequisites for solving the problem of Chechen militants in the Pankisi Gorge without damage to the bulk of the refugees. Georgia saved face both towards the West and North Caucasians, Chechens in particular, but then things stalled again. Tbilisi did not win Moscow’s trust, either, because the latter would not change its attitude towards Georgia anyway.

Georgian political analysts did not pay due attention to North Caucasian problems either. There were only isolated attempts to rethink the North Caucasus factor in general and in the context of Georgian-Russian relations. In particular, the author of this article wrote in 1999 that the North Caucasus was turning into a “zone of stable instability” that required that Georgia work out an adequate concept with regard to it. However, it never did.

The third Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, began his foreign-policy activity with a visit to Moscow (February 11, 2004). However, the thaw in relations between the two countries, ushered in by the Georgian leader, did not last long. It gave way to an open personal confrontation between Putin and Saakashvili, who accused each other of every sin possible. The confrontation climaxed in the August 2008 war and a final freezing of bilateral relations during the Dmitry Medvedev presidency. Whereas before the war the North Caucasus had remained virtually out of sight of Georgia’s policy, after August 2008 the situation changed.



In the postwar period, the Georgian leadership took some steps that signaled a desire to pursue an active policy towards the North Caucasus. These mutually complementary measures can be grouped into three main categories.

1. Organizational measures intended to create an institutional framework for the North Caucasus policy:

a) The establishment by the Georgian parliament of a group of friendship with parliaments in the North Caucasus in December 2009. Moves like that look constructive, as a rule. Resolution 1773 (2010) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), for example, invites national parliaments to “encourage the establishment of parliamentary friendship and similar groups among national parliaments, in order to promote the exchange of good practice, in particular in the parliamentary and political field.” In Georgia’s case, however, there is an obvious asymmetry, as the parliament of this sovereign state, which is a UN member, has declared its intention to establish friendly ties not with the legislative body of another (neighboring) state that is a UN member but with parliaments of administrative entities of a federal state. This asymmetry is not consistent with international practices. Perhaps, it would not be that evident, if Georgia and Russia had good-neighborly relations and if this move had been agreed by the two parties. However, Georgia broke off diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation after the August 2008 war, so the demonstrative invitation for some administrative units of Russia to establish official friendly ties raises questions.

Of course, Russia went to much more length than Georgia did and crossed the line when it recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and when it established diplomatic relations with them and opened embassies in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. But those decisions have not been supported by an overwhelming majority of countries and have been denounced by many of them and by international organizations. It turns out that in its search for an adequate response to Russia’s unlawful actions against Georgia (as they were described in the Tagliavini Commission’s report) Tbilisi itself departed from international practices and found itself in an ambiguous position. However, there was no official response from the parliaments of Northern Caucasian republics, as their loyalty to Moscow is a must for receiving vital financial subsidies.

The other two steps by the Georgian leadership were of the same kind.

b) The transformation in December 2010 of the parliamentary Committee on Relations with Compatriots Residing Abroad into the Committee on Diaspora and Caucasus Issues; and

c) The adoption in February 2011 of a decision to establish a special commission on Caucasus affairs at the Office of the State Minister for Diaspora Affairs. It seems that both bodies are intended to highlight the following two things:

  • The introduction of the notion of “Georgian Diaspora” for general use (the post of State Minister for Diaspora Affairs was established in February 2008). Formerly, this notion had not been widely used in the Georgian discourse;
  • The emphasizing of special importance of the Caucasus (both South and North) for Georgian politics.

The latter circumstance raises no doubt, but there has been no trace whatsoever of any activity by the aforementioned Special Commission (which was tasked to study political and social processes in North Caucasian republics) ever since it was established – except, perhaps, the announcement of a contest to build a memorial to the victims of the genocide against the Circassian (Adyghe) people, in line with the Georgian parliament’s resolution of July 1, 2011. However, this move hardly required the establishment of a special commission. By the way, the contest was won by a sculptor from Kabardino-Balkaria in December 2011.

2. Ideological and advocacy measures intended to lay grounds for the North Caucasus policy and to influence people’s minds. These measures included:

a) Mikheil Saakashvili’s speech at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2010, where he presented his vision of a “free, stable and united Caucasus.” The president referred to a common history and interests of the peoples of the Caucasus and called for the establishment of direct people-to-people contacts and the development of projects in energy, education and culture. He also spoke of political and economic interaction, the creation of a common market, and self-sufficiency of the region, which does not need outside help. “There is no North and South Caucasus; there is one Caucasus, that belongs to Europe,” Saakashvili said. He pointed out that the Caucasus is not just part of European civilization but also one of its cradles. Speaking of a united Caucasus, Saakashvili said: “Our unity would not be directed against anyone and we will not aspire to change any borders. […] It is time to stop struggling against and weakening each other. Our strength is in our unity. Without unity, we will not be really free.

However, his initiative has never been followed up. Receiving visiting Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in Tbilisi in November 2011, Saakashvili reiterated the main points of his speech of a year before. Therefore, many people regard his proposal only as a rehash of Gamsakhurdia’s well-forgotten concept of a “common Caucasian home” – equally vague and illusive.

The bottom line is that one can see pretensions to leadership in the Caucasian region (although there is no speaking of the region in a political sense), which hardly meets with understanding and approval of the neighbors (the press in Azerbaijan, for example, scathingly commented on Saakashvili’s talk of “Caucasian unity” during the negotiations with his Armenian counterpart). In addition, such ambitions hardly measure up the capabilities of the country burdened with numerous internal and external problems.

b) The launching by georgia of the Russian-speaking First Caucasian TV Channel in January 2010 to provide information support for a concrete political project. The Russian authorities strongly reacted to the move. Russia’s Deputy Interior Minister (2004-2010) Arkady Yedelev said that “this creation of the Georgian propaganda machine” required the closest attention, as it would “propagate anti-Russian and anti-state sentiments and the ideology of extremism.” It is not surprising that the owners of the satellite provider that provided coverage over a vast territory soon had problems, and the broadcasts were terminated (“for technical reasons,” naturally). Later, however, new opportunities opened up, and the channel came back on the air again, this time under the name the First Caucasian News Channel (PIK-TV).

Its formal task is to neutralize anti-Georgian propaganda in Russian media outlets and give the audience objective information about developments in Georgia and the Caucasian region. However, the propagandistic, rather than counter-propagandistic, essence of the channel is no secret, because actually every socio-political program is intended not only to portray Georgia in the most favorable light but also to put Russia in the most unfavorable light. The propaganda is targeted at audiences in other countries (TV companies inside Georgia already broadcast excessive pro-government content), above all in the North Caucasus, although North Caucasian issues proper do not take up much of the broadcasting time. It is hard to tell whether PIK-TV has reached its target in the North Caucasus and elsewhere, but it seems that Moscow is no longer anxious about it. Moreover, PIK-TV was among three interviewers of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on August 5, 2011 (along with the Russia Today TV channel and the Echo of Moscow radio station). Thus, the Russian leader contributed to the legalization of this TV channel in his country, and your author has to admit that he is unable to comprehend the depth of this political game.

c) The holding of two international conferences in March and November 2010 in Tbilisi under the name of “Hidden Nations, Enduring Crimes: The Circassians and the People of the North Caucasus Between Past and Future.” The conferences were organized by the Tbilisi-based Ilia State University, in cooperation with the U.S. Jamestown Foundation. The latter, together with the U.S.-based Circassian Cultural Institute, held a conference on May 21, 2007 in Washington named “The Circassians: Past, Present and Future.” The conference raised the issue of the genocide against the Circassian people in the Russian Empire in the 19th century.

These developments suggest that the “Circassian issue” arose in the postwar repertoire of Tbilisi’s foreign-policy instruments not spontaneously but due to circumstances favorable for the initiators (although these circumstances were highly unfavorable for Georgia, because the outcome of the 2008 war can by no means be described as favorable). The first conference in Tbilisi urged the parliament of Georgia to recognize the genocide against Circassians, and the second conference called for a boycott of the Olympic Games in Sochi.

d) The opening of a Circassian Culture Center in Tbilisi in October 2011; and

e) The announcement of a competition for a memorial to victims of the genocide against the Circassian people.

The latter two events are not as momentous as the first three ones. The opening of a cultural center could only be welcomed but for a politically loaded statement made on this occasion by a representative of the “Circassian Congress” in Georgia. His statement was in tune with Saakashvili’s speech at the UN General Assembly (which is not surprising) and came as an indirect proof of the aforementioned ambitions. The plans to build a memorial to the victims of the genocide against the Circassian people in the newly built resort of Anaklia, in close proximity to the border with Abkhazia, can also be viewed in the context of Georgia’s multi-vector propaganda.

3. Political actions proper taken by the Georgian authorities to date include the following two major moves:

a) The Georgian government’s decision to grant North Caucasians the right to visit Georgia for 90 days without a visa. The decision entered into force on October 13, 2010. President Saakashvili said this step should be viewed as part of the “united Caucasus” policy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded that “things like this taking place between civilized partners should be resolved by mutual discussion.” He described Georgia’s move as an “act of propaganda.” Regardless of the politics behind the move, one should admit that it has made things easier for those North Caucasians who have regular contacts with Georgia.

The president of the Jamestown Foundation, Glen Howard, has said that Georgians are doing much to use soft power in their interaction with the North Caucasus; for example, they have introduced visa-free travel to Georgia for people living there. He was speaking at a forum called “Crisis in the North Caucasus: Any Way Out?” The forum was organized by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in February 2011. Howard said this policy contributes to the region’s economic development, while the fact that students from the North Caucasus study in Tbilisi helps the new generation of people living in the region interact with the West.

Thus, as regards travel between the two countries, Georgia appears in a much more favorable light than Russia. Citizens of the Russian Federation (not residents of the North Caucasian republics) can get a Georgian visa upon arrival at seaports and airports of Georgia, and since the second half of 2011 they can do this also at the Upper Lars checkpoint on the Georgian Military Road. Thereby, Georgia has completed the establishment of a visa-free travel regime with all its immediate neighbors (unilaterally with Russia’s North Caucasus) and even with Iran, with which Georgia has no common border.

b) The adoption by the Georgian parliament on May 20, 2011 of a resolution on recognition of the genocide against the Circassian (Adyghe) people during the Russian-Caucasian War (1763-1864 – Ed.) was undoubtedly the most high-profile event, which attracted public attention far beyond the Caucasus. The resolution said, in particular:

“The massacre of the Circassians (Adyghe) and their expulsion from their historical homeland during the Russian-Caucasian War must be recognized as an act of genocide in accordance with Hague Convention IV of October 18, 1907 “The Laws and Customs of War on Land” and with the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of December 9, 1948.

“The Circassians who were deported during the Russian-Caucasian War and in later periods must be recognized as refugees in accordance with the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of July 28, 1951.”


Georgia was the first sovereign state to recognize the genocide against the Circassians. However, the recognition did not occur all of a sudden; certain steps were made back in the 1990s by parliaments of the North Caucasian republics among which the Soviet government “shared” the Circassians who had survived the tragic events. The Supreme Council of Kabardino-Balkaria on February 7, 1992 adopted a resolution called On the Condemnation of the Genocide Against the Adyghe (Circassians) During the Russian-Caucasian War. The legislature called on the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation to recognize the genocide and grant dual citizenship to Circassians living abroad.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted in his address to the peoples of the Caucasus on May 18, 1994 that the Caucasian War had led to great human and material losses and that “now there is a possibility of objective interpretation of the events of the Caucasian War as courageous struggle waged by the peoples of the Caucasus not only for their survival on their own land but also for the preservation of their indigenous culture and the best features of their national character.” However, this statement had no legal implications.

In April 1996, the president and the State Council of the North Caucasian Republic of Adygea sent an appeal to the State Duma of the Russian Federation, similar to the one sent by Kabardino-Balkaria. In October 2006, twenty Circassian public organizations from various countries urged the European Parliament to recognize the genocide. A month later, public associations of Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria addressed President Vladimir Putin with the same request. Again, none of the appeals had legal consequences; it was only an appeal to Georgia in 2010 that resulted in official recognition.

There might be several motives behind this move by the Georgian leadership.

First, to strengthen Georgia’s positions in the Caucasus as a guardian of the rights and interests of North Caucasian peoples, and to win support from the Circassian diaspora abroad. Many Circassians around the world very enthusiastically welcomed Tbilisi’s decision.

Second, to annoy Russia by hitting its most sensitive point – the North Caucasus, where intractable problems keep piling up. One of them is restitution of the rights of the divided Circassian people. At least, Moscow tends to view Tbilisi’s decision as revenge for the 2008 war and for its recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Third, to sow seeds of distrust between Abkhazians and North Caucasians (the Adyghe in particular), as moral and political support for them came not from Abkhazians, who are kindred to them, but from Georgians, against whom they fought during the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-1993.

The latter point deserves special comment. The parliament of Abkhazia in October 1997 adopted a resolution, whose first paragraph said: “To recognize the mass extermination and expulsion of Abkhazians (Abaza) to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century as genocide – a grave crime against humanity.” However, Sukhumi has never qualified the Circassian tragedy in the same way, although there were such expectations among the Circassians.

Abkhazian analyst Inal Khashig believes that “Tbilisi has already achieved some results by the very act of recognition of the genocide.” “There is already some evidence of a cooling of relations between Abkhazians and Circassians,” he wrote. “Abkhazians do not understand the jubilation of the Adyghe over Georgians’ move, because Georgia is the main enemy for Abkhazia. In turn, Circassians do not understand why fraternal Abkhazia keeps silent on the (genocide) issue and does not react in any way to Tbilisi’s recognition of the genocide.”

Obviously, Sukhumi does not want to incur anger from Russia, the main (and actually only) sponsor and guarantor of its secession from Georgia. So it is at a loss as to how to balance its relations with Circassians, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other.

The shift in emphasis, unfavorable for Abkhazians, among their immediate neighbors is best seen in the position of the chairman of the Khase organization, Ibragim Yaganov, an influential Circassian activist and a hero of Abkhazia. He says that it is time for Abkhazians to revise their attitude towards Georgia, because the present state of affairs “does not allow us to integrate into the European space.” He argues that hopes pinned on Abkhazia as a window to the free world (it was not accidental that the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus chose Sukhumi as its headquarters) not only have failed, but Abkhazia “also blocks another window for us – through Georgia.” The Abkhazian hero’s statement caused a storm of emotions in Sukhumi, but Yaganov calmly fended off accusations that he was playing up to Georgia which is pursuing its own interests. “It is quite possible that Georgia has the definite purpose of using the Circassian issue,” he said. “But that is okay. Any state has similar interests, and Circassians have interests of their own, as well.”

So, Tbilisi has achieved (to varying degrees) each of the goals it set by recognizing the Circassian genocide. Another, indirect political result of the move is that it is estranging Circassians from the idea of a Caucasus Emirate (in which they have not played a leading role, anyway) and bringing to the fore other goals and tasks for them, instead. However, these will hardly meet the goals of Karachays and Balkars, with whom Circassians live side by side in two North Caucasian republics.

Finally, there is one more aspect to the recognition, which concerns the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, the year of the 150th anniversary of the tragic date for Circassians. The Russian president’s envoy to the North Caucasian Federal District, Alexander Khloponin, for example, described the recognition of the Circassian genocide by Georgia as an attempt to “play the Circassian card bearing the Olympics in mind,” as the Olympic facilities are located in areas where Circassians were killed and from where they were deported during the Caucasian War. Characteristically, the Jamestown Foundation in June 2010 held a roundtable discussion called “Sochi in 2014: Can an Olympics Take Place at the Site of the Expulsion of the Circassians 150 Years Earlier?”.

Tbilisi would only be happy to spoil the Olympic festivities for the Kremlin, especially as Putin not only was the chief lobbyist for Sochi to host the Olympic Games, but he is also preparing to reap the laurels as president of the host country. At least a partial boycott of the Olympics would serve as a balm to Saakashvili’s injured heart and would be a fly in Putin’s ointment, although no one has yet formally declared plans to boycott the Games. Asked by the Czech CT24 TV channel in October 2011 whether Georgia would boycott the Games in Sochi, the Georgian president said: “This does not depend on me but on the Olympic Committee of Georgia. But there is more to it than that. It is an ethnically cleansed area. It is the place where the genocide of the Circassians took place. Sochi really has a complicated history. In addition, there are security problems there. The North Caucasus is a difficult region. The year 2014 is approaching fast, but the solution of these problems takes time, and I cannot say what will happen before 2014.”

The Georgian president was apparently not sincere when he said that it is not him but the national Olympic Committee that will take a political decision on a boycott. The Georgian leader also forgot that his last term in office expires in 2013, so a decision on this issue will not depend on him for this simple reason. But the main question remains open, as Circassians may not be the only ones to support a boycott of the Games. As for the security of the Olympic Games (Russia habitually points to Georgia as a threat), Saakashvili said that “it is not in our plans and not within our capabilities to create a physical threat to the 2014 Games in Sochi.”


Naturally and understandably, Georgia views the freezing of the status quo in the “new military-political reality” (that is, the one that has arisen as a result of the war), to which Russia officially appeals, as a seizure of part of its territory. Tbilisi has reacted to this process by hitting Russia’s most problem region – the North Caucasus. However, Saakashvili is playing a dangerous game. Even before Georgia recognized the Circassian genocide, the Director of the U.S. National Intelligence, James Clapper, had said that Georgia’s latest moves towards Russia’s North Caucasian republics, along with the presence of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, added to the tensions in the region. A Brookings Institution expert, Fiona Hill, expressed the same view in testimony before the U.S. Helsinki Commission (Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe) in December 2011, which discussed conflicts in the Caucasus.

Throwing the situation in the North Caucasus off balance is as dangerous to Georgia as it is to Russia, and it does not promise direct benefits to Tbilisi. Hopes that under the pressure of insoluble problems Russia will leave the North Caucasus (or will have to leave it; for example, Moscow is in no hurry to say goodbye to the Kuriles) look infantile. A keynote article on the nationalities policy, written by Russia’s ex- and future president earlier this year, clearly indicates the firmness of the Kremlin’s approach to the issue. The Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts will not settle themselves, even given absolute non-interference by Russia and a withdrawal of its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which looks unrealistic now). North Caucasian peoples will not hurry to come under economic and other patronage of Georgia, as the latter simply has no resources for that.

Moreover, in case of the “Circassian project’s” success (from the recognition of the genocide – via reunification – to independence), there will be one more contender for Abkhazia in the person of the Adyghe. The inclusion of kindred Abkhazians in their project may not even be voluntarily for them, while the numerous Circassian diaspora, which has certain political influence in various countries, will serve as a major factor. Speaking at the George Washington University even before Georgia recognized the Circassian genocide (in November 2010), Sergei Markedonov said that “after Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia, it faced growing Circassian nationalism, because Abkhazia is believed to be part of the Circassian world in Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria.” Obviously, the recognition of the genocide against Circassians by Tbilisi only added fuel to these sentiments.

Another factor that should be taken into account is that georgia’s ability to pursue an active soft-power policy in respect of the North Caucasus largely depends on the geopolitical situation: the growing crisis over Iran and the announcement by Russia of plans to hold the largest ever military exercise, Caucasus-2012, may change the situation, as well as the outcome of the upcoming elections in Georgia and the U.S.

Finally, it is unclear how Tbilisi will react to requests from other ethnic groups living in close proximity for the recognition of genocide against them. For example, there is a similar problem of genocide against Abkhazians in the Russian Empire, although Abkhazians themselves have never asked anyone for the recognition of their genocide.

Russia has not yet reacted (in its usual saber-rattling manner) to the recognition of the genocide against Circassians and other moves by Georgia with regard to the North Caucasus. This is understandable, as almost all analysts agree that, until the end of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia will not make any moves that could further destabilize the situation in the region and that could thereby jeopardize the Olympic Games and Russia’s prestige. But the Games will end in mid-March 2014. Meanwhile, Georgia may also recognize genocide against Vainakhs, another Caucasian ethnic group. This issue was already raised at the March 2010 conference in Tbilisi, and Ingushians living in Europe have asked the Georgian authorities to initiate the recognition process in the European Parliament.

* * *

Hopefully, until March 2014, the political elites of the two countries will refrain from looking for ways to spite each other (in fact, the populations of their countries) still harder. Instead, they should better depart from the principle of zero-sum game (which they did when they reached agreement on WTO accession and saved face). This principle, to which all the parties to all conflicts in the Caucasus stubbornly adhere, is counterproductive for all of them and each of them. According to some Georgian and Russian experts, a stable North Caucasus is, perhaps, the only common interest of Georgia and Russia, on which they can build a process of reconciliation “here and now.” But it is well-known that it is easy to destroy but hard to build.

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