History as a Weapon
No. 3 2011 July/September
Sergey M. Markedonov

PhD in History
MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia
Institute for International Studies
Leading Research Fellow;
Journal of International Analytics


ORCID ID: 0000-0003-2298-9684

The Circassian Issue Standing Between Russia and Georgia

The geopolitical landscape of the Caucasus has recently been brushed over with new bright strokes. The parliament of Georgia on May 20, 2011 unanimously declared the events of 1763-1864 in the western part of the Caucasus “genocide by the Russian Empire against the Circassian people.” The parliament’s resolution said that the Russian Empire conducted a colonial policy against the Circassians for more than 100 years, and defined the hostilities in the Caucasus in the 18th-19th centuries as a “Russian-Caucasian war.” The Georgian legislature accused the Russian Empire of killing more than 90 percent of the Circassian population. The resolution also recognized as refugees Circassians who settled in the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s and their descendants who later settled around the world.

It must be pointed out that the term ‘genocide’ was already used before in the legislation of some constituent entities of the Russian Federation with regard to the history of the Circassians (also known as the Adyghe). In particular, this definition was used by Kabardino-Balkaria in February 1992 and by Adygea in April 1996 (an appeal by Adygea’s president and State Council to the State Duma). This time, however, the term ‘genocide’ has been put to political/legal use not by individual constituents of the Federation but by an independent state recognized by the UN and conducting very active regional and international policies.

On top of that, the Georgian parliament passed its resolution on the eve of May 21, a tragic day for Russia’s North Caucasian republics with a largely Circassian population (Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea) and for the Circassian diaspora around the world (Turkey, the Middle East, Europe and the United States). On May 21, 1864, Russian troops crushed the last center of Circassian resistance at Kbaada (now Krasnaya Polyana) in the Western Caucasus. Grand Duke Michael Nikolayevich of Russia, the fourth son of Tsar Nicholas I, presided over a military parade of Russian troops there. Today, Krasnaya Polyana, in the Adlersky City District of Sochi, is a resort favored by Russia’s elites.

It was a great victory for the Russian army after years of bloody fighting. Circassians suffered serious demographic losses due to the war, diseases and expulsion. At the same time, the history of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus is not only confined to these ethnopolitical and human tragedies. Russia’s coming to the region brought about comprehensive modernization and Europeanization of the Caucasus. Through Russian culture, Circassians and Turkic and Vainakh peoples joined world culture. Such things were not unique to the history of the Caucasus but happened around in the world – in India, the Balkans, the United States and the Black Continent.


However controversial and tragic the Circassian history of the 19th century (and the entire history of the Caucasus) might be, it was not the main factor that determined the political choice of the Georgian state elite in May 2011. The Georgian political class used the events of the past to achieve goals that, in its view, meet the interests of the state. If the Georgian leaders were consistent in terms of academic historiography, they, along with the resolution on “genocide against Circassians,” would have adopted a document on “responsibility of the Georgian people” for their participation in this process. Indeed, in the 19th century the Georgian nobility was the main conduit of the Russian Empire’s imperial policy in the Caucasus, and hundreds of officers of Georgian origin served in the Russian army.

However, the elite of contemporary Georgia does not care much about academic historiography. Legal motivation is not among its priorities. Otherwise, the resolution on “genocide” would have not contained obvious legal absurdities, such as retroactive application of law. For example, it denounces the Russian Empire’s policy in the Caucasus in the 18th-19th centuries in accordance with Hague Convention IV (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 – in other words, in accordance with legislation adopted much later than the Caucasian War. In addition, the Russian Federation is not the legal successor to the Russian Empire.

So the demand for recognition of the “Circassian genocide” arose from purely political motives. It was a direct consequence of the August 2008 war, in which Tbilisi suffered the most sensitive national trauma since the break-up of the Soviet Union. In 1992-1994, the “rebellious republics” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were already de facto independent from Georgia, failed to receive international recognition. In 2008, the two former Georgian autonomous republics not only were recognized by Russia but also enlarged their territories by taking control over the Kodori Gorge, the Akhalgori District and the Liakhvi Corridor.

In contrast, Georgia was again flooded by refugees and saw the collapse of its hopes for an early integration into the North Atlantic community and for real, not rhetorical, military and political support from the European Union and the United States. In these circumstances, resource-poor Georgia had no choice but to strike Moscow in vulnerable spots on the other side of the Caucasus Mountains, where Russia is faced with Islamic radicalism and ethnic nationalism, largely weakened yet still alive. Tbilisi stepped up its North Caucasian policy, thus trying to take revenge for the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Tbilisi shunned an alliance with Islamic radicals, and there were several reasons for that. First of all, it feared a further political destabilization in the country (events in the Pankisi Gorge in the late 1990s still evoke painful memories for Georgia). Another reason was unwillingness to spoil relations with the West, primarily with the U.S., as in recent years Washington has been viewing the struggle of North Caucasian jihadists in the context of the global Islamist threat. Hence the inclusion of Doku Umarov and, later, the “Caucasus Emirate” in the Department of State’s special lists of terrorists and terrorist organizations. Ethnic nationalism is different: it easily fits into the frameworks of anti-imperial discourse that is popular in some political and intellectual circles in the West. The Circassian issue has turned out to be such a vulnerable spot of Russia in the Caucasus.


The Circassians are a North Caucasian ethnic group. Its various sub-groups (many of which have retained the identity defined in Soviet times) are the “titular nations” in Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia.

Who can be called Circassians? These are Shapsugs in the Krasnodar Territory (according to the 2002 census, their population stands at 3,200, but experts estimate it at 10,000); Adygs in Adygea (108,000); Kabardin (about 520,000 in Russia, including 500,000 in Kabardino-Balkaria, where it is the largest ethnic group – 65 percent of the population); Cherkess (about 60,000 in Russia, including 50,000 in Karachay-Cherkessia); and Abazins (almost 38,000 in Russia, of them about 32,000 in Karachay-Cherkessia). However, experts and politicians argue about the Abazins’ identity, as this ethnic group is very closely related to Abkhazians in terms of language and culture.

So, if we use the common exonym for the Adyghe people, Circassians, to describe their numerous ethnic groups, then Russia has the second largest Circassian population after Turkey. But, unlike Turkey where non-Turkic ethnic identity was banned for years and now is welcome only at cultural, rather than political, level), there are three Circassian-populated ethnic autonomies in Russia.

Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygea in Soviet times came under the impact of the “affirmative action empire” (a term coined by U.S. historian Terry Martin), when the Soviet state focused on ethnic differences and fixed them territorially and through various educational and other programs (publications in the native language, and quotas for non-Russian workers). These efforts in the above autonomous republics resulted in the emergence of non-Russian nomenklatura, which during the perestroika years easily mastered the language of ethno-political self-determination, and local intelligentsia, which in the same 1980s easily switched from the discussion of the issues of collectivization and industrialization to “genocide” and “national liberation struggle.”

The Circassian issue, like many other ethno-political issues, did not emerge during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. It had been discussed before, in one way or another, by historians and writers and had existed at the level of everyday consciousness. Yet the liberalization in the late years of the Soviet Union gave a political impetus to it. After that, the Circassian issue began to be used as an instrument in the struggle for power and property. In the early 1990s, Circassian movements sprang up across the Western Caucasus, but they had different goals.

In Adygea, for example, it was “separation” from the Krasnodar Territory (in Soviet times, Adygea was an autonomous territory within the region) and substantiation of its aspirations for the status of a republic, with guarantees for the “titular nation.” Local legislators adopted electoral laws which gave the ethnic minority (about a quarter of the population) control over key positions in the government. The two-nation republics (Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia) considered a divorce between the Circassian and Turkic ethnic groups and the formation of separate administrative entities (Cherkessia, Karachay, Kabarda, and Balkaria). There were also proponents of an idea of “Circassian integrism,” but it did not become a dominant idea at the time.

Circassian movements showed their potential in the early 1990s, when they took the side of Abkhazians, a closely related ethnic group, in their war against Georgia. About 2,500 Circassian volunteers fought in Abkhazia over the 14 months of the armed conflict. During the war (and later, in 2005-2007), a Kabardian, Sultan Sosnaliev, was the Chief of the Staff and then Minister of Defense of Abkhazia. Also, it was a Kabardian force led by Muayed Shorov that stormed and took the building of the Abkhazian Council of Ministers, the seat of a pro-Georgian administration.

In those years, however, the “Circassian issue” was a minor problem in relations between the federal center and regions. As Dr Zeynel Abidin Besleney of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, wrote, by the mid-1990s “former local bureaucratic elites, who by then had already adapted to post-Soviet conditions and firmly restored themselves to positions of power, absorbed these nationalist movements into the establishment.” The local intelligentsia played a role in those developments. However, the alliance of the nomenklatura, new business and the intelligentsia failed to formulate a common Circassian agenda, although they did make some steps in this direction (inter-parliamentary cooperation and even the creation of an inter-parliamentary coordinating structure). Problems faced by each republic in the northwestern part of the Caucasus proved too different. Yet Moscow adapted to the new realities and cooled down local hotheads.

However, this “pacification” was based primarily on bureaucratic principles. The new elite and new business became part and parcel of the administrative market system, while bureaucrats in charge of science landed cozy jobs at various thesis committees across the region, from Krasnodar to Rostov-on-Don. By the 2000s, “romantics” seemed to have been finally sidelined from political life. In addition, those years were marked by a growth of radical Islamist sentiments, which objectively and subjectively worked against ethno-national ideas in any format or manifestation. However, this kind of “bureaucratic pacification” proved to be short-lived and not efficient. As a result, ethnic nationalism, which seemed to have died away, found new life.

There were several reasons for this turnaround.

First, disappointment at Moscow’s policy. Many critical issues, such as representation in power and land ownership, were arbitrarily decided by local officials, who had become remote from the needs of ordinary people.

Second, the Islamist threat. It turned out that Islamists, notorious for their wanton cruelty, were much more dangerous than “Imperial Russia” and that their actions were directed not so much against the bureaucracy (which suffered the least) as against ordinary people. The events in Nalchik on October 13, 2005 provided an illustrative example of that.

Third, regional and central authorities “overlooked” young intellectuals, especially scholars in the humanities, for whom there was no place in the narrow (artificially narrowed) scientific market in their republics. This group of people, who are freer in expressing their ideas, found itself in limbo.

Fourth, attempts to extend the policy of amalgamating regions, earlier used in Siberia and the Ural region, to the North Caucasus. The idea of merging Adygea and the Krasnodar Territory in 2005 provoked heated debates about the historical past of the Circassians. The Circassian movement launched a campaign for the recognition of the genocide. Moscow’s reaction to it can hardly be described as satisfactory. In 2006, after a long delay with a response, the State Duma formulated its position in the following way: There are no Circassians among the peoples that suffered during the Nazi occupation, so there can be no talk of “genocide.” While criticizing “the tough 1990s,” the authorities forgot the important fact that in 1994 (130 years after end of the Caucasian War) President Boris Yeltsin apologized for the excessive force used by the Russian Empire.

Fifth, the shadow of the 2014 Olympics, which will be held on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the conquest of the Caucasus, also fell on the Circassian issue. Many people among the Circassian intelligentsia in the North Caucasus and in the diaspora were outraged with Vladimir Putin for making no mention of the Cherkess among ethnic groups that had lived on the territory of modern Sochi, when he spoke during the presentation of the Sochi Olympic program in Guatemala in July 2007 (he named Greeks, Colchis and Cossacks only). Moreover, Russia’s Olympic Committee sent a Cossack chorus to the Olympic Games in Vancouver as representatives of the Kuban region (where Sochi is located) and its culture, although relations between the Cherkess and Cossacks were very strained. In addition, in contrast to the 1980s, the formation of “new nationalism” is now boosted by better information systems (the Internet and social networks) which enable deeper integration with the outside world (the Circassians now have immediate access to websites of the Circassian diaspora in Turkey, Arab countries and the United States).

All these factors became the flammable material that Tbilisi did not fail to use.


The relations between the peoples of the North Caucasus and Georgia can hardly be described as neighborly. For years, North Caucasians viewed Georgia as a conductor of Russia’s imperial policy (in the early 1990s, the perception of Georgia by North Caucasian republics as a “small empire” strengthened due to events in Abkhazia and South Ossetia). After the Soviet Union’s break-up, Georgia’s image was marred by extreme ethnic nationalism of the founding fathers of the independent Georgian state, especially its first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

North Ossetia also found itself involved in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. Now about 7,500 Ossetian refugees from the former South Ossetian Autonomous Region and inner areas of Georgia live in North Ossetia’s Prigorodny District. Some of them have settled in the homes of expelled Ingush. The refugees from South Ossetia provided additional support for North Ossetian radicals in their conflict with neighboring Ingushetia.

The Georgian-Abkhazian conflict had a much greater and wider effect on the situation in the North Caucasus. It set the Circassian world and separatist Chechnya against Georgia. I already mentioned the participation of Circassians in the 1992-1993 hostilities above. In addition, Dagestan had a negative perception of Georgia due to the latter’s discriminatory policy against Kvareli Avars and other Dagestani peoples living in eastern Georgia.

However, in the mid-1990s the situation began to change. Abkhazia’s position during the First Chechen War played a big role in a turnaround in Georgia’s policy. Sukhumi did not come to the aid of Ichkeria, which worked for a rapprochement between Tbilisi and Grozny. In addition, the Georgian government played up the issue of a “common enemy” (Ossetians) in its contacts with Ingushetia. In March 1997, the president of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Aslan Maskhadov, President of Ingushetia Ruslan Aushev and Georgia’s Defense Minister Vardiko Nadibaidze met in Nazran. At about the same time, a “representative office of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria” was opened in Tbilisi.

But the Georgian-Ichkerian alliance proved to be short-lived. First, it turned out that the Chechen separatists only sought alternative outlets to the outside world, diversification of communications and, ultimately, lower geopolitical dependence on Russia. At the same time, they had no intention of complying with Georgian laws and rules, let alone fighting for Georgia’s territorial integrity. Second, after the September 11, 2001 tragedy, the harboring of odious figures, such as Ruslan Gelayev, on Georgian territory was against the views of not only Moscow but also Washington.

The 2008 war triggered a new surge of interest in the North Caucasus in Georgia. Tbilisi chose the Sochi Olympics as the first target. From the perspective of many Georgian politicians and experts (both pro- and anti-government), the Winter Olympic Games in the famous Russian resort will make Abkhazia’s separation irreversible. Hence Tbilisi’s focus on the Circassian issue, in its past and present aspects. In the spring and autumn of 2010, a series of conferences were held in Tbilisi with the support of the authorities and well-known Western think-tanks (in particular, the Jamestown Foundation). The conferences held a common title, “Hidden Nations, Enduring Crimes: The Circassians and the Peoples of the North Caucasus Between the Past and the Future.” These discussions raised the Circassian issue to parliamentary level. The organizers of the conferences asked the Georgian parliament to recognize the “genocide against the Circassians,” and the latter began drafting a resolution.

In December 2010, this initiative received public support from Georgia’s Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, the most influential politician in the country after Mikheil Saakashvili. In an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant-Vlast, when asked whether the Georgian parliament was planning to recognize the genocide of Circassians, he bluntly replied: “Yes, it is.” When the interviewer remarked that “this would make relations with Russia still worse,” Merabishvili replied: “Can they be ANY worse?”

In raising the Circassian issue, Georgian politicians ignored even friendly advice from Washington. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in his Statement for the Record on the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, made at a hearing at the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 16, 2011, unequivocally said: “Georgia’s public efforts to engage with various ethnic groups in the Russian North Caucasus have also contributed to these tensions.”

There are several factors behind Tbilisi’s efforts to highlight the Circassian issue.

First, the desire to politically divide the Adyghe and Abkhazian movements.

Second, the desire to set Abkhazia against Russia. Sukhumi views the Caucasian War of 1817–1864 as a tragedy of the Abkhazian people. After Russia invaded Abkhazia in the first quarter of the 19th century, Abkhazians began to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire, and after the uprising of 1866 the outflow turned into an exodus. The deserted Abkhazia was colonized by other ethnic groups, primarily Georgians and Mingrelians. On October 15, 1997, the National Assembly (parliament) of Abkhazia adopted a resolution titled “On the Deportation of Abkhazians (Abazins) in the 19th Century.” The resolution said that “the colonial policy of the Russian Empire during the Russian-Caucasian War of 1817-1864 and in subsequent periods caused irreparable harm to the Abkhazians (Abazins) and to the gene pool of the nation.” The present leaders of the partially recognized republic have repeatedly spoken about the need for re-emigration of ethnic Abkhazians to their homeland. Moscow’s reaction to these statements has been restrained, to say the least.

Third, the desire to set a precedent and take the Circassian issue to the international level. A petition for the recognition of the “Circassian genocide” has already been submitted to the parliament of Estonia (activists of Circassian movements call on Tallinn not so much to recognize the “genocide” as to lobby for their project at the level of the European Parliament and the European Union in general). In case of a deterioration of Russia’s relations with the outside world, the “genocide” issue could be used as a diplomatic tool (as is done by the United States and EU countries on the Armenian issue with regard to Turkey). It could also be used as a pretext for boycotting the 2014 Games in Sochi. (A similar approach was tested on the eve of the Beijing Olympics when Tibet was used as a pretext.)

Fourth, a search for revenge has been an effective political weapon of Mikheil Saakashvili and his administration at home for several years now. By mobilizing the “Russian threat” factor, the Georgian president successfully neutralizes actions of the opposition and positions himself as the main patriot and defender of Georgian statehood. The Circassian issue may well be followed by other North Caucasian “genocide” issues that Tbilisi would be ready to recognize. The Georgian parliament has already been discussing recognition of “genocide” against Chechens and Ingush (collectively known as the Vainakh).


However, after the adoption of the May 20, 2011 resolution, Tbilisi has been faced with new challenges. Georgia has set a serious political precedent and thus opened Pandora’s box. There are very many dark spots in the history of North and South Caucasian nations. These include deportations in Stalin’s times, ethnic conflicts, forced displacement, and decossackization. So, the “genocide card” can be used very actively: it only takes a well-organized PR campaign and political and resource support from interested players. One can assume, for example, that official Yerevan or organizations of the Armenian diaspora could start a campaign of urging the Georgian parliament to recognize the 1915 events as genocide.

Meanwhile, the situation around this issue can cause a clash between Tbilisi, on the one hand, and Azerbaijan and Turkey, on the other, which are very important partners for Georgia and which are very sensitive to this problem. Although Turkey is home to the largest Circassian community, its government refrains from highlighting ethnic issues. It insists on the existence of a unified Turkish political nation and fears precedents of self-determination. In addition, one should not ignore Russian-Turkish interaction. Since 2008, Russia has been the largest trading partner of Turkey (U.S. $38 billion), ranking above Germany. Therefore, Turkey would be interested in reducing tensions over the “Circassian problem” and other, even more vexed ethno-political issues.

Meanwhile, Moscow should consider taking countermeasures. These should hardly be hurling thunderbolts at Tbilisi. Since the Kremlin has decided to raise the stakes in the geopolitical game in the Greater Caucasus by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it must be ready for counterstrikes, however irrational and odd they may seem.

Should Russia take tough countermeasures, or, on the contrary, should it repent? Actually, Moscow’s choice must not be reduced to such a black-and-white dilemma.

First of all, it should avoid being hooked by the organizers of the May 20, 2011 vote and starting countering the “Circassian world” or “aspirations of the Adyghe people.” Georgia is waiting for a bearish reaction, such as closing down Circassian newspapers and websites, launching repression against activists and defaming them as “agents of Georgia.” If Moscow starts all these things, it would be the best present for Saakashvili and his supporters. It would guarantee a media frenzy and add fuel to the campaign to boycott the Sochi Olympics, this time at a basically different level.

The Circassian movements will inevitably become radicalized. Today they are disunited, focused on local problems and, therefore, prone to compromise. Many of them view Georgia only as a tool. The initiative for the recognition of “genocide” was launched by Georgian politicians and only some groups of Circassian nationalists, whose views are not shared by all Russian citizens of Kabardian, Adyghe, Cherkess, Abkhazian and Abazin origin, nor by all members of the Circassian diaspora in Turkey and the Middle East.

Characteristic in this respect is an article by Turkish journalist and Circassian activist Fehim Tastekin with an eloquent title “Georgia Is Swimming in Murky Waters!” (published in the Turkish daily Radikal on May 26, 2011). Tastekin describes the reaction of the Circassian community in Kayseri (the largest center of the Circassian diaspora in Turkey) to the announcement of Georgia’s recognition of the “genocide”: instead of “breaking the house down,” the announcement was met with “deep silence.” The audience realized that Tbilisi is playing a game of its own and is not at all seeking to support the Circassians.

According to the common belief [among the Circassians in Turkey], Georgia’s only aim is to isolate Abkhazia and South Ossetia, retake control of these two countries, now recognized by Russia, and continue plotting against Russia,” Tastekin writes. “In short, Georgia is opening itself to the North Caucasus with a policy aimed at provoking ‘anti-Russian’ sentiments with the help of the U.S., while the ‘independence’ demands of native peoples in many parts of the Caucasus are increasing. However, history tells us that this tactic is not sufficient for uniting the peoples in the region and for snatching the Caucasus from the jaws of Russia. Moreover, it is not convincing for Tbilisi to talk about the unity of the Caucasus without changing its offensive policies towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” [Translated into English by Erdogan Boz]

In any case, Russia should not adopt an ostrich policy. Obviously, it will have to offer a coherent interpretation of historical events and look for allies and partners in the Circassian diaspora. Many of its members are pragmatic about Russia, especially after the recognition of Abkhazia. Other problems that Moscow will have to address include the resolution of the land issue in Kabardino-Balkaria, adequate representation in power in Karachay-Cherkessia, and repatriation of Circassians to their historical homeland. Wise and efficient efforts to solve specific problems of concern to Russians of Circassian origin will help distract them from the phantoms raised by Tbilisi. In any case, there have appeared new developments in the formation of the post-August 2008 status quo in the Greater Caucasus, which every politician must take into account.