Circassian Nationalism and the Internet

Circassian communities are scattered throughout the North Caucasus and the diaspora is spread throughout the world. On the day of Circassian Genocide and Exile, Zeynel Abidin Besleney examines the role played by the internet as a lifeline linking otherwise isolated activists and communities and reinforcing the Circassian nationalist cause
Zeynel Abidin Besleney
21 May 2010

In recent years nationalism studies have been paying increasing attention, perhaps rightly, to the impact of the internet on various ethnic groups, national identities and diasporas. The internet facilitates trans-national communication between scattered communities beyond the geographical and political restrictions imposed by nation states, national institutions or by international borders. The internet is an important communication tool not only for the Circassian diaspora scattered all around the world, but also for Circassians living in their homeland. This article focuses on the use of the internet by a new breed of Circassian activists in the Northwest Caucasus. But before looking at the extent to which the Circassian activists make use of the internet in disseminating their messages and organizing their political projects, perhaps a brief introduction as to who the Circassians are might be of some help to overcome confusions committed even by veteran academics and policy-makers.

Historical Background

The Circassians are one of the indigenous peoples of the North West Caucasus. Their self-appellation is Adyge and they are titular nations in the republics of Adygeya, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Smaller numbers of them are also found in adjacent Russian regions. Circassians, as much scattered in their homeland as in diaspora, live in several constituent units of the Russian Federation (RF) that are cut off from each other both geographically and administratively. According to the 2002 Russian population census, there were a total of 720,000 Circassians living in the Russian Federation at the time.

In both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, the terminology used in Russian academia and the administrative structures to define the Circassians was somewhat inconsistent. The Soviets defined them as Adygean (Адыгейцы), Cherkess (Черкесы), Kabardian (Кабардинцы) and Shapsough (Шапсуги) depending on their place of residence and the dialect of the Circassian language spoken.

The first of these terms is a derivation from the Circassian self-designation. The second is the pre-Soviet exonym in Russian, while the third and fourth terms are the names of two Circassian sub-groups. The post-Soviet Russian administrations have carried on with this terminology, but in recent years the Adyge themselves have begun to advocate the official use of Circassian to denote their unity as one people. In fact some Circassian activists are currently running a campaign for that objective in the upcoming All-Russian population census, which is planned for October 2010.

Circassian map

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caucasus-political_en.svg

The Circassian diaspora came about as a result of the Russian Empire’s conquest of the Northwest Caucasus in the1860s, when approximately a million people were forcibly removed from their land and deported to the Ottoman Empire. Up to a third perished from hunger and disease in the Russian controlled coastal areas before their departure, on overcrowded ships or in refugee camps on their arrival in Anatolia and the Balkans. The descendants of those who survived the ordeal, which Circassians and an increasing number of scholars and journalists call the “Circassian Genocide,” currently number around 3 million in Turkey and 300,000 elsewhere in Syria, Jordan, Israel, the USA and the Western Europe.

While all kinds of political activists are utilizing the internet intensively in the contemporary Northwest Caucasus, my attention here is drawn to the re-emerging secular Circassian nationalist activists.  For the past few years they have been heavily present on the internet, not only to obtain and disseminate news about the Circassian world, but also to propagate their manifesto and to debate and analyze old and new texts & books dealing with various aspects of Circassian history and politics - a practice that has a visible impact on their political manifesto.

Circassian Nationalist Movement(s)

The first wave of Circassian nationalist activism appeared in the glasnost & perestroika years and peaked in the early 1990s during Yeltsin’s reign. It gained popular support and became a potent actor in the struggle for power in the early post-Soviet era.  This was helped in no small measure by the participation of up to two thousand Circassian volunteers in the Georgian-Abkhazian War of 1992-93 on the side of the Abkhaz, who are ethnically very close to them. Most of the demands of the nationalists were heard and acted upon by the local and central authorities, with the exception of Karachay-Cherkessia, where they were in the minority and locked in a struggle for power with the Karachay. For instance, Adygeya’s status was upgraded to a republic; mechanisms for administrative parity between Circassians and Russians were put in place, even though Circassians only constituted 22% of the population. Circassian elites dominated the political scene in Kabardino-Balkaria and the citizenship process was made easy for returnee diasporans.

In time, however, 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.  After Putin became President, the largest organisation, the International Circassian Association (ICA), was gradually taken over by the functionaries of the governing Kabardian (Circassians of Kabardino-Balkaria) elites.  By the end of 2000 some of the leading members who refused to be co-opted, including Ibragim Yaganov and Valery Khatazhukov, had been eliminated from the political scene, leaving no functioning independent nationalist organisations.

The First Chechen War of 1994-96 also had a negative impact on the overall political environment in the whole of the North Caucasus, including the Circassian part. Various religious movements began to fill the social vacuum that had been created first by the collapse of the Soviet order and then by the diminishing appeal of nationalism. Especially in Kabardino-Balkaria, where an Islamic movement began to take root amongst the Circassians. Indiscriminate police brutality and political oppression at the hands of the local security structures radicalized the followers, who were mostly alienated youngsters affected by social issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, a breakdown of moral values and lack of career prospects locally. Their frustration was galvanized by the leaders of the movement into making the Islamists a formidable contender vis a vis the official structures for respect and authority in society. However, after the fateful events in Nalchik in October 2005, the Islamists began to lose support and a new breed of nationalist organisations began to appear on the scene.

Despite the fact that some of the current leading figures in the Circassian nationalist movement are veterans of early 1990s activism, the bulk of the current activists are by and large new to the scene. They are typically aged between 18 and 28 and, unlike the veterans, have no memories of the war in Abkhazia. When it comes to political issues they are unrestrained by the traditionally unquestioned authority of the elders in Circassian society. Last but not least, they are professional and prolific internet users.  There are currently two major activist groupings in Circassian politics in the Northwest Caucasus:

Organisations that are part of the International Circassian Association (ICA): the ICA, which was founded in 1991, is actually an umbrella organisation comprising the main Circassian organisations of the time in the Caucasus and in the diaspora in Turkey, Europe, the USA, Syria and Jordan. It was very influential during the war in Abkhazia in 1992-93 and then in Karachay-Cherkessia during the political power struggle in 1998-99 between the Karachay and Circassians.

After coming under the full control of the pro-Moscow Kabardian elites in 2000, the ICA leaders have repeatedly stated that they no longer want to engage in political matters and are merely concerned with the cultural and linguistic needs of the community. However, of late the Adyge Khases [Хасэ –assembly ed] in Adygeya and Karachay-Cherkessia, under the respective leaderships of Arambi Khapai and Mukhammed Cherkesov, have begun actively engaging in ethnic politics.  Their position on political issues such as the unification of Circassian republics or the Circassian Genocide thus differs greatly from the official position of the ICA, of which both organisations are members.

The Second Generation of Circassian Activists: it may be misleading to call these organisations second generation, because some of their leading figures actually belong to the earlier generation of the activists of the 1990s.  I use this term as they now have a different follower base, pursue different recruitment strategies and are very keen to engage with international political actors for their cause, all of which distinguishes them from the ICA.

“The Cherkess Congress”, “Youth Khase” and “Khase” in Adygeya, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria come into this category as all of them have come into being in the last decade. In general, they were born out of frustration with established organisations and their perceived political inactivity. The leading figures are Ruslan Keshev, Ibragim Yaganov, Murat Berzegov and Fatima Tlisova.  The last two have recently moved to the US after being repeatedly subjected to threats and physical attacks for their political and journalistic activities.

The current political issues of concern to contemporary Circassian activists are:

2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi: there is a broadly accepted perception amongst the Circassians that Sochi was the last stronghold of the Circassians in their resistance to the Russian Empire’s conquest of historical Circassia. As such it holds a significant place in the collective Circassian consciousness. For this reason there was indignation at Putin’s speech to the International Olympics Committee in July 2007: he listed the ancient Greeks, Kolkhi and Cossacks amongst the former inhabitants of Sochi, but failed to make any mention at all of the Circassians. Furthermore, the Russian Olympic Committee took a Cossack dance troupe to the Vancouver Olympics to represent the culture of the Kuban region, where Sochi is located. Circassians historically consider the Cossacks were agents of 19th century Russian Imperialism who played a pivotal role in the demise of historical Circassia, so this was just adding insult to injury.

There have been three distinct Circassian approaches to the issue of holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi, declared by President Medvedev to be a “Russian National Project”. Some organisations, such as the Cherkess Congress, want the Games cancelled.  They claim that the Olympics cannot be held on land where thousands of Circassians were killed in the Russo-Circassian War and that 2014 is the 150th anniversary of what they call “the Circassian Genocide”.  

Some other groups, including the Adyge Khase of Adygeya and many intellectuals and academics in the Circassian world, want increased and visible Circassian participation, mirroring the role of North American and Australian natives in past Olympics.

The third approach was until recently that of the ICA and officialdom in the Circassian republics and reflected the general Russian position that there should be no special Circassian dimension at all.

Nonetheless a campaign of increased publicity mounted by the other groups in recent months has somehow forced the ICA and its member organisations towards a gradual acceptance of the second approach. The Adygean Parliament made an appeal to the Russian Government in March this year for the inclusion of what they called a “Circassian cultural element” in the Olympics. Even Alexander Khloponin, the first appointed head of the newly-created North Caucasus Federal District, said recently that the Games should have a Caucasian dimension, given that there has been none at all in the preparatory discussions over the past three years.

The issue of “Circassian Genocide”:  there are many Circassian activist groupings that want the tragic events of the 19th century to be recognized as genocide against the Circassian nation by the Russian Empire. To put it rightly, there is an almost universal agreement across the whole spectrum of Circassian communities and organisations on the concept of the Genocide. Furthermore the parliaments of both Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygeya passed laws, in 1992 and 1996 respectively, officially recognizing what they termed “the Circassian Genocide” and also appealed to the Russian Duma for such recognition. Even the ICA has supported it for many years, at least on paper.

The issue becomes divisive, however, when organisations want to take the problem to international platforms by liaising with elements in the Circassian diaspora. A good example of this would be the protest actions of some diaspora Circassian activists against the Sochi Olympics during the last Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. More recently in March this year, following a conference on the issue in Tbilisi, an official appeal was made by some Circassians to the Georgian Parliament to recognize the Circassian Genocide. The new activists want to publicize the issue wherever and however possible, whereas the established or state sponsored organisations want a more subdued and conciliatory approach vis a vis the current Russian administration.

Problems with the Federal Centre: the republican status of Adygeya is a cause of friction between Circassians and the federal centre, as Moscow seems to have made plans to merge it with Krasnodar Krai, in which Adygeya is an enclave. The last time this issue came to the fore in earnest was in 2005, when thousands of protesters took to the streets in Maikop, the capital of Adygeya. As an alternative, many Circassian activists, though not the ICA, demand the creation of a single Circassian republic within the RF comprising Circassian inhabited lands in the Northwest Caucasus.

Issues Circassian activists currently have with Moscow are:

  • the erosion of federalism and the diminished political autonomy of the Circassian republics under Putin’s administration;
  • the abolition of presidential elections;
  • the lack of local independent representation;
  • the removal from passports of sections in non-Russian languages;
  • forced changes to republican constitutions;
  • a general lack of freedom of expression and democratic rights.

Inter-ethnic Issues in the Dual Republics:  there are serious conflicts between Circassians and the Mountain Turks (Karachay-Balkars) in both Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria over political power and ownership of certain strips of land, both historically and currently, which have destabilized these republics for the past 20 years. There have been calls from Circassians for separation from Karachay-Cherkessia and for the reinstatement in the form of a republic of the Circassian Autonomous Oblast, which existed before 1957. Conversely some Balkar organisations have repeatedly voiced their desire to secede from Kabardino-Balkaria in order to establish a Balkar republic.

Repatriation of the Circassian Diaspora:  almost all Circassian organisations support this idea. They want the modern Russian state to acknowledge responsibility for the historical injustice the Circassians suffered at the hands of its predecessor, the Russian Empire.  To this end they consider that Moscow should give the Circassian diaspora special rights and some financial assistance to enable them to return to their historical homeland. In the early 1990s the Circassian republics had specific laws covering the return of the diaspora. These were amended recently to comply with Russian federal laws, removing the Circassian diaspora’s special status in the process. Without this status, very few foreign Circassians will want to obtain citizenship and settle in the Circassian republics.

There certainly are other issues but there is a broad consensus on the importance of these.

 The Internet and Circassian Activism

The new generation of Circassian activists uses the internet in much the same way as other social groupings do all around the world. However, what is significant in their case is the level of reliance on the internet for this form of activism to operate. One reason for this is that conventional communication links between Adygeya, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria have always been and still are very poor, which results in the isolation of Circassian communities from one another. This is coupled with a lack of Circassian-specific media outlets, such as TV, newspapers and political journals covering all these republics without being subject to any censorship or political pressure. Those that exist can only toe the local government line and do not offer platforms for new ideas or free debate. Many events or debates that are of importance to Circassians never make the news in the mainstream Russian media either, which itself suffers from political pressure and censorship by the central authorities. This makes the internet the sole bridge linking the otherwise isolated Circassian communities and activists.

The role of the internet for the new breed of activists is all the more remarkable in the light of the fact that one of the main actors in Circassian politics, the ICA, does not even have a website of its own. This is despite the fact that it is an international organisation with members all around the world, whose high level links with official structures in the Caucasus and the Diaspora give it considerable political weight. It is almost cut off from the world of communication and very few politically-minded Circassians, in either the Caucasus or the Diaspora, actually know what this organisation does or who its leaders are. By contrast, every word uttered by the likes of Yaganov, Keshev or Berzegov is closely followed by thousands of young Circassians all around the world, thanks to their presence on the internet.

Needless to say, the internet is a multidimensional phenomenon, but I should like to highlight its three main functions for the new generation of Circassian activists by using three Circassian web portals as examples with their specialized roles in the overall picture.

1 – The internet acts as a platform offering alternative sources and materials on Circassian history and politics with the specific aim of countering both the Soviet and post-Soviet official historiographies. The web portal www.adygi.ru is a very good example of this. It is a source of old and new scholarly knowledge on Circassians and offers in digital format full books and academic articles by 19th century writers, Western travellers or emerging Circassian researchers.

Circassian books

An illustration of digitally created covers of some of the books and articles that are available on www.adygi.ru

The significance of young Circassian activists’ ability to access these materials is that their contents are in stark contrast to the Russian official historiography for Circassians. Accounts of the 19th century Russo-Circassian Wars by Western authors or diplomats were banned in Soviet times, but can now be read freely on the internet. Since printed materials are far and few between and the Caucasus is not exactly renowned for its large number of bookshops, the internet provides an online library of these sources.

To be fair, once censorship was lifted in the early1990s, local and Western scholars began producing publications dismantling Soviet historiography and its depiction of Circassian resistance to the Russian Empire. But Soviet historiography staged a curious comeback under Putin’s administration with the official celebrations in 2007 of the 450th anniversary of the “voluntary integration of the Circassians into Russia”. The celebration itself was originally invented by the Soviets in 1957.  At that time the 400th anniversary of a Circassian prince seeking Russian protection against his local rivals and the Crimean Tatars and marrying his daughter to Tsar Ivan the Terrible was suddenly considered to be “voluntary union with Russia”.  This ignores the fact that many wars between the Russian Army and Circassians were fought thereafter. To counter this trend, activists use websites such as adygi.ru to disseminate their own Circassian historiography. The new online translation tools, such as Google Translator, are very useful, as they enable non-English speaking Circassians to read works in English too. 

2- The internet is a source of current news in the absence of a Circassian 24-hour television news channel to report current news of any significance to Circassians from within the Circassian world or from outside it. Statement by organisations, political debates within the Circassian world, protest meetings or incidents such as large scale inter-ethnic confrontations between Karachay and Circassian youth involving hundreds on both sides can only be broadcast on the internet.

www.natpress.net is run by a professional journalist from Adygeya and is one of the online news portals with a specifically Circassian content. Its reports are regularly re-published on other websites and forums.

Natpress home site


Homepage of www.natpress.net

3- The internet functions as a forum where activists debate what they read on the aforementioned websites. Circassian web forums are spaces where both policy- and decision- making take place and as such they are where virtual reality meets actual reality. Activists discuss what political actions to take, and once a particular action has taken place an assessment process follows. This is exactly what happened in December 2009 when there were mass public meetings involving a few thousand activists in Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. The subsequent debates on the many forums frequented by the same activists were also spiced up with the videos and photographic images captured during the events. Therefore, in a sense, the internet links theory with practice.

www.elot.ru is one of the leading web portals whose forum section is very popular with Circassian activists.

Elot forum

The main page of the forum section of www.elot.ru


For the new breed of Circassian activism, the pivotal role of the internet is not by design but by necessity. This is not a centralized process: it consists of independent processes taking place both in the Caucasus and the communities in the diaspora. It is perhaps possible to draw some parallels between the spread of print technology in the 16th century, described by Benedict Anderson as “print capitalism” in his Imagined Communities, and the internet in the 20th and 21st centuries in that both processes have helped break down the hegemony over knowledge. The ceaseless flow of information has actually brought what was previously the domain of the educated few within the reach of the layperson, resulting in the widening of the potential audience for new ideas. The internet seems to offer a lifeline to Circassian activists in terms of rejuvenating their mass appeal. Until the legal, financial and administrative restrictions on the media in Russia are eased, one can assume that the internet will continue to play its crucial part for Circassian activism in the foreseeable future.

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