Russia and Georgia: the Circassian question

A series of recent international conferences have pushed the Circassian question on to the international agenda. Sufian Zhemukhov considers the historical background to the relationships between Georgia and the North Caucasus and possible future developments.
Sufian Zhemukhov
9 November 2010

There have been many fluctuations in Russian-Georgian relations, but before August 2008 one constant in this relationship was the attitude toward Georgia’s territorial integrity. In 1990-91, when Georgia took its first official steps toward independence, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev tried to halt the process by approving of the various separatist declarations issued by the parliaments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both formally autonomous units within Soviet Georgia.

In contrast to Gorbachev’s policy, however, the first presidents of Russia and Georgia, Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze, tried to develop good relations between their states. When the Georgian-Abkhaz war began in August 1992, Russia expressed its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and even deployed military troops to the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria (with its indigenous Circassian/Kabardian population) to prevent thousands of Circassian volunteers from joining the Abkhaz in their fight against Georgia.

Circassian family

Kabardian Circassians.  

Circassians around the world are rediscovering their cultural heritage.

Some fifteen years later the situation is completely different. The deterioration of Russian-Georgian relations culminated in the 2008 five-day war between Russia and Georgia and, subsequently, Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.

In response to Russian interference in its affairs, Georgia has recently turned its attention to the North Caucasus. In particular, it has taken an interest in the international Circassian movement, which seeks recognition of the genocide committed against Circassians by tsarist Russia in 1864. This issue is especially timely, as the 150th anniversary of the Circassian genocide coincides with the next Winter Olympics in 2014, which will be held in Sochi, the last capital of an independent Circassian state.

The Circassian Question in Georgian Foreign Policy

Georgia has always played an important part among the nations of the Caucasus. But Georgian influence in the North Caucasus was badly damaged in 1992, when Georgia invaded Abkhazia in the middle of a dispute over the nature of their political ties. This effectively forced Circassians to choose sides. Circassian nongovernmental organizations in Russia raised their voices against the war, including committees of women, journalists, and writers. Over 2,000 Circassian volunteers participated in the war under the command of a Nalchik-born retired Soviet colonel, Sultan Sosnaliev. He became the commander of all Abkhaz forces during the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-93 (Nalchik is the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria). 

"It had been the custom to rush the auls [mountain villages] by night, when, taken by surprise, the women and children had no time to escape, and the horrors that ensued under the cover of darkness when the Russian soldiers made their way by twos and threes into the houses were such as no official narrator dared describe"

Count Leo Tolstoy

After the war Sosnaliev was appointed Abkhaz Minister of Defence. Circassians in Russia and in the diaspora, scattered across 50 different countries, organized meetings internationally and sent humanitarian aid to the Abkhaz. The Circassian world continued to support Abkhazia after the war as well, raising the question of Abkhazia’s independence and often speaking out against Russia’s postwar economic blockade of the republic. A celebratory demonstration took place on Abkhaz Square in Nalchik on the day Russia recognized Abkhazia’s independence.

However, Georgia never publicly protested against the Circassians. This was partly because Georgia wished to conduct state-to-state relations with Russia alone and not to lower its policy to the level of the dependent Circassians. Also, it appeared useless to try and stop the Circassian anti-Georgian movement if even the Russian government could not do so. Finally, there was no clear way for Georgia to approach the Circassian community as a whole.

Nonetheless, Georgia regarded Circassian support for the Abkhaz as a real political, even military, threat. The new National Security Concept, adopted by Mikheil Saakashvili’s government before the August 2008 war, considered threats by non-state actors more likely than military aggression by another state. In point of fact, the only non-state actors ever to really threaten Georgia militarily were the Circassian volunteers during the Georgian-Abkhaz war. The August 2008 war represented more than a military defeat and loss of territory for Georgia. Having found itself in a situation where not even its closest allies supported it, Georgia’s main loss was its dream for integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Georgia was not able to form any kind of coalition against Russia, and sought to shift the political tides by, among other strategies, rethinking relations with sub-state actors in the wider Caucasus region.

Georgia’s New Interest in the North Caucasus

Accordingly, Georgia developed a policy toward Russia, described by some analysts as a policy of symmetry. Its aim was to intensify efforts to engage with the North Caucasus more productively, while trying to encourage an anti-Russian separatist movement there. The deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament, Levan Vepkhvadze, opined that, given the lessons of history, the violent explosion of a separatist movement in the North Caucasus could be expected in the near future. The broader notion behind this seemingly negative idea was the revival of Georgia’s leading role in the region, with Tbilisi as a political and intellectual centre for the Iberian-Caucasian nations.

In January 2010, a new Georgian satellite channel called First Caucasus was established to reach out to audiences in the North Caucasus. The main purpose of the channel was, as reported by the Russian daily Kommersant, to supply the Russians, and especially the North Caucasians, with true information about events in Georgia and the North Caucasus.

In February 2010, the Georgian parliament established a Group of Friendship and Cooperation with the parliaments of the North Caucasian republics. The Georgian parliament called on the North Caucasian parliaments to work jointly to develop Caucasian civilization and to preserve the historical and friendly ties between the nations of the Caucasus in spite of the deterioration of political relations between Georgia and the Russian Federation. These initial steps did not have much impact in the North Caucasus because of the response from the Russian side: the television channel, while available on the internet, was ultimately not broadcast by the French company Eutelsat allegedly under pressure from Russia, and the parliaments of the North Caucasian republics never responded to the appeal.

It was the next step in Georgia’s policy toward engagement with the Circassian world that proved the most successful, setting off what one observer dubbed the war of conferences.

The “War of Conferences”

In March 2010, the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and Ilia State University’s International School for Caucasus Studies in Tbilisi organized a conference in Georgia. It was called  “Hidden Nations, Enduring Crimes: The Circassians and the Peoples of the North Caucasus Between Past and Future”. The event brought together specialists on the Caucasus and Circassian activists from the diaspora (mainly from the U.S.), as well as members of the Georgian parliament. At the end, the Circassian participants signed an appeal to Georgia’s parliament to recognize as genocide the massacres and deportations of Circassians committed by Russia in the 19th century.

The Russian government reacted warily to the revival of the Circassian question by a foreign state. Traditionally, the Kremlin has pursued a so-called policy of silence, not officially recognizing or denying the Circassian problem. In response to the 2006 appeal for recognition of the genocide, for example, the Russian parliament dithered. Their eventual conclusion was that Circassians were not among the people deported in Joseph Stalin’s time, thus simply sidestepping the key historical issue. This time, the Russian parliament quickly responded to the Georgian initiative, branding it as support for separatism in the North Caucasus.

Memoria Circassian Maykop

A memorial stone in the city of Maykop, capital of Adygea Republic. The Adyghe/Circassians consider 21 May each year a sorrow day to remember the fall of Circassia

The Jamestown Foundation’s conference meant that Western media became more familiar with the Circassian issue. The events of 1864 were even described as the first genocide in modern history (followed by the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust).

The Russian government did not officially respond, allowing local NGOs to speak for it. In May 2010, a branch of the Russian NGO “In Georgia’s Name” was established in the Circassian town of Maykop to represent the Georgian diaspora. This obtuse approach suggested that that the Kremlin was in fact worried by Georgia’s Circassian initiative.

On May 27 2010, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti hosted a round table and press conference devoted to the theme “The Circassian Question: to whose advantage is it to falsify the history of the Caucasian War?” On the Georgian side, the Georgian parliament held a session the next month, where a paper on genocide in the North Caucasus was presented by Georgian scholars.

Afterwards, the Jamestown Foundation held a second conference in Washington, D.C.. It was entitled “Sochi in 2014: Can an Olympics Take Place at the Site of the Expulsion of the Circassians 150 Years Earlier?” Some members of the Georgian parliament attended the event and discussed the Circassian issue from the Georgian perspective. The Circassian participants called for the consolidation of the three Circassian territories in the North Caucasus into a single republic.

Conference participants and observers from all sides developed and shared a range of opinions and arguments on the subject. From the outset the Georgian deputies expressed their readiness to discuss the 19th-century massacres of Circassians. A member of parliament, Gia Tortladze, considered the Circassian people’s request quite legitimate. Another member, Nugzar Tsiklauri, presented a paper entitled “The Sochi Olympics and the Circassians: The View from Georgia” and expressed his view that the Georgian parliament would arrive at a fair conclusion concerning the Circassian genocide.

Some Georgian analysts predicted a deterioration in Abkhaz-Circassian relations, as Abkhazia could be expected to follow Russia’s policy of silence. Circassian representatives would then accuse Abkhazia of being a Russian Trojan horse and of betraying Circassian interests. However, Abkhaz activists have already expressed their support for the Circassians. In an open letter to a Circassian internet site, one such activist, Irakly Bzhanava, wishes his brother nation success in achieving recognition of the genocide. He notes that the Abkhaz want to be part of the struggle, as they have suffered as a result of the Russian-Caucasian war no less than their brother Circassians.

Circassian Warrior

A Circassian warrior is armed with a light gun, slung across the shoulder, and a sabre suspended by a silk cord in the Turkish fashion

For their part, Circassian organizations and activists were pleased that the Circassian question was making it to the international scene and that the Russian government would no longer be able to ignore the issue. But they were divided in their attitude toward the fact that the issue was raised in Tbilisi: some said they would support genocide recognition by any country, while others were sceptical of Georgian intentions and regarded the Tbilisi conference as Georgian propaganda. Some even said that the Circassian issue was not Georgia’s business and should be addressed only by Russia.

Russian analysts responded with a wide spectrum of arguments. The most positive was that of well-known Russian journalist Alexander Podrabinek, who argued in his article “The Olympics as a memorial to genocide?” that Russians must come to terms with their past and express their regrets to the Circassian people. But other responses were rather more negative, denying the fact of a genocide. Another argument was that the Georgians themselves were to blame because, as members of the Tsarist army, they had taken part in driving the Circassian population from its land.

The most negative responses even predicted an element of possible Circassian and Georgian terrorism in Sochi. Moscow analyst Alexey Malashenko declared the need to protect the Sochi games from a terrorist attack, noting that extremist groups in the North Caucasus, and in particular the ethnic Circassians, are opposed to holding the Olympics there. In addition, political scientist Mikhail Alexandrov pointed out that at this stage it is crucially important that the Georgians should not decide to embark on terrorist acts and diversions. He said he thought the Georgian leaders might be considering this option.


The unresolved issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will continue to spoil Georgian–Russian relations for the foreseeable future. If Georgia does in fact recognize the Sochi events of 1864 as genocide against the Circassians, it would put Russia in a difficult position. Legitimized by a UN member state, the Circassian question would become an international issue in the run-up to the 2014 Olympics. Georgia’s recognition of the Circassian genocide would also put Abkhazia in a difficult position, forcing it to choose between the Circassian nation, which supported Abkhazia in the war against Georgia and in its dreams of independence, and Russia, which made that dream come true.

Within the tangled web of Georgian-Abkhaz-Russian relations, the Circassian question has something to offer Georgia. Not only does it buttress Georgia’s support from the international community, which has already promised not to recognize the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It also gives Georgia an ally against Russia, even if it is a weak and stateless one within Russia itself.

Russia remains a superpower in the Caucasus region and no state dares join the Georgian challenge against it. Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while demonstrating clear support for Georgia’s territorial integrity in Tbilisi in July 2010, did not say a single word that could be construed as directly anti-Russian or that would compromise the policy reset between the U.S. and Russia. The International Olympic Committee rejected Georgia’s request to reconsider its decision to hold the 2014 Olympics in Russia. Now the Circassian question provides an opportunity for Georgia to side with the Circassians in the anti-Sochi movement. The symmetry of this policy lies in the fact that Circassian support is as important to Georgia as the small number of states that recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia were to Russia.

While the anti-Sochi protests have been gathering momentum, there are already two positive outcomes for the Circassians from this so-called war of conferences between Russia and Georgia. First, the Circassian genocide has become more of an accepted subject for discussion in Russia. Historians and analysts have come to consider the events of 1864 as a tragedy for the Circassian nation. This in itself is a massive improvement over the notion that dominated earlier discussions: that the Circassians were predators (khishniki) who attacked peaceful Russian troops at the border, were deceived by treacherous British and Turkish agents, voluntarily left their country, and, finally, suffered in the Ottoman Empire as a result of their own stupidity.

Of course, the second positive outcome to note is, as they say in movie credits,  no Circassian was hurt during this “war of conferences”.

A version of this article was originally published as PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 118, The Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University, October 2010 http://www.ponarseurasia.org/

© PONARS Eurasia 2010

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData