Ahead of the anniversary of the mass killings and forced exile of the Circassians from their ancestral lands in the Caucasus at the hands of the Russian Empire in the second half of the 19th century, which will be marked on the 21st of May, the parliament of Georgia has again mooted the possibility of recognising these events as genocide. The Circassian genocide has had a profound impact on Circassian history and national identity, and the process towards its recognition is given huge importance by many Circassians, especially among the diaspora in Turkey and the wider Middle East. However, until recently, no state has shown willingness to officially recognise the Circassians genocide as such. This changed in late 2010, when following a speech by president Mikhail Saakashvili, the process towards recognising the Circassian genocide was begun by the Georgian parliament. This process further sparked a conference on the Circassian genocide held in Tbilisi in March 2011, organised by the Jamestown Foundation and with the participation of the so-called American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, both known instruments of the US foreign policy establishment.
Since its failed bid to recapture the breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 2008 August War, the Georgian overture towards the Circassians has formed part of a charm offensive to shore up support for Georgia among the peoples of the Russian North Caucasus, and drive a wedge between Russia and the peoples of the region. As seen from Tbilisi, the conflicts in the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are merely the result of Russian efforts to destabilize an independent and sovereign Georgian state, and Georgia reckons that two can play this came. Ostensibly under the aegis of pan-Caucasian unity and solidarity, Georgian president Mikhal Saakashvili has ordered the abolition of visas to Georgia for citizens from North Caucasus republics, as well as the establishment of the Russian-language satellite TV channel “First Caucasian” or PIK in Russian. The idea was to give the inhabitants of the North Caucasus more possibilities for education and trade in Georgia, and also provide them with a source of “unbiased” information that is not controlled by the Russian government.
While Russian authorities have universally condemned Georgia’s moves, many in the North Caucasus republics themselves have been cautiously optimistic or supportive. However, there is considerable lingering distrust of the Georgian actions and their motives in the North Caucasus for historical and ideological reasons. The Circassians especially point to the role played by Georgia in the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus, where the Georgian nobility participated on Russia’s side against Circassians and other highlanders in the Great Caucasian War, which events eventually led to the Circassian genocide. Circassians also note what they see as double standards in Georgian dealings with them and their “brother nation”, the Abkhaz, especially in the light of Georgia’s attempts to suppress Abkhaz national aspirations during the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia. In any case, it is widely believed that the Georgian conception of Caucasian unity is designed to further Georgia’s ambition to become a regional leader, a role which the other Caucasian peoples, fiercely independent and assured of their own position in the region, would naturally be wary to grant it.
There is also notable cause for concern when assessing the renewed Western interest in the Circassians and their predicament. Some Western opinion formers and policy makers acting through organisations such as the Jamestown Foundation have primarily the national interests of the West and the United States at heart, and seek to use the Circassians and other peoples of the North Caucasus as tools to further their own geopolitical agenda. This turn of events has historical precedents in British interest in the Circassian cause in the period running up to the Cirmean War, which even included pledges of military support to the Circassians in their fight against the Russian Empire. However, Circassian hopes in the British eventually turned out to be misplaced, as Britain abandoned all aid to the Circassians following the end of the war. Current Western support for the Circassians is not likely to be more reliable.
It is not at all clear either that recognition of the Circassian genocide by Georgia or other third parties would have the positive effect that Circassian nationalists, especially in the diaspora, are hoping for. Rather than force concessions from Moscow on cultural or political rights, or exact some form of apology and reparation for past wrongdoings, it is more likely that recognition will only harden the front between Russia and the Circassians and worsen the lot of Circassians currently living in Circassia. Examples here can be readily drawn from the efforts of many countries to recognise the Armenian genocide, which so far has failed to make Ankara relent on its position. In addition, the stubbornness by which recognition has been pursued, especially by the Armenian diaspora, has actually helped to further complicate the relationship between Armenia and Turkey, forestalling beneficial economic and diplomatic steps like the reopening of the Turko-Armenian border. Consequently, those among the Circassians who are prepared to accept outside support for their cause would do well to ponder who their allies are, and which possible consequences recognition could entail.