MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 235: Circassians and the anniversary of the end of the Caucasian War

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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 235, May 27, 2004

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE MAY 27

AZERBAIJAN: ELITE FEUD INTENSIFIES President Aliev is failing to control
a battle between two groups in his administration. By Ilham Rzayev and
Shahin Abbasov in Baku

RUSSIANS TAKE OVER ARMENIAN CHEMICAL PLANT The Nairit factory has been
sold to a foreign investor for a second time. By Tigran Avetisian in
Yerevan and IWPR in London

CHECHEN REFUGEES WANT OUT OF GEORGIA After five years living in Georgia,
worried Chechen refugees look to the West for salvation. By Sebastian
Smith in Duisi

CIRCASSIANS RECALL LONG-OFF WAR Are Circassians losing their rights once
again as they commemorate the anniversary of the end of the Caucasian
War? By Fatima Tlisova in Khakhandukovsky

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...................

CIRCASSIANS RECALL LONG-OFF WAR

Are Circassians losing their rights once again as they commemorate the
anniversary of the end of the Caucasian War? 

By Fatima Tlisova in Khakhandukovsky

A boulder on a hill outside the village of Khakhandukovsky 50 kilometres
from the capital of Karachai-Cherkessia has endured years of political
feuding.

In the Communist era, local villager Mikhail Khutov hauled the boulder
here using his tractor, and put a cast-iron plaque on it saying, "In
memory of all Circassians who died in the Russian-Caucasian War." 

After Khutov placed his makeshift monument on a hilltop, the boulder
became an unofficial shrine, and he received frequent visits from secret
police agents threatening him with imprisonment or exile. On several
occasions the boulder was removed and dumped elsewhere and the plaque
was destroyed, and each time Khutov and his friends found it again and
restored the monument.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, the primitive shrine received official
blessing and was replaced by a new marble one - but Khutov's plaque with
the phrase "Russian-Caucasian War" was removed and replaced by the more
neutral-sounding inscription "Caucasian War." 

The hill is fenced in and kept impeccably tidy. It has become a place
where Circassians - or Adygs as they more usually call themselves -
remember their forefathers and the tribulations they endured. 

Local villagers volunteer to take care of the monument, and IWPR met an
old man here trimming trees around the shrine. He quietly summed up his
views, saying, "It's all fine as long as we don't have a second Chechnya
here."

The Caucasian War ended 140 years ago last week, but the ongoing
conflict in Chechnya and the centralising policies of the Russian
government in the North Caucasus have made the commemoration of the
event more than just a historical anniversary.

In the 19th century, the war between tsarist Russia and the mountain
peoples of the North Caucasus had two main theatres - Chechnya and
Dagestan in the east, and the western lands known as Circassia.

The surrender of legendary Dagestani warrior leader Imam Shamil in 1859
marked the end of the war in Chechnya, but the Circassians fought on for
another five years. In 1864, victory was finally declared and the
Russians held a victory parade at Krasnaya Polyana on the Black Sea
coast on May 21.

The 140th anniversary has stimulated debate about the rights of
Circassians in the three republics of the North Caucasus where they have
large populations - Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia and Adygeia.


The Circassians suffered grievously during the Caucasian War and were
then subjected to mass deportation once it was over. According to
various estimates, more than six million Circassians are scattered
around the world, but only 700,000 of them live in the Caucasus, with
many more in Turkey.

Khizir Khapsirokov, a Cherkessk-based history professor who publishes a
newspaper and magazine at his own expense, is in no doubt about what his
people suffered. 

"There is ample historical evidence of genocide against the Circassian
people," he said. "The figures alone speak volumes. Of the four million
Adygs living here when the war started, just over 400,000 survived. But
apparently, this is not enough to have the fact of genocide recognised
officially, or to inspire fellow-Circassians outside Russia to return to
their historical homeland."

There is a common view that it would be dangerous to turn a historical
grievance into a present-day political programme

The head of the International Circassian Association, ICA, Zaurbi
Nakhushev, who is also a deputy in the Russian parliament, says bluntly,
"The Adygs must learn the lessons of history. They have no other future
but to stay with Russia. There is no other option."

The ICA, founded more than a decade ago, has lost its official status,
and now focuses entirely on culture.

Nina Konovalova of the Slavic Union of Adygeia agrees. "Too much
information about history and, specifically the Caucasian Wars, could
make young people [in the Caucasus] hate Russians," she told IWPR.

However, others warn that there is creeping discrimination against
Circassians from Moscow, which could lead to them losing their political
rights.

Valery Khatazhukov, who runs a human rights centre in Nalchik, used to
head Adyge Khase, a Circassian rights group in Kabardino-Balkaria. He
told IWPR, "Nothing has really changed from the time of the
Russian-Caucasian War. Russia still treats the Caucasus like a colony. 

"I'm not talking about Chechnya, but we have the same problem, only in
latent form. As recently as a few years ago, our republics had
independence as ethnic self-governed entities, but not anymore. The
local puppet authorities voluntarily ceded their powers to Moscow." 

Almir Abregov, a political analyst from Adygeia said, "Most of the laws
we passed in the early to mid-Nineties to conserve and promote the Adyg
language and culture, and conserve the Adyg ethnicity as such, have
since been repealed under surreptitious pressure from Moscow."

Abregov said that villages had been renamed after Russian generals who
fought the Circassians in the 19th century and that a monument was still
standing to Admiral Lazarev, a particularly hated Russian commander.
Whenever the locals tore it down, the authorities re-erected it. "For
the Adygs, this is the same as a monument to Hitler in downtown
Jerusalem would be for the Jews, and we are forced to live with it,"
said Abregov.

The issue of diaspora Circassians returning is now much more sensitive
than it was a few years ago. Some who have already come back say they
are having problems.

An American Circassian living in the North Caucasus, who asked not to be
named, told IWPR, "We feel we are constantly watched by the intelligence
agencies. How can we be sure that one day, on some crazy pretext or none
at all, they won't simply deport us? We already have something to lose
here: our businesses and homes. All our plans are tied to our homeland.
So we try to be very careful and lie low."

He has good reason to be circumspect. Bolat Haji Bairam, a repatriate
from Turkey, was deported from Nalchik for breaking passport
regulations. He was taken away in just his pyjamas and slippers, and
handcuffed. They wouldn't even let him bring his cash and papers. Haji
Bairam is now taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights in
Strasbourg.

Ludmila Mamkhyagova, editor-in-chief of the local newspaper "Cherkessk
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow", is a Russian born in a Circassian
community and married to a Circassian. She remembers a time when school
history books featured a whole chapter on the Russian-Caucasian War. "It
makes no sense to black out these memories, you cannot erase them. But I
am against drawing parallels with the present time, particularly with
Chechnya. The truth is that local ethnic communities have no independent
future. For us in Karachai-Cherkessia, the only option is to join
Russia's Stavropol Province."

Adygeia and Karachai-Cherkessia used to be part of the Krasnodar and
Stavropol regions, respectively, and periodically there is talk of
abolishing their autonomous status and returning them to their former
status.

On May 21, the Stavropol Local Studies Museum opened a exhibition
dedicated to the end of the Russian-Caucasian War, featuring the
personal belongings of Imam Shamil - his crimson flag with a golden
lacework of Arabic letters praising Allah, a leaf from a tree with a
handwritten note from the Imam on it, and many other exhibits. 

A display next to it is devoted to the ongoing war in Chechnya and
features a green bandanna with the same inscription as the old flag,
ammunition and hat belonging to Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warrior who
led the raid on the town of Budyonnovsk in 1995. 

In a television report on the exhibition opening, a tour guide joked,
"We'll try to make one hundred per cent sure this hat belonged to
Shamil, to be doubly sure." The historic parallels are so fresh in
everyone's mind that they understood that he was referring not to the
historic Imam Shamil but to Shamil Basayev. 

Fatima Tlisova is a freelance journalist based in Cherkessk 

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ISSN: 1477-7959 Copyright (c) 2004 The Institute for War & Peace
Reporting 

CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE No. 235