Crossing the Mountains
Comment by Sergey Markedonov
Georgia’s Wish to Challenge Russia in the North Caucasus Is Tempered by a Sober Understanding of the Diplomatic and Political Implications
The Georgian Parliament has received a petition asking its deputies to pass a legal and political judgment on the events of the 1860s and 1870s in the Northern Caucasus and to acknowledge the “genocide” of the Circassian people during this era. The initiative came from the participants in the aptly titled forum “Suppressed nations, ongoing crimes: the Circassians and the peoples of the North Caucasus between the past and the future,” an event that could have got lost in the myriad of seminars and round tables that take place in the Georgian capital were it not for its unusually influential organizers - the Jamestown Foundation, an American think tank, and Mikheil Saakashvili’s personal education project, the Ilya Chavchavadze University.
But it’s not just the prominence of the forum’s organizers that makes the issue relevant. Firstly, following the “five-day war” of August 2008, Georgia suffered its most sensitive national trauma since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In 1992 to 1993, when the “rebellious republics” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia de facto seceded from Georgia, they did not receive international recognition. But in 2008 the two former Georgian autonomies were not only recognized by Russia, they also received a territorial increment in the shape of the Khodori Gorge, the Akhalgorsky District and the Liahvsky Corrdior. Georgia, for its part, took in dozens of new refugees and suffered a blow to its hopes of quick north-Atlantic integration and of any kind of support on behalf of the United States and the EU. In these circumstances, the country is looking for ways to use its relatively few resources to influence Russia.
This task is made easier by the fact that a number of similar “problematic knots” also exist on the other side of the Caucasian mountain range, where Russia is battling against Islamic radicalism and ethnic nationalism that, although suppressed, has not been fully eradicated. Hence Georgia’s attempt to open a north-Caucasian vector in its foreign policy. Its national Parliament already has an interfactional contact group on the North Caucasus, and it is this group that is the main lobbyist for legally recognizing the Circassian “genocide.” Georgian Parliamentary Deputy Gii Tortladze believes that “the demand of the Circassian people is rather legitimate.”
Secondly, Tbilisi has made no secret of its wish to prevent the Winter Olympics from taking place in Sochi in 2014. From the point of view of many of Georgia’s politicians and experts, both opposition and pro-government, holding the games at the famous Russian resort will make Abkhazia’s secession irreversible. Meanwhile, Sochi is not only the capital of the future Olympics and a favored vacation destination for many, but it is also an important place in the history of the Greater Caucasus. It was here on May 21, 1864, in the Kbaade commons (now called Krasnaya Polyana and the site of the Russian president’s summer residence), that the victory over the Adyg (i.e. Circassian) militia was celebrated – the Russian Empire’s last victory in a Caucasian War that lasted for nearly half a century.
For many Caucasian peoples, and primarily for the Circassians, the success of the Russians in the 1860s marked the beginning of forced immigration. The Circassians’ departure from their historic birthplace was not always connected to Russian coercion, since these decisions were often made under pressure from Ottoman diplomats and spies. But as a result, tens of thousands of Circassians ended up beyond the borders of the Caucasus. Today there are an estimated 2.5 million of them in Turkey, Syria and Jordan. At present it is impossible to figure out the actual number of Adyg diasporas in these states, because their census data was gathered either according to religion (and not ethnicity), or to the native language (after nearly 150 years, most descendants of the Adyg immigrants speak Turkish and Arabic).
However, some (although not all) nationalist Adyg organizations view these events as “genocide.” This approach has supporters both inside Russia and outside it, in the Circassian disaporas in Europe, the United States and the Middle East. In the present-day political environment, the Georgian authorities are interested in using this factor to rock the “Sochi boat” – especially since the Olympic Charter explicitly forbids competitions from being held in places of massive ethnic cleansing.
However, what are the chances that the Georgian lawmakers will want to take the next step toward aggravating the relationship with Russia? On the one hand, by playing this combination Tbilisi will create a schism in the alliance of the Abkhaz and Adyg nationalist movements. The recently established Georgian-Adyg friendship has no solid tradition. At the beginning of the 1990s, members of various Circassian national movements often showed solidarity with separatist Abkhazia, even against Moscow’s will. Acknowledgement of the Circassian “genocide” will also become an additional international means of putting pressure on Russia (the way the Armenian genocide is being used to put pressure on Turkey).
But on the other hand, escalating tensions will create new problems for Tbilisi. This step will put Georgia at cross purposes with Armenia (Yerevan has called on Tbilisi more than once to acknowledge the events of 1915 as genocide). And having on its territory the problematic Armenian populated Dzhavakheti region, Georgia is not likely to want to ruin its relationship with its neighbor. The fact that the Adyg organizations’ call for the recognition of “genocide” did not receive any substantial international support, although appeals have been made to the UN, the U.S. Congress, and the European Council, also speaks against Georgia. Inside Russia, the Adyg have three republics where they are considered as the “titular” ethnic group (the Republic of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkesia), and their representatives are part of the government and business elites.
Today, any actions taken in Tbilisi and Moscow are extremely painful. In an interview with Kommersant on March 31, Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev noted a possible “Georgian trace” in the recent bombings on the Moscow metro. Meanwhile, it is important to understand that the Georgian authorities, who want a strategic partnership with the United States, are very fearful of radical Islamist activity in the North Caucasus, especially since Doku Umarov names not just Russia, but also the United States and Europe as his enemies. Tbilisi is willing to support ethnic nationalists (Circassian, Ingush, Chechen), but it is openly afraid of “Islamic internationalism” because of its own vulnerability in the regions of Pankisi and Kvemo Kartli. All this forces the Georgian authorities to moderate displays of their negative feelings toward their northern neighbor. Even Mikheil Saakashvili’s team does not want to be left to deal with the “Caucasian Emirate” alone. Such considerations are likely to have a restraining influence on those enthusiastic for recognizing the Circassian genocide and destabilizing the situation in the North Caucasus.Source: Russia Profile.org