Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Georgia Close to "Circassian Genocide" Statement
Paata Zakareishvili warns that accusing Russia of a historical genocide will result in retaliatory action against Georgia. (Photo: Maia Avaliani)
Georgia’s parliament is moving closer to stating officially that Russia’s expulsion of the Circassian people from their homeland in the 19th century was an act of genocide. If it does so, the move is certain to do more damage to an already troubled relationship with Moscow, which rejects this description of the historical events.
Parliament began its consideration of the issue on May 13 by hearing an expert report by Merab Chukhua, a professor at Tbilisi’s Javakhishvili State University. Chukhua recommended that legislators acknowledge that Russian imperial action against the Circassians qualified as genocide.
He said the evidence available indicated that from 1763 to 1864, “the political and military leadership of the Russian Empire thoroughly planned and implemented ethnic cleansing of Circassian territories”. A 20 per cent loss in population over this period of conquest meant the term “genocide” was justified, he added.
Chukhua said more than 90 per cent of Circassians were killed or expelled from their homeland, while Russians and Cossacks were systematically settled in these areas.
Around five million Circassians now live outside the northwest Caucasus, mainly in Turkey, and only a million still live in what was their homeland until Russia began its southward expansion.
Nugzar Tsiklauri, chairman of the parliamentary committee for diaspora and Caucasian affairs, said he and his colleagues would discuss the professor’s findings and decide whether to submit them for a full debate in the legislature.
Analysts believe the issue has come to the fore because of Georgian anger at Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states in 2008. Both entities have been de facto separate from Georgia since conflicts in the early Nineties.
Also in the mix is the fact that the 2014 Winter Olympics will take place in Sochi, part of the Circassian’s heartland before they were driven out from Black Sea coastal areas. Some Circassian organisations have protested against the games being located here. Sochi is also close to Russia’s border with Abkhazia.
Tsiklauri denied a direct connection between the winter games and the genocide debate, although Georgian deputy prime minister Giorgi Baramidze said in November that Russia did not deserve the Olympics because of its past policies in the North Caucasus.
“I don’t think the Olympic movement has much to do with the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in the North Caucasus, in Chechnya and elsewhere,” he said. “Sochi, as you well know, is very close to the border with Georgia, and [Abkhazia] is under illegal occupation.”
Gigi Tevzadze, the rector of Ilia State University in Tbilisi, sees a direct connection between the two issues.
“The fact that genocide occurred on the lands where they’re holding the Olympcics could give people serious pause for thought,” he said.
Tevzadze added that a formal statement on Circassian genocide would improve Georgia’s relationships with the peoples of the North Caucasus.
Most analysts, however, warned politicians against provoking Russia. Even if the proposed genocide decision is right, they argue, it will not benefit Georgia politically.
“Recognising the genocide isn’t going to persuade the international community not to hold the Olympics in Sochi,” Paata Zakareishvili, head of the Institute for the Study of Nationalism and Conflict, said. “Russia may well take retaliatory action, for example by accusing Georgia of organising acts of terrorism in the North Caucasus, or of inflaming the situation generally.”
Zakareishvili’s comments were echoed by experts like Mamuka Areshidze, head of the Caucasus Centre for Strategic Studies, who said he opposed a formal genocide statement, even if 19th century history had to be considered as Georgia formulated its policy towards the North Caucasus.
One result, Areshidze warned, would be that “other nations which believe they too are victims of genocide will appeal to Georgia – first and foremost the Armenians and the Meskhetian Muslims”.
The Meskhetians were removed wholesale from Soviet Georgia in the 1940s, and are only now beginning to return, while Armenians have consistently pressed for Ottoman Turkish actions in 1915 to be recognised as a genocide.
“It would be hard for us to explain to the Armenians why we won’t recognise their genocide – yet then we would lose our strategic partners Turkey and Azerbaijan,” Areshidze said.
Backing the Circassian cause could also have serious effects in the already smouldering North Caucasus. The Circassians who still live there have struggled to unite as they live spread over several autonomous areas, shared with the Karachay, Balkar and other ethnic groups. A growth in nationalism and attempts to unify Circassian groups could lead to land disputes and bloodshed in the region.
United States officials have already appealed for calm. In February, James Clapper, director of United States national intelligence, noted Georgia’s attempts to engage in the North Caucasus.
“Moscow’s continued military presence in, and political-economic ties to, Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, combined with Georgia’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, account for some of the tensions,” he told a Senate select committee hearing. “Georgia’s public efforts to engage with various ethnic groups in the Russian North Caucasus have also contributed to these tensions.”
Nino Kharadze works for Radio Liberty in Georgia.
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