In 2014, Sochi, now a popular Russian Black Sea resort city, should be the focus of the 150-year anniversary commemoration of the liquidation of the indigenous Circassian people. Instead, Russian heavy construction equipment are working full tilt to carve into mountainsides the ski runs and trails for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
In 1763, Russia invaded independent Circassia in the Caucasus region and after 100 years of fighting Tsar Alexander II declared victory in 1864. Thereafter 90% (over 1.5 million) of the Circassians were deported, the rest massacred or repressed. The massacre of the Circassians is considered to be numerically the largest case of genocide of the 19th century. Every year on May 21, Circassians worldwide light 101 candles and observe a minute of silnce in memory of the 101-year war.
Today the Circassian diaspora numbers between five and six million and is spread in many countries of the Middle East, the USA, the Netherlands and Germany, making the Circassian diaspora, as a share of total population, the largest in the world, and in absolute numbers second only to the 25 million Russian diaspora.Some 700,000 have survived in the North Caucasus.
Recently the International Circassian Council, met with Estonian parliamentarians in Tallinn, with European Union Parliamentarian Indrek Tarand in Brussels and with the parliament’s human rights sub-committee asking for support. Their submission stresses that Circassians are victims of genocide which the international community must recognize.
Why turn to Estonia? “The reputation of Estonia as a reformist country, member of the European Union and NATO, permits the hope that this appeal will receive the necessary attention of the Estonian government and society, promote timely intervention in this situration, and guarantee an active part in the resolution of these questions by its partner countries,” the Circassian Council noted.
The Council stated that: ”In recent years, the situation in the North Caucasus with regard to human rights has become sharply worse, and incidents of persecutioin of journalists have achieved a critical level. ...the Russian government [in its preparation for Sochi] has ingnored all ecological norms.”
While the Circassian diaspora, in focussing world attention on their historic tragedy, seems driven by idealistic considerations, their countrymen in the North Caucasus, do not necessarily share their level of motivation, perhaps in expectation of the economic benefits of the Games. While local Circassian NGOs are concerned about destruction of historic burial sites, the ecologically-driven Russian anti-Olympic movement avoids the Circassian question. The 47 Russian NGO petition contained not a single Sircassian signature. The Sircassian dimension locally is a minor irritant compared to other issues.
While a genuine rememberance of the injustice suffered by North American indigenous peoples fitted poignantly into the Salt Lake City and Vancouver Winter Olympics prgrammes, Sircassians have not received even an oh-by-the-way reference from the Sochi organizers. However, the diaspora activists have justifiably introduced the concept of the “genocide” of an indigenous Sircassian people, thereby challenging the Kremlin and internationalizing the question of Circassian unification and repatriation.
Undoubtedly Russia hopes to boost its international profile significatnly with the Sochi Olympics and any lingering controversy will tend to mar its image. But taking the Tibet-China issue, and the 1980 Afganistan invasion by the Soviet Union and the Moscow Olympics issue as previous examples, then a cynical expectation would not the Circassian issue on the international agenda, in spite of the possible efforts of Estonian sympathisers. It’s been stated ad nauseum: „Olympics stand for peace and friendship, not truth and justice.“
Sochi, site of Circassian massacre and 2014 Winter Olympics