May 21, 2018

Circassians want genocide to be recognized by Russia, Turkey

MAY 21, 2014

Circassians in Turkey have called on Russia to recognize what they call a genocide against their ancestors, most of whom were killed or expelled from their homeland in the North Caucasus in the 19th century, and have appealed to the international community to bring them justice.

“The genocide against the Circassians was a crime against humanity and we urge Russia to recognize it as such, even though we know that these atrocities will not see justice,” Erdoğan Boz, a board member of the Ankara-based Circassian Foundation, said in an interview with Sunday's Zaman. Boz also said steps need to be taken to secure justice for Circassians, such as securing unconditional recognition from Russia of their right to return from around the world to their homeland, building up the status of the Circassian language in the modern sub-national republics in Russia with large Circassian populations and providing greater political rights to Circassians in their homeland.

Almost all Circassians were expelled from their native lands in the northwestern Caucasus in the aftermath of the 1817-1864 Caucasian War. Those remaining were later scattered, and mostly live in three semi-autonomous republics in Russia: the Republic of Adygea, the Karachay-Cherkess Republic and the Kabardino-Balkar Republic. Their homeland is now home to only 700,000 Circassians -- a fraction of the total community. Over 90 percent of Circassians were killed or forcibly deported to the Ottoman Empire or other parts of Russia. More than half of the exiled and deported people died of hunger and illness within a few years. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) estimates that the Circassian diaspora is 3 million strong, of whom an estimated 2 million live in Turkey, about 150,000 in Syria, Jordan and Israel and about 50,000 in Europe and the United States.

Calling the historical experiences of the Circassians “a battle waged to maintain their population in their native lands,” Boz says the mass atrocities against the Circassians fit well with the concept of genocide as defined by Raphael Lemkin in 1948, and the international community should put pressure on Moscow, which is “responsible for the painful past of the Circassians and should recognize the genocide.”

“However, despite 150 years having passed since then, Russia has not taken any steps in the direction of recognizing the genocide,” Boz said, adding that there have actually been changes for the worse, with Moscow not only refusing to listen to their demands but continuing to increase oppression, especially amid the recent Sochi Olympics controversy.

A tragic history

The Circassians, a largely Muslim population of the North Caucasus, argued before the Sochi Olympics held in February of this year that holding the Winter Olympics in Sochi -- a city located on the site of Circassian massacres -- on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the alleged genocide is at odds with the Olympic spirit of peace and fair play. Moscow clamped down heavily on Circassian activists across the country, and President Vladimir Putin said in a statement on Feb. 10 that the Circassian issue is being artificially stoked to divide Russia and the West and aims to damage the country's image in the world.

Ethnic cleansing was not only led against Circassians in North Caucasus early 19th century. Russia waged a series of military actions against Caucasian ethnic groups including Chechens, the Abkhaz people, the Ubykh people and many ethnicities in Dagestan as Russia sought to expand southward into territories in geographically important places between Russia, Iran and the Ottoman Empire.

On May 21 of each year, Circassians living in different parts of the world, including Turkey, mark the anniversary of the massacre carried out against their ancestors in 1864. This year, it was commemorated more solemnly as 2014 is the 150th anniversary of the Circassian ethnic cleansing.

The ethnic cleansing of Circassians by Russia and their expulsion from their homeland constitute the most essential elements of the national identity of the Circassians, binding together groups scattered around the globe.

“No matter whether you call it the Great Circassian Exile, the mass ethnic cleansing of Circassians or a genocide, it forms a basis of Circassian identity, a nation forced to leave its homeland. Without this, it is impossible to talk about the Circassian identity,” Boz said.

Turkey needs to recognize Circassian genocide

The Ottoman Empire was one of the first stops for the deported Circassians.

Upon arrival in the Ottoman Empire, the Circassians did not know Turkish but after 150 years, they are on the brink of losing their native language, says Murat Yalçın, co-founder of the İstanbul Circassian Foundation, who told Sunday's Zaman that the Circassians are losing their own culture in Turkey.

“We have no TV stations that broadcast in the Circassian language seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Elective Circassian language courses in school are inadequate. We want our native language to be taught in schools. In history textbooks, there are statements that hurt Circassians and that need to be changed,” Yalçın said.

“In addition, the Turkish Republic, where hundreds of thousands of Circassians are now living, has to recognize the Circassian genocide. Turkey should support the study of the Circassian genocide and assist attempts to establish a museum of the genocide,” he continued.

Turkey maintains very close economic ties with Russia and has never issued an official statement on the Circassian genocide. On the eve of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Circassians in Turkey called on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not to attend the Winter Olympics, claiming that his attendance would show that the Turkish government is insensitive to the feelings of its Circassian minority. Nevertheless, Erdoğan visited Sochi and met with President Putin before the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

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