October 23, 2015

Israeli Analyst Calls on Ukraine to Facilitate Peaceful Transition in the North Caucasus

Circassian protesters 

By: Valery Dzutsev

Israeli analyst Avraam Shmulevich has urged Ukrainian authorities to take a more pro-active approach to the situation in Russia. Shmulevich visited Ukraine to consult the newly created inter-party parliamentary group “Za Vilniy Kavkaz” (For a Free Caucasus). In an interview with a Ukrainian news agency, Shmulevich said Ukraine should pay attention to what is going on in bordering regions like the North Caucasus. “The North Caucasus and Ukraine have much in common,” he said. “The genocide against the Circassians was organized with the same methods as the Holodomor in Ukraine. Russian forces destroyed crops and food stocks of the Circassians and burned down their villages. Those people who did not run away were burned together with their houses and those who ran away into the mountains were left starving.” According to Shmulevich, Ukraine should take on the role of “moderator” of Russia’s abandonment of the North Caucasus because the Russian empire is going to fall apart. “The process of the withdrawal of Russia from the North Caucasus is hampered by a lack of external support,” he said. “The [United States] and Western Europe will never interfere in the affairs of the Caucasus significantly. But Ukraine’s expertise in non-violent civil protest could be useful to the peoples of the North Caucasus. It is also important to establish economic relations between Ukraine and the Caucasus region. This will be beneficial to both Ukraine and the Caucasus” (Caucasreview.com, October 15).

Following the revolution in Kyiv in 2014 and the subsequent semi-official conflict between Ukraine and Russia, some disaffected groups from the North Caucasus started seeking help from the Ukrainian authorities. Circassian activists from the North Caucasus and worldwide appealed to the Ukrainian authorities to recognize the Circassian “genocide.” “The war between the Circassian people and the Russian Empire lasted an unprecedentedly long time—more than a hundred years, from 1763 to 1864,” the appeal read. “Russian government forces either killed or organized famine to kill more than half of the Circassian people. The Russian army expelled the remaining Circassians from the Caucasus. The Ottoman Empire accepted them and settled them throughout its territory. Less than 5 percent of the Circassians currently reside in the homeland of the Circassian people, the Caucasus” (Kavkazskaya Politika, May 21).

At the time, some Circassians in the North Caucasus did not support the appeal. A journalist at the government TV channel in Karachaevo-Cherkessia said: “We do not need recognition of the Circassian genocide by the Ukrainian bandits, who temporarily got into power. We need recognition from Russia and we should speak with Russia.” Other Circassians, however, supported the appeal, reasoning that Circassian attempts to talk to the Russian government did not help. A Circassian activist in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Muhammed Cherkesov, said: “We regarded the ‘Circassian Question’ as an internal Russian affair, but Russia did not hear us” (Politika09.com, August 7, 2014).

Shmulevich argues that Ukraine should take a more active stance to counter Russian propaganda. For example, Moscow has been pushing the federalization of Ukraine. According to the Russian plan, the Donbas region would formally be part of the Ukrainian federation, but actually be under Moscow’s control. This would allow Moscow to effectively meddle in Ukrainian affairs, while also draining the Ukrainian economy by requiring it to finance the ravaged region. The Israeli analyst says Ukraine should speak out about domestic political oppression in Russia, especially the oppressive practices that the Russian government has maintained in the North Caucasus. For decades, Moscow has claimed to be fighting Islamists and terrorists in the region while intentionally violating the locals’ rights. According to Shmulevich, Ukraine should make it a priority to prepare North Caucasian activists for non-violent protests. In his view, that would make the demise of the modern Russian Empire as peaceful as possible. If Ukraine does not try to influence the situation in the North Caucasus, aggressive Islamists may come to power and harm Ukrainian interests, especially if the Kremlin decides to use them, Shmulevich said (Caucasreview.com, October 15).

Ukraine could, indeed, have played a larger role in the North Caucasus if the leadership in Kyiv had the political will to do so and if the country was not facing its own formidable economic and political challenges. Despite these obstacles, however, North Caucasian civil activists have a chance to acquire a new ally that is nearby and has intimate knowledge of the Russian political system. Ukraine’s involvement in the North Caucasus would likely increase the chances that the region could evolve peacefully rather than remain stuck in a cycle of violence. The conditions that have led to violence in the region have not changed, according to many experts (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 14) and, therefore, violence will continue if no other means for social change are introduced.

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