In a jab at Moscow, Georgia on May 20 became the first country to recognize as genocide Tsarist Russia’s massive slaughter of ethnic Circassians in the mid-19th century. The decision constitutes part of Tbilisi’s ongoing argument that the Caucasus is a region where Russia comes as an outsider, not as a native with the right to rule. On a more tactical level, the vote is widely perceived as an attempt to even the score with Moscow for its recognition of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
Applauding Diaspora Circassians who attended the May 20 parliamentary hearings rose to their feet in respect when the Georgian parliament unanimously passed the genocide resolution. The vote came on the eve of Circassian Memory Day, which commemorates the 1864 slaughter. “We have to face the truth, and the truth for the whole of the Caucasus is that Russia is an occupant, which used the policy of annihilating and uprooting Caucasians,” said Giorgi Gabashvili, a senior parliamentarian from the ruling United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia Party.
It all goes back some century-and-a-half to the brutal expansionist war waged by Tsarist Russia to clear the Caucasus of hostile locals. Large numbers of Circassians, Abkhaz and Adyghe were rounded up and expelled, mainly to Ottoman Turkey. An unconfirmed number are reported to have died making the trip in shoddy vessels across the Black Sea.
The memory of these events still lives on strongly in the North Caucasus, and also in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, where flowers are cast each year into the Black Sea to commemorate the Abkhaz who perished during the crossing.
Georgia seeks to exploit Russia’s weaknesses on this count by playing both ends against the middle, commented Caucasus analyst Mamuka Areshidze. With one hand, Tbilisi is massaging its own ties with the Caucasus’ ethnic communities, while, with the other, it is punching Moscow in a sore spot.
“Adopting this resolution comes as a certain kind of reprisal to Russia [for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia],” Areshidze said. “At the same time, the decision came in the context of Tbilisi’s policy to style itself as the center of united Caucasus.”Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told the United Nations Assembly last fall that Georgia would lead the way to a “free, stable and united” Caucasus.
But if the genocide vote – or Tbilisi’s united Caucasus mission -- has caught Russian politicians up short, they are not giving any public sign. Leonid Slutsky, first deputy chairperson of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, dismissed the resolution as “legal nonsense.”
“For almost a century already there hasn’t been such a state as the Russian Empire,” Slutsky scoffed, Regnum news service reported. “It’s anybody’s guess against whom this resolution was aimed and with what purpose.”
The 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Russia's North Caucasus city of Sochi is one clear target. Tbilisi has raged against Russia’s use of labor and other resources from neighboring breakaway Abkhazia to prepare for the games. Circassian groups, meanwhile, have spoken out against holding the Olympics in the city that was the site of their ancestors’ last stand against invading Russians.
But Tbilisi could have opened a Pandora’s box by backing the Circassian claim of genocide, Areshidze cautioned. “This is likely to open the floodgates for more similar requests, which will put Tbilisi in a troublesome position with other countries in the neighborhood, such as Armenia.”
Armenia, which borders Georgia to the south, has requested Tbilisi to recognize Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 massacre of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians as genocide. Georgia, so far, has stopped short of doing so lest it antagonize its key regional partner, Turkey. “Russia, which probably will refrain from any direct retaliatory move [for the Circassian genocide resolution], will try to use this issue against Georgia,” Areshidze predicted.
Some minority parliamentarians had had second thoughts about the resolution for that reason, but their earlier misgivings apparently vanished amidst the government's clarion call to support the Circassians as a way to support Georgia itself.
“[W]e are establishing completely new relations between Georgia and the North Caucasus peoples, which is good for regional security and stability,” declared the genocide resolution’s principal promoter, ruling party parliamentarian Nugzar Tsiklauri.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.