After the 2014 winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi, Vladimir Putin announced they had been a success. When the 2014 winter Olympics started in Sochi, people gathered outside Russian embassies around the world to protest. Despite the protests, few ever heard about the Circassians, the indigenous people of the Sochi area. When Putin presented Sochi’s bid for the games in 2007, he gave a summary of its history without mentioning the Circassians. During the build-up to the games, they tried seeking recognition from Russia of their historical ties to the city. They offered to participate in the ceremonies, and to include elements of Circassian culture in the events. They organized protests, asking for the games to be cancelled or moved if their presence was not recognized.
Who are the Circassians? They are the indigenous Muslim population of the lands of the northwestern Caucasus area. They speak their own languages, which are not related to any language outside the region. In 1763, Russia started a conquest of their lands which lasted until 1864. By then most Circassians had been killed or exiled from their homeland. Their capital, Sochi, had been completely cleansed and is now seen as a lasting symbol for what the Circassians call “a genocide”. To this day the only country to have recognized the ethnic cleansing as a genocide is Georgia.
What is the significance of the anger of a small ethnic group over their lack of recognition? Well, it’s a multidimensional issue. Firstly, there are the modern Circassians, most of whom grow up as minorities in foreign countries with the knowledge and cultural trauma of their ancestors’ persecution and exile. For those Circassians who remained in Russia there has been continued persecution and discrimination.
Today, the main goal of the Circassians is to gain the right of repatriation for the diaspora, to create a pluralistic society in the autonomous republics in which they reside. This has been opposed by the Russian government and by Russian activists. Amid Russia’s involvement in the ongoing war in Syria, there have been calls for the Circassian population of Syria to be allowed to repatriate to their homeland, but to no avail. Within Russia violence has been aimed at Circassians who call for their rights. This culminated in the murder of a Circassian activist in 2010, though the government denied that this killing had ethnic and political motivations.
More broadly, this is about the myth and dream of the strong nation state. In 2013, Putin addressed the Duma (parliament) and said: “In Russia live Russians. Any minority, from anywhere, if it wants to live in Russia, to work and eat in Russia, should speak Russian, and should respect the Russian laws[…]” While this speech specifically addressed Muslim immigration into Russia, something that in itself is questionable, it is made scarier when we consider that the Russian Federation, which could be considered an empire, has about two hundred ethnic minorities already – most of them indigenous, many of them Muslim.
As a matter of fact, only about eighty percent of the country’s population is ethnically Russian. The other twenty percent were described by a 2013 UN report as being victims of abuse: “Abuses range from arrests and detentions by law enforcement agencies, discrimination at work and segregation of children belonging to ethnic minorities, to xenophobic statements in the media and hate crimes.” Minorities have also faced problems like the suppression of culture, media and the rigging of elections in autonomous areas.
While this discrimination affects about 30 million people within Russia, it might be hard to see how this would be of any importance outside the country. Russia is generally acknowledged as a dictatorship by most countries in the west; human rights abuses are something assumed to be taking place in a country like Russia, with its long history of human rights abuse and anti-western anti-democratic platforms.
Discrimination against minorities is not just a Russian problem. And today, with the rise of right-wing extremism, Russia’s hardline stance has become a model for many far-right parties across . Politicians across the world, including the US President-elect Donald Trump, praise Putin as a strong leader. They contrast the strength and nationalism of Putin’s Russia with the weakness, decay and “bureaucratic totalitarianism” of the western world and the EU.
What does nationalist ideology in Russia and Europe have to do with Circassians and other minorities? It is hard to come up with an exact number, but we know there are at least five thousand ethnic groups in the world, in about two hundred countries. The conservative estimate is that there are an average of twenty-five unique ethnic groups in every country in the world. In a world of strong nation states and quests for racial or national purity, members of thousands of ethnic minority groups will be some of the first to suffer. If countries like Russia and Turkey deny genocide and threaten anyone who protests, and if human rights violations around the world are accepted, it sends a strong message: genocide works.
In 2018, the world will return to Sochi for the FIFA World Cup. Very little has changed.