The Sochi Winter Olympics and the Caucasian Islamist cause
By Benjamin Shapiro, special to Prague Watchdog
In 2014 the Winter Olympics will be held in the Russian republic of Krasnodar Krai, a territory which Circassian groups currently say is the very heartland of their unrecognized genocide. With an ethnic Circassian political movement on the rise, Dokka Umarov, the self-proclaimed Amir of the Caucasus Emirate insurgent group, seems to be showing attempts at the exploitation of this chain of events. With Monday’s suicide bombings circumventing Moscow’s security apparatus, one has to question the authenticity of the Kremlin’s assurances that the Sochi winter games are indeed invulnerable to attack.
Nothing would suit the Emirate's interests more than to strike a blow at Moscow's already lagging build-up to the winter games. It is a priority that fits both the insurgency's latest strategic framework for a campaign of economic sabotage, and the recent outcry from Circassian rights groups.
Circassian nationalists are currently demanding from Moscow their own Circassian republic, which would combine the current republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Adgye and Karachai-Cherkessia into what in Soviet times was called "Greater Circassia". Many Circassian groups are also calling for the cancellation of the Winter Olympics. "Circassians argue the Sochi Games are as insensitive as hosting a sporting competition on the grounds of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz", according to Reuters. The Circassians are attempting to push Moscow into officially recognizing Tsarist Russia's mass deportations of Circassian people as genocide. 2014 will mark the 150th anniversary of the military operation in which Tsarist Russia forced 300,000 Circassians out of the land in and around Sochi, the city that is to host the winter games. It seems that in this respect the Caucasus Emirate shares the same priorities with many Circassians, though with a different agenda.
In a recent speech, Umarov emphasizes the importance of Krasnodar Krai, a region that does not currently feature in the ultra-nationalists’ plans for a greater Circassian republic. "This is a policy of infidels (Russian politicians), a policy of our enemy. But in this issue, I would like to stress one important thing. Through the creation of a ‘North Caucasus Federal District’ the Kremlin is trying to show that Krasnodar Krai is not part of the Caucasus," Umarov says.
Never before have the insurgents raised such a hue and cry about this region. Umarov praises it to the skies, declaring that "Krasnodar Krai, as the infidels call it, is in fact the land of our brothers, the finest brothers and the best Muslims in this world. This is the land of the Adygs, the land of the Abazins, the land of the Circassians."
Historically, the southern half of the Krasnodar Krai region was part of ancient Circassia, the Circassians’ original homeland. Today, however, Circassians account for only 0.31% of the population, while Russians make up around 86%.
Umarov has good reason for mentioning the Abazins. For a start, one of their two strongest population bases lies in the enclave republic of Adygea, which is situated within the confines of Krasnodar Krai: these are borders which Umarov has made it clear he does not recognize. The Abazins are also considered ethnic cousins of the Circassians (Adyg) and as belonging to the same tribe. Some observers even consider them pure Circassians, similar to the Kabardins.
It is well known that Russia's centuries-old strategy of "divide and rule" included the creation of fictional or exaggerated differences within ethnic groups in order to encapsulate them within different republics or administrative zones, especially in the Caucasus and Central Asia. There is therefore much debate as to whether the name “Circassians” should include Kabardins and Abazins as well.
The Abazins are also one of the ethnic groups with which the Circassians would like to unite in a single entity. If the three republics were to be unified into one, this would give them a collective majority population base of over one third. Without such unification, the Circassians would not obtain the same preponderance of numbers, and would be unable to consolidate their power in southern Russia.
It is also unclear why Umarov distinguishes the Circassians as being separate from the Adyg people. “Circassians” is simply another name for the Adygs. He is probably using the term in its broader and more generalized sense as a description of a collective assortment of many peoples of the Northwest Caucasus and their ethnic cousins. It is very possible that Umarov may be trying to spread the word that, indirectly at least, he supports their ethnically-driven cause as being part of his Islam-driven cause, according to a rationale by which being Circassian also means being a good Muslim. In the Caucasus ethnicity still plays a strong role alongside Islamic identity, even amongst the religiously inclined fundamentalists.
Also, in his rhetoric Umarov makes no direct link to a "Greater Circassia", as this would go against the Emirate's traditional Salafist policy of not recognizing "man-made nation-states" (in this case, republics). However, his praise for Circassians and his perception of the political tension that is clearly gaining momentum among them suggests that he may be attempting to show that there are similar interests at stake here, and that both Islamists and Circassians have the same enemy: Moscow.
"So I want to state with full responsibility and I bequeath it to the Mujahideen who will come after us, and, God willing, they will come, there is no doubt about it, that this is the land of our brothers (Circassians). And it is our sacred duty to liberate these lands (Krasnodar Krai) from unbelief. And, God willing, we will do it, we will achieve that goal," Umarov concludes.
On December 24, 2009, Vladimir Ustinov, presidential plenipotentiary for the Southern Federal District, said in a public statement that because of their impact on neighbouring areas and on the radicals, plans to create a “Greater Circassia” would ”add fuel to the flames” that are spreading across the North Caucasus. The creation of a destabilizing environment is not a new strategy in modern Jihadism, especially when viewed in the context of Umarov’s new policy of military engagement, which calls for a campaign of economic sabotage. Ustinov also said that such a move would be "a real danger" for Russia.
Moscow seems to be aware of the security situation and the need to win over, by the granting of concessions, those Circassians who are presently caught up in the euphoria of Circassian nationalism and public protest. An ethnic Circassian, Dzhambulat Khatuov, was recently appointed Sochi’s mayor.
A recent trip to Sochi by CBC journalist Bill Gillespie confirms a well-prepared presence of security around the Olympic sites as well as the construction of concrete military bunkers on the surrounding hills.
For Umarov it is of critical importance to convince Circassians that Moscow is hostile to their interests. If the Circassians have no one to turn to politically, Umarov would find it easy to persuade a handful of determined war-driven individuals to carry out sabotage in the Western Caucasus. That would enable him to expand further west into Krasnodar Krai, as well as into Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria – two republics which, while not totally asleep, have not been affected by the same dramatic upsurge of violence that has been seen in Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan in recent times.
It will also be interesting to see if Umarov has thought his ambitions through to any great extent, and whether such links to Circassian demands may give the wrong message to other Muslim peoples, such as the Turkic ethnic groups that include the Karachai and Balkars. They have recently been in political conflict with the Circassians and their ethnic cousins such as the Abazins and Kabardins, all of whom are Muslims, and all of whom live in regions where Umarov has wider plans for recruitment to a united North Caucasus insurgency.
After Moscow’s suicide attacks, along with an upsurge in violence in the past year, Russia and the International Olympic Committee must face the grim reality that the security threat posed by the Caucasus insurgency bares frighteningly more danger than it did in 2008, 2007 and arguably 2006. With the current evidence available, they must also be prepared for the possibility that their gaming grounds may already be a high profile target for the insurgency’s ambitions. By recognizing this, it must be accepted that nothing can guarantee safety at the Winter games other than denying the militias their logistical capability to successfully launch attacks in the western Caucasus.
The author is a Caucasus research analyst who studied Islamic politics with Ivan Ivekovic, the former Russian Ambassador to Egypt.
© 2010 Prague Watchdog (see Reprint info).
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