The Georgian parliament may be moving in the direction of formally recognising the Circassian genocide perpetrated by Tsarist Russia in the 19th century. This genocide took place around the year 1864, the official end of the 50 year Caucasus war that more or less concluded Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus. As always with such events, it is controversial to what extent the Russian Empire intended to kill Circassian civilians, and whether the term genocide can be applied to it, but there is no doubt that the result was horrendous. In 2005 the Cherkess Congress issued a statement in which it claimed that even according to the Russian Empire’s own figures, 400,000 people were killed, 497,000 forced into exile in the Ottoman Empire and only 80,000 remained.
These events clearly merit recognition, but there are extra incentives that could play a role in Tbilisi’s decision. During the Caucasus War, the Russian Empire also killed and deported a large number of Abkhaz, with the result that there are now also more Abkhaz in Turkey than in Abkhazia itself. The larger Circassian diaspora has always supported the Abkhaz diaspora and Abkhazia, and this is what Georgia may want to try to change – it may hope that the Circassian diaspora will stop lobbying in favour of Abkhazia’s interests in Turkey and the Middle East.
Georgia may also simply be trying to win the hearts and minds of Abkhazian society, by showing that it values its past sufferings more than does Russia. And recognising the Circassian Genocide naturally fits well within Georgia’s ideological conflict with Russia.
That politics really does enter into these matters is illustrated well by the fact that a request by Georgia’s Armenian community made on the 23rd of April to formally recognise the Armenian genocide has so far been ignored. While Georgia and Armenia are on good terms, due to its political isolation Armenia needs Georgia more than the other way around. Recognising the Armenian genocide would seriously damage Georgia’s relations with Turkey. In the worst case scenario, Turkey might respond by recognising Abkhazia – although that would be very ironic, given that Abkhazia also recognises the Armenian genocide.
Abkhazia sits right in the middle of this web of political alliances and past grievances. It has to stay friends both with the Circassian diaspora and Russia, and with both Turkey and its Armenian population. Armenians form Abkhazia’s second largest ethnic group and their support is crucial for the survival of the Abkhazian state. This balance of interests is manageable so long as the status quo is maintained, and in this respect Abkhazia is lucky that it has already recognised the Armenian Genocide. Occasionally, the underlying tensions come to the surface, as when a couple of years ago the idea was raised to recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus: protests by the Armenians and the Orthodox Church put a quick end to that.