Some Nations' Crimes are More Hidden than Others'..., by Metin Sönmez

The cynicism behind the Jamestown Foundation’s holding of the conference ‘Hidden Nations, Enduring Crimes: The Circassians and the Peoples of the North Caucasus Between Past and Future’ in Georgia on 20-21 March, 2010 is nothing short of breathtaking. It is hardly a surprise, for this foundation has long served as an outlet for propagating anti-Russian sentiments. Given Georgia’s well-known antipathy towards Russia, aggravated by the five day war in August 2008, the Ilia Chavchavadze State University’s International School for Caucasus Studies no doubt jumped at the chance to provide the venue in Tbilisi (and contribute at the same time to inflow in Georgia of ever more US dollars).

The decades of resistance to Russia’s inexorable push southwards during the early-to-mid 19th century was a noble struggle to preserve ancestral freedoms and the North Caucasian way of life. Indeed, the leader of the struggle in the North East Caucasus for much of this period, the Avar Shamil, earned the respect of no less an observer than Karl Marx for his skills as a guerrilla. But the inevitable happened in 1864, when the North West Caucasian alliance of Circassians, Ubykhs and Abkhazians surrendered at Krasnaya Polyana, some way inland from the location for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the present-day city of Sochi. Following the surrender and the refusal of most of the North West Caucasian peoples to move to lowland areas in the Kuban basin, where Tsarist Russia could more easily keep these peoples under control, all the Ubykhs (centered around Sochi), most of the Circassians (especially the West Circassian tribes) and most of the Abkhazians (especially from the more Muslim-orientated northern and mountainous regions of Abkhazia) either elected or were forced into exile in Ottoman lands, where they were prized for their proven martial abilities and where many were resettled in border areas, giving rise to diaspora communities in what later became the separate states of Turkey (where the bulk of the descendants reside), Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, and the Balkan states.

The glorious struggle of the Circassians in particular has been eloquently described by a number of writers. We name one, Paul Henze (of the Rand Corporation and one-time CIA operative, Member of the Board of Advisors of the Georgian Association in the USA), whose contribution to Marie Broxup’s edited volume ‘The North Caucasus Barrier’ is exemplary in every way. Given the participation of the Abkhazians in the 19th-century anti-Russian movement, one wonders what Henze’s view would be of the Abkhazians’ later and ongoing conflict with Georgia. In fact, in a number of publications, he made it quite clear that his sympathies lie on the Georgian side, even though what Tbilisi has long been attempting to accomplish in Abkhazia is but a 20th/21st-century analogue to what Tsarist Russia was trying to do in the North Caucasus for most of the 19th century. Why this difference of attitude, a difference that equally characterizes the Jamestown Foundation (and their financial backers for the recent conference)? Only one answer is possible: what the 19th-century Circassians and today’s Georgians have in common is their anti-Russian sentiments. Never mind that Georgia actually provided Russia with her first stronghold south of the Caucasian mountains (in the 18th century) and thereby attracted her attention to the northern regions. Never mind that Georgians fought on the Russian side in the Great Caucasian War. Never mind that what Tbilisi has been doing and still seeks to do in Abkhazia (with enormous financial support from the USA) exactly parallels what Russia was doing a century and half ago in the North Caucasus. Logic is nowhere to be seen in all of this, for if one condemns 19th-century Russian actions, as indeed one should, then one should equally comdenm present-day Georgian actions against the Abkhazians. It is to be deeply regretted that any Circassian chose to participate in the Tbilisi conference, when its central aim was not to help right a historical wrong but to encourage further anti-Russian feelings in (parts of, at least) the North Caucasus and at the same time seek to divide the Circassian and Abkhazian communities. During the Abkhazian war of 1992-93, many Circassians from both the North Caucasus and the diaspora-based communities fought in support of the Abkhazian cause. Why do the organizers of the recent conference think they did this, if it was not a mark of the common legacy of these kindred peoples?

Would the Jamestown Foundation care to explain why they felt it necessary to hold their jamboree in Tbilisi rather than, say, somewhere in Turkey, where the bulk of the world’s Circassians reside? Would the foundation care to tell us whether they accept the parallel drawn above between the 19th-century North(west) Caucasian struggle and today’s struggle of the Abkhazians, and, if they do not, would they care to explain their reasons for rejecting it?

When Giorgi Kvelashvili speaks of Georgians residing on the same territory as the Abkhazians during The Great Caucasian War (‘Should Georgians Recognize the Circassian Genocide?’ at:, perhaps he can tell us how many ‘Georgians’ were living in Abkhazia at the time? According to data from the 1886 census, there were a mere 515 Georgians living there (alongside 3,558 Mingrelians), the 30,640 Samurzaqanoans (essentially denizens of what later became the Gal District) being categorized as Abkhazians. One has to wonder where Mr. Kvelashvili obtained his information.

N.B. In 1882, the Georgian newspaper ‘Shroma’ considered Georgian acquisition of land in Abkhazia and Circassia as ‘one of the most wonderful events’ in the life of the Georgian nation ['Shroma', 1882, No: 15 (in Georgian)].  (The ethno-demographic aspect of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, by Teymuraz A. Achugba)

N.B. ''...about 90 percent of people of Circassian descent have lived in exile, mostly in Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East. Only isolated remnants, currently about three to four hundred thousand people altogether, remain in the Caucasus and other parts of post-Soviet Russia. During the last decades of the tsarist regime, the emptied and devastated Circassian lands were resettled by Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians and other colonists. Later many Georgians also settled in Abkhazia, feeding resentments that culminated in the recent Abkhaz-Georgian war - a conflict which can only be understood against the background of the Circassian trauma of the last century.'' (The Circassians: A Forgotten Genocide? by Stephen D. Shenfield)

N.B. "In the suppression of the last pockets of resistance in the Caucasus, Georgian militia, loyal servants of the autocratic state, played a significant role. Together with the Russian troops, they took part in the victory parade at Krasnaya Polyana on 21 May 1864. And on 9 June, as a crowd gathered, Tiflis Marshal of the Nobility, Dmitri Kipiani, greeted the Governor of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich Romanov, with the words:

"Your Imperial Highness! You have completed the conquest of the Caucasus and have thus incorporated in history an event of enormous importance that is inseparable from your name. Persons selected by the Georgian nobility bring your Imperial Highness congratulations in the name of all social classes."

In June, the autocratic state abolished the Abkhazian monarchy and instituted a temporary "military-national administration." Thereafter, Abkhazia was renamed the Sukhum Military Department of the Russian Empire. General P. N. Shatilov became Head of the Department on 12 July 1864." (Двуглавый орел и традиционная Абхазия'' (Double-headed eagle, traditional Abkhazia) by Stanislav Lakoba)

N.B. - Many Georgians were eager to take advantage of the privileges associated with imperial service, associate themselves with Europe's notion of progress, and also distinguish themselves from nearby rival and Islamic peoples such as the North Caucasus mountaineers.[1]

- Service records from the imperial era left in what has recently been renamed the Georgian National Archive illustrate the important role played by Georgians in various wars against both mountaineers and the Ottoman Turks.[2]

- Colonel Giorgi Tsereteli from Kutaisi, for example, not to be confused with the writer and sometime theater critic referred to later in this article, managed to survive fighting in Chechnia and Dagestan from 1855-59, service on the Lezgin Line after the conquest, and combat in the war of 1877-78 against the Turks. In 1876 he helped put down a rebellion in Svanetia.[3]

- After the conquest, a Georgian was considered sufficiently reliable to administer troublesome Dagestan oblast¢ in the 1880s. [4]

- Tbilisi served not only as the base of imperial administration and a growing imperial educated society, but also as an anchor for the Russian military in their prosecution of the long Caucasus War.[5]

- Tbilisi was host to important innovations in Russian imperial policy. The well-known geographic, ethnic, and religious complexities of the region perhaps contributed to a general willingness on the part of Russian officialdom to innovate in its administration of this frontier. Tsar Nicholas I himself lost patience with the seemingly interminable war and granted extensive authority to Prince Vorontsov, an unusually powerful and independent figure in the imperial administration. As Anthony Rhinelander has explained, Vorontsov was experienced in the borderlands and well-acquainted with the Caucasus, where he began his military career as an adjutant to Georgian Prince P. D. Tsitsianov (Paata Tsitsishvili) in the early 19th century. (The Dilemmas of Enlightenment in the Eastern Borderlands: The Theater and Library in Tbilisi, by Austin Jersild and Neli Melkadze)


[1] sakartvelos sakhelmtsipo saistorio arkivi (Georgian National Historical Archive, Tbilisi, hereafterSSSA) f. 4, op. 3, 1846–1855, d. 181, ll. 22, 60

[2] SSSA f. 7, op. 8, 1861–74, d. 2, ll. 21–52.

[3] SSSA f. 229, op. 1, 1884–85, d. 127, ll. 33–37.

[4] SSSA f. 229, op. 1, 1888, d. 220.

[5] On the war and Sufism in the North Caucasus, see Moshe Gammer, Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan (London: Frank Cass, 1994), and Anna Zelkina, In Quest for God and Freedom: The Sufi Response to the Russian Advance in the North Caucasus (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

Would those who refer to ''Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity ( adopted on November 26, 1968, care to see it applied also to the case of the Georgian-Abkhazian war?

Metin Sönmez &