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A Crush on Syria, by Sergey Markedonov

Russia’s Motives for Supporting Syria’s Current Regime Are Pragmatic, but Diplomats Are Failing to Articulate Them Properly

Comment by Sergey Markedonov
Special to Russia Profile

03/21/2012
The Russian Foreign Ministry declared last week that it considers the statements by the United States and its European allies regarding the illegitimacy of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unacceptable. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, such statements “are counterproductive as they give a false signal to the opposition that there is no reason to engage in dialogue, that it’s better to expect help from NATO and the West, as was the case in Libya.” So why is Russia so stringently opposed to Western intervention in this Arab country?

Civil strife in Syria has lasted for a year now. The United Nations estimates that over this period about 5,500 people have been killed. Right from the start of the conflict Moscow has been consistently opposed to foreign military intervention and regime change. It called for the rejection of any one-sided assessment in favor of dialogue by the opposing sides and shared political responsibilities between them. This raises a legitimate question: what determines the Russian diplomats’ stance?

As Daniel Treisman, a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, aptly put it: “Western commentators typically attribute such behavior to Vladimir Putin’s personal paranoia or to attempts to rekindle the nation’s wounded pride and assert Russia’s superpower status. Look a little closer, however, and Russia’s actions seem motivated more by calculated – albeit sometimes miscalculated – realpolitik than by psychological impulses.”

Attempts to explain Moscow’s position on the Syrian issue from the perspective of the Putin regime’s non-democratic nature are out of touch with reality. Sure, Moscow is in league with China or Venezuela on this. But the United States and other NATO countries also identify themselves with Bashar al-Assad’s opponents like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which do not share Western democratic values.

Meanwhile, one year ago Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops, while the United Arab Emirates dispatched some 500 police officers, to intervene in the internal political struggle in Bahrain, which resulted in a harsh crackdown on anti-government protests. Eight activists were sentenced to life in prison. It’s telling that neither Washington nor Brussels showed the slightest concern about the “suppressed Bahraini democracy and human rights.”

What, then, are Moscow’s motives, if they are not just a question of supporting “a spiritually close dictator?” From my point of view, “the Syrian question” in Russia is a three-dimensional phenomenon. The first dimension, strictly speaking, has nothing to do with Syria. It concerns Moscow’s long-running dispute (often together with Beijing and New Delhi) with the West about the relationship between sovereignty and intervention in the domestic political process. That controversy dates back to the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans.

For the sake of objectivity, it is worth noting that Moscow has not always been consistent. In August of 2008 it recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even though over the previous 17 years it built its relations with Georgia on the basis of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Yet in 2008 the Kremlin did not push for regime change in Georgia by supporting the alternative “people’s government.” In any case, in most situations Russia does not take kindly to regime change imposed from the outside.

It is perhaps no secret that international institutions erode state sovereignty. Much has been said about the ineffectiveness of the United Nations. However, preserving the integrity of the United Nations has never been of abstract, but of practical significance to Moscow. While that may not be much, it does allow Russia to hold on to the status of a beneficiary in global politics, gained by the Soviet Union in 1945. Without that, Moscow’s voice in international politics would be much weaker.

The second has to do with bilateral Russian-Syrian relations. As Treisman rightly said, “Russia has real commercial interests in Syria. Contracts to sell arms to Damascus – both those signed and under negotiation – total $5 billion. Having lost $13 billion due to international sanctions on Iran and $4.5 billion in canceled contracts to Libya, Russia’s defense industry is already reeling. Besides arms exports, Russian companies have major investments in Syria’s infrastructure, energy and tourism sectors.” But that’s not all. The Russian naval forces have a base on Syrian territory. The base in the Syrian port of Tartus is Russia’s only military object in the Mediterranean Sea. And there have so far been no alternative proposals from Moscow’s other partners.

The third has an internal Russian dimension to it. It is related to the situation in the North Caucasus, the most problematic region of the country. From the moment Russia first launched the first military operation in Chechnya in late 1994, Moscow faced the problem not only of such decisions’ internal legitimacy, but also of how to minimize the risk to its foreign policy. In this case it is about a region inhabited by millions of Muslims, connected to the wider Muslim world through thousands of networks. There was never a common position in relation to Russia’s North Caucasus policy in the Arab world (and there is none now), considering the diverse interests of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Qatar.

But while Damascus supported the territorial integrity of Russia and condemned the terrorist attacks carried out first by separatist forces and later by the Islamic underground, Qatar played host to one of the leaders of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Moreover, Bashar al-Assad clearly took Russia’s side during the “five-day war” with Georgia in 2008, calling it a “guarantor of peace” in the North Caucasus Region. Now that growth in Islamic sentiment is more or less the only practical result of the “Arab Spring,” the defeat of the secular Assad regime cannot but be a cause for concern in Moscow.

One interesting fact: during the presidential campaign in Russia, Mikhail Prokhorov, who positioned himself as a liberal, sharply attacked Western policy in Syria. His argument then was largely based on those concerns, especially since among the opponents of secular power in Syria there are many people who are willing to support the “just struggle of the brothers in faith” in the North Caucasus.

Another equally important Syrian “Caucasus factor” is the situation of the Circassian community in that country. The community, which has been loyal to the Syrian authorities, is now suffering from the civil conflict. It’s no coincidence that the Circassian community has appealed to Russian leadership with requests for repatriation. According to Sufian Zhemukhov, a political analyst and journalist, the “‘Syrian question’ has given the Kremlin the only real chance to decouple the Circassian problem from the Sochi Olympics. This will not solve the Circassian question, but it will remove the issue from the agenda before the Olympics games. The resettlement of the Circassians from Syria to the Caucasus will marginalize anti-Russian activists in the Diaspora.”

Thus Russia’s interests in Syria should not be viewed solely as “phantoms of the Cold War” and the complexes of Russian leaders. To a large extent, Moscow’s approaches are pragmatic. Unfortunately, until now Russia has been unable to articulate its interests in an understandable way and to defend them with well-formulated arguments.

Sergey Markedonov, Ph.D., is a political analyst and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC.

Source: Russia Profile

The Circassian Dimension of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, by Sufian Zhemukhov

The Circassian Dimension of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, by Sufian Zhemukhov

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PONARS Policy Memo No. 65 – Georgetown University

Sufian Zhemukhov
Kabardino-Balkarian Institute of Humanitarian Studies
September 2009

In 2014, the popular Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi will host the Winter Olympics, signifying Russia’s increasingly high international profile. The honor of hosting the Olympics is a challenge and opportunity for the host country, which must be ready for a number of unexpected, if inevitable, domestic and foreign challenges. Criticisms and controversy accompany the run-up to every Olympic Games. China, for example, withstood intense pressure from international nongovernmental organizations before the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to the situation in Tibet. In 2002, a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suggested that the Winter Games be relocated from Salt Lake City, since the United States was a country at war (with the Taliban in Afghanistan). Earlier, in 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter asked the IOC to move the Olympic Games from Moscow after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The 2014 Olympics in Sochi are still five years away, but they have already become one of the most discussed issues on the Russian political agenda.

Circassian Memory and the Sochi Olympics

The Circassian question is one of the less appreciated issues highlighted by the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Historical Circassia today is divided between six regions of the Russian Federation. In Soviet times, the Circassians were split and subdivided into several Soviet narodnosti (nationalities) with different ethnonyms in Russian – Kabardin, Adyghei, Cherkess, and Shapsug – and spread over several administrative units. Today, most of Russia’s 700,000 Circassians form ”titular nationalities” in the Republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Adyghea, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, while a lesser number live in the Krasnodar and Stavropol regions and in North Ossetia.

However, nearly 90 percent of the global Circassian population lives outside Russia. Most live in the states of the former Ottoman Empire – mainly Turkey, Syria, and Jordan – to which they were deported in the nineteenth century. As a share of total population, the Circassian diaspora is the largest in the world. It is also the second largest diaspora from Russia, after the 25-million strong ethnic Russian diaspora itself. Since the end of the Cold War, the Circassian world has developed an ideological unity based upon a shared memory of deportation and the fragmentation of its remaining territory. Repatriation and unification of the native land have become the primary goals of the Circassian nation.

The Circassian question is closely related to the Sochi Olympics in several symbolic ways. By an irony of history, the 2014 Olympic Games will mark the 150th anniversary of the Circassian defeat in 1864, when, after over a century of fighting, Tsar Alexander II declared victory for Russia. Every year on May 21, Circassians around the world light 101 candles and observe a minute of silence in memory of the 101-year war. Sochi itself was the site of the war’s last battles, and its port was the place from which the Circassians were deported to the Ottoman Empire. Krasnaya Polyana (Kbaada in Circassian), the area that will be the center of the 2014 Olympic Games, was where, on May 21, 1864, a parade of Russian troops celebrated the end of the war with Circassians.

In addition to its association with the war, Sochi is emblematic of the Circassian homeland. The city is named after the Circassian ethnic group Shache, who lived there until 1864. It was also the last capital of independent Circassia (1861-1864). At present, there are about 15,000 Circassian Shapsugs living around Sochi who demand the restoration of the Shapsug National District (1924–1945) and the historical Circassian name of their capital Psyshu, renamed Lazarevskoye after Admiral Mikhail Lazarev, notorious for destroying coastal Circassian villages.

The Revival of the Circassian Question

The Circassian question, practically dormant before Russia won the Olympic bid in 2007, has actively reemerged in recent years. One of its first mentions followed discussion of government plans to “amalgamate” some of Russia’s federal regions. This discussion sparked Circassian discontent, as the possible merger of Circassian Adygeia with the largely Russian Krasnodar region was raised. Moscow analysts have noted that the Winter Olympics will prevent this merger until after 2014; if Adygeia were to join Krasnodar, Circassians would most likely oppose the Olympics. At the same time, intellectuals from various Circassian communities have suggested that the idea of a single Circassian republic could also be raised within the framework of the amalgamation of existing regions, eliminating the ethno-territorial divisions imposed under Joseph Stalin. This idea to unify the Circassians into a single federal subject was publicly declared in November 2008 at an Extraordinary Session of the Circassian People’s Congress.

Also generating a Circassian response was the failure of the Russian media to mention the Circassians’ historical presence in the region and its presentation of Sochi as historically a part of ancient Colchis, inhabited by ancient Greeks. Circassian organizations argued that symbols of Circassian history and culture cannot be ignored and should be included in the format of the Sochi Olympics, just as Australia highlighted its indigenous population in the 2000 Summer Olympics. The media’s discussion of the celebration of Sochi’s 170th anniversary also provoked protest from Circassian NGOs. In March 2008, leaders of the Shapsug Khase (Shapsug Council) recalled Sochi’s official 150th anniversary, when the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History announced that 1838 was not the founding year of Sochi but the date of its conquest by Russian troops (the Circassians recaptured it after the Crimean War but lost it again in 1864).

Most Circassians see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to plead their case, rather than as an offense to be resisted. Still, many Circassians have opposed the Winter Grames on the grounds that they will take place on “ethnically-cleansed” land. Some Circassian NGOs have branded the Olympics the “Games on Bones” and opposed construction work at Krasnaya Polyana, as it could endanger important burial sites. In October 2007, about 200 Circassian activists organized meetings in front of Russian consulates in New York and Istanbul to protest against holding the Winter Games in Sochi. Finally, the Circassian anti-Olympic movement began to seek official Russian recognition of the Circassian genocide and called on the IOC to move the Games.

Softening Discontent

Participating in the Circassian Olympic debate are several groups with motivations that shift, expand, and sometimes (but not always) coincide. These groups consist of local elites and the intelligentsia, members of the international diaspora, and politicians and businessmen who have something to gain through the power plays surrounding the Sochi Olympics. These groups are converging on the importance of raising the Circassian question, but fissures could reappear in the future.

For example, Circassians and Abkhaz may be unified in terms of the Abkhaz conflict with Georgia, but they are not necessarily unified in their attitude toward the Olympics. Abkhazia, located just thirty kilometers from Sochi, has supported the 2014 Olympics from the start, perceiving it as an excellent economic opportunity. The Winter Games can bring much-needed investment to Abkhazia through increased demand for construction materials, workers, and territory for Olympic use. The governor of the Krasnodar region, Aleksander Tkachev, and Abkhazian president Sergei Bagapsh signed a cooperation agreement in May 2008, according to which Abkhazia will provide assistance for the construction of Olympic facilities in Sochi. Thanks to Abkhazia’s enthusiasm, some analysts have even suggested that it risks losing support from Circassians who oppose the Sochi Olympics.

Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia has considerably softened the position of the Circassian world toward the Sochi Olympics. Though having adopted a more supportive view, Circassians continue to use the run-up to 2014 as a means to spread information about and draw attention to their cause. In April 2009, the author of this memo and Aleksei Bekshokov, the leader of the Union of Abkhaz Volunteers, proposed that a Circassian Olympic Games be held in 2012, including competition in twelve sports, to correspond to the number of stars on the Circassian flag, and that Circassian elements (twelve stars and three arrows) be included in the emblem of the Sochi Olympics to remind the world about the area’s native inhabitants. A series of presentations on the project took place in cities throughout Russia, including Sochi, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.

Some also view the economic aspect of the Sochi Olympics as a potential benefit for the wider Circassian world. According to Adygeia’s president Aslan Tkhakushinov, “The Olympic Games bring countries a colossal income. It’s probably worth taking a look at this side of the coin as well. The Olympics should not hurt anyone’s national interests. It should be a festival.”

The Olympics may well provide economic opportunities for the Circassian regions of Agygheia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. One idea has been to develop mountain tourism in these republics in association with the Winter Games. A major question, however, is how to connect these areas to Sochi. On a map, the Circassian capitals of Maykop, Nalchik, and Cherkessk are relatively close to Sochi, but, separated by the Caucasus mountain range, they are distant in terms of road connections and available transportation. A direct road connection would transform the region into one large mountain and sea resort where tourists could swim in the Black Sea and then drive half a day to ski on the slopes of Mount Elbrus. Experts are studying three different projects for connecting the Circassian regions to the Black Sea. Cherkessk-Adler and Maykop–Adler were the principal routes that were discussed prior to the onset of the financial crisis. The third possible project is the reconstruction of the old military highway linking Cherkessk to Abkhazia, a popular tourist route during Soviet times that fell into disrepair after the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-93.

For now, however, such prospects remain mere possibilities. Due to the financial crisis and a subsequent 30 percent reduction of the budget for road construction in Russia, most specialists say that none of the road projects are realistic. In general, deputy chairman of the International Circassian Association Nalbiy Guchetl has been less optimistic about the economic opportunities for Russia’s Circassian-inhabited regions, remarking that “investing billions in Sochi will create an even greater economic gap between Krasnodar and Adygeia, providing new arguments in favor of abolishing Adygeia on the grounds that it is an economic failure.”

Sochi and the Future of the Circassian Question

Despite these considerations, the Circassian question has been bypassed in most discussions of the Sochi Olympics. While Circassian NGOs have been concerned about construction work that may endanger burial sites, the agenda of the environmentally-driven anti-Olympic movement in Russia does not include the Circassian question. Not a single Circassian signed the petition that forty-seven Russian organizations sent to the IOC against the Sochi Games out of concern for its potential ecological impact. Thanks to the small Circassian electorate in Sochi, it was also easy for all candidates in the city’s April 2009 mayoral election to avoid the Circassian question. Even opposition candidates who tended to exploit any problematic aspect of the Sochi Olympics in their campaigns ignored the Circassian question.

However, the election still indirectly had a Circassian component, which revealed that the Kremlin was not entirely neglectful of the issue. Six months before the election, Jambulat Khatuov, an ethnic Circassian, was appointed acting mayor of Sochi for three months; he later became a deputy governor of the Krasnodar region that includes Sochi. In mostly Russian Krasnodar, the population of which is less than one percent Circassian, there are now two Circassian deputy governors. The other, Murat Akhejak, directed the campaign of the Kremlin candidate during the mayoral election.

At the moment, the Circassian dimension is a relatively minor issue relative to the others that surround the Sochi Olympics. Only a few intellectuals and social groups are mobilizing around the cause, while other constituencies, like the more powerful local governments, evince far more enthusiasm.

Why, then, is the Circassian issue important in policy terms? First, the intellectuals and diaspora activists that are “globalizing” the Circassian discourse in connection with the Olympics may ultimately pose a challenge to the Russian state. They could potentially cast Circassians as the “indigenous people” of the Northwest Caucasus, for example, or use the term “genocide” as a rhetorical tool. This could lead to an internationalization of the questions of Circassian unification and diaspora return.

Second, a disjuncture between official and NGO/diaspora discourse regarding Circassian history and identity appears to be growing. If the Sochi Olympics become an issue for intellectuals and community activists, local officials will have to find ways to respond. They might end up “capturing” the discourse for their own political purposes or, unintentionally, in a way that puts them in a difficult position vis-à-vis Moscow.

The state has sought indirectly to both co-opt and suppress discussions of Circassian issues, demonstrating the level of relative importance it assigns to this matter in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics. However, this discourse can be seen less as a threat to the Sochi Olympics and more as an opportunity to develop a new strategy regarding the Circassian question, as well as to launch a much-needed modernization of the region. Two policy changes can help make this happen. First, the Russian government should take steps to address the main issues of the Circassian world – repatriation and unification. Second, the economic opportunities of the Winter Games should provide social and economic benefits to the North Caucasus regions, particularly to its ethnic republics.

If addressed strategically, the Sochi Olympics can open a new era in the history of the Caucasus by resolving the 250 year-old Circassian question. If ignored, the Circassian challenge will become even greater after the Sochi Olympics, and that much harder to solve.

PONARS Eurasia publications are funded through the International Program of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

© PONARS Eurasia 2009

Source: Eurasian Strategy Project (PONARS Eurasia)

The Fall of Circassia: A Study in Private Diplomacy, by Peter Brock

The English Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 280. (Jul., 1956), pp. 401-427.

During the last few years considerable interest has been shown by Soviet historians in the British attitude towards the Russian conquest of north Caucasia which, beginning in the early years of the nineteenth century, was finally completed in 1864. Until recently Soviet historians had ascribed a democratic and progressive character to the resistance carried on over many decades by the tribesmen of the area.  This resistance was represented as the heroic struggle of peoples fighting for their national independence against the encroachments of Tsarist imperialism.

In 1950, however, a sudden and complete reversal of this viewpoint took place. Such a position, declared an article in Pravda  on 14 May 1950, ‘is anti-Marxist, opposed to the facts of history and, finally, it distorts the proper significance of this movement, which was reactionary, nationalistic and worked in the service of English capitalism and the Turkish Sultan’.  Since then the leaders of the struggle for independence in Daghestan, Chechnia, and Circassia have been pictured as Mohammedan fanatics, chauvinists who, as representatives of the feudal ruling class, had nothing in common with the interests of the masses.

Their aim, it was now asserted, was ‘the creation of reactionary theocratic statelets under the aegis of Turkey and England’. Through conquest by Russia the north Caucasian tribesmen, though suffering from Tsarist oppression like the rest of the inhabitants of the empire, were in fact saved from joining ‘the ranks of the colonial peoples governed by English capital ’.

Indeed, the unveiling of the activities in these parts of British agents a century ago was now regarded as particularly opportune, ‘when the Anglo-American imperialists and their Turkish yes-men  (podgoloski)  are attempting to use obsolete Pan-Islamic and Pan-Turanian slogans as an ideological preparation for a war against the Soviet Union and the People’s Democracies ‘.

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