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Turkey: Circassian minority asserts its identity 30 mai 2006

Posted by Acturca in Caucasus / Caucase, History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Russia / Russie, Turkey / Turquie.
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Adnkronos International (Italy)

Istanbul, 29 May 2006

Long considered Turkey’s most integrated and harmonious ethnic minority, the Circassians have recently started claiming more community rights including own language schools and want the international community to pressure Russia into recognising what they say was a « genocide » carried out by Czarist troops in the mid 1860s. The move coincides with the start of Turkey’s membership talks with the European Union which has enshrined minority rights in many of its policies.

According to estimates, some 120,000 Circassians live in Jordan, 45,000 in Syria, and 4,000 in Israel, but the bulk of the diaspora – 3.5 million – live in Turkey. This figure is four times more than the population living in the Circassians’ traditional homeland in the North Caucasus, a mountaneous region north of Georgia and Azerbaijan consisting of several semi-autonomous republics in the Russian Federation.

Circassians, who are mostly Sunni Muslim, annually commemorate May 21 in rememberance of the mass deportation of their compatriots beginning on that day in 1864 following the end of the Russian-Circassian War.

The war ended with the fall of Circassia and was followed by the forced removal of between 1.2 and 1.5 million Circassians from their lands. Up to 500,000 died of hunger and illness during the forced exodus, a deathtoll that Circassian activists say formed part of a genocidal plan by the Czarist troops to obliterate their nation.

« May 21 » commemoration activities have steadily increased in recent years in different parts of Turkey. The main event this year was an international conference held in Istanbul last week and attended by Circassian and Russian intellectuals to discuss the mass deportations. Titled the International Caucasus Conference, the gathering was organised by the Caucasus Foundation. Another major event was a meeting in Kefken a town on the Black Sea coas where the first Circassians, landed in Turkey after being deported. That gathering was organised by the Caucasus Federation representing 51 Circassian associations.

The recent upsurge in Circassian activism have led some observers to associate it with attempts by Kurds in Turkey to assert their autonomy and by Armenian lobbying the international community to force Turkey to acknowledge as « genocide » the mass deaths of Armenians during Ottoman rule between 1915-20.

« Circassians have begun realising their identity and painful history in recent years. There were no such events five years ago, » says Mehdi Nuzhet Cetinbas, honorary president of the Caucasus Foundation, in an interview with Adnkronos International (AKI).

« We are discussing some possible initiatives on the recognition of the Circassian ‘genocide’ by parliaments around the world. The Turkish parliament hesitates recognising the Circassian genocide because of Western pressure on [Ankara to] recognise the Armenian ‘genocide’.

When the Duma (the lower house of Russia’s parliament) accepted a proposal about Armenians last year, some Turkish deputies [by way of retort] suggested recognising the Circassian genocide in return last year, but it was impossible because of Turkey’s warm economic relations with Russia, » Cetinbas told AKI.

Last year the Circassian Congress, a nongovernmental organisation based in Maikop, capital of Adygea Republic (a north Caucasus traditional home of Circassians), applied to the Duma and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to recognise the Circassian genocide. The Russian parliament has to date given no response so far.

Fehim Tastekin, the founder editor of the Agency Caucasus, a news agency based in Russia’s Caucasus region, says that Moscow is increasing the pressure on Circassian’s living in ethnic group’s traditional regions.

« Russia has recently abolished local constitutions in Circassian regions such as Adygea, Karachay-Cherkes and Kabardino-Balkaria. According to new Russia legislation, if Circassians returning home apply for citizenship, they will only be able to have Russian citizenship and not Circassian. They will need to speak Russian and show they have lived in Russian territory for at least five years.

« Also Circassian regions are losing their autonomy rights. Now they can’t choose their president directly. The Kremlin appoints local leaders in accordance with the new law, » Tastekin told AKI.

Asked whether Circassians living abroad are seeking land compensation from Russia, Cetinbas replied: « For now this is not on our agenda. We know Russia will not help on this point and international communities will not give their support. But if parliaments recognise that the genocide took place, this will mark a start that will allow us to talk about more tangible means of compensation. »

« The Circassian diaspora wants to return home. The young generations do not speak our language. To change this it is crucial that the Turkish government supports the opening of Circassian language schools. It is not enough to give permission for private language courses to be held. We want positive discrimination because Circassians see Turkey like their own homeland, and are co-founders of the modern republic, » Cetinbas said.

While current diplomatic barriers continue to frustate Circassian attempts for international recognition, Cetinbas remains confident that circumstances will change in the future. « I hope all nations will know about the Circassian’s tragedy, » he said.


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