On August 5 Turkey hosted the inaugural conference on an independent Circassia, with the event facilitated by the local government of Istanbul's Üsküdar district, which is controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
This conference, organized by the Council of United Circassia (CUC), known as Birleşik Çerkesya Konseyi in Turkish, marks a significant milestone. Established in January 2023, the CUC serves as an umbrella organization comprising numerous groups and activists, primarily hailing from the Circassian diaspora situated in Turkey and various other nations.
The lack of objection from the Istanbul Governor's Office and its subsequent green light for the conference signals an implicit endorsement from the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This calculated move is poised to unsettle Russia, a country with which Turkey, a NATO ally, has been working to maintain a balanced relationship — particularly in light of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict that erupted last year.
The conference took place at the Üsküdar Youth Center (Gençlik Merkezi in Turkish), a venue provided by the AKP-run municipality. Some speakers also joined the conference online from abroad to deliver speeches endorsing an independent Circassia at the expense of Russian sovereignty.
While Turkey's decision to permit the conference is guided by broader strategic considerations, including a desire to undermine Russia's strength and expand influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, it's important to recognize that the Erdogan government's choice was also influenced by domestic political factors in anticipation of local elections next year. The ruling AKP aims to cater to its political base, and this move aligns with that objective.
Notably, the AKP enjoys popularity among a significant portion of the Circassian population in Turkey, particularly in regions such as Sakarya, Düzce and Kayseri, where substantial Circassian communities reside. However, it's worth mentioning that a smaller subset of Circassians who align with leftist ideologies tends to support the center-left Republican People's Party (CHP) in elections. This intricate blend of political affiliations adds a layer of complexity to the government's strategic calculus and its desire to secure a favorable outcome in the upcoming elections.
Heading the independence movement is Kenan Kaplan, a 65-year-old former public school teacher and a fourth-generation Circassian. Kaplan had served as president of the Pluralist Democracy Party (Çoğulcu Demokrasi Partisi, ÇDP), a Circassian political entity established in 2014 with the primary aim of advocating for the recognition and promotion of Circassian ethnic identity.
The CUC, under Kaplan's leadership, articulates its profound ambition in its founding charter, accessible on its website. The organization unequivocally states that "the ultimate goal of this organization is to establish an Independent Circassia on the historical Circassian lands," a stance that notably includes regions that are presently part of Russian territory.
"This organization ... will work towards the goal of creating an independent state structure in the homeland of Circassia, which has been forced to live in different autonomous republics under the sovereignty of the Russian Federation," the charter further notes.
The conference's concluding resolution, endorsed and signed by its participants, resonated with parallel perspectives, urging for the realization of an independent Circassia.
The independence conference showcased an array of speakers hailing from diverse regions, including the United States, Ukraine, Austria and Poland. Representatives from Uyghur, Tatar, Chechen and Caucasian communities were also among the speakers.
Among the figures were Anna Elżbieta Fotyga, a former Polish foreign minister and current member of the European Parliament; Ukrainian lawmakers Oleksiy Oleksiyovich and Oleh Andriyovych Dunda; Dmytro Korchynskiy, a notable far-right Ukrainian politician and leader of the Ukrainian Bratstvo (Brotherhood) political party; Gunther Fehlinger, an Austrian economist advocating for NATO enlargement; and several individuals from the Turkish Circassian community.
Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C., delineated the blueprint for an independent Circassia. According to Bugajski's assessment, the dissolution of what he termed "Imperial Russia" would create an avenue for the Circassian nation and other groups to fulfill their respective aspirations for independence.
"Despite Moscow's attempts to eradicate your nation and state since the 19th century genocide, Circassia survived and it will be reborn as Russia weakens and ruptures," he said, cautioning that Moscow will try to intensify its divisive policies by pitting nations against each other, including those in the north Caucasus. Circassians must avoid falling into that trap, he warned.
"No one can be certain how many new states will emerge from the collapse in Russia and what exact political structures each will develop. However, one administrative format that may have wide appeal is the establishment of a pan regional or pan-republican confederal state that will have a sizable population and encompass a broader territory between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea," he added.
Enduring the brutality of Russian oppression, Circassians suffered mass slaughter, displacement and forced deportation from the Caucasus region due to the conflict between czarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire from 1860 to 1864. This tragedy led many to seek refuge in the Ottoman Empire, while others sought new homes in Europe, the Middle East and the United States.
With a conservative estimate of 2 to 3 million members, the Circassians constitute a substantial ethnic minority, holding notable sway within Turkey's security apparatus, particularly in the intelligence and military spheres, owing to their unofficial standing as the second-largest ethnic minority group in the country.
The aspirations of individuals of Circassian descent within Turkey have occasionally placed the nation in complex situations involving Russia and Georgia. In these instances, Ankara has sought to navigate the delicate balance between its foreign policy objectives and domestic political considerations amid ongoing regional rivalries.
In particular the conflicts in Chechnya during the 1990s and the conflict in Georgia in the early 2000s underscored the influence of the Circassian lobby within Turkey. During the Chechen conflict, the Circassian lobby displayed a stance opposing Russia, while in the case of the Georgian conflict, it aligned with Russia against Georgia. These episodes highlighted the influence wielded by the Circassian community in Turkey, illustrating how their interests can complicate the nation's stance in regional dynamics.
Over decades, successive Turkish governments have had their share of challenges in managing their relationship with the Circassian community within the country. For instance, when the Erdogan government initiated unsuccessful efforts to address the longstanding Kurdish issue in Turkey in 2009 and 2011 — such as considering education in the mother tongue — Circassians also sought similar rights.
In this context, it was Kaplan who played a role by leading demonstrations in both Ankara and Istanbul in March 2011, just prior to national elections. Organized under the Circassian Rights Initiative, these protests were designed to articulate a comprehensive set of demands to the Turkish government. The Circassian community's aspirations for equitable treatment and recognition resonated in parallel with the broader societal discussions surrounding minority rights and linguistic representation.
The Circassian community in Turkey has articulated a range of primary demands. These encompass the right to an education in their mother tongue, available as an elective from pre-school through university. Additionally, they advocate for the establishment of dedicated Circassian radio and television stations, along with efforts to restore altered Circassian place names and surnames.
Another crucial demand is the clearing of the reputation of Çerkez Ethem (Circassian Ethem), a Turkish militia leader of Circassian descent, who is portrayed as a traitor in Turkish historical accounts. These demands collectively underscore the Circassian community's aspirations for cultural recognition, linguistic representation and historical accuracy within Turkey.
Among the critical aspirations of the Circassian community is the recognition of the tragic events that unfolded in 1864 at the hands of czarist Russia as the first instance of genocide targeting an ethnic and religious group, in accordance with the definition outlined in the 1948 convention. This deeply rooted desire stems from the trauma felt by generations over massacre and expulsion that saw over 1.5 million Circassians compelled to abandon their ancestral lands following their unsuccessful resistance against the invading forces of czarist Russia in the northern Caucasus. This catastrophic period witnessed a grievous ethnic cleansing, with approximately 90 percent of the Circassian population being forcibly removed from the northern Caucasus region by czarist Russia.
Tragically, this forcible expulsion resulted in the loss of nearly half of the displaced population, who perished due to the harsh conditions during their journey and in their new destinations — succumbing to hunger, disease and the challenges of their displacement. The Circassian community's plea for recognition of this tragedy as genocide signifies their quest for acknowledgment, justice and a commemoration of the losses suffered by their ancestors.
Creating a new life in their adopted homeland was a formidable challenge for Circassians. Despite being an integral part of Turkey's emergence in the early 1920s following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Circassian journey was marked by complexities. During this period the Circassian militia actively participated alongside the regular army during the War of Independence, significantly contributing to the nation's founding.
However, the Circassian population found itself marginalized by the republic's founders, who propagated a racially exclusive Turkish ideology. This era witnessed the imposition of measures that included the prohibition of minority languages, the exile of certain Circassian leaders and the enforcement of forced migration within Turkey's borders. Furthermore, the ruling elite altered the names of Circassian towns and villages to their Turkish equivalents, prevented Circassians from officially registering their traditional names in birth records and implemented a policy of Turkification of these names.
Despite their substantial role in shaping modern Turkey, Circassians faced a complex interplay of challenges tied to cultural assimilation and identity preservation, further underscoring the intricate tapestry of their history within the country.
Amid the various challenges they faced, Circassians exhibited remarkable resilience by choosing not to engage in rebellion or overt resistance. Instead, they maintained a quiet but steadfast commitment to preserving their culture and traditions. This determination was often nurtured within the confines of their homes and shared within tight-knit circles, while also being upheld through the establishment of numerous cultural associations.
Circassians strategically expanded their presence within crucial institutions in Turkey, including the military and intelligence spheres. This effort enabled them to secure influence and contribute to the nation's critical functions. Simultaneously, they embarked on successful entrepreneurial endeavors, establishing businesses that fortified their socio-economic standing.
Privately, the Circassian community embarked on advocacy and lobbying efforts aimed at securing public recognition for their unique history and identity. Their efforts reflected a balanced approach, navigating the complexities of cultural preservation, institutional engagement and public acknowledgment within the evolving landscape of modern Turkey.
Russia has adopted various strategies in an attempt to engage with the Circassian diaspora, although it maintains a degree of suspicion due to concerns about potential separatist aspirations. A period of limited rapprochement between Russia and the Circassian diaspora ensued following the Cold War, lasting until around 2011.
Russia's overtures were orchestrated through efforts coordinated by the Russian Embassy in Ankara. These initiatives even culminated in a significant event — an encounter between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and representatives of the Circassian diaspora in Istanbul on September 2, 2008. Russia's outreach included the provision of scholarships to Circassian youths in Turkey, enabling them to pursue studies at universities located in Maykop and Nalchik in the northwestern Caucasus region.
While these endeavors aimed to foster ties and appease concerns, underlying apprehensions over separatist sentiments added complexity to Russia's interactions with the Circassian diaspora, shaping a nuanced relationship between the two.
The trajectory of this détente began to shift after 2010 due to escalating interest in the independence movement and heightened efforts by various Circassian diaspora groups to garner recognition for the events of 1864 as genocide. These evolving dynamics disrupted the previously established rapprochement. In response, Moscow initiated stringent crackdowns on Circassian activists across the nation, especially in anticipation of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
On February 10, 2014 President Vladimir Putin articulated his perspective on the Circassian issue, stating that it was being deliberately inflamed as a tactic to foster divisions between Russia and the West. He also asserted that this approach aimed to tarnish Russia's global image. This marked a distinct shift in Russia's approach, indicating a growing concern about the potential impact of the Circassian advocacy movement on the nation's internal cohesion and international standing.
Turkey's approach to Circassian demands has demonstrated a certain flexibility, often aligning with its foreign policy objectives. This was evident in May 2015 when Turkey's stance on Circassian issues aligned with its interests during a period of strained relations with Russia following the downing of a Russian Su-24 jet by a Turkish F-16 on November 24, 2015 in airspace over the Turkish-Syrian border. Moscow reacted harshly to the incident, declaring a total embargo on Turkish goods, and launched a global campaign to reveal evidence on criminal cooperation between the Erdogan government and jihadist groups, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda.
In response the Turkish Foreign Ministry officially recognized the day that commemorates the mass forced migration of hundreds of thousands of Circassians from czarist Russia to the Ottoman Empire in 1864. This recognition was accompanied by a message of condolence to the victims of what Turkey referred to as "systematic violence." This strategic gesture marked a convergence of interests, with Turkey acknowledging Circassian historical grievances in a manner that also aligned with its foreign policy priorities at the time.
This episode underscores how Turkey's approach to Circassian issues can be influenced by its broader international relationships and geopolitical considerations.
Similarly, hosting the first-ever independence conference for Circassians in Istanbul could potentially be a strategic move by the Erdogan government to exert pressure on Russia and possibly enhance Turkey's negotiating position in areas of mutual interest. As the situation develops further, especially the fate of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and as more information about Turkey's strategies emerges, Turkey's true intent behind this move will become much clearer.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Sweden-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.