Putin Blames Circassian Protests on the West Amid Arrests

February 17, 2014
Circassian protesters demonstrate against the Sochi Olympics in Nalchik, Russia | Facebook/NoSochi2014

Speaking at a meeting with participants of the public council to prepare for the Sochi Olympics earlier in the week, President Vladimir Putin called “the Circassian factor” an “atavism of the theory of deterrence,” and an “instrument of the cold war.”

“Back during the ‘cold war,’ the ‘deterrence theory’ was born, aimed at deterring the development of the USSR…And attempts to deter Russia, and this unfortunately concerned even this Olympics project, were used as an instrument, including the Circassian factor,” said Putin.

“With this statement, Vladimir Putin made the Circassians a subject of relations between Russia and the West,” American political analyst Paul Goble, author of the blog Windows on Eurasia, told VOA. “Instead of putting out the fire, he only poured oil over the flames.”

Subsequently, there was a development in the same “cold war” spirit with the detention in Nalchik on February 7 of picketers against the Sochi Olympics. As VOA has reported, about 30 Circassian activists were detained in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria after which they formed a convoy of dozens of automobiles and headed to the center of town. They hung Circassian flags out of the windows, and also a waved a banner with the words, “Sochi – Land of Genocide” in English (see picture above — Ed.).

According to the accounts of picketers who were released, the arrestees were subjected to beating and torture. In particular, eye-witnesses report that police were forced to carry Anzor Akhokhov into the courtroom for the reading of his sentence, since he was not in condition to move independently as a result of beatings at the police station.

“His entire body is covered with bruises – his face, hands, legs, everywhere there are the marks of hard blows,” said his brother Aslanbek Akhokhov.

The released activists recount how they were in a common cell, and the police removed Aslan Begidov then later returned him to the cell with bruises from harsh beatings. According to an additional report, another arrestee, Kazbek Tekushev, was subject to torture by asphyxiation – for several hours, he was held chained to a chair with a plastic bag put over his head. After he fainted, Tekushev was revived and then the procedure was repeated.

Witnesses describe how the process of detention was brutal. In particularly, the Latvian Avis Krasovskis, who was filming the events with his video camera, was attacked by three policemen who took away his camera, threw him to the ground and then kicked him.

“We cannot comment on the events of February 7 in any way because we have no information about them,” Olga Tkachenko, head of the Kabardino-Balkarian Interior Ministry’s press service told VOA over the telephone. In reply to a follow-up question explaining that “information” meant the fact of an arrest, charges, or use of force, the Interior Ministry official replied, “We do not possess any information.”

Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya , head of the International Crisis Group in Russia, told Voice of America: “On February 7, many residents and natives of the Caucasus in Russia and abroad hoped for their region to be represented in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics. The Circassians had special expectations because in their historical memory, Krasnaya Polyana plays a central role. However, there was no hint of the Caucasus, the Circassians, Islam, or the ethnic diversity of Russia in the ceremony. Instead of this, on February 7, the Circassian activists in Nalchik were arrested and jailed in the investigative-isolation facility for 15 days, and according to media accounts, several were beaten.”

In Sokiryanskaya’s opinion, such a policy creates the conditions for new conflicts: “Instead of bringing peoples on their side, and showing that together with Russia, their history, culture and language can acquire a special global significance, force and meaning, the authorities behaved as usual – they ignored, silenced, crushed. Such approaches do not strengthen the statehood of a multi-ethnic country; on the contrary, it weakens it and creates the settings for new conflicts.”

What did the police want of the detainees from the picket, what was the purpose of using force on them, as witnesses claim? A VOA correspondent asked this question of Abuberkir Murzakan, a Circassian activist in Nalchik. Murzakan was among those arrested and released after 24 hours, although police confiscated his mobile phone.

“They wanted to get a confession out of us that we receive instructions and money from the American State Department,” Murzakan reported in his interview over Skype from Nalchik. “…They talked with such confidence, as if they had seen the payroll,” he added. “I even grew offended that no money is reaching me,” he said with bitter sarcasm.

Janusz Bugajski, a senior researcher for the Center for Strategic International Sciences in Washington, DC believes that “the break-up of a peaceful Circassian protest in a city near the Sochi Olympics indicates the growing fear inside the Putin government.”

“This fear is based on two factors,” said Bugajski in an interview with VOA. “The first is the growing national self-awareness in various parts of the federation defying the government of Russia; the growing understanding in the West that Russia is a post-imperial state not capable of freeing its colonies, but trying to revive a neo-imperial project.”

“The absence of a native population in the Sochi program violates the Olympic Charter,” said Paul Goble. In Goble’s view, “the brutality of the Russian police regarding the people arrested in Nalchik can have no justification.”

“The time has come for people of good will to speak out and condemn such a policy. Moreover, the world must demand from Moscow a change of direction. Everything that Putin is doing is only convincing the Circassians that they can survive as a people only as an independent state, and the Olympics on the site of the genocide was an enormous contribution to the formation of a powerful Circassian national movement,” said Paul Goble.

Tamara Barsik, an activist from the movement NoSochi2014, a Circassian from the American state of New Jersey, published an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 12, noting that “a minute of silence in memory of the Circassian victims of genocide during the Olympics closing ceremony could be a serious first step toward reconciliation and building a dialogue between peoples.”

However, the Circassians are not the only people in the North Caucasus who would like to hear words of recognition of their losses at the closing ceremony of the Olympics, the date for which was chosen February 23 – the 70th anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of the Chechens and Ingush, which caused many thousands of victims and suffering.

As of this writing, all those detained except six were released. The six were charged with a number of articles of the Russian Criminal Code, including public demonstration with extremist banners. They have been sentenced to various jail terms from 5 to 15 days.