Jamestown Foundation (Author)
A week ago (April 2), Georgian Defense Minister Irakly Alasania said he “does not exclude the possibility” that there will be terrorist acts in the run up to the Sochi Olympics, noting that Tbilisi is doing everything it can so that Moscow will not be able to credibly accuse Georgia of being involved with them. That is a necessary precaution, he continued, because “past experience shows” that “our opponents and enemies frequently try to find a Georgian trace” in such events. Alasania added that Georgia does not have any concrete information” about such events and such charges at present but is only acting “from the logic, unfortunately, of the existing counter-terrorist and terrorist milieu” (apsny.ge/2013/mil/1364934484.php).
Since they won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympiad in Sochi, Russian officials from Vladimir Putin on down have talked about the need to ensure that there will not be any terrorist act there, statements that have been widely covered not only in Moscow but also around the world given how much violence continues to afflict the region. But Alasania’s statement calls attention to something that so far has attracted less attention: the near certainty that the Russian government would make use of any such attacks to blacken the reputation of its opponents and justify new moves against them—and might even organize or provoke such actions, as it has done in the past, most notably in the 1999 apartment bombings, to win support for whatever it wants to do.
Georgia is an obvious target of such a Moscow operation, but the Circassians are a far more likely one, given that they do not yet have the resources of a nation-state and thus can be subject to penetration and manipulation more easily, that they are internally divided by their own complicated history, and that they have long opposed holding the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. As they have repeatedly noted over the past seven years, Winter Olympics would occur on the site of their deportation from the Russian Empire 150 years ago. Consequently, as many Circassians are profoundly aware and as the world needs to learn, the threat of Russian provocations against them—up to and including blaming their nation for any violence at Sochi—is all too real.
Given that a tiny Bolshevik emigration was able to return and seize power in Russia in 1917, Russians have always been more obsessed with what other expatriates might be able to do than would seem reasonable to anyone else. Hence, Moscow has regularly engaged in actions to gain control of these diasporas, or at the very least disorder them and discredit them among their co-ethnics at home and among the countries in which they find themselves for the time being. The “Trust” operation, which the Soviets directed against White Russian groups in Western Europe in the 1920s, is the most notorious of such actions, but as Western and more recently Russian scholars have demonstrated, it was and is far from unique.
One reason why Moscow has employed such operations is that they work due to the very murkiness of the environment in which they take place. With various émigrés trading charges and with the statements and the actions of one or another side having plausible “nationalistic” explanations, outsiders are inevitably inclined to dismiss suggestions that this or that individual is the latest “hand of Moscow.” Political ploys by one group of émigrés to demonize another seem much more likely. That this is sometimes true, of course, opens the door for real and potentially dangerous Moscow penetrations.
Throughout their history, the Circassians, of whom there are more than half a million in the North Caucasus and more than five million in the diaspora, have had regular experience with both Russian efforts to penetrate and disorder them and Western dismissals of such charges as overheated and wrong (for an example of the reasons both sides in such debates have, see the 2009 article by “a Circassian deportee” at justicefornorthcaucasus.info/?p=1251670127). But now because of the importance of Sochi for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the danger that Moscow might use such penetration efforts to cast the Circassians in the worst possible light appears to be increasing.
Ever since Circassians in the diaspora decided to oppose holding the Olympiad in Sochi, organized demonstrations against them at Vancouver, and won some international support for their call to recognize their 19th century deportation as a “genocide,” such groups have been visited on a regular basis by individuals and groups who appear more interested in pushing Moscow’s line than in supporting longstanding Circassian positions. Moreover, they have been subject to attacks by various websites whose backing is obscure and which appear to have the same goals.
To date, these efforts have not dissuaded most diaspora Circassians from continuing to oppose the Sochi games, something that has raised their status in the eyes of their co-ethnics in the North Caucasus and further alarmed Moscow as it seeks to restore control across that region. The Circassians have been very clear that they will use only peaceful means to press their case and increase international attention to their situation. Given all that, as some Circassians have already concluded, Moscow might very well organize some violent action that it could blame on the Circassians, thus isolating them within the Russian Federation and abroad and justifying further repressions against them.
There is no clear evidence that Moscow will take such a step, but the risk that it might do so is all too obvious. And consequently, both the Circassians and those who support their demands for justice have every reason to be vigilant and to warn others of this danger.