Article by Ellen Barry for NYTimes, May 20, 2011:
TBILISI, Georgia — The Georgian Parliament voted Friday to recognize the 19th-century killings and deportations of ethnic Circassians by czarist Russia as genocide, a move that is likely to inflame tensions between the two countries.
Moscow is extraordinarily sensitive to any anti-Russian movements in the North Caucasus, a region on Russia’s southern border where it has been battling insurgents since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The declaration may also strengthen calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which the Circassians consider part of their homeland.
Relations between Georgia and Russia have remained hostile since a brief war in 2008, and Georgia recently made an effort to build ties with restive Caucasian ethnic groups in Russia. Last year, Georgia dropped visa requirements for residents of the North Caucasus, and it started First Caucasus News, a Russian-language satellite channel.
Friday’s vote was Georgia’s most assertive move yet, and lawmakers hailed the decision as historic. No other country has recognized the killing of Circassians as genocide.
“This is Caucasian solidarity, a centuries-old tradition — much greater than Russia and the Russian empire,” said Guram Chakhvadze, a member of Parliament from the National Democratic Party. “I want to tell my Circassian friends that this is a first step, and I hope they will not lose hope.”
When they were driven from Russia, hundreds of thousands of Circassians scattered to Turkey, Syria, Jordan and the United States, where they assimilated and have lived for four or five generations. Some of their descendants have made attempts to return to their ancestral lands, an extraordinary challenge for those without Russian citizenship.
The Georgian resolution says that the Russian empire planned and carried out the ethnic cleansing of Circassians, ultimately displacing 90 percent of them. It also says that czarist Russia artificially spread hunger and disease with the goal of annihilating the Circassians, and that it then resettled other ethnic groups in their land.
The statement passed on a vote of 95 to 0. Only one lawmaker spoke against it in debate, arguing that the resolution risked offending Georgia’s ethnic Armenians, who have never won Georgia’s support for the recognition of genocide against Armenians under theOttoman Empire. Members of the opposition Christian Democratic Movement abstained from voting. “Qualifying all of this as a genocide, especially when it will have very complicated, deep and long-lasting implications for our country’s national security, is unacceptable for us,” said Nikoloz Laliashvili, a Christian Democrat.
Russian analysts said the resolution risked setting off conflict over both the Sochi Olympics and the demands of the Circassian diaspora for a return to ancestral lands. Konstantin I. Kosachev, the chief of the international affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of Parliament, said Georgia had political reasons for supporting the Circassians.
He said the Georgian lawmakers “were not moved” by the fate of the Circassians, but were pursuing “personal political goals.”