“Come along,” said the Russian customs officer at Sochi International Airport. Elbowing my way through passengers in passport and ticket lines, I was taken down the snaking stairs to the ground floor and put on the bus at the gate.
“My passport?” I asked.
“You’ll get it on board,” he said.
The pilot announced my name and handed me the passport only after the doors of the plane were shut. It may be a routine deportation procedure, but all this treatment buzzed one thing in my ears: “You are undesirable.”
Such was the feeling I had at the end of the 48 hours I spent stranded at the airport, without water for the first 22 hours, pacing back and forth or surfing the Internet in the huge waiting hall — where I was often the only person — or trying to sleep on a bench under a hail of loudspeaker announcements in Russian.
I had been on my way to Abkhazia, the country which ended its involuntary union with Georgia when the Soviet Union collapsed, and whose independence Russia recognized after the South Ossetia war in 2008. Since Georgia presents a very arduous and undesirable route, only one alternative is available to enter Abkhazia: the Psou border crossing, 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) from Sochi’s Adler district, where the airport is located.
When I landed there at 5:00 a.m. on Sept. 28, I was detained and dumbfounded by what the officer said: “You’ve been banned from entering Russia for five years. We’ll send you back on the plane you arrived on. The flight is three days later.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry stepped in as soon as I contacted them, handing Moscow a diplomatic note on my situation at the end of the first day. Turkish diplomats in Russia kept constant phone contact with me. The Abkhaz Foreign Ministry made unsuccessful attempts to get Moscow to lift the ban and eventually arranged for me to fly with another airliner and return to Istanbul a day earlier than the Russians had arranged. The treatment I was accorded reverberated in the Turkish press, sparked campaigns on social media and even led to a demonstration in Istanbul.
Sochi’s tragic past
The five-year entry ban is in fact a ban on my journalistic activities, even though no reason was officially uttered to me. I am barred from reporting in the Caucasus, my special area of interest. But why did a Turkish journalist, whom Russian state media frequently interviewed, suddenly become a suspicious person? No matter what the Russians will say in their reply to the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s formal request for information, I believe the answer is hidden in my articles and television commentaries about the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
I have written about the Caucasus hundreds of times, and none of those writings ever stood in my way during frequent trips to Russia. The ban came just in the run-up to the Olympics. I’m not an activist nor part of any campaign opposing the games. I have only put a spotlight on the ongoing debate over the Olympics in the Circassian diaspora and in the Caucasus.
Long before the Olympics became an issue, I had seen firsthand what Sochi and its environs mean for Circassians during many travels in the region as a journalist. Tragic memories of war and deportations abound in this coastal area on the Black Sea — from Sochi, the homeland of the Ubykh people, to the former Circassian (Adyghe) lands in Lazarevsk (Psishuape) and Tuapse.
Olympics and genocide
Advocates of the Circassian cause see the Olympics as a major opportunity to tell the world about their tragedy in the 19th century, which they describe as “genocide.” Along with Circassian activists, international actors seeking to settle historical scores with Russia as well as vengeful regional countries like Georgia have jangled Moscow’s nerves by taking up the “Circassian genocide” issue.
Holding a grudge against Russia over the 2008 war, Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration, for instance, hosted conferences in Tbilisi on the Circassian genocide. It did not stop there, and Georgia became the first country whose parliament formally recognized the Circassian genocide.
Russia hates to be drawn into a genocide controversy in the context of the Olympics and, thus, has no qualms about bullying the spearheads of the debate. Moreover, it fears that the Caucasian emirate could plot attacks to overshadow the games or force their cancelation. Such concerns are not to be discounted, but Russia has taken them to the level of a paranoia manifested in unbelievable measures that serve nothing but to fuel the controversy - so much so that even what happened to me abruptly rekindled the waning debate among Circassians.
The Circassians, meanwhile, are not even united in their stance on the Olympics. The Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation as well as Abkhazia, for instance, see the Olympics as a golden economic opportunity. The sentiment in the diaspora is similarly diverse. A significant part of Circassians who are sensitive to the issue would readily accept solace in gestures such as some cultural elements in the Olympics that would pay tribute to the region’s autochthonous peoples.
Russia, however, has only fanned their anger. The Russian delegation that carried the Olympic flame, for instance, did not include any Circassians but rather folk troupes representing the Cossacks, who served as the strike force in the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century and were then resettled in the lands of the deported peoples.
And just like Gen. Potemkin, who erected fake villages to fool Empress Catherine over the misery of 19th-century Crimea, the current Russian leaders are building giant complexes to cover up the Circassian reality in Sochi. The Shapsug district near Sochi — where only 8,000 to 10,000 people remain today from the 300,000-strong Shapsug (Adyghe) community prior to the 1864 deportations — had been renamed after Gen. Lazarevski, who went down in history for the massacres he led in Circassian lands. That was also a move to obscure the region’s history.
Yet, tricks borrowed from Potemkin’s legacy have fallen short of whitewashing history this time. No matter how hard Russia tries to suppress it, the controversy surrounding the Olympics has raised the shroud over the black history of Krasnaya Polyana, the Olympic venue soaked with Circassian blood.
Fehim Taştekin is a columnist and chief editor of foreign news at the Turkish newspaper Radikal, based in Istanbul. He is the host of a fortnightly program called "Dogu Divanı" on IMC TV. He is an analyst specializing in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs. He was founding editor of Agency Caucasus.
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