ethnic cleansing

The Turkic-Speaking Greek Community of Georgia—and Its Demise

Map of the Former Greek Communities in Georgia, CaucasusReaders who have carefully examined the maps of the Caucasus posted recently in GeoCurrents may have noted an area marked “Greek” in south-central Georgia. This Greek zone appears on most but not all ethno-linguistic maps of the region, sometimes as a single area, and sometimes as two. Depicting Greek communities here is historically accurate but increasingly anachronistic. Since 1991, the Greek population of Georgia has plummeted from over 100,000 to less than 20,000, due largely to emigration to Greece. Many of the remaining Georgian Greeks are elderly, and a few locales are reported to have only a handful of remaining Greek residents, putting the survival of the community in some doubt

But regardless of the community’s future, its Greek nature raises some interesting issues about identity. Members of the group consider themselves Greek, generally belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, and use the Greek script when writing their own language; they are also reckoned as Greeks by the Athens government. As a result, their homeland has been accurately mapped as “Greek” on ethnic maps. It is a different matter, however, when it comes to linguistic maps, as most of the Greeks of south-central Georgia speak a Turkic language called Urum. They are not unique in this regard. Many of the estimated 1.5 million Greeks expelled from Turkey to Greece in the 1920s were actually Turcophones. Today, the remaining Turkic-speaking Greek population is concentrated in three areas: south-central Georgia, the north Azov area of southern Russia, where the community was reported to be 60,000 strong in 1969, and in Donetsk Oblast in southeastern Ukraine, which Ethnologue claims contains 95,000 Urum speakers.*

Map showing the Empire of Trebizond circa 1235 CEThe Greek presence in the area that is now Georgia apparently dates to antiquity. The ancient Greeks were a maritime people who established outposts all along the shores of the Black Sea, many of which survived, in one form or another, into the modern era. The focus of this so-called Pontic Greek community was the coastal strip of what is now northeastern Turkey, an area that enjoyed its heyday from 1204-1461 as the Empire of Trebizond, a prosperous and highly cultured Byzantine successor state. After the Ottoman conquest of Trebizond in 1461, some of its Greek residents abandoned Greek for Turkic dialects while remaining Map of the Aborted Republic of PontusChristian and Greek-identified, others retained both Christianity and their distinctive Pontic Greek dialect (or language), others converted to Islam and adopted the Turkish language, and still others became Muslim while continuing to speak “Rumca,” the local term used to denote Pontic Greek.** Those who retained Greek identity tried to build a Republic of Pontus during the chaotic years from the end of World War I until the early 1920s, but were unsuccessful. After repelling the Greek invasion from the west in 1922, the Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established a firm hold over Anatolia. Turkish assaults at this time on the Greek community in the northeast have been deemed by some the “Pontic Genocide”; in the end, most of the Greeks of Turkey were expelled to Greece, just as the Turks of Greece were expelled to Turkey. Today, Trebizond is an ethnically Turkish area described by the BBC in 2007 as a football-mad hotbed of Turkish nationalism.

The Pontic Greeks were not limited to northeastern Anatolia, as hundreds of thousands lived in the coastal areas of what are now Georgia, Abkhazia, southern Russia, and Ukraine. These communities also suffered periodic bouts of persecution in the twentieth century. Under Stalin, as many as 100,000 Pontic Greeks were exiled to Central Asia in two waves, the first in the late 1930s and the second in the late 1940s. Even after Stalin’s death, Greeks in the Soviet Union faced discrimination. According to one source, “Under both the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes, Greeks (with few exceptions) continued to occupy a disadvantaged position in Soviet society and were unable to obtain high positions in political, military, scientific, and academic hierarchies.” Ronald Suny, however, notes that Greek interests were accommodated in Georgia under the government of Eduard Shevardnadze in the 1970s and early 1980s (see The Making of the Georgian Nation, p. 313).

One of the main centers of Greek culture in the early Soviet Union was the city of Sukhumi in Abkhazia, formerly part of the Georgian Soviet Republic and now a self-declared independent state aligned with Russia. Before World War II, Sukhumi’s Hellenic community of some 65,000 supported Greek schools, theaters, newspapers, and libraries. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Sukhumi still had some 17,000 Pontic Greeks. As Georgians, Abkhazians, and Russians began to struggle over the fate of Abkhazia in 1991, the local Greeks began to flee, even though “[they] were encouraged by both sides to remain in the area throughout the conflict, and were even offered high ministerial and administrative positions.” In 1993, the Athens government carried out “Operation Golden Fleece” to evacuate most of the remaining population from the conflict zone. By 2003, only around 2,000 Greeks still lived in Abkhazia.

Although the Greek communities of the coastal zone are of long standing, those of interior Georgia date back only to the late eighteenth century. In 1763, Heraclius II, one of the last independent Georgian monarchs, enticed a sizable contingent of Pontic Greeks to settle in the area that now straddles the border of Georgia and Armenia, where he was developing silver and lead mines as part of an aborted modernization program. A second group fled the Ottoman Empire for Russian-ruled Georgia in 1829-1830, after the Greek War of Independence triggered the harassment of Anatolian Greeks. These refugees settled mostly in the Trialeti Plateau region of south-central Georgia, with the multi-lingual and now majority Armenian city of Tsalka forming their hub. Although these so-called Tsalka Urums were almost entirely Turkic-speaking—as the label “Urum” indicates—late Soviet ethnographic studies found that “36% of them considered Greek their mother tongue despite their lack of knowledge of that language, [and that] 96% expressed their desire to learn Greek.”

With the downfall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Georgia, the Tsalka Urums began to forsake Georgia for Greece. According some reports, the Greek community of south-central Georgia declined from 35,000 in 1989 to 3,000 in 2002, although the 2002 Georgian census still listed 7,415 “Greeks” in the Kvemo-Kartli administrative unit. The reasons for this precipitous decline are debatable. Some Greek sources claim that the Tsalka Urums were basically driven out by other ethnic groups. According to an April 2005 report in the Hellenic Resources Network, “Greek families have been massacred and others have been forced out of their villages, according to local ethnic Greek organizations.” Another report on the same site claims that internal migration within Georgia added to the community’s woes: “The remote Tsalka … became attractive for the Svanja, the domestic immigrants from western Georgia, and the Adjarians. … The squatters committed acts of violence … to force the ethnic Greeks to abandon their homeland.” The same sources, however, also mention an economic rationale for the migration, noting that retirees in the area receive pensions equivalent to twelve Euros a month, far less that what they are able to collect in Greece.

Maps showing ethnic changes in GeorgiaSeveral lessons can be drawn from the story of the Pontic Greeks of Georgia. The first is that ethnic mapping often fails to keep pace with events on the ground. Older maps depicted a substantial Greek population in south-central Georgia, as was indeed appropriate. More recent maps tend to copy from these sources, failing to capture such recent changes as the near disappearance of this Greek community. Recent maps also generally fail to note the disappearance of the southernmost area of Ossetian inhabitation in Georgia. I have accordingly changed one of the most widely used ethno-linguistic maps of the Caucasus, erasing the “Greek” and “Ossetian” areas from Georgia proper. I have also deleted the “Georgian” area from South Ossetia, as a significant degree of ethnic cleansing has occurred here as well.

A second lesson concerns the complex relationship between ethnic identity and language. One might assume that an area labeled “Greek” on an “ethno-linguistic map” would be Greek-speaking, but that is not the case in regard to Tsalka. Strictly speaking, such a designation is incorrect, as Urums are Greek only in the ethnic sense. Yet polling data from the late Soviet period indicated that many people here proclaimed a Greek linguistic identity even though they did not actually speak Greek, but merely hoped to learn it. Also important was their use of the Greek script to signal group membership.

Finally, the plight of the Georgian Greeks also speaks to the broader reduction of the Greek community abroad. The Greeks, like the Jews, the Armenians, and the Lebanese, are one of the great diasporic peoples of western Eurasia, their communities historically scattered over a vast territorial expanse. But ethnic persecution and economic hardship abroad, coupled with enticements from the national homeland, have reduced the extent of the Greek diaspora. In the process, the modern ethnic map of the Caucasus has become less intricate than that of the recent past.

In a similar process, many members of the Armenian community living in other parts of the Caucasus have relocated to Armenia (and Nagorno-Karabakh), a movement that has been going on for some time. Yet Armenia is now to sending many more migrants abroad than it takes in, thus perpetuating the Armenian diaspora in a different manner, as we shall see in a subsequent GeoCurrents post.

* The 2001 Ukrainian census lists 91,000 “Greeksfor the country as a wholewhereas the 1989 census counted 98,500 Ukrainian Greeks, only 14,286 named Greek as their native language. Whether the others are Turkic or Russian speakers was not mentioned.

* Some sources claim a few thousand Rumca speakers, many of them elderly, still live in northeastern Turkey, although the comprehensive Ethnologue has no information on the group.

Anna Eshoo and the Ignored Plight of the Assyrians

In looking over the sample ballot for the 2010 November election, my mind turned to the Assyrians as I came to the name of Anna Eshoo, their champion in the U.S. Congress. By “Assyrians” I mean not the ancient empire-builders, but rather the modern community, several million strong globally, that claims to be their descendents. The main Christian group of Iraq and neighboring countries, the Assyrians have suffered grievously of late. In 2005, Eshoo authored an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act requesting that, “special attention should be paid to the welfare of Chaldo-Assyrians and other indigenous Christians in Iraq.” Of Assyrian (and Armenian) background herself, Eshoo is better known in Congress for advocating Silicon Valley interests, as befits the representative of California’s 14th district, home to such firms as Google, Hewlett Packard, and Facebook.

Eshoo has had scant company in upholding Assyrian rights. The community is almost unknown in the United States; out of a class of 181 Stanford University students polled this morning, no one could identify the group. The general plight of the Christian population of Iraq may be more widely recognized, but hardly any of my students were aware of the issue, one that is considered pressing by few pundits or politicians. Yet the magnitude of anti-Christian violence and ethnic cleansing in Iraq is considerable. Since 2003, more than forty-six Assyrian churches and monasteries have been bombed, several priests have been beheaded, and entire communities have been displaced. In January 2010 alone, 12,000 Christians in the northern city of Mosul were forced out of their homes. As reported recently in Deutsche Welle:

The Christian minority in Iraq has been reduced to a shadow of its former self …. Up to two-thirds of the pre-war community has been displaced or forced to flee the country… There’s a real possibility that 2,000 years of settlement by Christian communities in Iraq is in danger of near-total extinction.

The Assyrians once received global attention. Their cause was fairly well known in the early 20th century, when an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 members of their community were slaughtered by Ottoman and Ottoman-allied forces during World War I, in a series of events known as the Sayfo, or Assyrian Genocide.* Renewed massacres of Assyrians in the early 1930s led Raphael Lemkin to begin thinking about the mass extermination of entire peoples; he later coined the term “genocide” to describe such processes. But over time the memory of the assaults receded from view, and the more extensive massacres of Armenians during the same period came to overshadow those of the Assyrians. But the repeated attacks devastated the community, as large numbers of people had to seek refuge in other lands. Deprived of their homeland, the Assyrians, unlike the Armenians, lost their place on the map. Even in their core territory, the so-called Assyrian Triangle in what is now northern Iraq, Christians were reduced to a clearly minority status. Before long they were largely forgotten by the outside world.

The Assyrians are a distinctive people not just in the religious sense. In their scattered communities in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, many if not most continue to speak Aramaic dialects – Aramaic having been a lingua franca of the ancient Near East, perhaps best known as the mother-tongue of Jesus. The modern Neo-Aramaic of the Assyrians has evolved far from the old language, but the relationship remains obvious. Both language and religion, however, divide as well as unite the indigenous Christians of the region. Neo-Aramaic itself is split into three dialects that some linguists classify as separate languages. Five separate Christian sects, moreover, are found within the larger community, two of which fall under the umbrella of Roman Catholicism (the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syriac Catholic Church), and three of which are independent (the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Church). Not all of these groups are always classified as Assyrian, hence the use of such terms as “Chaldo-Assyrian.” But under intense persecution, Christians in northern Iraq today tend to stress their commonalities, not their differences.

Considering the magnitude of the Assyrian crisis, its escape from general notice is remarkable. One reason is probably that of limited public attention. The media, it often seems, regard the three-fold division of Iraq among the Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Sunni Kurds as complex enough, as if extended discussion of smaller groups would generate information overload. A weariness of world horrors – “humanitarian disaster fatigue ” – might also play a role. Short-lived natural disasters, even if inconsequential, garner mass attention, but more slowly unfolding and more intractable human-caused calamities seem too depressing and lack dramatic appeal. As a result, horrific campaigns of ethnic cleansing, such as those faced by the Rohingyas, a Muslim people of western Burma, proceed with little outside notice (discussed in Geocurrents on January 2, 2010).

I suspect, however, that another dynamic applies in the case of the Assyrians, a group too large and historically significant to be so easily relegated into obscurity. It would also seem that the United States and its allies have a special responsibility both to acknowledge and to address the issue, as the current assaults on the Assyrians are an indirect result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But therein, I think, lies the rub. In the United States, conservatives may be reluctant to pay much attention to the issue because doing so highlights the unsuccessful nature of the Iraqi regime-change gambit, putting blame for a humanitarian disaster in part on their own shoulders. Liberals, I suspect, turn a blind eye to the Assyrian predicament because they do not want to draw additional attention to the actions of Muslim extremists, fearing that doing so would intensify an anti-Islamic backlash in the West, and thus enhance the power of the right-wing. Meanwhile, the carnage continues. On October 31, 2010, fifty-two people were killed after militants with suspected ties to Al Qaeda attacked a Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad.

Geocurrents will continue examining the Assyrian community and its plight through this week, with the next post focusing on the complex relations among the Assyrians, the Syrians, and the Kurds.

*Controversy persists as to whether the early 20th century attacks on the Assyrians constituted an episode of genocide; I follow the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), which in 2007 passed a resolution declaring that the term is indeed appropriate.

Kaliningrad, Russia’s Restive Exclave

In the last weekend of January, 2010, massive protests erupted in the Russian city of Kaliningrad, unnerving the country’s political establishment. Despite bitter weather, an estimated 10,000 people took to the streets to denounce both the local governor and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, ostensibly for raising utility prices and transport taxes during a time of economic crisis. They also demanded the direct election of regional governors, who have been appointed by the central government since 2004. Unlike most Russian protests, riot police did not intervene to shut things down.

The significance of the event stemmed not just from its size but from the coalition of forces that banded together. Organized by a local non-partisan rights groups, the protest was supported not only by liberal activists associated with Russia’s new Solidarity movement, but also by unreconstructed communists and hard-core nationalists. The latter were represented primarily by members of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Despite its name, the LDPR is an anti-liberal party that supports the extension of capital punishment, the abolition of “non-traditional religious sects,” and state ownership of strategic economic sectors. Nonetheless, these disparate groups agreed on one thing: United Russia, the country’s dominant party, was exploiting their differences to retain its grip on power.

The size and scope of Kaliningrad’s protest movement is linked to the region’s unique geographical position. Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave, separated from the rest of the country by several hundred miles, its territory bracketed by Poland and Lithuania – both members of NATO and the European Union. Such isolation hindered efforts by the Russian security apparatus to to control the demonstration once it had been ignited. Kaliningrad’s proximity to central Europe also enhanced the spread of anti-establishment political views. People here can easily visit Poland and Lithuania, democratic and relatively prosperous countries. Protest organizer Maksim Doroshok highlighted the Polish connection: “We see that in neighbouring Poland, where they brought in reforms, where there is democracy, it’s cheaper, people earn more, civic bodies function better. Why should we be any worse? Our region is the most European in the whole [Russian] federation because we know Europe and we know how to fight for our rights… There is a different spirit at rule here. There is a wind blowing from … Gdansk.” (Gdansk was the birthplace of the Polish Solidarity movement that helped bring down the communist system; see “Russian Protest Inspired by EU Neighbours,” by Andrew Rettman, .)

Russia acquired its Kaliningrad exclave at the end of World War II. It had previously been the northern half of East Prussia, a German-speaking region for some 800 years. In the post-war settlement, Germany was stripped of its eastern territories and their German residents were expelled westward in a convulsion of ethnic cleansing. Most of these lands were awarded to Poland, in compensation for the Soviet Union’s simultaneous annexation of Poland’s eastern regions. Northern East Prussia, however, with its port facilities well suited for a naval base, was appropriated by the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities awarded the new land directly to Russia, the largest of the so-called Soviet Union Republics. As Germans were driven out, Russians moved in, effecting almost complete ethnic replacement. Today the only real German presence in Kaliningrad derives from tourists, many of them elders eager to catch one last glimpse of their birthplace.

The downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused an economic crisis in the newly cut-off region of Kaliningrad. Russian authorities responded by creating a special economic zone in 1996, turning Kaliningrad into a hub for the assembly and distribution of televisions, electronics, and automobiles for the Russian market. Such policies proved generally successful until the economic crisis of 2008, which resulted in huge job loses in Kaliningrad—and led to increased pubic discontent.

As we have seen in Angola’s Cabinda, exclaves often present particular problems for central governmental control, and government weakness in turn can generate demands for secession. In the 1990s, when Russia was weak, some local leaders called for Kaliningrad’s independence, hoping that it could become a fourth Baltic republic. Such dreams are now infeasible; an increasingly muscular Russia would not contemplate letting such a valuable territory go. But Kaliningrad does continue to generate opposition to the Russian government, giving Putin and company a significant cause for concern.

Circassia and the 2014 Winter Olympics

Yesterday’s post referred to the Ossetians as a people of “profound world-historical significance,” a phrase that fits their neighbors, the Circassians, even better. That members of the so-called White race are called “Caucasians” stems largely from the widespread nineteenth-century European notion that the Circassians, natives of the northwestern Caucasus, somehow represented the ideal human form. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Circassians were well known in Europe and the United States, celebrated for their bravery and especially their beauty. Mass-marketing advertisement campaigns hawked “Circassian lotion,” “Circassian Hair Dye,” and “Circassian soap”; P.T. Barnum even exhibited fake “Circassian beauties.” Yet in our time, this once-famous group has virtually vanished from view; when I recently asked a class of 160 Stanford undergraduates if anyone had heard of them, not a single hand was raised.

The Circassians’ world-historical significance derives not from their supposed physical attributes, but from the singular niche they occupied in the eastern Mediterranean from late medieval to early modern times. To put it starkly, Circassians served as elite slaves in the major Muslim states of the region. Although the notion of “elite slaves” may seem self-contradictory, unfree individuals could rise to very high positions. Muslim rulers had long staffed their armies in part with enslaved soldiers – Mamluks – and at several times and places such troops essentially took over the state. The Mamluk Burji dynasty that ruled Egypt from 1382 to 1517 was founded by, and composed largely of, Circassian soldiers of servile background. Circassian women who were exported into servitude could end up as concubines or even wives of Ottoman and Persian sultans. Such women could become powerful in their own right, especially if one of their sons rose to the top position.

The Circassians’ downfall came at the hands of the Russians in the 1860s. The Russia Empire reached across the Caucasus to encompass Christian Georgia in the early 1800s, but – as the map above indicates – it failed to subdue Circassia. (Note that the map incorrectly places Chechnya and adjacent areas within Circassia.) Having fought the Circassians for roughly a century, Russia’s leaders decided to expel the population. Some 80 to 90 percent of the Circassians were forced out; most found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, but nearly half died in the process. Today the Circassian population in Russia has recovered to number some 900,000. In Turkey, roughly two to four million people are of Circassian descent, and the Circassian community in Jordan numbers about 150,000. It is doubtful, however, whether Circassian culture can survive outside of the Caucasian homeland.

Circassian activists are now pushing Russia and the global community to recognize the events of the 1860s as constituting genocide. They hope to use the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia – once a Circassian port – to bring their historical plight to global attention. As Sufian Zhemukhov reported in the Circassian World website in September, 2009, “Most Circassians see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to plead their case, rather than as an offense to be resisted. Still, many Circassians have opposed the Winter Games on the grounds that they will take place on ‘ethnically-cleansed’ land. Some Circassian NGOs have branded the Olympics the “Games on Bones” and opposed construction work [that] could endanger important burial sites. In October 2007, … Circassian activists organized meetings in front of Russian consulates in New York and Istanbul to protest against holding the Winter Games in Sochi. Finally, the Circassian anti-Olympic movement began to seek official Russian recognition of the Circassian genocide and called on the IOC to move the Games.” (

More immediately, Circassian activists want Russia to create a single internal republic for the four legally defined ethnic groups (the Adyghe, Cherkesm, Shapsugs, and Kabardin) that together constitute the Circassian people. That complicated issue, however, must be the subject of a later posting.