A ‘New’ Russian Approach to Circassian Repatriation?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 130

(Source: Circassia Times)

Several days ago (September 22), the Russian Ministry of Interior’s regional office in Kabardino-Balkaria—one of the North Caucasus republics to which Circassians in the Middle East want to return—turned to a Telegram channel to declare that it is seeking to “effectively realize” a new program intended to repatriate members of this nation from Syria and other countries “to the maximum extent possible.” The message went on to insist that any holdups would be a reflection not of Moscow’s policies and intentions but rather of the decisions of the republic governments in the North Caucasus, which it implied need to do more, and of the actions of foreign governments and foundations committed to discrediting and otherwise undermining this positive Russian government effort (Facebook.com, accessed September 24; Natpressru.info, September 22).

Except for these propagandistic flourishes, however, there is no evidence that Moscow has in fact changed course. Circassians have long insisted that Russian policy is based on a fundamental double standard: openly discriminating against their nation and other Muslim peoples while actively promoting the immigration or repatriation of Slavic groups. Indeed, Russian laws and decrees allow Ukrainians and Russians living abroad to become part of the government-supported compatriots program regardless of where they were born or even whether they speak Russian. These groups can be fast-tracked toward obtaining Russian citizenship. By contrast, Russian government policy does not offer the same provisions for Circassians or other Muslim groups. Illustratively, as recently as September 4, the Russian interior ministry released an official statement declaring that only those Syrian Circassians or Adygeys who were born in the former Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) or otherwise once held Soviet citizenship would be considered “compatriots” under the terms of Russian law. Those who do not meet those criteria can immigrate to the Russian Federation, the interior ministry says, but they must enter just like anyone else; and they will not be offered any of the financial and other support that the Russian compatriot repatriation program promises (Regnum, September 4). In reporting on the latest announcement coming out of Kabardino-Balkaria, the editors of the Circassian Natpress portal observe that there is absolutely no evidence Russian authorities are ready to admit more Circassians; although, they imply that the Circassian republics in the North Caucasus may still be able to achieve what Moscow clearly does not intend (Natpressru.info, September 22).

Circassians—both in their North Caucasus homeland, from which they were mostly expelled by tsarist forces in 1864 (only about 750,000 remain there), and the five-to-seven million in the diaspora (mostly in the Middle East)—have long been angry about this Russian policy. They are especially outraged because of how Moscow’s policies reflect obvious political and ethnic calculations. Those are highlighted each year on August 1, the holiday created in the Republic of Adygea to mark the return there of 49 Circassian families from war-torn Yugoslavia at the end of the 1990s. Moscow trumpeted that act at the time because it was directed against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); but it has pointedly not repeated this action in the case of Syria today.

In advance of that holiday this year, Circassian activist Asker Sokht offered a comprehensive condemnation of Moscow’s double standards. Moreover, in his piece, he warns this policy is undermining any chance for Russia to be able to win over the peoples of the world to its side. His strongly worded article was carried on the Regnumnews agency portal (Regnum, July 29), an outlet that most often reflects Russian nationalist views rather than a defense of non-Russian peoples in general or the nations of the North Caucasus in particular. The publication of Sokht’s article there suggests that even those who support the Kremlin on most things are worried about the consequences of the Vladimir Putin regime’s continuing anti-Circassian immigration policies.

Pointing out that the Kremlin had no problems creating a special program to support the immigration of two million Ukrainians in 2014, even helping them acquire Russian citizenship on an expedited basis, Sokht notes that Moscow has been unwilling to help the Circassians of Syria who find themselves in a much more dire situation. Despite the Russian government’s refusal to help the Circassians by including them in the compatriots program, 6,000 Circassians have come back to their homeland since 2012, supported by local Circassian activists and, to a lesser extent, by the governments of the Circassian republics—but not by Moscow.

Due to the poverty of the North Caucasus republics and the difficulties they and their peoples face in providing assistance, the Circassian activist continues, only about half of the Syrian-Circassian refugees who found their way to the Russian Federation have remained there. The rest have moved on to Abkhazia, Turkey, Jordan, Sweden, Norway and Germany, or even “returned to Syria,” giving Moscow a propaganda black eye. Nevertheless, those Circassians who have remained in Russia (despite not being classed as compatriots) have in many cases become Russian citizens, attended Russian higher education institutions and even served in the Russian Armed Forces, “which also is an important mechanism for integration into Russian society,” Sokht writes (Regnum, July 29).

These Syrian-Circassians have become good citizens in every respect, he suggests. Why, then, does Moscow not want more of them to return? The answers are both simple and ugly. First, allowing more Circassians to return would mean more Muslims in Russia—something Russian nationalists do not want. And second, admitting more of them would tip the ethnic balance in the North Caucasus, possibly forcing Moscow to redraw the borders there and to reestablish a single Circassian republic—something the Kremlin is clearly increasingly afraid of (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, June 17).

In short, there is nothing new in Russia’s “new” policy toward the Circassians and their repatriation. That said, there is—as demonstrated by Regnum’s decision to publish a harsh attack on that policy by a Circassian leader—growing concern, even in Moscow, that the regime’s current policy is counterproductive, hurting rather than helping Russia and mobilizing more Circassians against Moscow.