The Russian government has started targeting Circassians from Turkey who have settled in the North Caucasus, angering local Circassians. Even the well-known Russian loyalist Asker Sokht, a Circassian activist from Krasnodar region, raised the alarm, saying that Circassian settlers from Turkey in Kabardino-Balkaria have started receiving letters from the Russian Federal Migration Service officially annulling their legal residence in the Russian Federation. Sokht called these attempts “another mass deportation of Circassians from their historical homeland.” He added that “under made-up pretext and taking advantage of the tense Russian-Turkish relations, [some forces] are making an attempt to deport en masse Circassian compatriots who have for years lived in Russia back to Turkey.” Sokht called on the republican authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria and the federal authorities in Moscow to stop the campaign of deportations (Yuga.ru, January 14), as if the campaign was started by someone other than the authorities themselves.
Russian-Turkish relations soured last November after Turkey downed a Russian warplane that was bombing anti-government forces in Syria. The Turkish authorities said that the Russian plane was downed after it crossed into Turkish airspace. An anti-Turkish public campaign followed in Russia, with President Putin vowing to punish Turkey and issuing two decrees imposing sanctions on the country, including an end to the visa free regime and import/export operations between the two countries as well as restriction on the activities of Turkish businesses. Ironically, Russia is so dependent on Turkish construction and some other companies—especially since the West imposed sanctions over Ukraine—that the Russian government is now preparing to backtrack and lift sanctions against select Turkish firms (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, January 15).
The history of Circassian settlers from Turkey in the North Caucasus dates back to the 19th century, when the Russian Empire expanded in several directions, conquering and destroying states and nations. When the Russian imperial armies dealt the final blow to Circassian forces near what is now the city of Sochi on the Black Sea, the Russian authorities quickly set out to alter the ethnic map of the area. The Circassian population that remained was deported to the Ottoman Empire, many were starved to death and only a minority was allowed to stay in their homeland. After the end of the Cold War, some Circassians from Turkey started returning to their historical homeland in the North Caucasus. Hundreds resettled in Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea, but the authorities never made the process easy for Circassians who wished to return.
On January 14, the Federation of Caucasian Organizations of Turkey (KAFFED) said it was calling for an extraordinary conference of the International Circassian Association (ICA), an organization created by the Russian security services in the early 1990s, which sought to regulate ties between foreign Circassian diaspora groups and Circassians in the North Caucasus. KAFFED said it was alarmed by the mounting problems of Circassian returnees from Turkey in the North Caucasus, who are facing increased pressure connected to deteriorating Russian-Turkish relations (Caucasreview.com, January 15). However, the ICA itself has been criticized by many Circassian activists for its complacency and lack of will to defend Circassian interests. Hence, “an extraordinary meeting” of ICA is unlikely to change the situation.
According to the Russian Federal Migration Service (FBS) in Kabardino-Balkaria, 90 Turkish citizens currently have temporary residence permits and 104 Turkish citizens have permanent residence permits. In 2015, the FMS registered 936 new arrivals from Turkey and removed 859 from their registry. The authorities claim that only 7 out of 26 people who had their residency permits annulled were ethnic Circassians. The authorities accused the Circassian repatriates of violating the rules of registration (propiska), which are notoriously hard to navigate even for native Russians citizens. The returnees reportedly were not living at the addresses where they were registered. Registration in Russia is not simply about notifying the authorities where one resides, but about receiving permission to reside at a specific place, and the process of receiving such permission is rife with corruption. Valery Khatazhukov, a rights activist from Kabardino-Balkaria, called on the governor of the republic, Yuri Kokov, to stop the deportation of Circassian returnees from Turkey, but the governor did not respond (Kavkazsky Uzel, January 15).
Meanwhile, Russian experts put Kabardino-Balkaria at the bottom of the list of Russian regions ranked by their overall stability. Experts note the low investment activity in the republic, the continuing campaign of public killings, and the slump in investment in human capital (Onkavkaz.com, January 14). Circassian activists themselves note that many of the Circassian refugees from Syria who made it to Russia and the North Caucasus eventually chose to emigrate to Europe or at least try to do so rather than remain in the region. The activists say it is an alarming sign for Kabardino-Balkaria and other Circassian-populated republics that their compatriots prefer Europe to their own homeland. Out of the estimated 3,000 Circassian Syrians who arrived in Russia, 40 percent, or about 1,200 individuals, continued on to Europe (Ekhokavkaza, January 15).
Given the current conditions, with life in the North Caucasus not an attractive option even for many Circassian refugees from Syria, the Turkish Circassians are not being deported because there is an overflow of refugees. Instead, it appears that the Russian authorities are using the deterioration in relations with Turkey to settle scores with Circassian activists, who have pushed for the return of willing Circassians to their historical homeland in the North Caucasus.