Circassians Become Increasingly Disillusioned with Russia

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 1

On December 2, the Circassian Congress organization of Karachaevo-Cherkessia appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev to create the conditions “for unimpeded repatriation” of the Circassian diaspora in Syria to Russia and the North Caucasus. The chairman of the Circassian Congress, Kase Kika, claimed there are tens of thousands “Russian compatriots” in Syria, including ethnic Circassians. Referring to the positive experience of the Circassians who were repatriated from Kosovo to the North Caucasus in 1998-1999, Kika appealed to Medvedev to act in a similar fashion in Syria. According to the Circassian Congress, Moscow’s support for repatriating the Circassians living in Syria would “promote rising international prestige of the Russian Federation as a power that comes to the rescue of its compatriots regardless of their country of residence and ethnicity” (, December 3).

The issue of ethnicity can hardly go unnoticed in Russia. While formally all Russian citizens and ethnic groups are equal, in practice there is tacit understanding that some ethnicities are more important than others. Also, there has been a consistent public drive to make ethnic Russians a “state-founding” ethnicity to formalize their domination in the country.

According to the Circassian historian Anzor Kushkhabiev, who wrote several books on the Circassian diaspora in the Middle East, approximately 80,000-90,000 Circassians live in Syria. About 90 percent of them are believed to reside in the cities, especially in the capital Damascus. The Circassian historian told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website that ethnic Circassians were resettled in Syria by the Ottoman Empire mostly after the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878. The bulk of these Circassians were deported from their homeland in the North Caucasus by the Russian Empire in 1858-1864, Kushkhabiev said. While the Circassian settlers were for a long time primarily known for their service in the military, they also started to move into other social spheres, such as business and education, during the past three decades, according to Kushkhabiev. There have been changes in the primary Circassian occupation in Syria, too. Kushkhabiev told Kavkazsky Uzel that by the end of the past century there were 30-35 Circassian generals in the Syrian armed forces. However, that situation changed and Circassians are no longer promoted to the rank of general. Consequently, Kushkhabiev said popular talk about Circassians being the pillar of the Assad’s regime was not correct, since Circassians currently occupy only middle-rank military positions. Kushkhabiev said he did not hear about any appeals by Syrian Circassians wanting to emigrate from Syria to Russia, but if there were desperate people, they would have to be assisted (

Meanwhile, the situation in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia remains tense. On December 10, a counterterrorism operation regime was introduced in the village of Zhakhoteko in Kabardino-Balkaria’s Baksan district and later on the same day rescinded with no observable results (, December 10). On December 6, a counterterrorism regime introduced as early as February 2011 was dropped in the village of Gerpegezha in Kabardino-Balkaria’s Cherek district (, December 6).

On December 7, the police reported that had they killed the leader of Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s insurgency, Biaslan Gochiyaev, and three of his accomplices, including a woman. According to the Russian National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAK), the 33-year-old woman, Marina Urusova, was trained to carry out a suicide attack. The rebel suspects were killed in a special operation near the Karachay district village of Kumysha. The NAK stated that Gochiyaev had been appointed as the head of Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s militants one year earlier (, December 8).

However, the structure of the North Caucasian insurgency does not contain Karachaevo-Cherkessia as a unit. Instead, the insurgency has “the united vilayat of Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachay” (see So it is unclear what Gochiyaev’s true rank was in the insurgency, especially as the militants’ websites had ignored this development as of December 11.

As the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics approach, the struggles for historical accounts between the Circassians and Russians also intensify. Circassian activists spotted a children’s game where “good” Cossacks fight “bad” highlanders – i.e., North Caucasians (, December 9). In Georgia, it was announced that a memorial to the victims of the Circassian genocide will be erected in the Black Sea resort city of Anaklia (, December 2).

So, while in their own country Circassians have to fight against the falsification of their history, neighboring Georgia appears to be much more receptive to their grievances. As Moscow shows little receptiveness to the Circassians’ claims, their grievances have increased in number over the years and the Olympics in Sochi are projected to be a milestone in defining the new age of Circassian identity.