Failure to Heed Circassian Interests Undermines Russia’s Claims to Respect Ethnic Equality

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 3

On February 1, the head of the Russian parliament’s Committee for Nationalities, Gadzhimet Safaraliev, stated that the State Duma was preparing amendments to the country’s citizenship law that would allow former subjects of the Soviet Union and Russian Empire to migrate to the Russian Federation under a simplified procedure. The new law may cover Syrian Circassians, citizens of the former Soviet republics as well as citizens of Finland and Poland, which were once part of the Russian Empire. Circassian activists, who have long pushed for Syrian Circassians to be allowed to return to the North Caucasus, received the news with “moderate optimism.” Circassian activist Aslan Beshto told Ekho Kavkaza radio station that he hoped the actual application of the new amendments would not exclude Syrian Circassians. “Circassians do not need nice excuses, but real repatriation from Syria, where they are dying now,” Beshto said (http://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/24891900.html).

Previously, Circassian activists in the North Caucasus were outraged by the response of the Russian Foreign Ministry. In December 2012, several Circassian organizations requested information from the ministry about the prospects of repatriating Circassians from Syria. A Russian official responded in a letter stating that: “the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Damascus in cooperation with the Syrian authorities constantly monitors the situation around the Circassians who live in the country. Currently, they are not targeted or oppressed either by the government of the Syrian Arab Republic or by the armed opposition.” The official further stated that if there was a need to help Circassians in Syria, the Russian Embassy would help them.

Circassian civil activist Abubekir Murzakanov called the response from the Russian Foreign Ministry “unexpected” and “cynical.” Murzakanov stated: “Circassians served in the government forces, special units and occupied government positions. Circassians will not have any avenues for life there. There are Armenians, Turks, Georgians and Greeks living in our country; why are Circassians not allowed to come back to their homeland? I cannot understand that. Limits on quotas for the return of Syrian Circassians should be dropped. They have the right to come back to their homeland, and there are many of them willing to come back home from Syria” (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/219562/).

Circassian activists have kept a list of confirmed deaths among members of the Circassian diaspora in Syria. They reported that as of February 7, 43 Syrian Circassians had died in the civil war. That number is imprecise and may not include all victims of the violence in the war-torn country (http://aheku.org/page-id-3446.html). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that the refugee crisis in Syria had intensified. The agency estimated that about 5,000 people flee the country every day. The UNHCR estimates that approximately 800,000 Syrians have asked for asylum in various countries since the conflict started two years ago. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) announced there were water shortages in Syria and that the risk of epidemics was high (http://www.elot.ru/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3203&Itemid=1).

Avraam Shmulevich, an Israeli analyst who closely follows the Circassian issue, believes that President Vladimir Putin is against Circassian immigration from Syria to the North Caucasus. Circassians ended up in Syria after being driven out of the North Caucasus by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. According to Shmulevich, even the micro-immigration of about 1,000 people from Syria to Russia was hard for Russians to accept. “Russian society received it [the limited Circassian immigration] with hostile suspicion,” Shmulevich asserted. “Most of the ‘expert community’ that is linked to the Kremlin and Caucasus-ologists were sharply against it. The leaders of the North Caucasian republics and the adjacent ethnically Russian regions also took a negative and wary stance on the issue. The authorities in the Circassian republics supported the repatriation verbally, but in practice also opposed it” (http://www.apn.ru/publications/article28374.htm).

Russia’s refusal to accept the Syrian Circassians points to a larger problem in the Russian Federation. At the same time as the country tries to ensure its unity through building a “civic nation” that would encompass all ethnicities living in Russia, it appears to be pursuing exclusionary policies toward some ethnicities. As the Russian leadership, with apparent public consent, practically excluded Circassians from the Russian civic nation, the project of creating a non-ethnic concept of Russian citizenry has failed. It is not just the Russian government that has shown disregard for the non-Russian Circassians who are experiencing the hardship of a full-blown civil war in Syria. Russian society in general did not perceive the Circassians as their compatriots who had to be helped. The small number within the Russian intelligentsia in favor of repatriating the Circassians did not gain much traction in Russian society either.

In effect, this means that the Russian government and public leaders who talk about creating a Russian “civic nation” did not pass the litmus test of the Syrian Circassians. Apparently, in talking about creating a “civic nation,” the Russian government simply means adopting aggressive assimilationist policies and creating a country with a single ethnic identity. So everything that prevents this outdated concept from happening is regarded as hostile to the Russian state. However, this implicit understanding of Russianness is unlikely to go unnoticed among ethnic minorities in the country and will result in greater mutual suspicions between ethnic Russians and non-Russians.