False Alternatives: Opposition to Sochi Olympics or Repatriation of Syrian Circassians

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 1

From the start of the crisis in Syria in 2011 and especially in 2012, Circassians discovered there were an estimated 100,000 of their ethnic brethren living in that war-torn country. Circassian activists expended much effort in 2012 trying to convince the Russian authorities to help the Circassians in Syria. Those efforts have continued into 2013, with some activists having staged protests in Maikop, Adygea (https://www.natpress.ru/index.php?newsid=7957). Although Moscow allowed about 1,000 Syrian Circassians to relocate to the North Caucasus, granting them temporary visas, this did not solve the problem of the thousands of other Circassians in Syria, who face constant hazards in the ongoing civil war.

In March 2012, an official Russian delegation that included members of Circassian organizations from the North Caucasus and members of the Russian Council of Federation, visited Syria. The ball seemed to start rolling after that visit. However, the effect did not last long and did not result in any comprehensive Russian government actions. As soon as the Circassian-populated republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygea exhausted their meager immigration quotas, the Russian embassy in Syria stopped issuing Russian visas to the Syrian Circassians.

Circassian activists staged protests in the North Caucasus and in Moscow, but so far they have yielded few results. The Russian authorities appear to be very cautious about allowing Circassian refugees from Syria to return to their historical homeland in the North Caucasus. Circassians, in their turn, expect Russia to help the Syrian Circassians because it was the Russian state that drove Circassians out of the North Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Descendants of those displaced by the Russian Empire are now caught in the heat of the civil war in Syria. Also, existing Russian legislation makes provisions for “Russian compatriots” repatriating to the Russian Federation under a simplified procedure. Russia is certainly not an overpopulated country and also recognizes the need for importing a workforce, so presumably a few new emigrants would not make Russia worse off. However, despite all the benefits to the country, Moscow has shown stubborn resistance even to recognizing the issue of Circassian refugees from Syria.

Moscow’s unwillingness to help the Syrian Circassians has evoked a negative reaction among many Circassian activists, even those who had been fairly loyal to Moscow. Indeed, if Moscow does not want to extend protection to Circassians abroad, the Circassians can expect very little help from Russia. Some Circassian observers stated that Moscow’s failure to help the Syrian Circassians has untied the Circassians’ hands to throw their full weight behind the opposition to the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 (https://www.carnegie.ru/publications/?fa=49368&solr_hilite=Нефляшева).

It is easy to see that in 2013 Moscow will try to continue feeding Circassian hopes that it might allow the repatriation of more Syrian Circassians to the North Caucasus. This supposedly should contain Circassian campaigning against the 2014 Olympics. At the same time, if the Circassians still speak out against the Olympics, Moscow will say they are not loyal enough to allow the repatriation of more of their ethnic kin from Syria. In this tricky situation, the only viable option the Circassians seem to have is to protest against the Sochi Olympics and try to secure concessions from Moscow, rather than wait for when the Olympics are over. Circassians dying in Syria are of much less concern to the Kremlin than public protests against Putin’s project in Sochi.
It must be said, though, that public protest in Russia is not a trivial thing. Peaceful protesters regularly end up being beaten by the police or even imprisoned on falsified charges. It is even less trivial in the North Caucasus. Notably, Circassian activists were able to stage protests in Moscow over the past several months but in the North Caucasus found it extremely hard to stage anything more than one-man pickets, which do not require official permission. In the run up to the Sochi Olympics, the government is particularly likely to crack down on all protest activities in the Circassian republics. An Israeli observer of North Caucasus affairs, Avraam Shmulevich, predicts Moscow will further increase the monetary transfers to the corrupt elites in the North Caucasus and specifically into the region’s northwestern republics, while also increasing its military presence in the region. Shmulevich gives a piece of very practical advice to the Circassian activists, saying they should avoid playing Byzantine games of behind-the-scenes negotiations with Moscow because there is very little hope they will outsmart the shrewd Russian government machine. He says the only viable way forward is to uphold open public discussion, involving as many people as possible, which would practically exclude shadowy agreements and vague promises (https://www.apn.ru/publications/article28079.htm).

This year will probably be even more eventful in the Circassian part of the North Caucasus than the previous year. As the Olympics in Sochi approach, Moscow is bound to become even more anxious about the situation in the region. At the same time, the Circassian activists are fully aware of the fact that this is their chance to raise the issues of the Circassian people with Russia and receive at least some understanding. So far it appears that Circassian activists worldwide have managed to create multiple networks for social action and to show that they can coordinate their actions and find ways to overcome internal disagreements. Coordinated social action will be even more critical in 2013, given that the Olympics in Sochi are just around the corner.