On June 5, the head of Kabardino-Balkaria’s department for civil and religious organizations, Anzor Kurashinov, revealed that 300 more Syrian Circassians were expected to arrive in the republic before the end of 2012. Kurashinov estimated that 150 repatriates had arrived in Kabardino-Balkaria from Syria to date. Circassian activist Beslan Khagazhei, a member of the Peryt organization, said that his organization was increasingly unable to assist would-be Circassian immigrants with their paperwork (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/207708/, June 5). The overall backlog of Syrian Circassians seeking to relocate to the North Caucasus is estimated at 700, according to the chairman of the International Circassian Association, Kenshaubi Azhakhov. This figure includes all the Circassians from Syria who appealed to the Russian state authorities to allow them to resettle in the country. According to Azhakhov, 115 Circassians have been resettled in Kabardino-Balkaria and 25 in Adygea. The regional authorities and the Russian government have been extremely reluctant to allot any funds to facilitate the process of repatriation, according to the Circassian activists (https://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/24604908.html, June 5).
The issue of the Syrian Circassians has been a blessing and a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. On the one hand, it provided an opportunity for Moscow to appease the Circassian activists and limit their criticism of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. On the other, since the Russian authorities traditionally viewed any significant arrival of indigenous people back to the North Caucasus region as a security threat, Moscow does not want to allow such an influx. However, it is unclear how Moscow is going to cap the number of refugees from Syria it allows into the country. Most estimates put the number of Circassians living in Syria at about 100,000. The situation in Syria is clearly not improving now, and thus it is likely that more Circassians will eventually seek safe haven in other countries, and many of them will probably want to immigrate to the Russian North Caucasus. With Russia’s vast workforce shortages, a low birthrate and high mortality, the situation did not have to be so controversial for the country. In fact, it looked like a “win-win” situation for both Moscow and the Circassians. However, the perceived security threat in the North Caucasus appears to have poisoned the Russian establishment’s views beyond repair.
The issue of the Syrian Circassians’ repatriation has recently seen an unexpected twist. Earlier Circassian repatriates from Turkey, some of whom moved to the North Caucasus as early as 20 years ago, are reportedly under pressure in Adygea. According to Aslan Shazzo, a Circassian activist in Adygea, the FSB started to target them in February 2012, shortly after the Russian government received the first petitions from Syrian Circassians asking to be allowed to relocate to the North Caucasus. Reportedly, the most prominent figures among the early Circassian immigrants are targeted for having retained Turkish passports after receiving Russian citizenship, something the authorities previously allowed. According to local observers, the campaign against them is designed to discourage the Syrian Circassians from immigrating to their ancestral lands in the North Caucasus. The Circassian activists further alleged that the head of Adygea, Aslan Tkhakushinov, was particularly hostile to resettling the refugees from Syria there. The refugees, therefore, have chosen to stay for a period in Kabardino-Balkaria and then move on to Adygea. The activists in Adygea also noted a surprise government anti-corruption campaign in Kabardino-Balkaria and linked it to the significant assistance the Syrian Circassian refugees received in that republic (https://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/24614820.html, June 14).
On June 7, in a highly unusual move, a group of 100 investigators and special forces agents from Moscow descended on Nalchik, having travelled to the North Caucasus via the Russian military airbase in Mozdok, North Ossetia. The group arrested the head of the Kabardino-Balkarian governor’s administration, Vladimir Zhamborov, and three other high-level individuals and took them to Moscow. The arrested officials and a businesswoman were accused of a corruption scheme that allowed them to privatize an old building in Nalchik without paying for it. Top regional officials are very rarely prosecuted in Russia and even less so in the North Caucasus. Normally, if an official is prosecuted, it means Moscow wants to communicate a message that the local bureaucracies had failed to grasp previously. According to some sources, Zhamborov had presidential ambitions in Kabardino-Balkaria and was therefore targeted for political reasons (https://gazetayuga.ru/archive/number/obs.htm, June 14). Arsen Kanokov, the head of the republic, is likely to have been the main addressee of the message that Moscow communicated. The next several months or even weeks will shed light on Moscow’s true motivations and what the primary goal of the attack on Kanokov was. The most likely outcome desired by Moscow is not Kanokov’s resignation, but rather some sign of drastic changes in his official views and unusual appointments in the republican government.
The outcome of the conflict between Moscow and Nalchik is going to have an impact on the Circassian question. The other North Caucasus republics are bound to be watching the crisis in the neighboring republic with great anxiety. If Moscow deals with Kanokov and the republican bureaucracy in a particularly harsh manner – although this is not very likely – other republican elites will inevitably mobilize. Disagreements between Moscow and regional elites in the North Caucasus may lead to a situation in which even the pro-Moscow elites in the region lose interest in keeping a semblance of order in their regions. As the political situation in Russia changes, relations between Moscow and the North Caucasus republics are also likely to undergo a transformation. Before a new equilibrium is reached, conflicts are likely to emerge across the region. It is improbable that Kabardino-Balkaria will be the only republic to create problems for Moscow in the next several months.