The Russian Ministry of Education recently awarded, on a “competitive basis,” funding for the education of foreign students to some of the country’s universities. Circassian activists expressed indignation over the fact that no educational institutions in either Kabardino-Balkaria or Adygea received funding for foreign students. Both Circassian-dominated republics had previously used educational exchanges to provide a safe haven for Syrian Circassians by placing them as students in regional universities. An official in the Adygean government, Asker Shkhalakhov, told the Ekho Kavkaza news agency: “We received the first group of students from Syria in 2011 and the second in 2012. This year we have not been given a quota for reasons unknown to me. We contacted our [Adygean] university prior to the refusal of quotas and they told us: ‘They [Moscow] asked for documentation. They are giving us some quotas, although fewer than the 50 that we asked for.’” In the end, however, the republic was refused any funding for foreign students, the official said (http://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/25009619.html).
An estimated 1,000 Syrian Circassians have managed to flee to the North Caucasus since the start of civil war in Syria. The majority of the refugees arrived in their ancestral homeland in 2012, when the situation in Syria became especially dire. Circassian businessmen were behind the financing of the bulk of the refugees from the war-torn Middle Eastern country, since Russian state officials only made several vague declarative statements of support. Occasionally, Russian officials rejected Circassian demands that Russia should help Syrian Circassians return to their homeland in the North Caucasus. Circassian activists based those demands on the fact that the Russian Empire drove the Circassians out of their homeland in the 19th century and that was how Circassians ended up in Syria. At the same time, contemporary Russia declared itself a successor not only of the USSR, but also the Russian Empire. So Russia voluntarily assumed the historical heritage of both the USSR and the Russian Empire, including involvement in mass killings and deportations.
The Kabardino-Balkarian State University was excluded from state quotas for foreign students in 2012 even though it had hosted Circassian students from Middle Eastern countries in all previous years, including during the Soviet period. In 2012, the republican university accepted 120 foreign students, including 108 Circassians from Syria. The president of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, reportedly paid for their first year. Kanokov and the Russian Ministry for Education supposedly reached a verbal agreement that eventually the state would finance the further education of these students in Nalchik. However, the ministry did not make good on its promise. Now, the Circassian activists claim the Russian authorities failed to deliver even the little they promised (http://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/25009619.html).
While the Circassian activists have repeatedly been disappointed by the Russian reaction to their aspirations, they see Georgia as a neighboring exemplary state. The Circassian turn to Georgia is especially stunning given that many Circassians fought against Georgia in the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992–1993. In 2011, the Georgian parliament officially recognized the Circassian “genocide” by the Russian Empire, and Circassian activists started seeing Georgia as an ally rather than a foe. The transition did not go unnoticed in Sukhumi, where the Abkhaz authorities discerned a threat to their narrative on the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.
Ibgragim Yaganov, one of the most active Circassian figures and a veteran of the Georgian-Abkhaz war, visited Tbilisi on several occasions, each time giving a glowing assessment of the Georgian evolution into a modern state and a champion of the rights of all Caucasians. Following highly critical remarks from the Abkhaz authorities on his conciliatory and positive statements about Georgia, Yaganov visited Abkhazia in June 2013. The Circassian activist admitted that he “lost the feeling of being a victor” in the Georgian-Abkhaz war because, in comparison to Georgia, the de-facto Abkhaz state does not seem to have prospects for becoming an independent country. “The prospects that I have not seen in Abkhazia, I see in Georgia,” he said in an interview with the Circassian informational agency, Adyge Khekum I Mak. “This Georgia is very different. I do not want to fight with such a Georgia. I want to have friendly relations with them. This is my right as a free individual” (http://hekupsa.com/mnenie/blogi/936-cherkesy-adygi-cherkesskij-vopros-genotsid-cherkesov-cherkesskie-lidery-velikaya-cherkesiya-cherkesskaya-diaspora-adyge-khabze-adygag-e).
As the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are quickly approaching, the stakes in the “Circassian Question” continue to rise. By ignoring the Circassians, Moscow loses the last vestiges of Circassian support, while Georgia benefits from Russia’s inflexible position. Circassians are fully aware of the window of opportunity that the Olympics in Sochi provides to them, so it is likely that Circassian activists in the North Caucasus and worldwide will take up a higher profile in the run-up to the games. Moreover, the efforts of the Russian government to restrict Circassian immigration to the North Caucasus may result in the increased spread of separatist ideas among residents of the region. If Moscow does not allow the repatriation of ethnic Circassians from war-torn Syria, the Circassians may well start thinking that they should have a state of their own to decide such urgent matters for the benefit of their nation.