Push for Circassian Repatriation Set to Spark New Tensions Between Moscow and Ankara

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 22

Members of a Circassian ethnic group protest against the Sochi Olympics in front of the Russian Consulate in Istanbul in February 2014 (Source: Sedat Suna/EPA)

Under the auspices of the Caucasian Federation in Turkey (Kaffed), that country’s Circassian Association and its most important branches in Ankara and Istanbul are planning to open an office that will provide support for Circassians who want to return to their ancestral homeland in the Northwest Caucasus. This new push for Circassian repatriation is welcomed by many of the more than five million Circassians living outside the Russian Federation, including in Turkey, where the diaspora numbers some three million. However, Moscow has long resisted this drive, concerned that the return of a significant number of Circassians to the North Caucasus would upend Russian political and territorial arrangements in the region and perhaps beyond. Ankara, in turn, has been cautious about allowing such activities lest Moscow respond harshly—it only permitted the formation of a Circassian Cultural Center in Istanbul in 2019 (Kavkazsky Uzel, April 27, 2019). But now the Turkish government has a pressing new concern—the 30,000 Circassians who have fled to Turkey from war-torn Syria—and so appears increasingly disposed to facilitate this effort, which is likely to broaden over time (Circassianpress.blogspot.com), February 15, 2022).

Most Circassian Turks come from families who, generations ago, settled in the former Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from the Caucasus by Tsarist Russian forces in 1864—an act of ethnic cleansing that the Circassians, many human rights organizations and a few countries, Georgia most prominently, view as a “genocide.” These ethnic Circassians are well integrated into broader Turkish society, with many occupying senior positions in the security services and the military. In contrast, the new wave of Circassians from Syria are not. Many of the latter do not speak Turkish and have not yet found a place for themselves there. Ankara, therefore, would be pleased if they would either move back to Syria, an unlikely prospect given the involvement of the Circassians in actions opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, or onward to the Russian Federation, their traditional homeland.

Moscow, however, has no interest in seeing waves of these Circassian refugees from Syria arriving to the Northwest Caucasus. First of all, the Russian authorities believe that any massive influx of Circassians would upset the region’s delicate ethnic balance. Their immigration could further energize the current objective among the Circassian subgroups to claim a common ethnonym in the census and more generally (see EDM, October 14, 2021); and likely, it may power new demands for the formation of a single Circassian Republic in the North Caucasus, potentially destabilizing that region in the short term and threatening long-term Russian control (see EDM, May 21, 2019).

As Stanislav Ivanov, a senior historian at IMEMO in the Russian Academy of Sciences, has put it, “the project of a Greater Circassia has real support and a sufficient number of supporters abroad and in the North Caucasus.” If the two come together, he warns in the influential Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kuryer, it will almost inevitably create serious problems for Russian rule. The return of any significant number of Circassians from abroad will only augment this unity and these associated problems for Moscow, Ivanov argues (Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kuryer, November 3, 2020).

Second, the central Russian government is alarmed by the increasing links between the half million plus Circassians living in the North Caucasus and the more than five million living in the Middle East and other countries around the world. Such ties, enabled by the internet, make the Circassians in the North Caucasus less Russianized and Russified and, thus, a growing source of opposition to Vladimir Putin’s project of a Russian World (Russkiy Mir), which inter alia involves the integration of all the peoples living within the current borders of the Russian Federation on the basis of the Russian language and Russian traditional values (TRAMES, 2021)

And third—an increasingly important consideration in Moscow’s calculation—it opposes Circassian immigration because the return of any non-Russians will decrease the share of ethnic Russians in the population of the Russian Federation. This demographic dilution is something Moscow wants to avoid at all costs, as evidenced by the government’s open discrimination against non-Russian applicants for immigration. That de facto policy has sparked criticism from Circassians and human rights groups like Memorial, which are especially concerned about the humanitarian disaster Syrian Circassians find themselves in, even if they are able to escape Syria for Turkey (Regnum, July 29, 2019; Memohrc.org, March 31, 2021).

History suggests Moscow has many weapons to combat a large influx of Circassians into the Russian Federation. Though it will seek to restrict the damage its actions could inflict on relations with Turkey and on the opinions of Circassians. As noted above, it can and has blocked Circassians from entering Russia, and it even expelled Circassians who have come to the North Caucasus from Turkey. Those actions have kept the number of returnees in the hundreds compared to the thousands who would like to come (Kavpolit, January 12, 2016).

Moreover, with an eye to Turkish and international opinion, Moscow can appoint loyal Circassians to senior advisory posts, implying that it is listening to representatives of that nation. Simultaneously, such moves can become fodder for positive news coverage in Russia as well as countries with large Circassian diasporas and especially in Turkey (Nazaccent.ru, August 28, 29, 2019).

And finally, it has sought to divide the Circassian community by setting up pocket organizations of its own that claim they are the “true” voice of the Circassian nation and, thus, compete with and weaken genuine Circassian groups (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, May 24, 2019). As part of this effort, especially in Turkey, it has played up the arguments of certain local Circassians that repatriation is “impossible and unnecessary for the Circassian people” and that the members of that nation should concentrate instead on avoiding assimilation (Aheku, March 27, 2020).

Ankara has sometimes been swayed by these actions, especially in periods of improved relations with Moscow; but when ties are strained, as they are now, these Russian efforts are seen for what they are. Consequently, the Circassian issue is likely to exacerbate tensions between Russia and Turkey, with Moscow’s policies translating its historically fraught relations with Circassians into equally fraught ties with Turkey (see EDM, October 5, 2021).