Relocating Syrian Circassians to the North Caucasus Poses Problems and Opportunities for Moscow

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 1

The end of 2011 saw a spike in violence in Kabardino-Balkaria. A series of high profile-killings of law enforcement agents followed the killings of several suspected insurgents. On December 31, the commander of a special police unit in Kabardino-Balkaria, Colonel Murat Shkhagumov, was gunned down in his car in the town of Baksan. Shkhagumov’s two children, who were with him in the car, were injured in the attack and hospitalized. Earlier, on December 17, Colonel Vadim Sultanov, a member of another special police unit, Center E, was killed in the town of Khasanya, in the suburbs of the republic’s capital, Nalchik (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 31, 2011). Center E is traditionally involved in counter-insurgency and has been known for brutal practices.

Sultanov’s murder was preceded by a series of dramatic killings.  A police source told the Lifenews.ru website that Sultanov was the leader of the so-called Black Hawks – an “anti-Wahhabi” organization that claims to be a civic self-help group propelled by citizens’ discontent with rebel actions and is determined to take revenge on the militants.  The group’s leaders have promised to kill not only rebels, but also their relatives, spouses and children. One such act of “the people’s revenge” may have taken place on December 15 near the town of Bylym, when three people, friends and relatives of suspected rebels, were killed by unknown assailants (http://www.lifenews.ru/news/77422, December 19, 2011).  According to rebel sources, Boris Akhmatov, Sapar Makitov and Svetlana Malkarova were gunned down as they were bringing home the body of Ahmad Malkarov, who was killed by law enforcement agents on December 14. Malkarova was the slain rebel’s wife. A rebel news source claimed that Malkarova was still alive when the ambulance arrived, but that the police did not allow medics to help her (http://www.islamdin.tv/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1268:2011-12-16-18-10-03&catid=2:kavkaz&Itemid=3, December 16, 2011). On December 12, investigator Murat Gergov was killed in Kabardino-Balkaria’s Baksan district (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 13, 2011).

The latest series of attacks may signal the end of a period of relative quiet in Kabardino-Balkaria that began after the Russian security services wiped out the leadership of the republic’s rebels in the spring 2011. The insurgents may have regrouped and adjusted their tactics to the new situation in the republic. The government, for its part, has offered little to solve the underlying political causes of the conflict; instead, it has simply reverted to crude force and terror, in an attempt to scare the rebels and intimidate their support base among the population. The fact that the rebels in Kabardino-Balkaria have launched attacks in the republic’s cities in the wintertime suggests they enjoy significant support on the ground, which allows them to elude police and security services inside the cities without having to hide in the mountains. At the same time, the hostilities have reached a new level of intensity as the families of both rebels and servicemen are increasingly targeted.

Meanwhile, the idea of attempting to repatriate Circassians in Syria has been gaining momentum. On December 31, Circassian activists in Adygea reported that they had received a third letter from the Syrian Circassians asking to be repatriated to the North Caucasus. The first letter had 115 signatures, while the second had 57 and the third had 52 (http://www.natpress.ru/index.php?newsid=7084, December 31, 2011).

Following an emergency meeting on December 29, twenty Circassian civil organizations signed an appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev asking him to intervene in the situation and help the Syrian Circassians relocate to the Russian North Caucasus (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/198577/, December 30, 2011). Well-known Russian loyalists among the Circassian activists such as Asker Sokht ardently supported this move, saying Moscow would improve its positions in the North Caucasus and the world were it to receive refugees from Syria. They urged Russian authorities to replicate the experience of relocating several dozens of ethnic Circassian families from Kosovo in the 1990s. Russia’s law on compatriots encourages the relocation of Russians living abroad to the Russian Federation and mandates government assistance. Circassian activists also set up a special commission to facilitate the return of the Circassians to their homeland (http://kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/198567/, December 30, 2011).

This is a perfect opportunity for Moscow to jump in and position itself as a good and just arbiter both in international affairs and in the North Caucasus. Moscow appears to be close to a deal on the Syrian Circassians:  on December 30, the president of Adygea, Aslan Tkhakushinov, received a Syrian Circassian delegation to discuss possible solutions to the problem of violence in Syria that affects Circassians living there (http://www.adygheya.ru/press/news/show/?newsid=4214, December 30, 2011). The fact that the Adygean official received the Syrian Circassians likely means the move was approved by Moscow, which plans to follow up on it.

However, there are also pitfalls the Russian leadership may be anxious to avoid. Unlike the small group of Circassians from Kosovo, there are an estimated 100,000 Circassians in Syria, making them the second largest diaspora of Circassians in the Middle East after Turkey. Helping only several dozen Circassians families from Syria while leaving the rest there may not be well received by the Circassians in the North Caucasus, and Moscow will not able to conceal it if larger numbers of Syrian Circassians express a wish to relocate to the North Caucasus. If Moscow allows the relocation of tens of thousands of Syrian Circassians, it will hardly be well received by ethnic Russians living in the region and will contradict Russia’s strategic goal of Russifying the North Caucasus. But if Moscow completely ignores the plight of the Syrian Circassians, it also will hardly be a winning posture. So some kind of a very limited relocation project served up with a large propaganda campaign is the most likely scenario under the current circumstances.

With the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi just around the corner and Circassians opposing the games, Moscow wants to win some support among Circassians. But the longer-term goal of keeping the North Caucasus isolated from foreign influences is likely to outweigh the winning of Circassian hearts and minds.