In recent months, tensions have been mounting between Moscow and the Circassian diaspora (see EDM, May 19, 23). The Circassian national movement has gained traction in promoting the Circassian language and encouraging a return to its historical homeland in the North Caucasus. Yet, the Kremlin has increasingly sought to block such efforts. Following the February 2023 earthquakes in Turkey, Russian officials denied the Circassians displaced during the disaster a simplified procedure for returning to their homeland and obtaining citizenship (Kavkaz.Realii, May 1). In 1864, the Circassians were forcibly exiled by the Russian Empire, and their lands resettled by other ethnic groups. The Russian Federation has never recognized the exiled population as compatriots and denies their right to return to the North Caucasus.
Turkey is home to the largest portion of the Circassian diaspora, estimated to as large as 2.5 million (Hurriyet, accessed September 19). In comparison, the current number of Circassians residing in the North Caucasus stands at approximately 700,000 (see EDM, June 22). The Circassian diaspora is well integrated in Turkey, being fluent in the local language and adapting to local customs. But for many of them, the only way to preserve Circassian identity and culture is to be repatriated to their ancestral lands.
In 2006, the Russian Federation adopted a plan called the “State Program for Voluntary Resettlement of Compatriots Abroad to the Russian Federation.” The program’s main focus is to simplify the repatriation of Russian compatriots. It hopes “to harness the potential and capabilities of compatriots abroad for the development needs of Russia’s regions and … to stabilize Russia’s population, especially in regions of strategic importance” (Kremlin.ru, September 15, 2012). As of May 2023, over 1.1 million people have been repatriated under the program’s banner to Russia. The Central, Ural, Siberian and Volga federal districts received the majority of these compatriots (Kremlin.ru, May 23). Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev emphasized that returning home should “be easy, quick and understandable, but of course, without any risk to national security.”
Supposed threats to domestic security seemingly undergird Russian opposition to extensive repatriation of the Circassian diaspora. As of August 2022, only 3,500 Circassians had been allowed to return to Russia—2,000 to Republic of Adygea and 1,500 to the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic. This relatively small number utilized three primary methods to obtain Russian citizenship (Infocherkessia.com, August 3, 2022): (1) through qualifying for the necessary prerequisites as a foreign national, (2) through marriage to a Russian citizen and (3) through the aforementioned repatriation program. All three require proficiency in the Russian language (OC Media, August 1, 2018). Recently, Circassian applicants have requested an exception to the proficiency requirement but were rejected by Moscow (Zapravakbr.ru, accessed September 19).
The Circassian republics in Russia have also organized separate local programs to settle compatriots. However, these programs have very limited resources and can support only a few dozen candidates (Kavkaz.Realii, April 20, 2021).
The compatriot program does not always secure repatriations to the desired regions. Furthermore, Moscow holds a certain definition for “compatriot.” This refers not only to the Russian-speaking requirement but also to the expectation that applicants carry a certain political view—one that advances the current regime’s agenda (Kremlin.ru, November 5, 2019). The real issue is that the Circassians do not have much recourse here. The government-controlled program remains the most feasible approach for those who lack significant financial means to return to Russia.
The war in Syria and the earthquakes in Turkey have displaced many Circassians. In Turkey alone, over 40 Circassian villages were decimated by the earthquakes (Abkhazworld.com, February 13). For many of those displaced, repatriation to the North Caucasus is a natural option. However, their pleas have been rejected by the Russian Federation on the grounds that they were not proficient in Russian. The fact that the republics of the North Caucasus accept their native languages alongside Russian as official languages did not seem to affect Moscow’s decision (Kavkaz.Realii, May 22).
Russia has an obligation to repatriate the Circassian diaspora to their ancestral lands. But the Kremlin has balked on this responsibility by denying the true nature of the Circassians’ exile. Moscow describes their exodus in 1864 as “voluntary” and argues that the Circassians were not Russian citizens at the time (see EDM, May 26, 2015). However, these claims are not entirely valid. On the exodus, the only alternatives for the Circassians were either total extinction or complete assimilation with Russian society. On the citizenship argument, in 2006, Russia officially celebrated the 450th anniversary of Circassian unification. If Circassia was a part of Russia long before 1864, its indigenous people were surely subjects of the Russian Empire (see EDM, September 13, 2006).
Russia’s war against Ukraine has given new impetus to the Circassian cause. Today, the Circassian national movement is working to develop support for returning to its homeland. Russia is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which holds that the Russian Federation inherited the obligations of the Russian Empire. Therefore, Moscow is obligated to enact the necessary measures to alleviate the injustices suffered by the Circassians. And the diaspora may use this and other means, such as gaining international recognition of the events of 1864 as a “genocide,” to pressure the Kremlin into facilitating more repatriations of Circassians to the North Caucasus.