Russian Circassians Protest Deteriorating Security Situation in Syria

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 23

On November 17, the Russian Congress of the Peoples of the North Caucasus held a series of protests in Moscow demanding the facilitation of the repatriation of the Syrian Circassians to the North Caucasus. It is noteworthy that even organizations loyal to Moscow, such as the Congress of the Peoples of the North Caucasus, have grown impatient with the Russian government’s inaction on this issue ( The head of the organization, Aslan Khurai, told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website: “The Circassians should be relocated to Russia, because it is their homeland. There is war in Syria, and Circassians are being killed. Apart from that, both the rebels and the government are forcing the Circassians to fight on their sides, something that the Circassians do not want. They want to use the Circassians as an expendable resource.” As a precedent for Russia to act, the Circassian activists cited the Russian government’s evacuation of a group of Circassians from Kosovo to Adygea in 1998. In the current crisis in Syria, Moscow has not shown willingness to make any decisive moves, and various possible solutions proposed by the Circassian activists from the North Caucasus have been ignored. Those Syrian Circassians who were allowed into Russia are also in a state of limbo, since their visas either have expired or are about to expire (

In October 2012, Syrian Circassians who returned to the North Caucasus signed a petition addressed to the Russian government in which they explained various obstacles that Circassians in Syria face when they decide to relocate to Russia. The statement said that the process of getting a Russian visa in Syria is very lengthy and prohibitively expensive. Syrian government offices are paralyzed because of the ongoing hostilities in the country. This makes gathering the required documents very hard. Travel within Syria is hazardous because violence is very widespread across the country, including in the cities of Aleppo and Damascus, where Russian consulates are located (

The Russian government appears intent on keeping the Syrian Circassians away from the North Caucasus while, at the same time, the Russian authorities do not want to openly antagonize the Circassians living in the North Caucasus. Yet Moscow’s inaction does just that, and Circassians are beginning to question why Russia is not protecting people who can be considered their compatriots according to Russian legislation.

The situation is further aggravated by the historical grievances harbored by the Circassians. It was the Russian Empire that drove Circassians out of their homeland to the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Some of the Circassian refugees ended up in Syria, but their descendants now primarily live in Turkey. The goal of the Tsarist government was to effectively expel all Circassians from the Black Sea coast and resettle the area with Russian-speaking people. The Black Sea was considered strategically too important to be entrusted to non-Russian residents. Adding insult to injury, Moscow is holding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, right at the spot where the last battles of the Russian-Circassian war took place exactly 150 years prior to the Olympics. Moreover, the cultural program of the Sochi Olympics is designed to deemphasize the prominence of the original indigenous people of the region, instead putting forward the Cossacks as supposedly the first inhabitants of the area. Some Circassian activists say that having failed to accommodate Circassian interests pertaining to rescuing their ethnic kin in Syria, Moscow left no incentives for the North Caucasian Circassians to support Russian policies in the region, including the 2014 Sochi Olympics (Нефляшева).

In the meantime, the security situation in the part-Circassian northwestern Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria remains unstable. On November 17, government forces killed five suspected rebels in two incidents in the republic’s Baksan district ( Four police officers were wounded in these clashes with the rebels. A counter-terrorism operation regime was introduced and subsequently lifted on November 18 ( On November 15, an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated in a park in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital. A man who was jogging at the time of the blast was seriously injured. The power of the IED was estimated at three kilograms of TNT. That same day, November 15, the security services claimed to have uncovered a cache of three IEDs with a combined power of 100 kilograms of TNT near the city of Baksan (, November 15).

On November 1, the head of Kabardino-Balkaria, Arsen Kanokov, signed a decree dismissing the republican government. Local observers said that Kanokov was forced to dismiss the government because of numerous scandals. Several top republican officials, including Vladimir Zhamborov, the head of Kanokov’s administration and a relative of the president, have been under investigation for alleged corruption since June 2012. The government’s resignation may, therefore, be Kanokov’s attempt to dispel the pressure that built up on his leadership. The ex-prime minister of Kabardino-Balkaria, Ivan Gerter, is the latest high-profile public figure in the republic to come under investigation. Gerter is accused of fraud for a relatively minor charge—unlawful privatization of a government-owned apartment (

This uncharacteristically meticulous attention to Kabardino-Balkarian government officials appears to be a case of selective justice that is likely a political message for the head of the republic. If Kanokov fails to act according to the demands of Moscow, his republic may soon undergo a change in leadership. The pressure may be linked to Circassian activism in Kabardino-Balkaria, which annoys Moscow. According to Moscow’s practices elsewhere in the North Caucasus and beyond, instead of directly persecuting civil activists and then confronting the rise of nationalism among Circassians, Moscow is putting pressure on Kanokov forcing him to, in turn, suppress the Circassian activists. Hence, as long as the head of the republic keeps from giving in to Moscow’s pressure, Kabardino-Balkarian officials will likely continue to fall victim to the suddenly watchful Russian investigators.