On September 10, Maksim Shevchenko, a member of the Council for Human Rights under the President of the Russian Federation, unexpectedly announced that the Council would ask President Vladimir Putin to allow the repatriation of Circassian Syrians to the North Caucasus. In an interview with the newspaper Izvestia, Shevchenko said he had drafted a letter that the Council for Human Rights is expected to approve in the near future and forward to the Kremlin. Shevchenko, in particular, emphasized the repatriation rights of the Circassians. “They are a Caucasian people, but they were forced to leave at the end of the 19th century after the Caucasian war,” he said. “They are our compatriots, the indigenous people of Krasnodar region [and] Adygea. If Russia officially recognized their right to relocate, it would close the terrible pages of the Caucasian war” (Izvestia, September 10). After Russia conquered the northwestern Caucasus in the 19th century, its armed forces expelled or killed the vast majority of the Circassian population, leaving only a fraction in their homeland.
Maksim Shevchenko is a pro-Kremlin journalist and political expert who manages a large and popular Internet-based news analysis agency, Kavkazskaya Politika. He often harshly criticizes the government for having counterproductive policies in the North Caucasus, but he is also a staunch supporter of the Russian government’s foreign policy and of President Vladimir Putin, in particular. The journalist’s declaration may mark a change of Russian policies, but it is still hard to assess how significantly it may shift. The same Izvestia that quoted Shevchenko cited other experts, all of whom either opposed the repatriation of the Syrian Circassians or pretended the problem did not exist and that a decision by Putin was not needed (Izvestia, September 10).
Meanwhile, Komsomolskaya Pravda published a two-part article that accused the West of using the Circassians to undermine Russia. The author of the piece included The Jamestown Foundation among the putatively hostile Western forces trying to hold back Russia (Komsomolskaya Pravda, September 10, 11). Russian State Duma deputies also appear to be opposed to the idea, although they are not really the true decision-makers in contemporary Russia (Regions.ru, September 11).
The Kavkazskaya Politika website recently published several articles that described the difficulties Middle Eastern Circassians face when they try to resettle in their historical homeland in the North Caucasus. Many of the potential Circassian repatriates neither have the financial means to travel nor the necessary documents, such as a foreign passport, because of the central government’s collapse in many parts of Syria. The Russian authorities, in turn, have devised a whole system to prevent Circassian refugees from traveling to Russia. It is remarkable that even Russian loyalists among the Circassian activists, such as Asker Sokht, who leads a Circassian organization in the Krasnodar region, are demanding action from the Russian authorities (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 8).
One of the uncertainties Russia faces in deciding whether to accept Circassian refugees from Syria involves their numbers. It is currently estimated that 2,000 Syrian Circassian refugees have relocated to the North Caucasus, helped by the volunteer efforts of Circassians in the region. Approximately 1,200 refugees have resettled in Kabardino-Balkaria and 800 in Adygea and Karachaevo-Cherkessia; but even they face numerous challenges in receiving legal resident status that would allow them to work or study. Children of refugees often are not admitted to schools, the elderly do not receive healthcare assistance, and the requirements for knowledge of the Russian language are hard to meet (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 10).
According to Shevchenko, out of an estimated 80,000 Circassian refugees, 5,000 to 10,000 would like to resettle in the North Caucasus (Izvestia, September 10). Circassian activist Asker Sokht has spoken of “20,000–30,000 Circassian refugees” from Syria who would like to resettle in the North Caucasus if the Russian government provided modest assistance. Other estimates put the number of potential refugees from Syria at 100,000 or more. An important shift has taken place in the perceptions of the refugees from Syria over the past several years. While the Syrian Circassians once believed the situation in Syria would stabilize and they would return to the Middle East, many of them have given up hope of returning to their old homes, given the unending and intensifying conflict in this war-torn state (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 8).
Against the backdrop of the debates in Europe over the large refugee influx from the Middle East, some North Caucasian analysts have started asking an uncomfortable question: “Why does Europe help Syrian refugees, even though they have nothing in common with Europeans, while Russia does not help Caucasian Muhajirs (immigrants) from Syria, even though they have historical ties to Russia?” North Caucasian experts say that Russians are less inclined to help because they are experiencing an economic crisis themselves. This, however, is not exactly correct, since the attitude of the Russian government was the same even prior to the economic sanctions and crisis in Russia (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 5). Russia, for example, continued to receive ethnic Russian refugees from Ukraine despite the Russian economy’s downturn.
The difference in the Russian state’s attitude toward the Ukrainian refugees and the Syrian refugees suggests that the cultural explanation carries the most weight. Russian-speaking refugees from eastern Ukraine appear to be much closer to the authorities in Moscow than the Arabic- and Circassian-speaking refugees from Syria. Circassians in the North Caucasus are now coming to understand this, increasingly aware of the implicit discrimination by the Russian state, which claims all its citizens are equal. However, some are apparently more equal than others.