Russia-Turkey relations appear to be deteriorating further after last month’s downing of a Russian warplane on the border between Turkey and Syria. At a meeting with Russian defense ministry officials on December 11, President Vladimir Putin warned against “provocations” against the Russian military in Syria and signaled that Russian military forces would step up their activities in the region and not hesitate to challenge other actors in the region. “I order you to act very tough,” he said. “Any targets that threaten Russia’s military or our ground infrastructure [in Syria] are to be destroyed immediately.” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stressed the strength of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and the determination to develop them further (Kremlin.ru, December 11). Meanwhile, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Turkey’s patience was wearing thin (Gazeta.ru, December 11), and an incident involving a Russian military ship and a Turkish civilian fishing vessel took place in the Aegean Sea (Gazeta.ru, December 13).
Even though many experts say that an actual military clash between Russia and Turkey is unlikely, a struggle between the two countries by other means is likely to continue for quite some time. Russia has so far imposed economic sanctions on Turkey, cutting Turkish imports; and Moscow announced that Turkish citizens will require a visa to visit Russia starting on January 1, 2016. The Circassians are among the underreported victims of the souring relations between Turkey and Russia. There are several million members of the Circassian diaspora in Turkey. Many Circassians in Turkey and in the North Caucasus want to establish closer ties between the two communities, but after the collision between Moscow and Ankara, their modest attempts to improve ties have been cut short.
A large part of the Circassian diaspora in Turkey was hoping to resolve Circassian issues, such as language instruction and repatriation, through cooperation with Moscow and therefore tried to maintain relatively friendly relations with the Russian authorities. The latest round of sanctions, however, antagonized even the moderates among the Circassian activists in Turkey. According to an article written by Fehim Taştekin, large celebrations in 2014 of the 150th anniversary of the Circassians’ defeat by Russia and expulsion from their homeland to the Ottoman Empire, prompted conciliatory Russian moves, with Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov meeting with Circassian activists in Turkey and promising to resolve their problems. The Circassians in Turkey primarily wanted to improve their access to the North Caucasus, including the right to repatriate. However, Russian authorities did not actually want to make peace with the Circassians, but rather manipulate them and ultimately defeat the Circassian movement. The International Circassian Association (ICA), which was originally created in the early 1990s by the FSB, became an instrument for Russian officials to manipulate Circassians in Turkey and elsewhere. In Turkey, the group KAFFED (Kafkas Dernekleri Federasyonu) partnered with the ICA, but has come under increasing criticism for doing so (Caucasreview.com, December 9).
In addition, the Russian authorities did not deem it necessary to treat KAFFED’s leaders particularly well. When KAFFED leader Yasar Aslankaya visited Kabardino-Balkaria in 2014, he was constantly followed by the agents of the Russian security services and was warned that the authorities might bar him from visiting the North Caucasus again. The details of the unspoken deal between KAFFED and Moscow can be seen in the indignant statement that the leadership of the organization allegedly handed over to the Russian ambassador in Turkey: “Not only have you failed to deliver on your promises, but now our people are faced with threats and bullying in the [North] Caucasus. Russia does not tolerate any criticism. And when we keep silent, we keep losing our support base. If you are not going to solve our problems, we will take our demands to international platforms. Even the students that we sent to the [North] Caucasus now receive smaller scholarships. This cannot continue. Russia must acknowledge the historical tragedy of the Circassians and remove barriers for repatriation to their homeland” (Caucasreview.com, December 9).
Apparently, one way for the Russian government to pacify the Circassian activists in Turkey was to buy their benevolence by allowing lucrative deals for some businesses. However, Moscow’s nearly all-out economic warfare against Turkey means that Turkish Circassians are being targeted along with other Turkish citizens. Thus, the Circassian groups in Turkey that tried to find common language with Moscow and possibly received preferential treatment from Moscow have seemingly lost any incentive to maintain close relations with the Russian government. Following Putin’s reaction to the downing of the Russian military jet in Turkey, the University of Adygea was among the first universities in Russia to announce it had unilaterally suspended ties with its Turkish counterparts (Yuga.ru, November 27). University officials in Kabardino-Balkaria reassured its Turkish students that they could continue their studies. However, it was unclear whether there would be any other cooperation between the university and Turkish universities (Kbsu.ru, December 8). Russia has recalled teachers of Circassian from Turkey, signaling that Circassian diaspora ties are among its priority targets (Natpressru.info, December 11).
The tensions between Russia and Turkey are negatively impacting Circassian cross-border ties. At the same time, however, the conflict between the two countries may make Circassian activists more realistic about Russia’s true intentions toward them.