The Russian government killed or expelled nearly the entire Circassian nation from the North Caucasus in 1864, after this group resisted the Russian Empire’s advance there for more than a century. To this day, the Circassians remember this as their “genocide.” Now, the Russian government is committing an analogous act by refusing to recognize that the Circassians of Syria have the right to recognition as refugees. Moreover, Russia is blocking them from leaving that war-torn country, in which Moscow is a belligerent, and resettle in their historical homeland. The reason for this inhumane policy, Circassian activists say, is that the Circassians of Syria are “living testimony to the [genocidal] expulsion of [their nation] to the Ottoman Empire” 150 years ago.
Prior to the beginning of the war in Syria, there were approximately 50,000 Circassians living within its borders. Now, according to Circassian activists, there remain no more than 20,000. Some have been killed, many are already internally displaced persons (IDP), but most of that missing 30,000 have fled abroad—the overwhelming majority to Turkey, Jordan and European countries. Russia has officially taken in fewer than 3,000, even though the North Caucasus is the historical homeland of the Circassians and even though far more than that have sought entry. The exact number of Circassians from Syria in the North Caucasus is uncertain because it appears there are more there than the Russian authorities know about (Caucasustimes.com, November 10).
But there is no question that Moscow has turned most away. This year, for example, Russian officials set a quota of 65 for the number of Circassians who could return to Adygea. Moreover, officials in Maikop say that “no one has received the status of refugee, two have been expelled for violating Russian laws, and four have left Russia” on their own. The remaining 59 have been given only temporary residence permits.
Circassian groups, like the International Circassian Association, have long called on Moscow to treat the Circassians of Syria as a special case, but the Russian foreign ministry has absolutely refused. Consequently, Moscow’s policies have put the Circassians of Syria who want to come to the North Caucasus in an impossible position. On the one hand, those who do reach the North Caucasus on the basis of the quota cannot ask for asylum as such, lest they lose all social guarantees. And on the other, because few Syrian Circassians know Russian, they are almost precluded from being integrated into Russia’s legal space in the way that Tajiks or Uzbeks are generally able to do—a reality that has especially infuriated the Circassians and highlighted the way in which Moscow is singling them out.
As a result, Circassian activists say, many of the Circassians who do manage to come to Russia feel compelled to return home, despite the violence and the threat of death that hangs over them there. According to Maikop journalist Anzor Daur, “today there is a crisis in the repatriation of Circassians.” Many of their leaders, he says, now despair that they will save the Circassians of Syria or even be able, in the future, to restore the Circassian nation’s homeland as they have long sought (Onkavkaz.com, November 13).
Neither Russian nor Western human rights activists have devoted much attention to this ongoing tragedy. But the leaders of Circassian groups are not only perfectly aware of it but are, in fact, worried that it may point to the end of their hopes for a revival of the nation and of a recognized Circassian homeland in the North Caucasus. For the OnKavkaz.com portal, Daur has interviewed two such Circassian leaders. Their words clearly highlight the way in which Moscow’s policies in this may be contributing to an ultimate destruction of the Syrian Circassians (Onkavkaz.com, November 13).
One of the reasons Russia has been able to get away with this is that Moscow has not actually articulated a clear policy of keeping the Circassians of Syria out of Russia, Timur Zhuzhuyev, the head of the Adgye Khase youth organization of Karachaevo-Cherkessia noted. Although he could not say “that there is an unpublished decision of the Russian authorities not to take in the Circassians,” Moscow has done almost everything it can to keep them out by throwing up roadblocks. Meanwhile, the Circassians of Syria are dying; and no one is demanding that something be done about it.
Adam Bogus, the president of the Adyge Khase of the Republic of Adygea, is far more pessimistic. He said that after some progress in the run-up to and immediately following the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympiad, almost all efforts to improve the situation of the Circassians in the North Caucasus and to allow Circassians from Syria and elsewhere to return there have “in practice completely ceased.”
“I already do not believe in the rebirth of the Circassians. Vladimir Putin had set the task of forming an all-Russian nation, which must absorb all the other peoples of the country. We certainly, will be near the front on this path of assimilation,” he said. Thus, the prospects for the Circassians of Syria and the Circassian nation as a whole appear quite bleak indeed.
It would be a tragedy if, after attracting the world’s attention to the tragic events of 1864 (see EDM, May 6, 2013; May 27, 2014), the Circassians of the North Caucasus and elsewhere proved unable to do the same concerning the looming potential “genocide” of their people in Syria in 2016.