Syrian Circassian Refugees in Turkey Ask to Be Repatriated to Russia

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 17

The chairman of the Solidarity Committee of World Circassians, Nusret Bas, recently handed over a petition of Circassian refugees from Syria to the Russian consul in Istanbul, Alexei Yerkhov. The appeal was prepared on behalf of 146 Circassian refugees residing in the southern Turkish city of Nizip, which is close to the Syrian border. The refugees said in the petition that their ancestors were displaced from their homeland in 1864 and resettled in Syria. Despite the fact that they have not participated in the civil war in Syria, they have still lost their relatives, homes and property, and were given shelter in Nizip with the assistance of the Solidarity Committee of World Circassians. At his meeting with the Russian Consul, Bas outlined what the Circassians want from Russia. “From Russia we expect two things: first, the recognition of the genocide in the period of 1763–1864; second, preparing conditions for the unconditional, unequivocal return of the Circassians to their historical homeland.”

Bas further reassured Yerkhov that Circassians were not Russia’s enemies. “Radical religious movements do not correspond with the traditions and views of the Circassians,” he told the Russian consul. “Our opposition to the [2014] Olympic Games in Sochi is tied to Russia’s unhelpful policies toward the Circassians. If the policies are amended, there is no doubt that all Circassians will be side by side with Russia.” Yerkhov reportedly promised to give serious consideration to the Circassian activists’ proposals and hand over the petition to Moscow (

A meeting of Circassian activists at the Russian Consulate in Istanbul indicates that Moscow may be willing to consider some limited friendly gestures toward the Circassians in the run-up to the Olympics in Sochi. The Syrian crisis and the plight of Circassian refugees present Russia with a convenient opportunity to display that it can accommodate the interests of Circassians. Few Circassians, however, believe that Russia will make actual moves to help refugees from Syria in a meaningful way. Only about 22 percent of the respondents in an Internet poll indicated that they believed Russia would help Circassian refugees from Syria, while almost 68 percent believed Russia would not help and the remaining 10 percent indicated they were not sure (

Disbelief in Russia’s good intentions ensures that many Circassians will oppose the Olympics in Sochi. In the meantime, an internal conflict among Circassian civil organizations is intensifying. In July, the Coordination Council of Circassians in Russia called on Circassian organizations worldwide, especially those based in Turkey, to hold a world conference of Circassians dedicated to the situation in Syria. In September, the International Circassian Association (ICA) came out against the proposed conference. The Russian branch of the International Circassian Association is known for its ties to the Russian government and was created by the Russian security services following the Soviet demise in order to regulate contacts with Circassian diaspora groups in the West. The ICA probably influenced its opposition to the conference. One of the proponents of the conference in Turkey, Adam Bogus, who heads the Adygean organization Adyge-Khase/Circassian Parliament, told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website that the Circassians in Syria were facing deadly danger. “There will be reprisals and bloodshed, it is obvious,” he said. “Essentially, our whole diaspora has been sentenced and is now awaiting execution. Whatever we have tried to do, we could not help them. We sent dozens of petitions to various state institutions, regional as well as federal ones, but we could not elicit any positive reaction.” The director of the Center for Ethno-Religious Problems of the Russian Union of Journalists, Sulieta Chukho-Kusova, stated that the feeble reaction of the Circassian organizations in Russia to the Syrian crisis showed they had no unity, robustness or strong leaders. In addition, he said that “the political leaders of the [Circassian] republics displayed complete national indifference” (

It must be said that regional authorities have hijacked many of the Circassian organizations in the North Caucasus, while Moscow has put pressure on the regional authorities to suppress any genuine Circassian movement. In a way, this situation can be seen as a “soft” version of Ramzan Kadyrov’s rule in Chechnya. Moscow offers “sticks and carrots” to the regional authorities and they implement the policies that Moscow wants them to implement. Corruption and dependence on Moscow ensure that regional governments have no social support base among their respective populations and that the central government can thus easily manipulate them.

Circassian activists in Adygea have provided assistance to the families of Circassian refugees from Syria with little or no help from the Russian state. A group of benefactors resolved to pay for the university tuition and living expenses of 16 young Circassian refugees in Adygea. Overall there are 62 students from Syria studying in Adygea ( An estimated 156 families—708 people in all—have arrived in Adygea from Syria. The population of Syrian Circassian refugees in Adygea decreased to 134 families after some of them moved to Kabardino-Balkaria and Turkey (

With the approach of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Moscow is indicating it may make some concessions to the Circassians, but no significant steps to accommodate Circassian interests are likely. Some Circassians are calling for a time of reckoning because the Circassian civil organizations in the North Caucasus have proven to be ineffective in defending the larger population. However, others think there is still time to try to press ahead with the Circassians’ demands on Moscow.