Syrian Circassians Under Pressure from both the Government and Opposition

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 7

On March 20, members of a Russian parliamentary delegation who traveled to Syria reported that at least 100 families of Syrian Circassians were prepared to immediately emigrate to the Russian North Caucasus. They said at least 300 families were also considering emigration to the Circassian homeland in the North Caucasus. Members of Russia’s Federation Council and Circassian activists from the North Caucasus visited Syria from March 16-19 to find out how the situation in the volatile country was affecting Circassians there and explore the possibility of repatriating them to the North Caucasus (, March 21). According to an Adygean government spokesperson, members of the delegation said that although the number of Circassians currently wanting to relocate is relatively low, the government should be prepared to handle a “mass exodus” of Circassians from Syria (, March 20).

At the end of the meeting with the Federation Council delegation members, the head of Adygea, Aslan Tkhakushinov, ordered the creation of a government commission for the resettlement of Syrian Circassians in the republic. Most of the Circassians in Syria are descendants of those expelled by the Russian imperial state from modern day Adygea in the 19th century and thus they prefer to return to this republic. Delegation members said that Circassians over 30-35 years old are quite proficient in the Circassian language and have relevant work skills, and thus would find it relatively easy to integrate into North Caucasian society (, March 21).

Circassian plans for rescuing their compatriots in Syria seem to be gradually acquiring substance as Moscow shows tentative signs of a willingness to accept Syrian Circassian refugees. Russian analysts say that by accepting Circassian refugees from Syria, Russia would significantly soften Circassian opposition to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The plight of the Syrian Circassians has received relatively little attention in the Russian media, which probably indicates that official Moscow is still weighing the pluses and minuses of repatriating them. In any case, Moscow will try to make Circassian repatriation as limited as possible, while capitalizing on it in a propaganda campaign. A member of the Adygean parliament who was part of the delegation, Mugdin Chermit, said that according to the Syrian Circassians, their population in Syria is 55,000-60,000. There are also an estimated 30,000 ethnic Russian citizens in Syria, mostly women who married Syrian men and their descendants. The Federation Council and the Russian Security Council are expected to consider the issue and make a principled decision on the matter (, March 21). The head of the delegation, Albert Kazharov, who is Kabardino-Balkaria’s representative in the Federation Council, was asked to recommend ways of resolving the issue and present them to the Russian government within a week after the delegation’s return to Russia (, March 20). Since Kabardino-Balkaria’s representative was put forward to resolve the issue of the Circassians in Syria, a positive response by the Russian government to the proposals is more likely than ever.

Circassian activists and Syrian Circassians are also trying to solve the problem on their own, even in the absence of a government program. An activist from Kabardino-Balkaria, Beslan Khagazhei, told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website that Circassian activists have sent 70 formal invitation letters to Syrian Circassians to entitle them to receive Russian business visas, and that a handful of people have taken this opportunity to escape the violence in Syria. Several dozen refugees from Syria already live at a Kabardino-Balkarian hostel. In addition, some people have invited their relatives in Syria to be resettled in Russia. In December 2011-January 2012, three letters signed by a total of 248 Syrian Circassians requesting help were sent to Russian and North Caucasus officials (, March 20). Assuming all the signatures were authentic and bearing in mind that not all of those willing to relocate had the opportunity to sign the letters, the number of Circassians who want to relocate to Russia may well exceed 1,000.
Interviews conducted by members of the Russian parliamentary delegation found that Syrian Circassians are experiencing pressure from both Bashar Assad’s repressive regime and the armed opposition. “Syrian Circassians are afraid to talk openly about relocation because of the harshness of the Syrian security services,” said Adam Bogus, a Circassian activist in Adygea who was a member of the delegation. “They can be punished straight away. Under the wartime regime there are no proper investigative and legal procedures. People who fall under suspicion of disloyalty to the official authorities are killed” (, March 21). In an interview with the Kremlin-friendly Internet publication Vzglyad, Bogus said that Syrian insurgents spread leaflets among the Circassians calling on them to support the opposition or face death after Assad’s regime is gone. In addition, the Syrian opposition is resentful of Russian support for the Syrian government and does not tolerate the Circassians’ attempts to emigrate to Russia. Eleven Circassian villages near the city of Homs were reportedly destroyed and their residents fled to Damascus (, March 21).

Conspiracy theories and their relationship to the processes in the North Caucasus were discussed at a conference in Moscow on March 23. Jamal Rakhaev, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service, discussed the widespread conspiracy theory positing that the “Circassian question” is a product of the Georgian government and American and Israeli security services. Rakhaev advanced the view that the Sochi Olympics were the cause of the revival of the Circassians issue. He also pointed out that the issue was first interpreted in its modern form at a Circassian conference in Turkey in 1989. “The issue of Circassian repatriation has never been absent from the agenda since the mid-19th century, but the Russian Empire and its successor, the USSR, blocked all attempts [to launch the repatriation process],” Rakhaev asserted (, March 25).

Official Moscow’s position on the repatriation of the Syrian Circassians to the North Caucasus may become much clearer by the end of March. Although a decision evidently has not yet been made, there are some signs that the government is seriously considering repatriation. A tight cap on the number of repatriates is very likely, but the move would still be a considerable breakthrough for Circassian activists.