Syrian Refugee Crisis Is Becoming a Flashpoint for Moscow-North Caucasus Relations

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 17

On August 10, Circassian activists in Moscow picketed the offices of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Emergency Situations Ministry and the Migration Service. The initial request to hold a protest rally was turned down by the Moscow city authorities, so the activists reverted to one-person pickets that cannot be banned under Russian legislation. The activists demanded that the Russian government give a clear response to the plight of the estimated 150,000 Circassians in Syria, who have been in danger since the hostilities began there. Only about 400 Circassians have managed to relocate to the North Caucasus over the past several months, but the Russian government has not provided any assistance to them; they have only received private donations. Another 400 Syrian Circassians have received permission to come to Russia, but they have not yet been able to leave Syria. According to existing Russian legislation, Circassians may be considered compatriots since they lived in the Russian Empire in the 19th century (

At that time, the Russian Empire ethnically cleansed the Circassian lands that covered the northwestern and much of the central North Caucasus, Black Sea coast. The Circassians were one of the largest ethnic groups in the Caucasus. According to activists of the Circassian organization Peryt, the Russian Embassy in Damascus stopped issuing visas to Circassians at the end of July. The official explanation is that there were problems with the visa documents, but the Syrian Circassians claim the Russian Embassy does not want to issue visas to them and are resorting to various pretexts. The situation is further aggravated by transportation problems. Aeroflot suspended flights to and from Syria at the start of August, so now only a Syrian air company flies to Moscow, twice a week. Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan are closed, while escaping to neighboring Lebanon is considered hazardous because the adjacent area is not under government control (

The Russian Embassy in Damascus has reportedly started making things difficult for Circassian applicants for Russian entry permits, while Arabs still receive Russian visas without much trouble. Meanwhile, the situation for ethnic minorities in Syria is progressively deteriorating. Both the rebel forces and the government forces reportedly target the Circassians. “The Kremlin regards the Circassian national movement as its adversary,” said Israeli expert Avraam Shmulevich. “The Circassians’ interests are consciously ignored, so the Kremlin will never do anything to assist the Circassians’ repatriation.” Shmulevich added that only the neighboring country of Georgia might help the Circassians by taking this issue to the international stage (

In reaction to the Russian authorities’ persistent inaction, Circassian activists addressed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on August 5, asking the Israeli government to help to accommodate the fleeing Circassians and Russians with the assistance of Circassian organizations, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other parties (

The Russian strategy in the crisis related to the Syrian Circassians appears to be simple and routine: keep away the bulk of the refugees and pretend to do something about the crisis while doing nothing overtly decisive and helpful. While this approach may seem to be cautious and sensible from the Russian government’s point of view, it will certainly upset the Circassians in Russia and will not be received well by the other groups in the North Caucasus, especially since other North Caucasian groups have started to rediscover their ethnic brethren in Syria.

A member of the Dagestani Public Chamber, Magomed Abdulkhabirov, told Radio Liberty that four Dagestanis were repatriated to Kabardino-Balkaria from Syria. Abdulkhabirov visited Nalchik and called on the Dagestani government and public to support the repatriation of Dagestanis from Syria. The Dagestani activist said he visited a village near Homs in Syria where “80 percent of the surnames were of Dagestani origin.” Abdulkhabirov emphasized the moral responsibility that contemporary Russia has to the descendants of the North Caucasians who were expelled from their homeland by the Russian Empire ( A delegation representing Chechens in Syria traveled to Chechnya in July to negotiate a plan to resettle them in Chechnya. The Chechen authorities are reportedly concluding an agreement with the Russian Migration Service to provide 500 entry permits for Syrian Chechens (

The authorities in North Ossetia officially announced they would help the Syrian Ossetians, but reports suggest the republican government is reluctant to act upon its promises. Fauaz Albegov, an Ossetian activist in Syria, told the Ekho Kavkaza website that the overall cost of travelling to Russia is about $2,000, which includes a Russian tourist visa for one month. Another option is to wait for an official invitation from North Ossetia. Neither way is acceptable to those on the ground, said Albegov. Some North Ossetian activists say the regional parliament must hold an extraordinary gathering to adopt a law in support of Ossetians living abroad. Some North Ossetians apparently would like to see the Syrian Ossetians relocate to South Ossetia instead, but the Syrian Ossetians signaled they would not go to South Ossetia since it was not their ancestral land (

Syrian Ossetians are Muslim and thus would hardly fit into Christian South Ossetia. As of August 14, the Russian government had given no indication it would give special support for relocating ethnic Ossetians from Syria to the North Caucasus, despite the reputation Ossetians have for being Russian loyalists. The North Ossetian public, however, appears to be enthusiastic about relocating the Syrian Ossetians to their homeland. Three-quarters of the respondents in an online survey taken by a popular North Ossetian website – more than 700 people – said the republican government should help the Syrian Ossetians in one way or another (, August 13).

The Syrian refugee crisis is gradually turning into a flashpoint not only in Circassian-Russian relations, but more generally for North Caucasian-Russian relations. Even though not all of the North Caucasians have sizeable diasporas in Syria, Moscow’s negligent attitude toward the Syrian Circassians will not go unnoticed by the region’s other peoples.