The Circassian Factor in Russian-Middle Eastern Relations

Walter Richmond

The North Caucasus has been the fault line between Russia and the Muslim world for centuries and has shaped Russia’s perception of and relation to this world in a variety of ways. While the impact of the peoples to the east, particularly the Chechens, has been analyzed from various perspectives, the role of the Northwest Caucasian peoples in Russia’s struggle to control the entire region as well as Russia’s relationship to the Muslim nations has received significantly less attention. In part, this is due to the fact that the Circassians, the majority ethnic group in the region, were deported almost in their entirety from their homeland in the Northwest Caucasus in 1864, and now they and the other indigenous peoples of the region find themselves significant minorities in the region. However, it is the very fact that the majority of the Circassian people now live in the Middle East that makes them the most important link between Russia and the Muslim world. The Circassians’ own connection to Islam is problematic as well, as it was only in the 1700s, as the Russian Empire’s encroachment on Circassia triggered a protracted war, that a campaign of proselytization by the Porte was launched. These efforts were only minimally effective, and it was only during the mass deportation of the Circassians in 1864 that the majority nominally converted to Islam. Over time, their descendants adopted the Islamic practices of their host countries—primarily the modern states of Turkey, Syria and Jordan—but only practices that didn’t contradict their own ancient code of behavior, Adyge Habze.i The tiny fraction that remained in the Caucasus likewise combined Islam with Adyge Habze, creating an eclectic version of Islam which became known as “traditional” to distinguish it from Middle Eastern forms of Islam that were promoted by missionaries from Turkey and the Middle East in the North Caucasus in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Until recently, the Circassians in the Northwest Caucasus had limited contact with the diaspora, but particularly with the rise of the Internet they began not only to communicate regularly with their compatriots in the Middle East but also to organize efforts to achieve recognition of their deportation as an act of genocide and to pressure the Russian government to allow Circassians who wished to the right to return to their ancestral homeland. Three recent events have acted as catalysts in this process: the Georgian Parliament’s recognition of the Circassian Genocide in 2011, the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi, and the Syrian civil war. This paper analyzes these processes and the effects they are having and will possibly have in the future on Russian domestic policy as well as Moscow’s policies pertaining to the Middle East.

The Deportation and its Aftermath

War broke out between Circassia and the Russian Empire in 1763, when Fort Mozdok was built on Circassian territory as part of the growing Caucasus Military Line. After a protracted and increasingly brutal conflict, the Russian Empire expelled approximately ninety percent of Circassians from the Caucasus in 1864 to the Ottoman Empire. The process was conducted with gross disregard for human life, and as a result hundreds of thousands of Circassians died of starvation, disease, and exposure.ii The majority of the survivors were sent to Anatolia, while a significant minority were settled in Bulgaria. This second group was driven out of the Balkans during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 and housed in makeshift camps in and around Istanbul until they were ultimately sent to the Syrian desert both to reclaim the area and to defend settlements farther north from raids by Bedouins. In 2010 there were between 50,000 and 100,000 Circassians in Syria and 100,000 in Jordan.iii There may be as many as three million Circassians in Turkey, although the majority have been assimilated into Turkish society.iv

From the time they arrived in Syria, the Circassians have struggled to live in Arab society while maintaining some sense of national unity. Perceived as colonists and representatives first of the Ottoman state and then of the French Mandate, which they served as units of the “Troupes Speciales,” Circassians have always been treated with suspicion by Arab nationalists. As a result, Syrian Circassian have sought repatriation to the Caucasus on several occasions throughout the 20th Century, although the Soviet government consistently rejected their requests. While the Circassians officially held a high social status in Syria because of their significant presence in military and security organs, the end of the French Mandate in 1936 led to a wave of oppression against Circassian culture. Their participation on the Arab side in the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War improved their position, but their fate remained unresolved throughout the multiple military coups following the War. Sami Al-Hinnawi’s brief dictatorship in 1949 established the Circassians and other minorities as a central force in the military, but his successor, Adib Shishakli, purged large numbers of Circassians from the military and even arrested some.v In 1963 the Circassians, who still occupied important posts in both the military and administrative branches of the government, threw their support behind the Ba’ath Party. Since then, their role in Syria’s administration and military force has diminished, as younger generations have chosen careers in other areas. Furthermore, as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Circassians were forced to abandon the Golan Heights, where approximately 18,000 Circassians lived, primarily in Quneitra and eleven nearby Most fled to Damascus, while around 1000 immigrated to Paterson, New Jersey. Today the Circassians in Syria are still seen as outsiders and have themselves resisted integration into Arab society.vii Nevertheless, at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011 the Circassians generally supported the regime of Bashar al-Assad and still occupied some administrative positions.

Three factors contributed to the lack of a unified Circassian effort at repatriation for much of the 20th Century. First, at the time of their deportation the Circassians were not a “nation” in the modern sense of the concept. Rather, they were in a state of tribal feudalism, recognizing each other as belonging to the same ethnos, but more loyal to their own clan or tribe than to the Circassian nation as a whole. Second, dispersal across the Ottoman Empire further fragmented Circassian identity, particularly after the fall of the Ottomans and the creation of the nation states of Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and later Israel. Different pressures caused by local political and cultural circumstances have given each émigré community its own character, and in my interviews I’ve found that each community has its own unique view on the question of repatriation (although with the exception of pro-Russian Turkish Circassians, they are unanimous in their demand that Russia recognize the genocide). Third, the Circassians’ knowledge of their own history was undermined by the promotion, by both Russia and the Circassians’ host nations, of what could be labelled “the muhajir narrative” to explain the Circassians’ departure from the Caucasus. According to this version of the events of 1864, the Russian Empire gave the Circassians the choice of living under Russian rule or immigrating to the Ottoman Empire, and the vast majority voluntarily chose Islamic hijra, or religious migration.viii This story became part of Circassian family narratives in the Middle East, and has been actively promoted by the governments of the Circassians’ adopted homes, as well as Russia.ix

The Circassians thus occupy a unique place in Russia, the Middle East and Russo-Syrian relations. A minority group with greater political and economic power than their numbers would suggest, they are nominally pro-Assad but effectively neutral in the civil war. Furthermore, their desire to emigrate is perceived as a threat by Russia and a sign of disloyalty by the Assad regime as well as rebel groups and threatens to complicate international relations between Russia and the Middle Eastern nations in which they reside.

National Awakening

After the fall of the Soviet Union, alternate interpretations of the deportation of the Circassians—some objective, some tendentious—began to appear. Particularly the archival work of Tugan Kumykov was instrumental in supplying information that was used to create narratives that challenged the muhajir version.x One such narrative, which I describe in my book The Circassian Genocide, asserts that not only did the Russian government place impossible terms on the Circassians who wished to remain in the Caucasus, but that the Caucasus High Command gave the overwhelming majority no choice, simply driving them to the shore of the Black Sea for deportation.xi Excerpts from archival documents that support this narrative began to appear, but there was little organized effort to challenge the muhajir narrative until the opening of the Georgian archives in 2010, where documents chronicling the events of 1863-64 were located. The advent of social networking at nearly the same time gave Circassian activists and researchers a vehicle for disseminating this information, as well as providing a global platform for the Circassians. This new means of communication was a breakthrough for Circassians around the world, who had never had such a chance to interact with their compatriots in other countries. Even within Russia Circassians are physically scattered in five different administrative regions, in only one of which they are the majority ethnic group, while Circassians in diaspora were still isolated to a great degree from their compatriots in Russia and from each other, although by 2000 Turkish Circassians were able to travel relatively freely to the Caucasus. The Internet changed all this, allowing Circassian activism to become a global project. This has also increased the range of topics, and recently younger Circassians have become more interested in current issues—language preservation, representation in government—than in genocide recognition, complicating what the Russian government calls “The Circassian Question” even more.xii

Circassian efforts at genocide recognition and repatriation accelerated over the next several years and brought the movement into the international arena. First was the dedication of the Circassian Genocide Memorial in Anaklia, Georgia. This, combined with the Georgian government’s recognition of the events of 1864 as genocide created the first serious geopolitical issue affecting Russian-Muslim relations. While Georgia’s efforts on behalf of the Circassians was in part a response to Russia’s invasion and occupation of South Ossetia in 2008, it was more significant for the wedge it drove between the Circassians and the Abkhazians. The Abkhazians, the Circassians’ only relatives, were nearly all deported to the Ottoman Empire in 1865 and the two groups have always had generally friendly relations. In the Soviet era, Abkhazia was given a very low status as part of the Georgian SSR, and colonization by ethnic Georgians which began in Tsarist times continued and accelerated until the Abkhazians found themselves a minority in their own homeland. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, war broke out between Georgia and Abkhazia in 1992. After Moscow secured the Abkhazian victory thousands of Georgians were deported, and many were massacred. Abkhazian-Georgian animosity escalated, and by the time of the Circassian Genocide Memorial dedication the Abkhazians looked upon the Russians as liberators. The placement of the Genocide Memorial only a few hundred yards from the Abkhazian border as well as the establishment of the Circassian Cultural Center in Tbilisi seemed to be a deliberate affront to both Russia and Abkhazia, although some familiar with the events believe that Georgia is trying to become the leader of some sort of future Caucasian federation.xiii In any case, Georgia’s actions have created a geopolitical opposition of Georgia-Circassia and Russia-Abkhazia, which in and of itself creates a further complication to the task of resolving the current instability in the Caucasus and breaks the standard “Christian-Muslim” opposition (the Abkhazians are overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian) that is often incorrectly seen as the only factor in the complicated situation in the Caucasus.

The Sochi Olympics

Although the Syrian crisis was already making itself felt in Russia and elsewhere by 2012, it was the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi that first brought the Circassian issue to the attention of the world community. The Circassians declared Sochi their capital at the end of the Russo-Circassian War in an attempt to convince Britain that they had a central government and were an independent nation-state.xiv Krasnaya Polyana, the field on which the Olympic stadium was built, was the site of the Circassians’ last stand against the Russians in May 1864. Although it never functioned as an actual administrative center, the city holds tremendous symbolic meaning to the Circassans, and Further offending the Circassians was the fact that 2014 was the 150th anniversary of the deportation. Circassians in diaspora conducted a series of protests and attempted to publicize their “No Sochi” campaign with the provocative slogan, “You’ll be skiing on mass graves.” Despite a tremendous amount of effort, much of it led by a small group of Circassians living in the United States, the “No Sochi” campaign gained only limited attention from the international community. However, the effort brought Circassians from the Middle East, Turkey, Russia, Europe and the United States closer together. At the same time, it created two opposing camps with different strategies. Some organizations representing the diaspora, along with some activists in the Caucasus, supported the idea of blocking the Olympics entirely, while organizations within Russia, along with some diaspora communities, lobbied for the inclusion of an event that would highlight Circassian history and culture.xv

As these events unfolded, the Russian government made efforts to discredit the genocide recognition movement. Historians, political scientists, archivists and others published materials intended both to serve as evidence that the muhajir narrative was accurate and to shift the blame for the war itself onto the Circassians.xvi On the political front, Moscow took the position that Circassian efforts to revisit the events of 1864 were being driven by a small radical fringe living in diaspora and directed by Turkish, Georgian and American political elites.xvii Moscow also took actions designed to reinterpret other aspects of Caucasus history, such as the 2008 “celebration” of the 450th anniversary of the “voluntary unification of Kabardia with Russia,” based upon a mutual assistance treaty the two powers signed in 1588.xviii The Circassian community saw this as an attempt to assert that the Russo-Circassian War wasn’t a matter of an invasion of one nation by another but rather of a subject people rebelling against the legitimate government. The most provocative Russian action in this regard was the way in which the Sochi Olympics were publicized. Unlike Canada, where the First Nations were honored during the 2010 Winter Olympics, newsreels about the Sochi region completely omitted the Circassians from the narrative.xix Such efforts on the part of Moscow continue to the present: in 2018 journalist Yana Amelina proposed eliminating the phrase “Circassian genocide” from all Russian textbooks, revising all courses to avoid discussing the subject at all, and verifying that no instructors were violating these rules. Amelina also suggested that Moscow take diplomatic steps in countries where Circassians live in diaspora to impede the work of activists.xx

In fact, Moscow had already been intimidating Circassian activists and attempting to sow disunity among the various Circassian organizations around the world. By early 2014, articles were regularly being published in Russia that denigrated the supporters of the Circassians and denied the events of 1864 were genocide.xxi In June 2014, the International Circassian Association, a staunchly pro-Moscow organization founded at the end of the Soviet period as an attempt to control Circassian activism, applied for a grant for the purpose of monitoring of “ethnocentric nationalist ideologies” on the Internet and the creation of a system for countering activist online efforts.xxii While the ICA did not receive the grant, the effort caused much of the Circassian diaspora to finally dismiss the organization as a legitimate representative of the Circassian people.xxiii Another attempt at cooptation of the Circassian movement occurred in July 2016, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov invited Khauti Sokhrokov, President of the ICA, to meet with him and discuss ways of addressing the concerns of Circassians in the Caucasus and abroad, although no further progress was made.xxiv Circassian activists in the Caucasus have been followed and intimidated, and several dozen have been imprisoned for their work.xxv In addition, Moscow started to deport Circassians from abroad who had found a way to settle in the Caucasus. Turkish Circassians who had been living in the Caucasus with little resistance from Moscow began to be deported after Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft in 2015. The deportation of ICA Vice-President Yashar Aslankay, who was also President of the largest Circassian organization in Turkey, KAFFED, compelled that organization, which has been generally favorably predisposed to Moscow, to withdraw from the ICA in January 2017.xxvi Even more provocatively, in 2016 Moscow took the unprecedented step of attempting to derail Circassian events commemorating the Genocide on 21 May. The following year Moscow went further, arresting well-known activist Ruslan Gvashev for offering a prayer on 21 May 2017 at a tree considered sacred by the Circassians near the village of Golovinka. Gvashev was fined, but he refused to pay.xxvii The action only seemed to embolden the Circassians, however, for in 2018 memorial ceremonies took place in the Circassian republics and Krasnodar Krai as well as abroad that were significantly larger than in previous years, despite the fact that Moscow did what it could to discourage participation, even labelling demonstrations in Turkey “anti-Russian.”xxviii Furthermore, the Gvashev incident served as an impetus for reconciliation between the Circassians and Abkhazians. Gvashev, who fought alongside Abkhazians in 1992 and 2008, is particularly revered in Abkhazia for rallying Abkhazian troops after they suffered severe losses in March 1993. After Gvashev’s arrest, Abkhazian politicians and activists tried to demonstrate in support of Gvashev, although governmental forces prevented them from spreading.xxix

The events leading up to Sochi served as another unifying force among Circassians and was the first instance of international attention being directed upon them. Moscow’s heavy-handed reaction to Circassian activism produced few tangible results and served to energize the Circassian world community further.

The Syrian Crisis

Throughout this confrontation between Moscow and Circassian activists, the Syrian crisis played a pivotal role in uniting the Circassians. Since protests began in Syria in March 2011, nearly five million people have fled the country, including between ten and fifteen thousand Circassians. While the war appears to be winding down and Bashar Assad’s victory seems certain thanks to Russian support, the Circassians have reasons to fear remaining in Syria regardless of the outcome. Even before the disturbances began, Circassians seemed to be targeted by the Assad regime: over the last decade, Circassians occupying important posts in the administration were purged, some being demoted, others At the outset of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian Circassian Solidarity Association announced the Circassians’ support of the Assad regime, but the Circassians themselves remained neutral and took no part in the conflict, raising the ire of pro-Assad Syrians. On the other hand, rebel groups are a threat to all minority groups in Syria: for example, in December 2013 the rebel groups Jaysh al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra massacred Alawites, Druze and other minorities just outside Damascus, where many Circassians also live.xxxi Circassians met a similar fate in 2016, when rebels destroyed five of their villages and killed 150 Circassians.xxxii Some groups within the Free Syrian Army even declared that once they overthrew Assad the Circassians would be purged from Syria, and inscriptions began appearing on Circassian houses demanding they leave. In response to such threats, the Circassians created neighborhood self-defense units.xxxiii Many began expressing their desire to return to their homeland to escape both the ongoing violence and the multiple threats made against them, but this led to even more harassment from both opposition and government forces. As Circassian researcher Emir Fatih Akbulat describes it, “supporters of the regime claimed that the Circassians are citizens of Syria and therefore must fight for the protection of the legitimate authorities. If the leave the country, they can be declared traitors. The opposition claimed that the Syrian Circassians would be able to return to their homeland only if they paid their debts to the country, by fighting the enemies.”xxxiv Perhaps as many as 10,000 Circassians fled along with other Syrians to Turkey and Jordan, and are afraid of returning because of the threats issued against them by both sides in the conflict.xxxv

Flight to Turkey and Jordan has turned out to be a temporary solution only, however. While the Turkish government and people showed compassion toward all the refugees and did what they could to help, a number of problems have arisen: cultural differences, housing shortages, unemployment, and simple “compassion fatigue.”xxxvi As for the Circassians, activists in Turkey and elsewhere that I spoke to claimed that the Turkish Circassian community never tackled the refugee issue with as much enthusiasm as Circassians in other countries, primarily because of the deep divisions among Circassians in Turkey, and that at present there is no real effort to assist the refugees. As for Jordan, the refugee camps there suffer from overcrowding along with the usual problems of inadequate food and medicine. In October, 2015, the leader of the Circassian Society of Jordan appealed to the Russian government, stating that “the Circassian diaspora in Jordan is extremely concerned with the grave developments in the military-political events in Syria” and urgently requesting that Moscow “support an emergency evacuation of the representatives of the Circassian diaspora to their national Homeland.”xxxvii However, the Russian Foreign Ministry had already stated that “the Syrian Circassians are descendants of migrants from among the Adyga [Circassian] peoples of the North and West Caucasus who declined Russian suzerainty and made a voluntary choice: to abandon the region after the conclusion of military actions . . .” and were therefore not entitled to take advantage of the accelerated immigration program Moscow created in the early 2000s to repatriate descendants of people with Russian citizenship who for one reason or another were forced to go into exile.xxxviii

Circassians had in fact appealed for the right of return multiple times throughout the 20th Century, but in these previous attempts they had never pressed their case after receiving a rejection from Moscow. Some managed to settle in Kabardino-Balkaria in the 1960s, but ran into multiple bureaucratic and practical obstacles, and most opted to return into exile.xxxix Momentum began to build during the period of Perestroika, and in the last months of the Soviet Union’s existence the first International Circassian Congress created the International Circassian Association (ICA) and set as one of its goals “assistance to Circassians who wish to return to their historical homeland.”xl On 21 May 1991 the Association formally appealed to the Soviet government to consider declaring Circassians in diaspora Soviet citizens.xli Subsequent congresses repeated their requests, even as the ICA fell under heavy pressure from Moscow, and small numbers of Circassians began to receive permission to repatriate. Closely tied to the question of repatriation, of course, was the issue of recognizing Russian Imperial actions in the 19th Century as genocide. In 1997 the ICA appealed to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, and in response the UNPO General Assembly declared that “the Russian Federation and the world community must recognize the fact of the genocide of the Circassian people that occurred in the 19th Century and grant the Circassians the status of an exiled nation.”xlii In 2002, Moscow enacted a new rule whereby people wishing to immigrate to Russia must be able to speak Russian, placing a serious obstacle in the way of Circassians from the Middle East who wished to repatriate. However, as mentioned above, it was shortly after this that Circassian efforts began to escalate. The Syrian crisis lent a sense of urgency the question of repatriation, and turned what was originally a dispute between Russia and a small displaced nation into an international issue. On December 25, 2011, 115 Syrian Circassians appealed to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and on the 28th an additional 57 asked to be repatriated to their homeland. Since then, multiple petitions have been submitted to Moscow, although the Russian government has recognized very few of them. By 2013 around 2000 Turkish Circassians returned to Russia on tourist visas, but as mentioned above they have been almost all forced to return to Turkey.xliii According to a representative of the Russian government I spoke with in May 2018, the Syrian Circassians will never be allowed to return because they have been “Islamicized” and pose a threat to the relative religious stability in the region. Furthermore, he re-asserted the muhajir interpretation of the events of 1864, arguing that since the Circassians left Russia “voluntarily” and accepted Ottoman rule, the Circassians do not have a right to return to their ancestral homeland. The Circassians therefore must appeal as foreign nationals wishing to immigrate to the Russian Federation, a slow process with large numbers of applicants.

A relatively minor event further energized the Circassians to demand repatriation. On 26 September an eleven-year-old Circassian girl was killed by a sniper in Damascus while riding in a taxi with her mother.xliv Protests were small in the beginning, although on 29 September Adygeia Governor Aslan Tkhakushinov asserted that the laws in Russia that define who Russian compatriots are should be rewritten to include Syrian Circassians.xlv This in turn energized activists and academics.xlvi Even pro-Moscow groups began calling for repatriation of their compatriots in Syria, admittedly in decidedly conciliatory language. As Ali Aslanov, member of the ICA’s executive committee, put it: “At this time, when Moscow has taken such a decision and is helping the Syrian Arab Republic, we support Russia’s position and once again call attention to the fact that the Circassians’ compatriots, the majority of whom support Bashar Assad, live there.”xlvii

Pressure on Russia to accept the Syrian Circassian refugees is intensifying. In late 2017 Asker Bora, Director of the humanitarian organization Ochag in Kabardino-Balkaria, led a delegation to Syria for “the establishment and restoration of ties with compatriots in Syria” and to create a united Circassian front to address the problems facing the Syrian Circassians. Bora expressed his dismay at the drastic decline in the numbers of Syrian Circassians granted permission to seek asylum in Russia,xlviii and in November Bora promised that Ochag would do all it could for Syrian Circassians who want to immigrate to the Caucasus.xlix In like manner Asker Sokht, Chairman of the Krasnodar Krai chapter of the Circassian organization Adyge Hase and widely viewed as an ally of Moscow, stated in June 2018 that Syrian Circassians who had already settled in Adygeia in 2009 were completely integrated into life in the Republic and that no serious problems were encountered in their transition to life in the Caucasus.l There is also the possibility that the Abkhazian government may join in with the Circassians in demanding the Syrian Circassians be repatriated. Abkhazia has helped hundreds of Circassians to settle there, and this seems to be acting as an ameliorating force in Circassian-Abkhaz The outcome of this rapprochement is still unknown, but if it raises tensions between the Abkhazian people and Moscow, Russia could have yet another problem to deal with in the Caucasus.

Yet another potential problem is the Circassians’ recent cooperation with the Crimean Tatars. By late 2014, Circassians in diaspora were coordinating their efforts with representatives of the Crimean Tatars, the majority of whom were driven from Crimea in two waves, first in the 1780s and then in the mid-19th century. Moscow greatly fears a drive by the Tatars to be recognized as the indigenous people of the Crimea, and is paying close attention to meetings between Circassian and Tatar activists in Turkey, which began shortly after Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. On 24 November Vladislav Gulevich, a particularly fierce critic of Circassian activists, labelled these meetings “anti-Russian propaganda” and claimed the Tatars were associated with the radical Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir and warned that Russo-Turkish relations would suffer if the Tatars and Circassians continued their activities.lii In June 2015 political scientist Yevgeny Minchenko warned that the Crimean Tatars were likely to exploit the Circassian genocide issue to press their own nationalist agenda.liii

Moscow’s Reaction

Moscow’s concerns about the influence of the Muslim nations of the Middle East on the Caucasus peoples go back to imperial times, and these long-standing fears seemed to take concrete form when dozens of Chechen repatriates from Syria, Jordan and Turkey returned before the first Russo-Chechen War began in 1994 and joined a rebel battalion called “Jamaat,”liv In addition to the return of radicalized north Caucasians, the Russians fear infiltration of extremists from the Middle East, with some justification: in November 2004, special forces killed Abu Habib, a citizen of Syria and one of the main propagators of While Russia was driven by much larger economic and political factors, the possibility of a re-emergence of Islamic radicalism in the north Caucasus certainly was on Putin’s mind when his government chose to support the Assad regime. Initially, Moscow was content to block any proposals for intervention, and even joined US Secretary of State John Kerry in calling for reconciliation, encouraged by international conferences. With the radicalization of the rebels, the Kremlin was forced to re-evaluate its strategy, as security concerns began to take center stage. In June 2013 Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Russian Counter-Intelligence Service (FSB), asserted that Syria had become a training ground for extremists from around the world, and that these trainees would return to their home nations eventually to create chaos there.lvi In fact, a terrorist attack in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, in December 2014 was connected to Syria and demonstrated the reality of the threat the war posed to Russia’s domestic stability.lvii As Russia is perhaps the largest contributor of foreign fighters to the rebels in Syria, this sort of infiltration and radicalization has become a major concern.lviii The vast majority of extremists have come from Chechnya and Dagestan, although there were fighters from Kabardino-Balkaria, and on 18 June 2015 Karachay Al’bert Bogartyrev (a Karachay) and fifteen other residents of Karachaevo-Cherkessia were charged with training people for terrorist activity after having themselves trained in Syria.lix This could be nothing other than a serious shock to Moscow, as radical Islamists in the Northwest Caucasus were defeated by nationalist movements by 2010. By May 2015, Moscow was claiming that 500 Russian citizens, primarily from the North Caucasus, had joined ISIS.lx International observers were less conservative, estimating that between 1500 and 2000 Russian nationals were fighting for various rebel groups by 2014.lxi

Islamic radicalization isn’t Moscow’s only concern. Circassian nationalists, who were finding increasing support for genocide recognition, became targets of Russia’s security organs.lxii Surveillance and harassment of activists increased, and the definition of “extremist literature” was expanded to include any works critical of Russia’s role in the plight of the Circassian diaspora. In 2012 I was informed that a Circassian in Russia was detained and interrogated for publishing “extremist literature,” which consisted of an excerpt from my book The Circassian Genocide, on the Internet, and that the Russian government was even investigating the possibility of a civil case against me for publishing work detrimental to the Moscow narrative. Since then, dozens of Circassian activists have been tried for “incitement of hatred and animosity, publishing of calls for extremist activity and separatism.”lxiii There have also been a number of murders of Circassian activists. In response, Circassians have turned to international courts to press their case.lxiv Prior to the 2016 elections in Adygeia Plenipotentiary for the Southern Federal District of the Russian Federation Vladimir Ustinov stated that “we must take all steps necessary to keep proponents of extremist ideas from becoming deputies of the State Council-Khase.” Although religious extremism had already been defeated in the region, Ustinov claimed that this was still a threat in Adygeia.lxv

Moscow has even broader concerns. In 2016 the Sakha Republic decided to declare the Sakha people the indigenous people of that region, which triggered efforts to have the Circassian people declared the indigenous people of Krasnodar Krai.lxvi In response, Artur Priymak published an article that both challenged the Circassian claim that they are in fact indigenous to the region, and warned that approval of the Circassians’ demand would lead to increased tension in the Caucasus and separatist movements across the Russian Federation.lxvii As mentioned above, particularly worrisome to Moscow are the Crimean Tatars. Gulevich’s 2014 article stated Moscow’s position in alarmist terms, asserting that Circassians and Crimean Tatars had been coordinating their efforts in Istanbul “to unify their national liberation theses and turn this ideological hybrid into an international phenomenon” and “not just block Russia’s access to the Caucasus section of the Black Sea coast but also to undermine the stability of the southern borders of the European part of Russia and weaken its position in the Black Sea-Caspian region.”lxviii Motivated by such alarmist predictions, by mid-2015 Moscow was calling for study of the question of whether or not the Crimean Tatars could legitimately claim to be an indigenous people of Crimea, apparently a new strategy in their effort to thwart Tatar aspirations.lxix

Moscow’s response to calls for repatriation of Syrian Circassians has been to ignore requests from those still in the Middle East and to place insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles to gaining permanent residence for those who managed to make it to the North Caucasus and gradually deport them. Syrian Circassians who managed to enter Russia have been discouraged from acquiring permanent residence, refugee status, and even shelter and employment. The Russian government has also failed to grant any economic assistance to the refugees: as of May 2018 the village of Mafakhabl’, which was constructed especially for the refugees, was still without gas or running water.lxx Moscow has created multiple bureaucratic hurdles and has not created any programs to teach the refugees Russian.lxxi Deportation, however, is the final goal. As mentioned above, Moscow began deporting Circassians who had come to the Caucasus from Turkey in 2016.lxxii At the beginning of the Syrian crisis more than 750 Syrian Circassians fled to Adygeia, but by 2017 most of them had left, as the Russian government declined to consider them refugees.lxxiii As of June 2018, only two Syrian Circassians of 3000 who have applied have received refugee status.lxxiv Moscow has been giving Russian passports to citizens of former Soviet republics, which has only increased Circassian demands for repatriation. Additionally, the Russian government is making efforts to expel the remaining 1600 of the approximately 3000 Syrian Circassians who found temporary shelter in the Caucasus thanks to the efforts of private parties.lxxv As of 2018, the Russian Embassy in Damascus was still establishing quotas for Arab Syrians to receive temporary visas, but Circassians are being refused.lxxvi In their rejection of Circassian demands to repatriate their Syrian compatriots, Moscow held to the muhajir narrative, claiming there was no “legal or political foundation” to recognize them as Russian citizens. Moscow also stated that “granting such preference exclusively to the Circassian diaspora of the SAR could be interpreted by the government of that nation and other groups of the Syrian population who likewise hold hopes of emigrating to Russia under emergency protocol as blatant discrimination.”lxxvii

Consequences for Russo-Muslim Relations

The issue creates potential problems for Russia both at home and in its relations with Syria and other Muslim nations. Domestically, Moscow faces a conundrum. Russia fears that thousands of Syrian Circassians settling in the North Caucasus would alter the ethnic/religious balance in the Caucasus so drastically that interethnic conflict would ensue. Therefore, Moscow will have to deal with possibly increasing unrest among the Circassians in the Caucasus should the situation of their compatriots in Syria worsen. Even if it doesn’t, the events of the last ten years may have created a momentum that will only increase as time passes. On the international stage, the Kremlin has officially endorsed the preservation of Syria’s territorial integrity, so any move to repatriate large numbers of Syrian Circassians could be seen as a violation of that position. Furthermore, the governments of Syria and possibly Jordan could lose some of the support of the Circassians which they have always enjoyed if there is no official pressure by their governments on Russia to accept the Syrian Circassians. The Jordanian Circassians are something of a wild card in this respect. During the Libyan uprising, the Circassians of Jordan refused to make any statements concerning the Circassians there.lxxviii In the case of the Syrian Circassians, however, Adyge Khase of Jordan issued a statement encouraging Russia to accept as many Circassian refugees as possible and to ensure their transition to life in the Caucasus.lxxix As the Circassians are an influential class in Jordan, they could contribute to a worsening of Russo-Jordanian relations if Russia continues its military and mercenary interventions in Syria while failing to repatriate the Syrian Circassians. Also, Jordanian Circassians may themselves take their Syrian compatriots’ lead and begin demanding the right of return for the 100,000 Circassians in Jordan.

The Circassian factor represents both a failure on Russia’s part to address a long-standing issue that threatens to disrupt the Northwest Caucasus and impacts upon Moscow’ foreign policy in unforeseeable ways. Regardless of how the Syrian civil war ends, the Circassians will continue to see the Caucasus as their only truly safe refuge. As even loyal Circassian groups in Russia are lobbying for repatriation of the Syrian Circassians, the movement is only likely to grow. As they move forward with their efforts to influence events in Syria, Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, the Circassian factor will likely serve as a complicating factor with no satisfactory resolution as long as Moscow refuses to allow the Circassian diaspora to return. While it will likely never become a major problem as long as Moscow continues to refuse repatriation for Circassians in diaspora, it will be a festering problem that will affect Russian policy concerning the Muslim world both in Russia and abroad for the foreseeable future.

The Circassian issue epitomizes Russia’s longstanding inability to gain complete control of the North Caucasus. More than any other people in the Russian Federation, the peoples of the North Caucasus have resisted assimilation into Russian society and have on more than one occasion since the end of the Caucasus Wars of the 19th Century taken up arms to regain their independence. As a result, any sort of expression of national pride is treated as a preliminary step towards direct conflict with Moscow. The Circassian call for genocide recognition reopens the entire episode of Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus which, as Israeli scholar Avraam Shmulevich notes, was “a trap the Russian Empire fell into,” and has still not extricated itself from today.lxxx

i Small communities of Circassians live in Israel, Iraq, the United States, Western Europe and dozens of other countries. Significant populations of Circassians also live in Libya and Egypt, although the vast majority are descendants of the Mamluks, who immigrated to Africa beginning in the 1400s.

ii Richmond, Walter. The Circassian Genocide. Rutgers University Press, 2013. Chapter Four.

iii Akbulat, Emir Fatih. “Syrian Circassians in the Context of the Syrian Refugee Issue: Nature of the Problem on the Basis of the International Community in Turkey and Russia and Suggested Solutions,” Central European Journal of Politics, Volume 3 (2017) Issue 1, p. 3.

iv Unrepresented Nations and Peoples’ Organization, “Circassia,” Retrieved 15/6/2018.

v Kushkhabiev, A. B. (2004). Ocherki Istorii Zarubezhnoi Cherkesskoi Diaspory. Nalchik: Insititut Gumanitarnykh Issledovanii Pravitel’stva KBR I Kabardino-Balkarskogo Nauchnogo Tsentra Rossiiskoi Akademii Naukm pp. 180-81.

vi Ibid., p. 182.

vii Richmond, The Circassian Genocide, pp. 114-23.

viii Bliev, Mark, Rossiia i Gortsy Bol’shogo Kavkaza: Na Puti k Tsivilizatsii. Moscow: Mysl’, 2004, pp. 786-94 is a good example of this line of reasoning.

ix Interview with Iyad Youghar, 20 May 2013.

x Kumykov, Tugan. Vyselenie Adygov v Turtsiiu: Posledstvie Kavkazskoi Voiny. Nal’chik: El’brus, 1994; Kumykov, Arkhivnye Materialy o Kavkazskoi Voine i Vyselenii Cherkesov (Adygov) v Turtsiiu. 2 Vols. Nal’chik: El’-Fa, 2003, for example.

xi Richmond, The Circassian Genocide, 54-97.

xii Gadzhieva, Zul’fiia “Transformatsiia Severnogo Kavkaza,” Kavkaz. Realii. 31/1/2018, Retrieved 23/7/2018.

xiii As far as I know, this theory has not been elaborated upon in writing. My information comes from casual conversations with scholars, politicians, and journalists who are familiar with the situation.

xiv Sochi itself has caused a bit of tension between the Circassians and Abkhazians, as it lies just north of Abkhazia on land formerly occupied by their close relatives the Abazas and another small related ethnic group, the Ubkyhs. Many Abkhazians, and not a few Circassians, feel the Abkhazians’ role in establishing Sochi as capital and their contributions to the war effort in the 1860s have been written out of the history of the region.

xv Tekushev, Islam (2018). ““Cherkesy Napomnili o Genotside,” Caucasus Times, 21/5/2018,” Retrieved 17/7/2018.

xvi Bliev, Rossiia I Gortsy presents perhaps the most comprehensive discussion of the muhajir narrative.

xvii See, for example, Ardzhil Terner, (2016). “Cherkesskii Vopros: Odin iz Taranov Turetskoi Antirossiiskoi Politiki na Kavkaze,” Newsland, 15/4/2016, Retrieved 11/7/2018; Igor’ Matveev, “Kavkaz: Turtsiia i SShA Stremiatsia Razzhech’ Plamia Starykh Konfliktov,” Voennoe Obozrenie, 26/4/2016, Retrieved 11/7/2018; Roman Novoselov, (2017). ”V Gruzii Vkliuchili Karachaevo-Cherkesiiu v Spisok Budushchikh Zhertv,” Portal Severnogo Kavkaza, 7/6/2017, Retrieved 11/7/2018.

xviii For a discussion of this issue, see Richmond, pp. 160-61.

xix For a full discussion of the events preceding the Sochi Olympics, see Walter Richmond, “Preparations for the Sochi Olympics,” in Robert Bruce Ware, ed. The Fire Below: How the Caucasus Shaped Russia. NY/London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, pp. 203-223.

xx Tekushev.

xxi Goble, Paul (2014). “Russian Anti-Circassian Rhetoric Increasingly Harsh and Extreme,” Window on Eurasia: New Series, 31/1/2014, Retrieved 20/4/2018. See also Ruslan Atakhukin (2014). “Kavkazskii Podlog-1,” Segodnia, 1/27/2014, Retrieved 12/7/2018.

xxii ________________. 2014). “Soiuz Obshchestvennykh Ob’edinenii ‘Mezhdunarodnaia Cherkesskaia Assostiiatsiia,” Sait Konkursy Gosudarstvennoi Podderzhki NNO, 1/7/2014, Retrieved 12/7/2018.

xxiii Goble, Paul. “Pro-Kremlin Circassian Organization Openly Seeks Moscow Grant to Undermine Other Circassian Groups,” Window on Eurasia: New Series, 24/6/2014, Retrieved 12/7/2018.

xxiv Sokhrokov, Khauti (2016). “Sergei Lavrov Vyrazil Zhelanie Cotrudnichat’ s Mezhdunarodnoi Cherkesskoi Assotsiatsiei.” Kavkpolit, 22/6/2016, Retrieved 17/07/2018.

xxv Tekushev.

xxvi Goble, Paul (2017). “FSB Overplays its Hand in Circassian Affairs, Freezing Out Diaspora but Weakening Moscow’s Influence Abroad,” Window on Eurasia: New Series, 21/1/2017, Retrieved 12/7/2018.

xxvii Kavkazskii Uzel, “Khatazhukov Zaiavil o Zaderzhanii Gvasheva za Moleben v Den’ Pamiati Adygov,” Kavkazskii Uzel, 2/6/2017, Retrieved 12/7/2018.

xxviii Gritseevich, Anna, Oleg Krasnov, “Molebny I Mitingi v Pamiat’ Zhertv Kavkazskoi Voiny Proshli v Adygee i na Kubani,” Kavkazskii Uzel,22/5/2018, Retrieved 19/7/2018.

xxix Dzutsati, Valerii, “Nezhdannye Soiuzniki Cherkesov,” Kavkaz: Realii, 20/8/2017, Retrieved 20/7/2018.

xxx Interview with Zack Barsik, 3/6/2018.

xxxi Kalin, Stephen, “Islamist Kill 15 Alawite and Druze Civilians in Syria: activists,” Reuters, 12/12/2013, Retrieved 27/6/2018.

xxxii Akbulat, p.13.

xxxiii Ibid., p. 12.

xxxiv Ibid., p. 13.

xxxv Ibid.

xxxvi For a thorough discussion of the problems the refugees are facing in Turkey, see International Crisis Group, “Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions,” International Crisis Group, 29/1/2018,, 29/1/ 2018. Retrieved 16/7/2018.

xxxvii Kardan, Samir, “Glava Cherkesskoi Obshchiny Iordanii Prosit ekstrenno evakuirovat’ na Iug Rossii Sootechestvennikov Sirii” Cherkesiia Taims, 8/10/2015,. Retrieved 16/7/2018.

xxxviii Gukemukhov, Murat, “Otkaz v Repatriatsii Istoricheski Obosnovali,” Adyge Heku, Retrieved 16/7/2018.

xxxix Kushkhabiev, A. V. Ocherki Istorii Zarubezhnoi Cherkesskoi Diaspory. Nal’chik: Institut Gumanitarnykh Issledovanii Pravitel’stva KBP I KBNTs RAN, 2007, p. 308.

xl Ibid., p. 290.

xli Ibid., p. 291.

xlii Ibid., p. 301.

xliii Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization. Circassia: Syrian Circassians in Search of a Way Home. UNPO, Retrieved 19/7/2018.

xliv Natpress. “VAdygee Posle Gibeli Dzhudi Potrebovali Srochnoi Evakuatsii Siriiskikh Cherkesov.Napress, 27/9/2015, Retrieved 19/7/2018.

xlv Natpress. “Glava Adygei Zaiavil, chto v Pomoshch’ Cherkesam Sirii Nuzhno Meniat’ Zakonodatel’stvo RF,” Natpress, 30/9/2015, Retrieved 19/7/2018.

xlvi Dzutsati, Valery, “Circassians Intensify Demands to Repatriate Co-Ethnics from Syria,” Jamestown, 5/10/2015, 19/7/2018.

xlvii Kapaeva, Asia, “Bezhentsy ne Imeiut Natsional’nosti,” Kavpolit, 8/10/2015, Retrieved 19/7/2018.

xlviii Cherkess, Larisa, “Cherkesy v Sirii Segodnia,” Kavkaz: Realii, 10/11/2017, Retrieved 30/6/2018.

xlix Nefliasheva, Naima (2017). “Asker Bora: My Budem Pomogat’ vsem cherkesam, zhelaiushchim vernut’sia na rodinu,” Kavkazskii Uzel, 14/11/2017, Retrieved 1/7/2018.

l Aleksanian, Gor (2018). “Sbor Sredstv dlia Siriiskikh Repatriantov v Ramada Napomnil o Cherkesskikh Tsennostiakh,” Kavkazskii Uzel, 18/6/2018, Retrieved 1/7/2018.

li Life.Ru, “Potomki Kavkazskikh Pereselentsev Viuiut Protiv Radikalov v Sirii.” Life.Ru, Retrieved 3/7/2018.

lii Gulevich, Vladislav, “Krymsko-Tatarskie i “Velikocherkesskie” Natsionalisty Khotiat Druzhit Protiv Rossii,” Nauchnoe Obshchestvo Kavkazovedov, Retrieved 13/8/2018.

liii Kornya, Anastasiia, “Administratsiia Prezidenta Zaplatit za Prorabotku Novykh Vozmozhykh Ugroz Natsional’noi Bezopasnosti.” Vedomosti, Retrieved 13/8/2018.

liv Khanbabaev, K., A. Ismailov, A. Ragimov. Islam na Kavkaze v Postsovetskoe Vremia. Makhachkala; Dagestanskoe Knizhnoe Izdatel’stvo, 2012, pp. 127-28.

lv Ibid.. p. 146.

lvi Grove, Thomas, “Insight: Russia’s Syria Diplomacy, a Game of Smoke and Mirrors,” Reuters, Retrieved 13/8/2018.

lvii Kozhanov, Nikolay (2016). Russia and the Syrian Conflict: Moscow’s Domestic, Regional and Strategic Interests. Hambrug: Gerlach Press, p. 51.

lviii Barrett, Richard, “Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees,”., The Soufan Center, Retrieved 6/21/2018; Natsional’nyi Aktsent, “Ekspert: Status ‘Sootechestvennika” dlia Siriitsev Oblegchaet Pereezd k Nam Radikal’nykh Islamistov,” National’nyi Aktsent, Retrieved 22/7/2018.

lix Kavakzskii Uzel, “Sledstvennyi Komitet Nazval Imena Voiuiushchikh v Sirii Zhitelei KChR,” Kavkazskii Uzel, Retrieved 19/7/2018.

lx Kozhanov, pp. 49-50.

lxi Matlack, Carol, “Why the Jihadi Threat to Russia is Getting Worse,” Bloomberg, Retrieved 24/7/2018.

lxii Tekushev.

lxiii Ibid.

lxiv Ibid.

lxv TASS, “Polpred Predupredil ob Aktivizatsii Storonnikov Radikal’nykh Vzgliadov v Adygee.” TASS, 17/8/2016, Retrieved 21/7/2018.

lxvi Khun, Ramazan, “Priznanie Adygov Korennym Narodom Krasnodarskogo Kraia, Pust’ Spravedlivost’ Vostorzhestvuet,”,правительст-россии-признание-адыгов-коренным-народом-краснодарского-края-пусть-справедливость-восторжествует. Retrieved 21/7/2018.

lxvii Priymak, Artur, “Pole Riskov Dlia Kavkaza: Cherkesy Vdokhnovilis’ “Iakutskim Uspekhom.” EurAsia Daily,15/11/2016, Retrieved 21/7/2018.

lxviii Gulevich.

lxix Kornia, Anastasiia, “Administratsiia Prezidenta Zaplatit za Prorabotku Novykh Vozmozhnykh Ugroz Natsional’noi Besopasnosti.” Vedomosti, 22/6/2015, Retrieved 22/7/2018.

lxx Tekushev.

lxxi Ibid.

lxxii Sokht, Asker, “Predprinimaetsia Popytka Massovoi Deportatsii v Turtsiiu Cherkesov-Sootechestvennikov.” Kavpolit, 12/1/2016, Retrieved 23/7/2018.

lxxiii Tekushev.

lxxiv Goble, Paul, “Moscow has Given Refugee Status to Only Two Syrian Circassians of 3,000 Who’ve Applied,” Window on Eurasia: New Series, 27/6/2018, Retrieved 23/7/2018.

lxxv Tekushev.

lxxvi Ibid.

lxxvii Adyge Heku, “MID Rossii ne Schitaet Predtavitelei Cherkesskoi Diaspory Sootechestvennikami,” Adyge Heku, 19/11/2015, Retrieved 21/7/2018.

lxxviii Zhemukhov, Sufian, “Vliianie Arabskikh Revoliutsii na Cherkesskii Mir,” Blog Suf’iana Zhemukhova, 4/9/2011, Retrieved 24/7/2018.

lxxix NatPress, “Glava “Adyge Khase” Iordanii ne Govoril, chto Odobriaet Rossiiskuiu Voennuiu Pomoshch’ Sirii.NatPress, 13/10/2015, Retrieved 24/7/2018.

lxxx Shmulevich, Avraam, “Kavkazskaia Voina—Eto Lovushka, v Kotoruiu Ugodila Rossiiskaia Imperiia,” Avrom Caucasus, 5/2/2018, Retrieved 16/8/2018.

One thought on “The Circassian Factor in Russian-Middle Eastern Relations

  1. Pingback: CAUCASUS WARS / Analysis and information on the ongoing struggles of the peoples of the Caucasus. | Justice For North Caucasus

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