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Circassians’ Right of Return

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Putin the Terrible or Putin the Enlightened:
By Ruslan Kurbanov
Director of Al-Tair Foundation — Russia
Circassians in traditional garb protesting at the Russian consulate in Istanbul. May 21st is when they mark the massacres of 1864 - REUTERS
The 19th century long and bloody war ended with the Russian occupation of Caucasus and expatriation of Circassians. (Reuters)
Circassians’ Right of Return

The increasing flow of Syrian refugees once again sharpened the Russia so-called “Circassian problem.” This issue comes up from time to time in the Russian public space and makes the Kremlin nervous.

In the 19th century, and after the end of a long and bloody war that resulted in the Russian occupation of Caucasus, the majority of Circassians committed hijra (migration) to the Muslim lands of the Ottoman Empire.

For this reason, today, 90 percent of Circassians live outside Russia, in countries such as Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Kosovo, and even Israel. About 700,000 Circassians live in Russia, with an estimate of several million others living overseas.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Circassians began to raise the issue of repatriation, the return of the Circassians from other countries to their homeland in the North Caucasus. However, each time the Russian authorities found reasons not to allow the massive return of Circassians to their homeland.

The Circassian Tragedy

At the end of the Russian bloody war, Circassia as the state disappeared from the map of the world.

The war between Tsarist Russia and the Caucasian peoples in the 19th century lasted more than half of a century and was the longest war in the history of the Russian state. As a result of this war, the Russian Empire lost more than a million soldiers and destroyed the independent Muslim states of the North Caucasus — Cherkessia, Khanate, and the free societies of Dagestan, Chechnya, and other people.

But Circassians suffered from that war more than other peoples of the Caucasus. At the end of the bloody war, Circassia as a state disappeared from the map of the world, and the Circassian nation was subjected to destruction through losing nine-tenths of its territory, over 90 percent of the surviving population was scattered all over the world.

Currently, the Circassians have the largest diaspora in the world, relative to the population — 88 percent of the people living outside their historic homeland and scattered in 52 countries worldwide.  

Hijra to the Homeland

Today in Russia, the historical Circassians territory is divided between the four regions of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Adygea, and Krasnodar. In Syria, there are about 150-200 thousand Circassians. Most of them live in Damascus, Aleppo, and in two villages located in the Golan Heights.

To date, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled out of Syria since the beginning of the confrontation between the Assad regime and the opposition. The political role of Russia in the Syrian conflict differs from that of the United Nations; the Kremlin supports Assad because of being one of its last remaining traditional allies in the Middle East.

Therefore, the Russian authorities chose not to interfere in the issue of refugees, only until recently. Last year, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament — the Council of Federation — addressed two hundred Circassian families fleeing from Syria to help in their repatriation to their historical homeland in the North Caucasus.

Last March, the Council of Federation sent a delegation to Syria, which included senators from the Caucasus republics, in which the Circassians are the titular nation. In their report, members of the delegation asked for special conditions from fellow lawmakers that would allow their countrymen to obtain visas for those who want to return home.

The Hard Way Home

The Russian authorities find reasons not to allow the massive return of Circassians to their homeland.

Authorities of the Caucasian regions offer the Circassians who fled from Syria to settle in rural areas of the country. Three Caucasian republics — Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, and Adygea — constantly declare their readiness to host the new groups of refugees.

"The leaders of the territories should actively promote the resettlement of compatriots coming from Syria, in the countryside and to assist them in social adaptation," recently declared the Prime Minister of Adygea, Murat Kumpilov.

However, this is only addressing small groups. For example, recently the head of the Syrian national community in the University of Kabardino-Balkaria, Dzhatkar Samir, said that in the next two or three days in Nalchik 12 students will come from Syria, at the time when the number of Circassian diaspora in Syria is about two hundred thousand people.

President of the International Circassian Association (ICA), which unites the Circassian public organizations in 56 countries and Russia, Kanshobi Azhahov, said that moving the Circassian refugees from Syria to Russia is done exclusively through private means, with the financial support of public organizations and private individuals.

According to him, there are no exceptions or privileges for Circassian refugees from Syria in obtaining the Russian visa yet. Issuance of visas is still done by private invitation to the general procedure.

"The events in Syria will provide a significant increase in requests for the repatriation of the Circassians to their historic homeland, but for Moscow it is a serious problem because of the support that the Kremlin provides to the Syrian dictator," said ​​influential American analyst Paul Goble. He believes that Syrian Circassians will likely never see the real significant help from Russia.

Indicator for Moscow

“Putin must decide if he is to be Putin the Terrible or Putin the Enlightened.” — Akbar Ahmed

The Circassian villages in Syria are being bombed during the armed conflict, which is the reason why the Circassians relatives in the Caucasus urge authorities to urgently evacuation Circassians from Syria and allow them a safe return to Russia. However, authorities of the Caucasian republics do not allow residents to hold rallies in support of the Syrian Circassians.

"I was summoned to the police and told that the meeting should not take place because the city administration has refused to hold it," Sergei Koblev, a resident of Maikop city in Adygea and the organizer of the rally for supporting Circassians, told reporters.

Koblev added that it is not the first time when the municipality of Maikop finds reasons for refusal to hold rallies. "Authorities refer to incorrectly completed application for a rally," said Koblev. In his opinion, the authorities’ refusal to hold the rallies has no legal basis.

Today the whole world is watching the tragedy of the Circassians. “Russia can also build trust and save lives by allowing the many Circassians now attempting to flee Syria and return to their homeland a chance to do so,” said a former Pakistani ambassador to Britain and a professor at American University in Washington, Akbar Ahmed, in an article published by alJazeera.

Ambassador Ahmed added, “How Putin treats the Circassians and the issue of Sochi [a historic Circassians on which the 2014 Winter Olympic games will be held on the 150th anniversary of the mass killings of Circassians] will indicate which direction Russia will take. By examining and helping to rectify the errors and tragedies of history, Russia can decide its status as a major 21st century world power and at the same time, help avert the extinction of an entire people. Putin must decide if he is to be Putin the Terrible or Putin the Enlightened.”

Related Links:
Islam in Russia
Bashkiri Muslims: Independence vs. Stability
Dagestani Muslims: From Confrontation to Peace
Muslims in Tajikistan

Dr. Ruslan Kurbanov, PhD in Political Science, is a senior research fellow of the Institute for Oriental Studies of Russian Academy of Sciences and the director of Al-Tair Foundation.

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