By Paul Goble
The official position of the Russian government is that the Syrian authorities are the proper defenders of the ethnic Circassians who live in that Middle Eastern country and that Moscow is not interested in their immigration or “repatriation” to the North Caucasus which members of this ethnic group view as their ancestral homeland.
Nonetheless, several thousand Circassians have managed to come to the republics of Russia’s North Caucasus, most of whom are from Syria. Some were Russian citizens to begin with who had moved to Syria recently. Others had relatives in the North Caucasus who could write letters of invitation, and still a third group did so illegally.
Those who have managed to get through, however, face an unhappy situation: the regional and republic governments do almost nothing for them, Russian officials view them as either Islamist or nationalist threats, and Moscow has imposed policies designed to Russianize and even Russify those who hope to remain there.
All this is documented in an important new article by Aleksandra Bayeva for the Meduza news agency, who spoke with ethnic activists, officials and refugees themselves in the North Caucasus (meduza.io/feature/2018/08/24/150-let-nazad-rossiya-deportirovala-cherkesov-v-siriyu-teper-oni-begut-obratno-no-i-zdes-im-ne-rady).
Of the many points she makes, three are especially significant: First, she says that Russia is doing everything it can to limit the influx of Circassians from Syria lest they become importers of Islamist views or shift the ethnic balance in North Caucasus republics or even trigger a movement to restore a unified Circassian republic there.
Second, although some regional officials were supportive initially, few are now, fearful that any support for the Circassians will cost them their positions as happened in the runup to the Sochi Olympics when Circassians around the world protested against holding that athletic competition on the site of the 1864 genocide of their nation.
In the absence of such government support, Circassians have organized various groups to send thousands of invitations to Circassians abroad to come to the North Caucasus and to provide assistance in the form of food, housing and jobs for those who make it. But in recent months, these groups have come under increasing scrutiny and even repression.
And third, as Olga Begretova of the Ochag National Organization says, the Russian authorities immediately seek to Russify those Circassians who do manage to come legally or not. “A repatriate must take an examination in the history, law and language [of Russia],” she says. “This is a major obstacle.”
“Many [Circassian] repatriates speak only Arabic and Kabardin. Why can’t they be examined in Kabardin if they are going to be living among us?”