Staunton, September 18 – Russia’s Federal Migration Service says that there are now 12,000 refugees from Syria in the Russian Federation, of whom 2,000 have received residence permits. There are far more people in Syria who would like to come, including most prominently, the 100,000 Circassians, whose ancestors Russian officials expelled 150 years ago.
Circassian activists in the North Caucasus and their supporters both elsewhere in Russia and internationally are calling on Moscow to take more of them in, but so far, the Russian authorities have been blocked that flow fearful that it could change the ethnic balance in the North Caucasus and threaten Russian control there.
But as the war in Syria intensifies, Russian involvement there deepens, and the refugee crisis in Europe expands, the international community and the European Union in the first instance should demand that Moscow open the gates for more of those fleeing violence in Syria, including the Circassians.
A minuscule number of Syrians have fled to Europe via Russia, Moscow and Scandinavian media have reported over the last three weeks. (See kp.ru/daily/26432.7/3303299/ and thelocal.no/20150827/syrians-crossing-norway-border-on-bicyles.) But most of the 12,000 who have come have done so only with Russian government blessing.
Most Russian discussions on the refugee issue have focused less on the needs of the refugees than on Moscow’s insistence that Europe has only itself to blame for the crisis because it is following the US lead in Syria and not supporting the Asad government. Indeed, Moscow insists, the refugees are fleeing ISIS, not Asad (kp.ru/daily/26434.4/3305424/).
Yury Moskovsky, an advisor to Russia’s Federal Migration Service, says that “Russia is prepared to accept flows of Syrian migrants, but they are not coming to us. According to him, the reasons are geographic: the Black Sea is rough, and going through the Caucasus is not easy (nsn.fm/in-the-world/ig-zapolnyaet-v-evrope-vakuum-spravedlivosti-ispolzuya-evropeyskiy-krizis-neravenstva-.php).
There are some 7,000 Syrian citizens in Russia now, he continues, who might be a magnet; but he adds that he does not think that many will come to Russia. Instead, they will continue to head to the European Union countries, even though Russia could take more in and even though Europe would like to block any further flows in its direction.
But there is at least one group of people in Syria who would be prime candidates to come to Russia as refugees, if Moscow would permit it. Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor provides the latest discussion as to why the Russian authorities are unlikely to allow the Circassians to come (csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2015/0916/Russia-as-safe-zone-for-Syrian-refugees-It-s-not-as-odd-as-you-d-think).
He quotes Maksim Shevchenko, a journalist and member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, who says that “so far Russia makes it very hard for Muslim refugees to come.” The problem is not geography, as Moskovsky says, but rather “a lot of bureaucratic obstacles.” And in the current situation, “this needs to change” or some of these people will be killed.
Konstantin Kalachev, a Moscow political analyst agrees. “Russia seems ready to digest large numbers of people,” as shown by the handling of the Ukrainian refugees a year ago, “but politicians are not ready to take responsibility … Russia only thinks about this issue in the context of bigger politics.” And in this regard, no issue is bigger than that of the Circassians.
In an act of genocide in 1864, Russian officials expelled and thus sent to their deaths hundreds of thousands of Circassians from the North Caucasus after the latter resisted Russian colonial expansion for more than a century. Those who survived prospered in the Ottoman Empire and its successors, including Syria and Iraq.
But in recent years, faced with rising nationalism and Islamism, many of the estimated five million Circassians in the Middle East have expressed interest in returning to their homeland. If even a portion of them did, that would change the ethnic balance in the North Caucasus and likely undermine Russian control.
As a result, the Russian authorities have done whatever they could to block almost all Circassians from returning. Moscow has not given them the assistance they had a right to expect under the compatriots program, and Russian officials have been anything but welcoming to those few who have arrived home.
Since 2011, when Syria’s civil war began, Weir reports, “about 1,000 Syrian Circassians have moved to the north Caucasus republics of Karacheyevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, where their ancestral language is understood. But most report that they have received little official help.”
“Many people here have been good to us,” one of their number told the CSM journalist, “and we do feel wonderful to have regained our homeland. But economically, it’s very hard. Many of our people prefer to go to Europe, or America, though I would like to stay and make it work for my family here.”
Shevchenko says that Russians “need to change our views and become concerned about not only those who are Russian, or married to Russians, and start helping more people,” adding that he expects that to happen. But any movement by Moscow on the Circassian front seems unlikely.
Vladimir Putin and his regime are still furious for the efforts of Circassians around the world to call attention to the ugly fact that his 2014 Olympiad was held exactly at the site of the 1864 Circassian genocide, and consequently, neither nor other Russian officials appear ready to help the Circassians of Syria.
The international community needs to take note of this fact and to hold Russia accountable especially since Moscow routinely claims it is engaged in humanitarian efforts – when the reality is that its work in this area is highly selective and to date, the Circassians have been very much excluded from any of its benefits.