Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Syrian Crisis Undermines Moscow’s Control of the North Caucasus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 5 – The Syrian crisis, which gave Vladimir Putin a much-celebrated diplomatic victory, now threatens  Russia’s territorial integrity not because Russian citizens are among the combatants in Syria but because Moscow’s mishandling of the Circassian issue in the Middle East is radicalizing the Circassian republics of the North Caucasus.

            Circassian activists have long been concerned about the fate of their co-ethnics in Syria and especially about the failure of the Russian government to extend the rights of return and resettlement to the Circassians that are specified in Moscow’s compatriots program (windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/2008/11/window-on-eurasia-circassians-call-for.html).
            The Russian government has dragged its feet in this regard at least in part because it does not want to see an influx of Circassians into the North Caucasus, something that could dramatically change the ethnic balance in that region – there are more than five million Circassians abroad but only half a million now in the Russian Federation.

            Moscow has been especially leery of helping Circassians return in the run-up to the Sochi Olympiad, an event Circassians overwhelmingly oppose because it is slated to occur on the site of the tsarist genocide of the Circassians in 1864.  And the Russian authorities also fear that a Circassian return could undermine existing ethno-territorial arrangements in the North Caucasus.

            But however much the Russian government may have hoped to avoid such a development, the deepening violence in Syria and its impact on the Circassians living there has begun to radicalize official opinion in the Circassian republics of the North Caucasus and to prompt them to demand that Moscow change course.

            The latest and clearest evidence of this is an appeal to the Russian Duma and Federation Council adopted last Thursday by the parliament of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria concerning the situation of Circassians in Syria and shortcomings in Russian law governing their possible return (parlament-kbr.ru/index.php?Page=news&id=1165&idp=20).

            In extremely polite and respectful language that nonetheless makes their feelings clear, the republic’s parliamentarians say that they share Moscow’s concerns about Syria and that they are convinced that the situation there would only have gotten still worse had it not been for the “peacemaking initiatives of President Vladimir Putin.”

            But “at the same time,” the KBR parliamentarians say, “the further escalation of the conflict in Syria and also threats of the application of force by a number of states and the very fact of the illegitimate interference from outside in the internal affairs of a sovereign state can lead to new innocent victims including among our compatriots.”

            “On the territory of Syria” today, the declaration continues, “live more than 120,000 Circassians ho find themselves in the most difficult conditions and are forced again to find themselves refugees.  Their natural striving to return to their historical motherland is indivisibly connected with concern over the security of the life and health of people and over the preservtio of their uniqueness” as a people.

            At the level of general principles, Russian legislation on the right of compatriots to return to their homeland recognizes this striving, but the Circassian legislators say, that law contains a number of shortcoming that need to be corrected if the Circassians of Syria are to be saved and to return to their North Caucasian homeland.

            The Russian law of May 1999 fails to define compatriot in a way that applies to those who have been outside their homeland since the 18th and 19th centuries and who often face enormous difficulties in proving the citizenship or subjecthood of their ancestors. In addition, the law fails to define the category “nationality of the Russian Federation” in an unambiguous way.

            Moreover, although the law says that compatriots should be allowed to obtain citizenship in the Russian Federation in a simplified manner, arrangements for this have not been made except for those, mostly ethnic Russians, who have been abroad for shorter periods and can document their connection with the country more easily.

            That has meant, the Kabardino-Balkaria parliamentarians say, that “in a definite sense,the realization of this State Program despite all its positive aspects has not completely realized the rights of compatriots to the return to their historical motherland.” 

            In addition, the KBR declaration says, the people of that republic are convinced that Moscow must adopt federal laws that clearly extend the rights of compatriots to Circassians (Adygeys) living abroad and that strengthen the rights of labor migrants and their families according to the 1975 International Labor Organization recommendations.

            Such steps will have “great humanitarian significance for compatriots, make possible the establishment of conditions for more intensify communication of compatriots living abroad with their historical motherland, and boost the authority of Russia among compatriots,” the KBR parliamentarians say.

            Moscow thus faces a Hobson’s choice: if it refuses to take the steps the KBR parliamentarians have called for, opinion in the Circassian republics of the North Caucasus will radicalize, something President Putin clearly wants to avoid at all costs at least until the Sochi Olympiad is over.

            But if Moscow does agree to do what the Circassians want in this regard, the Russian authorities will face new demands for redrawing the ethnic borders of the North Caucasus to create a unified Circassian state, a move that beyond any doubt would lead to the further decay of Russian control over not only that nation but over the other peoples of that region.

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