Friday, May 24, 2019

Ankara, Under Pressure from Moscow and Out of Its Own Concerns, Backs Away from Circassians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 23 – Russians have always been more obsessed with emigres than other peoples because so much of their national history has been made by those who voluntarily or involuntarily ended up abroad and then who returned intellectually or in person to transform their country.

            That attitude was especially widely held in Soviet times because the Bolshevik revolution was made by a group led by a clutch of emigres who returned only a few months earlier and in their own words “turned the world upside down.”  Post-Russian leaders informed by these Soviet attitudes are no exception.

            The Putin regime pays far more attention to emigres than any other contemporary state, and its attentions are anything but neutral. Instead, Moscow works to ensure that those from Russia who now live abroad have as difficult a time as possible unless they are prepared to work on behalf of the Kremlin.

            Moscow today is especially obsessed with non-Russian groups as its attacks on Chechens living abroad and with non-Orthodox ones as reflected in its efforts to ensure that other countries do not offer asylum to Jehovah’s Witnesses even as Russian oppression drives many of both these communities as well as others to seek refuge in the West.

            But perhaps the diaspora Moscow is now most concerned with is one that has existed for more than a century and numbers more than five million, the Circassians, whose increasing activism abroad and at home threatens the Moscow-imposed order in the North Caucasus (

            Moscow has employed two strategies against this group which has long enjoyed some support from the Turkish government, support that has always been limited by Ankara’s Turkish-centric approach and its fears that providing too much backing to the Circassians could inflame relations with Moscow and undermine domestic cohesion given the Kurds.

            On the one hand, the Russian government has sought to divide the Circassian community by creating alternative and pro-Russian NGOs among the Circassians and by deploying representatives of republics in the North Caucasus who are compelled to be loyal to Moscow to interact with Turkey as the “true” voice of the Circassians (
            And on the other, Moscow has both played up fears about the Kurds to prompt Turkey to back away from the Circassians, fears that have only grown in recent times because of developments in Syria and Russian arguments that Turks are now more ready to listen to because of the Erdogan government’s current rapprochement with Russia.
            That has led to two developments in the past week that are most unwelcome among Circassians. For the first time in 15 years, the Turkish authorities have banned a march by Circassians to the Russian consulate in Istanbul on May 21, the day on which Circassians recall their 1864 deportation from Moscow (
            And on the same day, deputies from Turkey’s ruling part blocked consideration of a resolution declaring those events to be a genocide, an action that likely reflects not just Russian influence but Turkey’s concerns that any move on this point would open the door to new discussions about Armenians in 1915 (
            Some Circassians may be dispirited by these developments, but they shouldn’t be. They show just how important their national movement has become in the eyes of Moscow, and any Turkish approach adopted now when Ankara’s relations with Moscow are warm is almost certain to be reversed when as they inevitably will those ties cool. 

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