Monday, June 17, 2019

Circassians Only One of Many Muslim ‘Compatriot’ Communities Moscow Doesn’t Want to Return

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 16 – Russian law specifies that those living abroad whose ancestors came from the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation, the so-called “compatriots,”  have the right of return and are to get Russian citizenship on an expedited basis, but in fact, the Putin regime wants only the Slavic, the young and the well-educated.

            For those who aren’t in those categories, who aren’t Slavic and Russian speaking, who aren’t young, and who aren’t well-educated and thus capable of making a contribution to the Russian economy, Moscow is anything but welcoming, human rights activists like Svetlana Gannushkina of Civic Support say (

            The most notorious example of this racialist treatment of potential returnees, of course, is that of the Circassians in war-torn Syria.  Thousands would like to return to their ancestral homeland in the North Caucasus, but the Russian authorities have thrown up all kinds of roadblocks to prevent them from returning or from gaining citizenship if they do. 

            Moscow’s approach to the Circassians is often explains not in ethnic or religious terms but in starkly political ones: The Kremlin is clearly and some would say justifiably worried that the return of Circassians to the North Caucasus would change the ethnic balance in that region, and further destabilize the situation there.

            But as Igor Yasin of the IdelReal portal points out, the Circassians are far from the only Muslim people whose ancestors fled or were expelled from the Russian Empire or Soviet Union. Others include the Chechens and various groups of Tatars. And Moscow has adopted the same discriminatory policy toward members of these communities who want to return.

            That strongly suggests that Moscow’s approach is a reflection less of geopolitical calculations than of a desire by the Kremlin to keep out those who are not Slavs, not young and not educated, as Gannushkina says Vladimir Putin himself once indicated were the groups he favored returning.

            And that in turn means that the Russian authorities today in their immigration policies have adopted an openly discriminatory approach, one that violates not only the Russian Constitution and laws about compatriots but the basic principles of international law on the treatment of those of different ethnicities or religion.

            If Circassian problems in this regard are relatively well-known – see, and – the difficulties other non-Slavic groups face are much less so.

            Yasin thus performs a valuable service by focusing on the problems of one such groups, Tatars in China’s Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region.  In the first years of this century, numerous Tatars from there were admitted to higher educational institutions in Russia, but when their student visas ran out, they were compelled to return to China.

            Many of them qualified as compatriots under Russian law – they even spoke Russian well and had demonstrated their adaptation to Russian realities – but they were Muslims and the Russian authorities were not interested in having them become permanent residents let alone citizens of the Russian Federation.

            They were thus sent back to a region where they as Muslims were being repressed by the Chinese powers that be and were at risk as their relatives already were of being confined to the Chinese “re-education” camps that rights activists and some in the international community have identified as concentration camps.

            One, Shukezhati Syaokati (Shakhrezat Shavkat), tells the story of himself and his brother who came to Kazan and are fighting to avoid being sent back. Their father is a Uyghur; their mother a Tatar. They spoke a little Tatar but mostly Uyghur but in Russia, they mastered the Russian language.

            “We came to Kazan to study. My student visa ended and the authorities wouldn’t give me a new registration document. University officials said we must go to China to get a new visa. But now the situation there is such and I cannot return and therefore I am seeking asylum” in the Russian Federation.

            Bakhrom Khamroyev, a rights activist who is providing the two legal assistance says that the best he thinks his clients can count on will be another extension of temporary residence despite the fact that they meet all the requirements of the compatriot law. Consequently, Khramrooyev says, he expects them to try to get asylum in some third country.

            Tatarstan, Yasin notes, did not take part in the compatriot repatriation effort until recently; but Kazan now plans to take in 450 “compatriots” in the next two years in order to support, according to the regime, “the social-economic and demographic development of the Republic of Tatarstan.”

             While some of the people in this program are Tatars, the overwhelming majority of them are people from the republics of Central Asia and Ukraine. Those from further afield including China’s Xinjiang remain almost unrepresented apparently because few of them have a knowledge of Russian and thus show themselves “capable of adapting” to Russian conditions.

            What is true in Tatarstan is true of the Russian Federation as a whole. Of the more than 830,000 people who have qualified as compatriots, the vast majority are ethnic Russians or more rarely other Slavs from former Soviet republics. Indeed, even Russians from elsewhere are rare: the only significant group of them to be welcomed back are Old Believers from Latin America.

            The situation for non-Slavs is getting worse: the updated Conception on State Migration Policy for 2019 to 2025, which was adopted last year, says that immigration should be regulated so as to preserve and defend “Russian culture, the Russian language, and the historical cultural heritage of the peoples of Russia which form the foundation of its cultural (civilizational) code.”

            Because of this, Yasin suggests, it will be easier for non-Russians who face difficulties in their countries of residence to obtain asylum in Western countries than to get it in Russia, despite Moscow’s much-ballyhooed claims of support for compatriots abroad. Unfortunately, although he does not say so, doing so is becoming harder in many of them as well. 

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