Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Planning to Increase Efforts to Win Over Circassian Diaspora

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 11 – The Russian Duma is currently considering several measures that would expand the current definition of “compatriot” and offer “Russian citizenship and the right of repatriation to all representatives of the indigenous peoples of Russia ‘who do not have statehood of their own beyond its borders.’”
Such a step, Damir Ivletshin argues in an article posted online this week, would help Russia to win over the more than five million Circassians of Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel, many of whom have felt excluded from Moscow’s earlier “compatriot” campaigns and thus have adopted anti-Russian positions.
Russia’s efforts to reach out to diaspora communities currently rest on a 1999 federal law which recognizes the right to return of persons who had citizenship in the USSR and the Russian Empire and a 2006 presidential decree directing officials to do more in this direction
These measures, Ivletshin points out, were primarily addressed to ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet republics, and while those outside that region and those who were not ethnic Russians were not excluded, neither did Moscow do as much until recently to make them feel that they were part of its compatriot outreach programs.
Over the last two years, the expert continues, “Russia to all appearances has been able to seize the initiative in relations with [ethnic] Russians” who live beyond the borders of the USSR. The end of communism and the reunion of the Orthodox Church have helped the current Russian government to do so.
But if everything is going more or less well with regard to ethnic Russians -- despite their reluctance to move back to their historical homeland -- the situation with respect to non-Russian groups still faces many problems, even though many of their members, and especially those from the North Caucasus, have expressed greater interest in returning.
Most of the North Caucasian diasporas have their roots in the expulsion of their communities from tsarist Russia in the 19th century, Ivletshin notes, and he suggests that they suffered greatly not only when they were expelled but also in the course of their lives in the Ottoman Empire.
Since the collapse of that state nearly a century ago, those who remained in Turkey – the largest group – were until very recently the objects of Ankara’s intensive “assimilationist policy.” The Circassians in Syria were somewhat better off, at least until 1967 when their home area, the Golan Heights, was seized by Israel.
And those living in Jordan and Israel have had the best fate, Ivletshin suggests. In the former country, they have a “privileged” position defined by law, and in Israel, “they enjoy the support of the state and the respect of both their Arab and Jewish neighbors.” These different experiences have inclined these various groups to adopt different positions on many things.
Many in Turkey have adopted the most anti-Russian positions not only because they were cut off from Russia but because of what Ivletshin describes as the intensity of “anti-Russian propaganda.” In Jordan and Syria, on the other hand, the Circassians have a more positive image of Russia now.
Moscow’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia, to which many Circassians see themselves as linked, and Russian plans to hold the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014 have had a major impact on the situation, with some members of the diaspora adopting a more supportive view toward Russia and others a more negative one.
Some of the more negative attitudes, the analyst continues, are the result of the work of the Western media, “’human rights activists’” and “the chauvinist wing” of Circassians in the United States who in the 1990s had devoted most of their attention to the Chechen diaspora but now are refocusing on the Circassians, as potentially a more effective lever against Moscow.
But that Western effort has not been effective, Ivletshin says, because Russia has demonstrated its willingness to help repatriate Circassians from the Balkans and has worked with the larger communities in Turkey and the Middle East to promote an expansion of contacts between them and their homelands.
“Under conditions of globalization and the world crisis,” Ivletshin says, “Russia and the North Caucasus diaspora are beginning to move closer together.” But there are problems, which he describes as “rocks just below the surface” that could threaten such a rapprochement, especially given Western efforts to promote anti-Russian views among the Circassians.
On the one hand, he argues, there is the unfortunate reality that most members of the Circassian diaspora do not have the documents necessary to prove that they or, more frequently, their ancestors, had citizenship in the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. A new law could solve that problem.
And on the other, he suggests, Russian officials are not interested in seeing a massive return of Circassians to the North Caucasus, given that there are many times as many Circassians living abroad as in that region and given the support the diaspora has given to projects to unite all Circassians in a single republic, both of which could destabilize the situation.
Ivletshin does not go into the extent of this second “hidden rock,” but Timur Aliyev, of the Grozny Center for Strategic Research, in another article published online this week does. And he emphasizes just how much his republic would like to see the return of Chechens from abroad despite Moscow’s concerns (
Indeed, the very enthusiasm with which he backs that idea and the numbers of people he would like to see come back – more than 100,000 from Western Europe alone – helps to explain Moscow’s concerns and also why the optimism Ivletshin expresses about a rapprochement between Moscow and the Circassians is likely overblown.

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