The crisis in Russian-Turkish relations that followed the downing by the Turkish Air Force of a Russian warplane two months ago has created an unforeseen and potentially disastrous situation for hundreds of Circassians from Turkey who over the past decade have settled in the North Caucasus and opened small businesses there.
Those who have not yet obtained Russian citizenship now face expulsion from Russia, just as their ancestors did following the conquest of their homeland by tsarist Russia 150 years ago.
Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet by imposing sweeping economic sanctions on Turkey that precluded the import of various goods, including food. Then on January 1, Russia suspended visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.
Since then, the Federal Migration Service office in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic -- one of the three North Caucasus regions where Circassians are a titular nationality, and the one where the majority of the Circassians from Turkey now live -- has notified many of the Circassians who have not yet been granted Russian citizenship that their temporary residence right has been rescinded.
Some have already been forced to leave Russia.
Asker Sokht, who heads the Circassian community in neighboring Krasnodar Krai, estimates that over the past two decades, some 1,500 Circassians from Turkey have settled in the North Caucasus and acquired Russian citizenship. Those now threatened with the loss of residency rights have lived in Russia between five and seven years, and are still in the process of applying for Russian citizenship (which takes seven years). Their children attend Russian schools and universities.
Sokht said only Circassians from Turkey currently resident in Kabardino-Balkaria have been stripped of their residence rights, while those living in Adygheya and neighboring Krasnodar Krai have not. Some Turkish Circassians living in Adygheya have, however, reportedly been subjected to pressure from Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) to renounce their Turkish citizenship. One, Adnan Khuade, was sentenced in December together with his daughter and an employee of his small store to 15 days' administrative arrest following an altercation with FSB officials.
The North Caucasus republics, which are plagued by high unemployment, are not covered by the State Program for Furthering the Voluntary Resettlement in the Russian Federation of Compatriots from Abroad. That program, approved in late 2006, was intended primarily to facilitate the resettling in Russia of those of the estimated 25 million ethnic Russians who at the time of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. were living in other Soviet republics. Such immigrants are, however, permitted to settle only in a very limited number of Russian regions.
In the case of the Turkish Circassians in Kabardino-Balkaria, the rationale most commonly cited for depriving them of temporary residence is violating residency regulations, such as not actually living at the address where they are registered.
Representatives of 150 such families at risk of deportation to Turkey addressed an open letter to President Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last month arguing the case for a resumption of the cooperation that has characterized bilateral relations for the past 20 years.
Representatives of Turkey's Federation of Caucasian Associations (KAFFED) met in early January with the Russian ambassador in Ankara, Andrey Karlov, and reportedly reached agreement on unspecified "joint measures to mitigate the consequences of the crisis for Circassians."
KAFFED also advocated convening an emergency meeting of the International Circassian Association (MChA), which has its headquarters in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, to discuss the plight of the Circassians facing expulsion from the North Caucasus. It is doubtful, however, whether controversial MChA chairman Khauti Sokhrokov, a former Kabardino-Balkaria deputy prime minister, will agree to do so, let alone spearhead a campaign in defense of his co-ethnics.