Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Circassians Turn Full Circle

Descendents of Caucasus emigres hoped to make new lives back in their ancestral lands, but many are giving up in disappointment
By Zarina Kanukova

When they sailed away from the Caucasus in the 19th century, it seemed unlikely that a century and a half later the descendents of the Circassian community would return.


Some of the great-grandchildren of those who left to settle across the Middle East did trickle back with the fall of Communism -- but their romantic notions were dashed by the reality of life in today's Russian Federation. And now many of them are leaving again.


There are an estimated 3.5 million descendants of emigrants from the North Caucasus living in the Middle East and Turkey. More than three million of them are Circassians whose forebears were forced to leave the Caucasus in the 19th century at the end of the Caucasian wars.


The size of the Circassian diaspora far exceeds the number who still live in the North Caucasus, mainly in the three autonomous republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia and Adygeya.


Dinamis Tausultan from Syria was one of those who made the move back to Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, 11 years ago. Now with her parents and two brothers, she runs a chain of cafés in the town. "At least we're here, in our native land from which we were once forcibly deported," she said.


"I still visit my relations back in Syria, but I definitely want to live here in the Caucasus. No price is too high for being able to freely speak your own language, which your mother and grandmother carefully preserved for you. Our homeland is a holy place. I feel our return has made the souls of our ancestors rejoice."


But the number of those planning to move back to the Caucasus has dwindled in recent years, and hundreds of those who returned stayed only a few years. By the returnees' own calculations, 600 Circassians have returned to Kabardino-Balkaria from Syria since 1992, but 200 of them went back after a while. About 500 more have returned to Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygeya from Turkey. There are currently some 350 returnees in Adygeya.


Some Circassians in the Middle East had little comprehension of the changes that Soviet rule had wrought to culture and daily life.


"In our mind's eye, before we came here, we all imagined the Caucasus of our forefathers," said Majid Utij, who moved back from Turkey 13 years ago. "I used to visualise riders in Circassian coats and girls fetching jugs of water from the spring."


IWPR talked to a Circassian family originally from Syria, who are preparing to go back to the Middle East after spending three years in Nalchik. They asked for their names not to be used.


"I had my own business in Syria, but my childhood dream was to return to the land of my forefathers," said the father. "I told my fiancée she had to promise to move back to the Caucasus with me if she wanted to be my wife. I've spent all my savings here trying to start a business, but I haven't found work partners I could rely on."


"I am a religious person and I live by the commandments of Islam," added his wife. "I thought Kabardino-Balkaria was a Muslim republic, but I was not prepared for what I found. There are very few true Muslim families here. Adygeyan culture is all but forgotten. I would like my grandchildren to grow up in a Muslim country.


"I'm sad that my husband's dream of dying in the homeland will not come true."


The culture shocks faced by Circassian returnees have been compounded by Russian bureaucratic difficulties. The latest of these is a new citizenship law, which came into force in July 2002.


"For four years any foreign national was entitled to seek dual citizenship, and many of our compatriots from abroad did so," explained Zaurbi Nakhushev, chairman of the Parliamentary Council of Kabardino-Balkaria, who is also president of the International Circassian Association.


"But the new Russian citizenship law does not provide for this."


The new law stipulates that in order to qualify for Russian citizenship, the applicant must be fluent in Russian, give up his former citizenship, and must have lived in Russia permanently for five years. Many Circassians believe this will dry up the return of their Middle Eastern compatriots altogether.


"Despite all my patriotism, I wouldn't be able to comply," said Utij. "No one would."


"The new law discriminates against the three million-strong Circassian community abroad," Vladimir Nakatsev, chairman of the Kabardino-Balkarian branch of the Rodina (Homeland) Association, told IWPR. "We have asked our diaspora leaders in Jordan to petition President Putin. In his reply, he wrote that the law is not dogma, and is open to amendments."


The first problem that returnees to Kabardino-Balkaria face is obtaining a residence permit entitling them to live there for five years. Aslan Betrozov, senior inspector at the visa and registration office in Nalchik, told IWPR that this can take up to six months.


"Foreign nationals may face difficulties gathering all the requisite paperwork. Then the package of paperwork has to undergo a thorough check," he said.


Until recently, Adygeya had simpler procedures for issuing residence permits and Russian passports. Many have taken advantage of this and are grateful to the local authorities, although others say the Adygeyan officials were just more corruptible.


"I don't want to pay bribes or pull strings to solve my problems," said Nikhat Berzeg, who was in the first wave of returning Circassians and is now officially registered as a resident of Maikop, Adygeya. "One has to defend one's rights under the law. If we pay bribes it will only complicate things for the newly arriving returnees."


It's not just the Russian authorities who have proved a source of disappointment for returning diaspora members. Some are unhappy with the associations that were set up in the early 1990s to advance Circassian interests.


"Adyga Khasa and the International Circassian Association were established to address ethnic issues, including ours, but they are not doing their job," said Utij.


Ahmed Stash, born in Syria and now a Russian citizen, agrees. "We shouldn't trust these organizations," he said. "In 10 years they haven't kept a single promise they made to us."


Recalling once prominent Circassian community leaders, Utij said, "Those who spoke at rallies 10 years ago, calling for all Adygeyans to unite, have vanished without a trace. When we started saying things like that, the authorities reacted very swiftly to suppress us."


Those who weather the bureaucratic ordeal of obtaining a Russian passport, finding a job and putting down roots, say that new returnees need to tough it out and be adaptable in order to survive in the North Caucasus. They blame those who have left for spreading negative rumours about life in the homeland.


"If you come back you must find a way not only to survive, but also to prosper - and to make friends, not just find your relatives," said Imdat Kip, who opened a trading firm in Nalchik 10 years ago.


As the two communities, in the North Caucasus and the Middle East, remain isolated from one another, linguists and historians are warning that the Circassians abroad are losing their mother tongue. They warn that the Circassian language could die out in Turkey, Syria and Jordan in the next 20 to 30 years.


Zarina Kanukova is editor of the Oshkhamakho magazine in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria.