Thursday, 11 February 2016

The impact of Russia's Turkey sanctions on the North Caucasus

Published in Analytical Articles

By Emil Aslan Souleimanov

February 3rd, 2016, The CACI Analyst

The abrupt deterioration of relations between Russia and Turkey, caused by the downing of a Russian warplane by a Turkish F-16 on the Turkish-Syrian border in late November, has had serious implications for the North Caucasian communities in both Russia and Turkey. While Russia’s imposition of extensive sanctions on Turkey has met displeasure among some of Russia’s Turkic-speaking populations, it has also led to a polarization among Russia’s North Caucasians, some of whom have favored Turkey, an emerging Sunni power, over the state in which they hold citizenship. 

ru-tr-yeniBACKGROUND: The late November incident turned Turkey, an earlier partner with whom Moscow’s economic and energy cooperation had been flourishing, into what many would term Russia’s main and – suddenly rediscovered – “epic” foe. While a number of leading Russian politicians have accused Turkey of allying with terrorists and called for a proper punishment for the “backstabbing” it committed by downing the Russian bomber, some intellectuals and public figures went so far as to demand a “preemptive” nuclear strike on Turkey or reclaim Constantinople, the age-old goal of Russian tsars. Against this background, severe sanctions were put in place on Turkey. These have ranged from restricting the activities of Turkish companies in Russia, restricting imports from Turkey and imposing a visa regime for Turkish citizens, to disabling Russia’s Turkic-speaking republics from partaking in Turkvision, a Eurovision-inspired song contest in which Turkic-speaking countries or republics are eligible to participate. Hundreds of Turkish students have been expelled from Russian universities, and Turkish husbands of Russian women have been prevented from entering the country and reuniting with their families. Aside from harming Russia more than Turkey, as some economic analysts have claimed, these sanctions have also endangered billions of dollars of Turkish investments made in the economies of some key Russian regions, for instance in Tatarstan.

In an unprecedented show of public dissent, Tatarstan’s president Rustem Minnikhanov has been one of the fiercest critics of Russia’s sanctions on Turkey, which Minnikhanov has termed a “brotherly nation” for his fellow Turkic-speaking Tatars at a time of heightened tensions. Appreciating the extent of Turkish investment in the autonomous republic, Minnikhanov implicitly challenged Moscow’s policies toward Ankara asserting that Turkish businesses would continue to operate in Tatarstan despite the anti-Turkish hysteria supported by the media. In the North Caucasus, authorities have kept a low profile in their criticism of Moscow’s approach to Turkey, even though Turkish businesses, particularly construction companies, have been a valuable asset to the region’s stagnant economies. Yet what has been missing in the rhetoric of regional authorities has been enunciated in the concerns of North Caucasian patriotic organizations, uniting ethnic kin in both Turkey and Russia.

IMPLICATIONS: Turkey currently hosts hundreds of thousands – if not several millions – of North Caucasians, including Circassians, Chechens, Karachay-Balkars, Ossetians and Dagestani peoples. The roots of these communities run back to the second half of the 19th century, following the expulsion of the highlanders from their home areas to the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of Russia’s ultimate victory in a series of regional wars. Since then, many North Caucasians have assimilated into the Turkish ethno-linguistic mainstream. Yet others have preferred marriages within their ethno-linguistic communities, remaining conscious of their North Caucasian roots. In fact, since the early 1990s, which marked the opening of the once-sealed Turkish-Soviet borders, Turkey’s North Caucasian communities have become increasingly interested in the heritage of their ancestors. Their travels to the North Caucasus have intensified, with thousands of Turkish citizens of North Caucasian origin rediscovering their ethno-cultural roots and reasserting torn familial ties. In this regard, the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992-1993 was a symbolic milestone in that hundreds of Turkey-born Abkhazians, Circassians, and Chechens volunteered in the war to support their kin.

Since the early 1990s, owing to the lifting of the visa regime between Russia and Turkey and various exchange programs, thousands of Turkish students of North Caucasian descent have come to study in the universities in Maikop, Nalchik, Vladikavkaz, and elsewhere. Turkish businessmen of North Caucasian origin have also been eager to look for business opportunities in their ancestral lands, which has provided an important stimulus for the local economies. As a result, the share of intermarriages between North Caucasians born in Turkey and in Russia has increased. For some North Caucasian peoples, not least Circassians, memories of the war and the forced exodus to Turkey in the 19th century are very much alive and the reunification of Turkey-born expatriates with their ethnic core in the North Caucasus has been of immense emotional and symbolic importance. The fact that thousands of North Caucasians could until recently travel to their ancestors’ native region has ensured that they have remained knowledgeable of their ethnic roots and avoided ultimate assimilation in Turkey.

Needless to say, Moscow’s recent sanctions on Turkish companies operating in Russia, as well as the imposition of a visa requirement for Turkish citizens have dealt a serious blow to the relations that North Caucasian organizations have cultivated between Turkey-born and Russia-born kin communities. Islambek Marzoyev, a senior researcher with the North Ossetian Institute of Humanitarian and Social Sciences, has asserted that after recently establishing cooperation with representatives of the North Ossetian diaspora communities in Turkey, “several groups of Ossetian diaspora have arrived in Ossetia. They have been in touch with the republic’s authorities. We welcome students from our diaspora [to North Ossetia]. The young generation of Turkish Ossetians is happy to learn their language in their historical homeland and to get acquainted with their folklore. For 2015, we agreed on student exchange, but unfortunately, this is going to be problematic now.” According to Naima Neflyasheva, a specialist on Circassian ethnography and a senior researcher with the Russian Academy of Sciences, contacts between Circassian communities in the North Caucasus, Turkey, and the Middle East will likely become complicated due to the ongoing Russian-Turkish crisis. “Circassian lecturers from Russia have visited five Turkish universities so far. As far as I know, they are being called off. The Adygean University has severed all ties in Turkey.”

Moscow has shown no willingness to make exceptions for Russia’s ethnic communities in maintaining contacts with Turkey. Despite all that is at stake for these ethnic communities and their extensive work to establish ties with North Caucasian diaspora communities in Turkey, no North Caucasian leader has followed Minnikhanov in challenging Moscow’s severing of economic, political, and cultural ties with Turkey. On the contrary, North Ossetia’s leader Tamerlan Aguzarov has put the entire blame on Ankara, claiming that “the anti-Russian agenda is a direct blow to [Turkey’s] own stability and secularism. It is a blow to the large [North Caucasian ethnic] minorities in Turkey.”

CONCLUSIONS: Most North Caucasians, subjected to a fierce propaganda campaign in the Russian media, appear to be unequivocally siding with Moscow in the Turkish-Russian crisis. Yet an analysis of statements appearing in social media reveals that a growing share of North Caucasians disapprove of both Russia’s controversial military engagement in Syria and Moscow’s indiscriminate sanctions on Turkey and Turks. While the notion of Sunni solidarity has fueled these skeptical attitudes among the religiously-minded part of the North Caucasian population, particularly in Dagestan and Ingushetia, many secular North Caucasians question the all-encompassing nature of anti-Turkish sanctions that have affected ordinary people instead of Turkey’s political and military elites for their decision to down a Russian warplane. For this segment of the local population, Moscow’s unscrupulous policies are considered inappropriate in that they, for fleeting political expediency, have made members of Turkey’s North Caucasian communities co-responsible for the deeds of their nation’s leadership. Likewise, the attitude of the North Caucasian elites that have disassociated themselves from any efforts that would help save the highly regarded ties with Turkey’s North Caucasian communities has been considered utterly unpatriotic. Whatever the further developments between Moscow and Ankara, the negligence of Moscow and local elites of the North Caucasians and their interests risks alienating a large segment of North Caucasians.

AUTHORS’ BIO: Emil Aslan Souleimanov is Associate Professor with the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic ( He is the author of Individual Disengagement of Avengers, Nationalists, and Jihadists, co-authored with Huseyn Aliyev (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Wars Reconsidered (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Peter Lang, 2007).

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