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Extension of the refugee crisis
From Syria to the Caucasus
Report - 21 September 2015
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The exodus from Syria is having a little-noticed effect on the Caucasus and some Russian republics NEW
By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

At a recent press conference (10 Sep) President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, declared that although the Middle East refugee crisis was not a problem for Russia, it had seen attempts to use its territory as a transit route to countries of the European Union.

As he saw it, the weight of the crisis has to be born by those countries and people whose actions had contributed to the destabilisation of North Africa and the Middle East..

At the same time, Russia is not immune to refugee crises generally. Already almost a tenth of its population consisted of legal and illegal migrants, mostly from former Soviet republics, whose presence put it at the top of the league as an international shelter.

But here Peskov was speaking of a specific crisis from which Russia is not completely sheltered, if only because official estimates speak of 2,500 Russians fighting on the side of ISIS.

Moreover, Moscow is facing a challenge from the Middle East crisis that is on a different scale, and with potential repercussions, from those in Europe. Witness two different cases, both in a region of strategic importance for the Kremlin.


The Circassians

On 10 September, the agency RIA Novosti quoted the head of the republic of Kabarda-Balkaria as saying that ‘several thousand refugees from Syria had been welcomed’ in the southern Russian republic - a statement that followed similar ones by the heads of other small republics of North Caucasus, notably Adygea and Cherkassia.

In fact, the refugees are Syrian Circassians who decided to escape from the fighting in Syria by going back to the country of their ancestors, who long ago retreated with the Ottoman forces at the end of the Russian-Turkish wars.

Their return, saluted as a sign of attachment to their motherland, carries a price. Not all the refugees are coming with the means by which to start a small business or a farm. Consequently the already poor republics are having to provide housing, schools, social and medical aid.

The influx also carries the risk of altering the fragile ethnic, religious and clan balance of the entire region. This involves no trivial matters such as going back to the first arrival in 2012 to discuss the choice of languages in which to teach them: Kabar, Balkar, Adygei or just universally Russian.

On the top of that, Moscow can hardly forget that during the preparations for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 there were attempts to internationalise the question of recognising the ‘Circiassian genocide’ – an argument raised by opponents of the Games, knowing how their success was important for president Putin.


Nagorno-Karabakh

A louder alarm has been raised in Baku with the arrival of Syrian Armenians in the land of their forbearers – bearing in mind that Armenia is mentioned as a threat to Azerbaijan’s security in its doctrine.

Armenia’s foreign policy has always put an emphasis on good relations with Middle Eastern countries, especially Lebanon and Syrian, both of which shelter an important Armenian Diaspora. Good relations with Syria were evidenced when, in 2009, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made an official visit to Armenia and signed numerous co-operation agreements ‘based on centuries-long friendship between the Armenian and Syrian peoples’.

Then came the war in Syria, and by November 2012 Armenian foreign minister Edward Nalbandian was talking of the arrival from Syria of ‘thousands of refugees of Armenian descent’. A year later, after a brief calm, the flow restarted on a larger scale, thanks to the resumption of the direct Beirut-Yerevan flights and bus services.


Mounting number

According to the Minister of Diaspora, Hranush Hakobian, at the end of 2013 about 200 Syrian Armenians were arriving in Armenia weekly, and there already were over 10,000 in the country. The increase is due to the fact that Syrian Armenians, who would earlier have prefer to go to Beirut, switched for Armenia where they were guaranteed state support, a Christian society, civil peace and the possibility to receiving education.

With their number growing, as well as the cost and the competition for jobs, Yerevan began to resettle refugees in Nagorno-Karabakh, which has plenty of space including for families coming from rural Syrian districts. But in Baku, this was seen as a further sign that Armenia is not only regularly violating the 1994 cease-fire but also was making another attempt to create a de facto ‘armenianisation’ of the ‘occupied territories’ that had been ethnically cleared of Azeris during the war.

According to official Baku sources, 11.000 Armenians migrants have been settled in Nagorno-Karabkh, nearly 10% of its official population.

Not surprisingly, the authorities have responded with bellicose declarations, under pressure of an opposition always quick to use the Nagorno Karabakh card against president Aliev. Even if it remains on the level of verbal exchanges, this can only delay further a settlement of one of the main crises destabilising the South Caucasus.

21 September 2015
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