25.03.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

The factor of mountain peoples of the Caucasus in Turkey’s anti-Russian games…

The factor of mountain peoples of the Caucasus in Turkey's anti-Russian games

From the end of the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire and later the Republic of Turkey began to use the Islamic-identity factor in the North Caucasus to neutralize the natural course of Russian historical expansion southwards and to restrict the Russian Empire’s access to the southern (Black and Caspian) seas and the Caucasus. After the brilliant victories of the Russian army over Persia in the first quarter of the 19th century, the Turks realized that Russia’s liberation mission towards Christian Armenians and Georgians would lead to a new Caucasian war with the Sublime Porte.

Such geostrategic strengthening of Russia in the south was feared not only by the Ottoman Empire, but also by the Ottoman’s English patrons. That is why London, through Istanbul, used the Islamic-identity factor (the Muridism movement) in the North Caucasus to counter Russia’s successes in the Greater Caucasus. The mission of the British agent David Urquhart to Ottoman Turkey and Circassia in the first half of the 19th century was aimed at fomenting a powerful anti-Russian armed resistance of the Caucasian highlanders from Circassia in the West to Dagestan in the East in order to annihilate the Russian presence and influence in the Caucasus and to exclude the unfavorable scenario of losing the Christian part of the Ottoman state in favor of Russia. In fact, until the Crimean War of 1853-1856, such tactics led to permanent large and small Caucasian armed engagements, incitement of religious hatred and numerous losses and destruction.

However, Russia was then able not only to inflict a crushing defeat on its enemies in the Caucasus and absorb their territories, but in the second half of the 19th century Russia was capable of moving on to the development of Turkestan up to the Pamir borders. One of the tragic consequences of the manipulative policy of Britain and Turkey towards the radical part of the highlanders of the North Caucasus was, unfortunately, the policy of “Great Migration” (expulsion of radical highlanders to Ottoman Turkey), which lasted in waves from the second half of the 19th century to the first quarter of the 20th century (1856-1928). Over the course of more than 70 years, there were periods of active migration such as 1856-1866, 1877-1878, 1914-1917 and 1919-1928, which were associated with the Russian-Turkish wars and the later establishment of Soviet power in the Caucasus. As a result, a large highlanders’ diaspora emerged within the former Ottoman Empire (including modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and others), consisting of ethnic communities of Abkhazians, Avars, Adygs, Dargins, Ossetians, Chechens, Ingush, Circassians and others.

The Turkish authorities continued to use the Islamic-identity factor on the highlanders in their domestic policy, pitting them against Christian subjects of the empire at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, presenting their struggle for their ethno-cultural rights as a consequence of the intervention of Orthodox Russia, the protector of Christians in Anatolia and the “oppressor” of Muslims in the North Caucasus. However, Turkey did not care much about the ethno-cultural rights of the mountain migrants themselves (in particular, the preservation of their language). This is why many highlanders, collectively called “Circassians” in Turkey, could not speak their native language and some of them lost it.

Ankara actually pursued a policy of assimilation (Turkization) towards the highlanders and deprived the Turkish Circassians of their elementary linguistic rights. In this regard, the Minister of Food and Agriculture of the Federal Republic of Germany Cem Ozdemir noted: “My father was a Circassian from Turkey. Unfortunately, for a very long time my father did not have the opportunity to speak his mother tongue.” Therefore, it is extremely controversial to present Turkey as a “standard of democracy” and a selfless defender of the “Circassian cause” against Russia, because it is within the Russian state that the highlanders received real forms of ethnic self-determination in the form of national republics, retained all their ethno-cultural and civil rights, acquired reliable state protection and security from external threats, and exercised the right to choose their religion.

Nevertheless, even in the 20th century Turkey continued to use the mountain peoples’ factor in its confrontation with Russia on the eve and during the First and Second World Wars, as well as during the Cold War. At the same time, radical currents of Islam were used as an integrating ideology, religious extremism was propagated, the formation of gangs was initiated to participate in military conflicts against Russia (USSR), and the idea of creating a united mountain peoples’ republic “North Caucasus” from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea was developed in order to deprive Russia of access to Transcaucasia and the above-mentioned water basins.

In the years of the Great Patriotic War, Turkish-German co-operation and the calculations of the Shukryu Saracioglu government to take over the Caucasus with the help of the Wehrmacht led to new attempts to involve radical forces of the mountain peoples in subversive activities against the USSR. Unfortunately, such facts stimulated mass repression and deportation of a number of peoples of the North Caucasus in 1944 (including Chechens, Ingush, Balkars and Karachais). The Soviet government subsequently recognized this decision as illegal and a Stalinist crime, restored the national entities in the region and facilitated the return of the affected peoples to their homeland. However, Turkey is using this tragic historical fact for its propaganda purposes to accuse Russia of committing the crime of genocide. But in truth, what did Turkey do to the Armenians and where did their miraculously surviving heirs end up?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Caucasus once again became a new focus for Turkey and its NATO allies to weaken Russia, initiate ethnic separatism and religious extremism, as well as foment civil conflict with its epicenter in Chechnya in order to create new energy transit infrastructures to export Caspian oil and gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey and European countries, bypassing Russia. As a result of this policy of Ankara and its Anglo-Saxon allies (London and Washington), we had two civil conflicts in the North Caucasus – in 1994-1996 and 1999-2009.

Turkish security services used numerous non-governmental organizations of Caucasus mountain peoples to support separatism and military conflict in the Caucasus, funneling Islamic militants, weapons and other assistance to the Russian territory via Azerbaijan and Georgia. Famous terrorists and Russophobes from the North Caucasus (Doku Umarov, Movladi Udugov, Akhmed Chatayev, Akhmed Nukhaev, Akhmed Zakayev, Aslanbek Vadalov, etc.) have found refuge in Turkey over the years.

The Turkish authorities (including during the years of Erdogan’s rule) did not extradite them in response to numerous requests from the Russian side. The fighters who fled from Russia to Turkey continued to finance the underground in Chechnya, which was repeatedly noted by the head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov. Thus, at the ceremony of the 10th anniversary of the Republic’s parliament in November 2015 Kadyrov emphasized that “despite all requests and appeals to the Turkish authorities, Udugov, Umarov and other terrorists still remain in that country.”

With the outbreak of the conflict, non-governmental organizations of mountain peoples began to be revived in the North Caucasus and further on in Turkey, and new Circassian committees were established (e.g. The Caucasian Society, the Chechen Committee – ChechenCom, the Caucasian-Chechen Solidarity Committee, The Caucasus Society, the Chechen Committee – ChechenCom, the Caucasian-Chechen Solidarity Committee, the fighting group “Grandsons of Shamil”, “Fighters for Chechen Independence”, the news agency “Kavkaz” – Ajans “Kafkas”, the Federation of Caucasian Associations – KAFFED, the Federation of Associations of the United Caucasus – BirKafFed, the Federation of Circassian Associations – ҪerkesFed, the Federation of Abkhazian Associations – AbhazFed, etc.) To further their goal, the Turkish authorities have skillfully used two large umbrella structures – the moderate KAFFED and the radical ҪerkesFed, as well as separate “independent” organizations – in their interests in the North Caucasus.

After the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 and the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by the Russian Federation, as well as in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, mountain peoples’ institutions were actively used in Turkey to initiate a broad anti-Russian ideological diversion accusing Russia of organizing the “genocide of Circassians (Adygs)” in the 19th century.

With the onset of the Russian-Ukrainian political crisis in 2014 and the Special Military Operation in 2022, the Turkish authorities began to support the idea of forming a so-called “Circassian battalion” to participate in hostilities on the side of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The international conference in Istanbul of 5 August 2023, organized by the “Council of United Circassia” on the topic of the formation of an “independent Circassia”, can be considered among the explicitly Russophobic actions.

Turkey has once again started to support anti-Russian propaganda, distorting the facts of the history of the Caucasian wars with the use of mountain peoples’ institutions; it has begun again to use the concept of “genocide” in relation to the events of the 19th and 20th centuries in the North Caucasus, and to discredit Russia’s policy in the region, which allegedly infringes on the rights of indigenous peoples. Although it was Russia that preserved the numerous mountain peoples of the North Caucasus, granted them the high status of national republics, provided reliable guarantees for the preservation of ethnic and civil rights and freedoms (including language, culture, traditions, religion), security, well-being and prosperity for the region.

A vivid example of the revival of the Caucasus Mountain Peoples’ spirit can be seen in the modern Chechen Republic, which, after a devastating war provoked by local separatists with the complicity of external forces, in just a decade under the rule of President Vladimir Putin has become an unrecognizable center of peace, stability and prosperity in the Russian Caucasus.

Unfortunately, with the start of the Russian special military operation, the Chechen diaspora’s anti-Russian activities have intensified in Turkey, with the tacit consent of the local authorities. In particular, since 2022, the activities of Abdul-Hakim Shaptukayev, the “representative for Turkey and the Middle East of the Government of the Republic of Ichkeria in exile”, who considers Chechnya “a territory temporarily occupied by Russia”, accuses Moscow of carrying out “genocide of the Chechen people”, and now supports the AFU against the RF Armed Forces, have become increasingly visible. It would be interesting to know how Turkey and its closest ally Azerbaijan would feel if Russia on its territory granted asylum to, say, “the government of Nagorno-Karabakh in exile”?

A frequent guest at anti-Russian events organized by Chechen and pan-Caucasian institutions in Turkey is the well-known fugitive Akhmed Zakayev, who has settled in London and supports the idea of re-establishing a unified republic of mountain peoples of the North Caucasus from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. There is an impression that such activities of anti-Russian-minded representatives of the highlanders’ communities of Turkey in alliance with the Crimean Tatars are carried out under the co-ordination of the special services of Turkey and Great Britain, just as in previous periods.

Such a situation cannot be in line with the spirit of Russian-Turkish partnership, but is rather a manifestation of a policy of hostility. Turkey’s hopes to mobilize all kinds of resources to weaken Russia with another use of ethnic and religious factors may lead to negative consequences for Ankara. The Kurdish and Armenian issues remain very vulnerable for Turkey, and the problem of Northern Cyprus is also far from being resolved.

Ankara’s hopes for “Karabakh revenge” and subsequent success in the Turan project may encounter new changes in Transcaucasian regional politics, which will trigger further conflicts and changes in the balance of power in the region. In this case, the Turks will hardly be helped by their attempts to use the religious factor to inflict external and internal damage to Russia’s interests, whether in the North Caucasus or Central Asia, because the geopolitics of blocking Turkey in Transcaucasia will be repeated.


Alexander SVARANTS – Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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