Circassian Activist Facing Deportation from Russia

Diaspora Circassian Activist Facing Deportation from his Homeland:

An Interview with Tarık Topçu (Schamis Hatko)

By Kansau Mamkhegh | 12 December 2018

Tarık Topçu, better known by his Circassian pseudonym Schamis Hatko, is a 53-year-old Circassian activist with dual German and Turkish citizenship. Born in Turkey, he lived in Germany for decades and was one of the founders and leading members of an informal Circassian diaspora organisation called “Patriots of Circassia” in the early 2010s, which then split into two factions. The one, which Topçu is now affiliated with, is called “Circassia Movement”. He has recently settled in the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria of the Northern Caucasus region of the Russian Federation, which constitutes a part of what Topçu, and his fellow activists, consider the “historical Circassia”.

Enrolled as an adult student at the Kabardino-Balkarian State University in Nalchik, the republican capitol, Topçu was granted residence permit for a year earlier in May this year. But his residence permit was abruptly cancelled on 19 September 19th, 2018. This sudden change of heart by Russian authorities left Topçu in a state of limbo facing deportation at any moment. After the initial shock, Topçu decided to take legal action and appealed to the lower tier of the Russian Court system in the hope that this decision would be overturned. However, in its first hearing on November 9th, his case was sent to the Supreme Court of Kabardino-Balkaria as the prosecution maintained that this was a matter for national security and that the case mush be heard behind closed doors at the Supreme Court, an argument that was duly accepted by the Court. His second hearing is scheduled to take place on 13 December 2018.

September 2018 proved to be a tumultuous month for this central Caucasian republic with the largest Circassian population (Kabardians are Eastern Circassians) which accounts for nearly 60% of the republic’s estimated population of 860.000. Troubles initially started as a local discord over a couple of dozens of Circassian activists’ attempt to gather in a location in the mountainous part of the region, where what Circassian activists consider “a Circassian victory of historical proportions over an invading Crimean Army” took place in the 18th Century. The trip would see them ride through the mountain settlement of Kundelen on horseback, which is mostly populated by ethnic Balkars who are the second titular ethnic group making up an estimated 13% of the region’s population. However local Balkars objected to the idea of Circassian horsemen marching through the town. With the arrival of enforcements on both sides, it turned into inter-ethnic clashes between the local Balkars and Circassians (See http://www.circassianworld.com/headlines/1729-ethnic-clashes-arrests-in-kabardino-balkaria-what-s-happening-and-why) This then escalated into a massive clampdown on hundreds of Circassian activists by the regional police and Russian Army units, who were drawn in from the army garrisons in the neighbouring Caucasian republics, not only in Kundelen and the surrounding Circassian-majority towns but also in Nalchik

(See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HV5j7SmMoOY&feature=youtu.be).  In the end, up to two hundred Circassian activists and a handful of Balkars were reported to have been detained. This was followed by the news of the sacking of the regional president Yuri Kokov and his replacement by Kazbek Kokov, the son of late Valery Kokov, the last Soviet and the first post-Soviet era president of Kabardino- Balkaria. 

Against the background of such momentous events taking place within a space of a few days in September, the news of the revocation of Topçu’s residence permit raised eyebrows within the Circassian activist circles. Not least because Topçu’s “Circassia Movement” is a secular informal organisation that has nothing in common with Islamic-oriented groups, nor is it overtly anti-Russian, and nor does it espouse political violence or ethnic separatism. It can be argued that its main political aim is the unification of Circassian-inhabited regions in the Northwest Caucasus into a “Republic of Circassia” within the Russian Federation. To be clear, they do not champion independence for Circassia. So it is no wonder his case has caused a stir.

Yet, this is not the first time Topçu has had a brush with Russian authorities. In May 2016, a group of Circassians including Topçu and a few of his fellow activists was stopped at Russia’s border with Georgia, and after nearly 12 hours of waiting was denied entry into Russia to attend the commemorative events in Nalchik on 21st May. The events in question mark the final subjugation of Circassia in 1864 by Russia and associated atrocities and mass-scale deportations that Circassians generally refer to as the “Circassian Genocide”. An interesting fact is that the parliament of the very republic whose authorities are trying to deport Topçu actually recognised the “Circassian Genocide” formally in February 1992.  

More to the point, a number of federal regions or entities have been merged or unified within the Russian Federation in the last decade and there are many other groupings or organisations advocating various forms of unification proposals for their regions or ethnic groups; so the position of Topçu and Circassia Movement can hardly be considered unique, radical or unacceptable, never mind illegal. Furthermore, Mr Topçu has repeatedly and openly stated his adherence to current Russian legal framework to promote his political ideas. 

On the other hand, Topçu’s is not the first case of Russia deporting, banning entry or denying visas to Circassian activists of various persuasions or from different Circassian diaspora organisations and non-aligned notable personalities from the Circassian diaspora of Turkey.

So, to get a better grasp of this case, we have asked the following questions to Mr Topçu, whose case has already been written about in Russian and Turkish language media outlets and he himself openly publishes updates on his Facebook page, to give him the opportunity to share his side of the story with the English-speaking observers of Circassian, Caucasian and Russian politics. The opinions expressed in this interview are those of Mr Topçu and do not necessarily represent the views or opinion of the CW.

Tarik, what was your main aim and motivation when you decided to move and settle in Kabardino-Balkaria, or in your terminology “historical Circassia”?

I moved to Nalchik permanently because I consider it my homeland. I was actually born in a small town in the southernmost part of Turkey called Reyhanli, which lies on the border with Syria. The Circassian community in Reyhanli is small but has a strong Circassian identity and well-established ties to our historical homeland, Circassia. For instance, the outer walls of our community centre in Reyhanli is covered in very large font with the word Circassia on one side and a map of Circassia on the other. In our communal gatherings (jeug) we chant, “long live Circassia”. So in short, Circassians of Reyhanli consider themselves natives of Circassia and dream of one day moving to and living in Circassia.

In fact, a group of 161 Circassians from Reyhanli, including me, formally applied to the Russian Consulate in Antalya, which is the closest Russian mission to Reyhanli, wanting to “return to our historical homeland of Circassia”. But we did not receive any response. So instead of waiting indefinitely, I decided to do it on my own and arrived here in May 2017. My main objective was to learn Circassian and Russian languages as quickly as possible and to live, work, and, when my day comes, die in this country from where my great grandfather Yemish had been deported more than e century ago. This was the dream I had had since my early youth.

With the ultimate aim of becoming a university teacher in German language, I enrolled at the local university on a student visa initially. I then applied for residence permit in early 2018 and was granted one in late May. So things were moving in the right direction.

But then you find out that your newly granted residence permit was revoked and you were being asked to leave Russia and Circassia?

I returned from my summer holiday in Turkey on 8 September. Having spent a few days getting organized for the new academic year at the university, a friend from the student hall I am staying in handed me a letter that turned out to be an official notice saying that my residence permit had been revoked on 2 August 2018. I was simply thunderstruck.

The very next day I went to the relevant department at the university, the staff at which were just as astonished. They confirmed the letter had come from the police department dealing with foreigners (OVIR). After a brief investigation, informed me to confirm that my residency had indeed been cancelled. They recommended that I should go to Turkey and change my visa to a student visa and then return again.

I Intuitively rejected the idea thinking if my residence had been cancelled for an apparently unusual reason, why on earth they would give me a student visa! So I sought advice from a lawyer who strongly advised against going to the police or Turkey. He just asked me to apply to the police in writing to request an official statement as to why I was being deported. Two weeks later I got a response from them that basically said they knew nothing about my case and that the cancellation had been made due to a direct request by the local FSB.

So in the end we applied to the court to appeal against both the FSB’s report and the revocation order.

In your opinion, is this a local decision or a decision by the central authorities in Moscow?

I personally do not believe this decision has come down from Moscow. Not least because I had had my residence permit just a couple of months earlier but also we know how thoroughly residency applications are checked and dealt with. If they had had any issues with my application, they would have rejected it straight away right from the beginning, which, by the way, would have made it a lot easier for everyone involved. Furthermore, as I said earlier, in the official reply to my initial appeal, they openly said that the cancellation was made at the request of the local FSB and was based on the latter’s report. So it is pretty clear that this is a local decision.

If so, why do you think this is happening to you? Do you think you are being deported because of your politics?

Why the local FSB want to deport me? Well, the fact that I was not a typical returnist (the diaspora Circassians who have settled in Circassian republics in the Caucasus) must have caught their eye. I am not just someone who only concerns himself with the matters of daily life. I take part in social activities; I make an effort to observe and understand how people live their lives here; I try to nurture social and political relationships, and I read and write about life here and share my experiences and ideas openly. I think this got their attention for I knew I was being closely observed.

Additionally, those who want to control, shape and monopolise the relations between the homeland and diaspora may not have liked my very presence here. Because I could see what they would not see or would not want others to see. And not only would I see it but I could and would write about it. So it is possible those people might have wanted me go.

What are your emotions about the situation you find yourself in?

To be frank, there is an overwhelming feeling of disappointment.  After I had my residence permit in summer, I started making plans to settle here permanently. I even began to work on the architectural design of the house I was planning on building in a place near the town centre in Nalchik. I was so eager to start a new life here. But this has wrecked all these plans, which depresses me greatly. These days, in this state of limbo, I do not even feel like doing my studies. I keep asking myself why this is happening.

What is making this whole episode worse and shocking is the fact the revocation of my residence permit is tied up to some kind of a terrorism charge. Circassian World (CW) knows me, and what I stand for, very well. Not only you but anyone who has been coming to our political activities and/or paying attention to what we have been saying or writing knows it well that we are 100% opposed to violence, and there is no room in our discourse for ethnocentric hatred or enmity. Of course Circassians have issues: the first and foremost is that we are and will be facing assimilation everywhere we live and you do not need to be a fortune-teller to see this. And there is no denying that we do work on and want to find solutions to these problems and our politics is mainly about this. But we believe in democracy and carry out all our actions with legal, democratic and peaceful means.

No one can pinpoint a single act or a line in our rhetoric that can be connected to terrorism or political violence. That is why I am so frustrated. Yes, this has disheartened me but did not break my spirit, as I still have not lost hope on the case.

What is the public reaction to your case in Kabardino-Balkaria and in the wider Circassian world in the Circassian diaspora?

The local people here have a strong national identity and a heightened sense of awareness of their national problems. This is also evident in social and cultural spheres. But the political experience and a culture of democratic struggle are almost non-existent. Here, there is a top-down approach to how daily life, and life in general, is organised. Nothing is transparent, and what is worse, people have come to accept it as a matter of fact. Therefore to them, a decision like this is seen as “coming from above” and as such there is nothing one could do but accept it. Even some of the lawyers I asked to take my case on said the revocation could not be reversed. When I said, “ yes but I am sure of my self and my actions which have nothing to do with the allegation made against me”, they say, “This is Russia. If FSB reach a decision, you can do nothing to change it. The fact of your innocence is irrelevant. If FSB has decided, you are guilty no matter what”.  This line of thinking is prevalent in the whole society.

Of course, no is delighted about the possibility of my being deported but they simply do not believe there is anything one could do to change the outcome. So they do not even react to it. You know, even in Turkey, where I was born and grew up, and never mind Germany where I lived most of my adult life, when someone is accused of a crime his/her friends and supporters come to the court to show their support and show solidarity with them. I certainly had that support when I was tried in a Turkish court as a young political activist during the post-military cunta era in 1988, tens if not hundreds of my friends and family members showed up at each hearing regardless of what I was being accused of. But here, this does not happen. People are both afraid and do not believe, as I said earlier, the outcome could be changed.

There is, however, some reaction and solidarity with my case in the diaspora but even that is not institutional, and there are two reasons for that. Firstly, our community organisations in the diaspora do not like or share my political discourse. Because, I talk of repatriation to the homeland and I say “ Adyghe and Circassian are one and the same” and “our homeland is Circassia”. I also advocate believing in our own ability as Circassians, to our own national strength and the practice of democratic struggle. And our very own Circassian diaspora organisations in Turkey do not like this. Secondly, diaspora activists also think that democratic action is not possible in Russia and if I insist on this course of action I will most certainly cause myself troubles. To put it simply, they do not believe things can be changed through democratic action. And this lack of belief makes them indifferent and prevents them from taking positions on issues.

Finally, what is your ultimate aim in Circassian politics?

I do not think I will live long enough to see any of our goals being realized but this is okay as we actually consider ourselves to be seed-sowers, so to speak, rather than harvesters.

And what seeds are we sowing and what fruits are we hoping our seeds to bear?  Well, our ultimate aim is to re-construct Circassia. We want the Circassian nation to be united in her historical homeland. We want the millions of fellow Circassians who are in the process of full assimilation in the diaspora to return to their homeland. We want to remove all the barriers, legal and non-legal alike, in the way of this.

And none of this should be seen as a threat to anyone. Because we know past is past and that we have no desire whatsoever to try to turn the clock back. We want to build our future and this future should promise justice, lawfulness, fraternity, and peace for everyone. But it should also hold the rights and freedoms that would guarantee the very existence of the Circassian nation.

We have no desire to divide the Russian Federation or separate from her. On the contrary, we see the prospect of having relations with other peoples in such an enormous social, geographical, economical and cultural space as a great privilege.

But as you know, there already are three federal republics in Russia, in two of which Circassians share power with two other peoples, namely Karachay and Balkars. And Circassian activists have been at odds politically with Karachay and Balkar elites and activists for almost three decades, with both sides declaring at various times their desire to separate from the joint republics. At the moment, Karachay and Balkars have their titular status in the existing dual republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia. Why would they want a republic that is called Circassia only? Although your residence permit was revoked before the above-mentioned events of the September 18-19 this year, do you think your rhetoric actually may cause a reaction and apprehension amongst Karachay-Balkars? 

I think our answer to this question is actually what differentiates us from other “nationalist” approaches to this question. From the point of political principles, we do not share the idea that every nation and ethnic groups should have their own nation-state. We are against the policies and movements that are solely focused on independence and border-changes. We believe that ethno-political issues, such as the Basque and Kurdish problems, should and could be solved through “unionist” principles provided that utmost respect is shown to the democratic rights of the groups in question and that a creative political frameworks is constructed that will protect and guarantee their national identity and future as a nation.

Therefore, without knowing what may or may not happen in the future, we do not want to secede from Russia, nor do we want any other people to secede from us, Circassians, and historical Circassia. Regardless of what may have happened in the past, today Circassia belongs to all ethnic groups and nations that currently live in it and will want to live in it in the future.

What is important for us is the recognition that Circassians are the natives of this land and that our communal and national rights are formally recognised and that we should be able to live in our lands without any fear for survival. And this goes not only for Circassians, but also for Russians, Karachays, Balkars, Abazas, Armenians, etc. In the Circassia we want to create, no people should be in fear of their communal future. The principle of peace, brotherhood and coexistence must prevail in the Russian Federation.

If a people or an ethnic group decides to break away from Circassia, we resist it politically and ideologically. We do all we can to convince them of a better future if we live together. Furthermore, if achieving this goal may involve changing symbols and names of the republic, we will be ready to discuss these issues, for they are not a taboo for us. Whoever is going to live together, will decide on these together. But if separation is inevitable, despite all these efforts, then we will respect that decision too.

That, I must say, is a rather important and clear statement of your politics for the kind of future you want to create that we have not heard from you before. Nevertheless, there is the more pressing issue of deportation from your homeland. Which one of your goals, if any, in your opinion may have poked the state authorities to act in the way they did?

When I reflect on all this, it is very likely that my residency is being revoked because of all of these beliefs. But the picture I have drawn to you is not actually the full picture of the kind of a future we envisage. It is just one half of it and that half is only concerned about the return of diaspora Circassians to unite as a single nation in their historical homeland to build a safe future for their nation. The remaining half is actually about the material, and immaterial, contribution that the Circassian nation, once healed her historical wounds, will make to neighbouring peoples and the region at large. A Circassia that is safe and self-confident about her future has a lot to offer: a long-lasting peace, brotherhood and wealth in the Caucasus. But those who cannot see beyond the first half see me as a threat.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to explain myself and my beliefs to your readers.