January 5, 2016

North Caucasus at center of Turkish-Russian tension

Hasan Kanbolat
January 04, 2016, Monday

On Nov. 25, one day after a Russian jet was brought down by Turkish forces, a policeman stopping a car in Sochi for a routine traffic check saw that the driver was Turkish and said sadly: “Why did you bring down our plane? There was no need for that. We loved you.” It seems that the shock over the jet incident in Russia has since been replaced by outright anger.

The region most affected by the Turkish-Russian tension over the Nov. 24 incident has been the North Caucasus. This is a region with close ties to Turkey due to ethnic similarities -- ties even further strengthened by trade relations -- and everyone in the North Caucasus is now sad and worried about the frayed relations between Moscow and Ankara. The state of relations has had a definitive and negative influence on the federal republics of the North Caucasus, on Abkhazia, on local leaders and people, and on Turks who now live in the region.

As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov disclosed, as of Jan. 1, the reciprocal visa exemption between Russia and Turkey has been eliminated. Moscow has explained this as being linked to the real threat of terrorism emanating from Turkey. At the Nov. 30 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, Russian leader Vladimir Putin noted: “The terrorists who fight us in Russia and especially in the Caucasus region seem to emerge most of the time from Turkey. They tend to hide in Turkey under the care of the leadership there and then they come out to carry out terrorist attacks on Russian soil. We have brought up this topic a number of times with the Turkish government, but until now we've unfortunately seen neither assistance nor understanding from Ankara.” In saying this, Putin shed light on just how central the issues surrounding the North Caucasus region are to the ongoing tension between Ankara and Moscow.

In a national speech made on Dec. 2, Putin continued with his policy of placing the Caucasus at the center of Russian-Turkish tension, saying: “We remember that terrorists in the North Caucasus received full financial and logistical support in Turkey during the 1990s and 2000s. And now we are really aware of this in that region.” Later, in a traditional end-of-year meeting held on Dec. 17, Putin signaled Moscow's intentions of blocking the way for Turkish citizens into the area, saying, “The era when those with Turkish passports can just come to the North Caucasus, move around freely and then disappear is over.”

In the meantime, suitcases belonging to Turkish citizens arriving at airports in the region -- such as Sochi, Krasnodar, Nalchik, Rostov Na Donu, etc. -- are being sent to a special section of the airport, after passing through X-ray machines, to be opened and searched. Turkish citizens found to be suspicious by Russian officials at these airports are now being sent back to their point of origin, which is happening quite frequently. And as these sorts of things happen, incidents such as refusing to serve Turks in cafes in the region have become common; there was even an incident where Turks working at a construction site at Rostov Na Donu port were chased by their colleagues with iron bars.

Turkish citizens with small to mid-sized businesses throughout the North Caucasus region are generally found in places like Maykop, Nalchik, Abkhazia and Kas, as well as in Sochi, Rostov Na Donu and Krasnodar. Very few of these people have Russian citizenship, especially since post-2001 new regulations have made acquiring citizenship extremely difficult. There is great fear right now that work and residence permits will be canceled summarily. In the meantime, tax fines and federal pressure put on workplaces belonging to Turks in Sochi, Maykop and Nalchik, for example, have begun. On Dec. 15, Turkish citizens working at a store in the capital of the Republic of Adygea, Maykop, were arrested by police. It appears that this particular incident marks the start of a new series of arrests based on accusations of “espionage” or “secret agenthood,” which in itself marks a new era of the Cold War between Turkey and Russia.

Some circles in Turkey view the North Caucasus region of Russia as being akin to a soup spoon with which Russia can be “stirred up.” These same circles want to use the spirit of 1864 and Sheikh Shamil against Russia. But these policies are both dangerous and ineffective. And, most importantly, they will not help bring peace to Russia, Turkey or the North Caucasus.

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