The sultan, the czar and the refugees

A conflict with Turkey and Russia on opposing sides. The violence causes a stream of refugees towards Europe. Are we talking about Syria in 2016?

Although history never repeats exactly, there are a remarkable number of similarities between events of today and what happened in 1864. Over 150 years ago, there also was a caliphate and terror motivated by religion.

The Ottoman Empire has fought a series of wars against czarist Russia. These great powers had conflicting interests in the territories bordering the Black Sea.

When Russia conquered the Caucasus in 1864, it ethnically cleansed the indigenous peoples. Hundreds of thousands of Islamic Circassians fled to the Ottoman Empire. Many of them went to the Ottoman provinces in the southern Balkans, what is now Romania and Bulgaria. These predominantly Christian regions were the most prosperous of the empire1.

As retaliation for the conquest of their homeland by the Orthodox Russians, the Circassians terrorized the non-Muslim population of their sanctuary. In addition to bringing diseases, they murdered, raped and expelled the Christian inhabitants. The sultan – who also wore the title of caliph – used the refugees to control his non-Islamic subjects. It was a time during which the peoples of the Balkans strived for independence. Serbia (de facto independent) and Greece (officially independent) had escaped the Ottoman yoke decades earlier. Their examples inspired nationalism among their neighbors.

Let’s fast forward to today. The Turkish president Erdogan wants to make his country great again, mirroring the glorious Islamic Ottoman past. In the Syrian war, he opposes Russia. With president Putin, Russia also has a leader who wants to restore his nation to the status of the feared superpower it once was.

Erdogan supports jihadist rebels – even ISIS – against Syrian president Assad. Putin has sided with the Syrian regime. Geographically, that is no surprise. Russia has a naval base at Syrian city of Tartus. For Russia, access to the Mediterranean and the link to the Black Sea has always been important. For Turkey, the involvement in Syria is a way to restrain the Kurds.

Both Turkey and Russia employ the refugees to weaken Europe. Turkish human traffickers shipped over a million Muslims from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to Greece. This flow only stopped after Europe promised billions of euros, as well as political concessions to the Turkish regime. Russia also uses refugees to influence the domestic politics of European countries. For example, it lets asylum seekers go to Norway above the Arctic Circle. And there are reports that Putin financially supports nationalist parties in Europe.

From a historical perspective, the most notable differences between today and the 19th century are the behavior of the European elites in politics and the media.

During the Crimean War (1853-1856), France and Britain sided with the Ottoman Empire – the sick man of Europe – against Russia. This choice was based on power politics: the West did not want Russia to become too strong.
Modern Turkey has been a NATO member since the Cold War. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the recent developments in Turkish politics, there has never been a reassessment of this ongoing alliance between the West and Turkey.

Instead of seeing Islamic migrants as a potential threat, Western elites propagate the inflow as a good thing for their countries. For example, refugees would avert labor shortages. In practice however, very little refugees find jobs. As such, they are an extra burden for social security. Culturally and religiously motivated crimes against the native population are swept under the rug.

Through the lens of history, our time is no less strange than the past.

My knowledge of the events of 1864 is mainly based on the book The Balkans by Misha Glenny. I am very grateful to Milena and Stan for this present.

  1. According to professor Timur Kuran, sharia law has contributed to the slow economic development of Muslims. The Jews and the Christians like the Greeks, Armenians and Bulgarians in the Ottoman Empire were more involved in trade.

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