MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 163: Problems of Meskhetians

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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 163, January 23, 2003.

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE JANUARY 23

MESKHETIAN TURKS' TRAGIC ODYSSEY Thousands of uprooted Meskhetian Turks
are more likely to find sanctuary in the United States than their native
Georgia.
By Dan Brennan in Adygen

MESKHETIAN RETURN STIRS GEORGIAN DISSENT Georgia's pledge to allow the
return of Meskhetian Turks has provoked widespread public opposition. 
By Lela Inasaridze in Akhaltsikhe

GROZNY BLAST DIVIDES CHECHENS A month after a powerful explosion ripped
through Grozny, Chechens are no closer to identifying who was behind it.
By Timur Aliev in Grozny

YEREVAN'S WINTER DISASTER ZONE Life has been a nightmare for apartment
block dwellers in the Armenian capital this winter. 
By Tigran Avetisian in Yerevan

AZERBAIJAN: POPULAR FRONT ESCAPES BAN President Aliev's U-turn on
deregistering a prominent opposition party may be a clever political
manoeuvre or a sign that his powers are failing. 
By Mamed Suleimanov in Baku

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MESKHETIAN TURKS' TRAGIC ODYSSEY

Thousands of uprooted Meskhetian Turks are more likely to find sanctuary
in the United States than their native Georgia.

By Dan Brennan in Adygen

In the dry plains of Azerbaijan, dozens of Meskhetian Turks have
gathered for a wedding in the village of Adygen.

As befits the Soviet people who have suffered perhaps the most tragic
history of deportation and exile in the last 70 years, the guests come
from all over the former USSR. The groom's uncle has travelled more than
11,000km from the eastern peninsula of Kamchatka to attend.

A huge mural depicting their original village of Adygen in southern
Georgia forms a backdrop to the party. The artist, called Neriman, told
IWPR that while he has never seen Adygen, he has heard so much about it
since he was a boy that he can see it clearly in his mind's eye.

Like Neriman, most of the guests have never been to Meskhetia, the part
of Georgia where they come from, and where their community was deported
from en masse in 1944.

"We are tired of being guests," said 18-year-old Arif, the brother of
the bride. "That is the reality of life in exile. Everyone needs their
home - a place they know is theirs. I might not want to go and live in a
village in Meskhetia, but I want to know that I have the right to go
there."

However, that right of return still looks remote, despite a formal
pledge by Georgia that it will allow the repatriation of the Meskhetian
Turks. It now seems more likely that many of the people now living in
southern Russia will find a haven in the United States rather than in
their homeland.

The tragic story began in November 1944, when Stalin deported some
120,000 people - the overwhelming majority of them Meskhetian Turks in
southern Georgia - to Central Asia. During the nightmarish 21-day
journey in cattle trucks, around 15,000 people died of starvation or
cold.

The Meskhetians shared this fate with around a dozen other Soviet
minorities, such as Volga Germans and Chechens, all of whom were accused
- on no evidence - of planning to collaborate with the German invaders.
But unlike the other "punished peoples", the Meskhetians were never
given the right to return.

In June 1989, around 90,000 of them were violently uprooted again,
following pogroms in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley. Most fled to
Azerbaijan and Russia.

The 17,000 or so Meskhetians who ended up in the Krasnodar region in
southern Russia are now contemplating yet another move.

More than a decade after they arrived in Russia, they complain they are
regularly harassed by local Cossacks. They claim that they are still
denied permanent residency rights - which restricts their access to
pensions, child benefit and healthcare - and have to pay a monthly
"re-registration tax".

Last November the US State Department sent a delegation to the region
and announced that it was considering allowing the Krasnodar Meskhetians
to resettle in the United States. The case is still under review.

The 100,000 or so Meskhetians in Azerbaijan have fewer complaints.
Linguistic and cultural similarities with the Azerbaijanis have made for
relatively easy integration. Most have state citizenship and many,
particularly skilled farmers, earn more than their native-born
neighbours.

But the issue of return to Georgia overrides all others.

Seventy-five-year old Feyaz Ormarov, who lives in Azerbaijan's Yevlakh
region survived both the deportation from Georgia and Uzbekistan. "I
want to say thank you to Azerbaijan for taking us in," he said. "They
have treated us well - like brothers - but it is time for us to go home.

"We starved and froze in the wagons when Stalin deported us. We were
driven out of Uzbekistan. We are guilty of nothing and we have suffered
patiently. But how much longer must we wait?"

That will depend on whether Georgia honours the obligation it made when
it joined the Council of Europe in 1999 - to keep to a framework leading
to the repatriation of all willing Meskhetians within 12 years. So far
the omens are not promising. (See next article).

Bekir Mamoyev, head of Vatan - a non-governmental organisation, NGO,
that represents the Akhiska Turks (as the Meskhetians prefer to call
themselves) in Russia and Azerbaijan - says the Georgians are
deliberately stalling on the repatriation programme.

"Certain people are propagating the view that if we return there will be
bloodshed, that there will be an invasion of Turks wielding scimitars,"
Mamoyev said.

"The older generation in Meskhetia knows that is not true, but maybe
Georgia is waiting for them to die out. Of the twelve ethnic groups
deported by Stalin, only the Akhiska Turks have not been rehabilitated.
No one has apologised for the injustices committed against us."

Mamoyev also blames the outside world for not giving sufficient
political support to his people.

However, the Meskhetians' cause has not been helped by some internal
feuding. The communities in Georgia and Azerbaijan do not communicate
properly, and there is an ongoing dispute as to whether the people
should describe themselves as "Turks" or "Islamicised Georgians".

Eldar Zeinalov, head of the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, says that
the Meskhetians themselves need to act more constructively. "I think one
of the obstacles to progress comes from within the community itself. The
question of historical ethnic identity and terminology has become a
divisive issue and is exploited by those who want to block their return
to Georgia," Zeinalov said.

But Zeinalov's sharpest criticism is reserved for Georgia and the
Council of Europe in Strasbourg, for what he regards as lack of
political will.

"By not enforcing its position the Council of Europe is treating Georgia
like a spoilt child," Zeinalov said. "By shamefully allowing Tbilisi to
delay the start of the repatriation process, it is killing the chance
for the older generation of Meskhetian Turks to see their homeland
before they die."

Even the youngest Meskhetians have an acute sense of the injustices
their people have suffered - and believe it is time that others made a
greater effort to correct them.

"Ever since 1944, our people have been left out in the cold," said Ali
Belikberov, head of the youth organisation in Adygen. "Even now, when
the question is being discussed, we have become the subject of the
debate - but we are not included. It is time the world listened to us."

Dan Brennan is a freelance journalist and former NGO worker in
Azerbaijan. He recently spent two months in Georgia and Azerbaijan
researching the Meskhetian (Turkish) question thanks to a travel grant
from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. The correct name for the
people in this article is the subject of much disagreement. The author
uses the term "Meskhetian Turks" here for the sake of simplicity and not
as a statement of his political views.


MESKHETIAN RETURN STIRS GEORGIAN DISSENT

Georgia's pledge to allow the return of Meskhetian Turks has provoked
widespread public opposition.
 
By Lela Inasaridze in Akhaltsikhe

"For my whole life before I came here, they called me a Georgian," said
Aladin Makaridze, who returned to his historical homeland of Akhaltsikhe
in southern Georgia, four years ago. "Now everyone is calling me a
Turk."

Makaridze's parents were among the tens of thousands of Meskhetian Turks
deported to Central Asia in 1944. He left Uzbekistan for Azerbaijan,
before finally fulfilling his dream of coming to Meskhetia with his wife
and three sons.

He is one of only a tiny number of Meskhetian Turks resident in Georgia
- but if many Georgians have their way, the population will not get any
bigger.

The majority of the Georgian and Armenian population in the southern
Samtskhe-Javakheti region, from where the Meskhetians were deported from
60 years ago, is strongly opposed to their return.

Ivane Apriamashvili, a student who lives near Makaridze, told IWPR that
he has had no problems with the returnees, "But they're not like other
neighbours," he said.

"They don't make an effort to get to know us - the whole Makaridze
family is very closed. In any case, whatever they say, I don't think of
them as Georgians."

Temur Gogoladze, an engineer in the town of Akhaltsikhe, is more
outspoken. "If Tbilisi insists on resettling the Turks and dares to
begin this process, all of us, with the Armenians, will take up our
axes," he said.

"We won't allow a repeat of the nightmare which our grandfathers and
parents lived through. You lot in Tbilisi will get another Abkhazia in
Javakheti."

Views like this are a reason - or perhaps an excuse - for the Georgian
government to stall on the commitments it has made on the Meskhetian
Turk issue.

In 1998 the Council of Europe made the repatriation of the Meskhetians a
condition of Georgia's accession to the institution. The council gave
Tbilisi two years to pass a law on repatriation, three years to begin
the actual return and twelve years overall to complete the entire
process.

More than four years later, that schedule is in tatters as while the
draft law on repatriation has been drawn up, it has not yet been put to
parliament. Meanwhile, only 649 Meskhetians have returned to Georgia at
their own peril, with only eight families resettling in
Samtskhe-Javakheti itself.

The Georgian government responds to criticism by saying that it is still
coping with the problem of more than 200,000 refugees from the war in
Abkhazia, and that it has no land to accommodate tens of thousands of
returnees.

Another argument - not cited by Georgian officials but mentioned
frequently in parliament and in Samtskhe-Javakheti - is a fear that the
returning Meskhetians could become a destabilising political force on
Georgia's border with Turkey.

"Some Meskhetian associations, such as the Russian-based Vatan or
Akhskhalila in Turkey, are already advocating a Meskhetian autonomous
region in Javakheti," claimed Merab Beridze, professor of the Meskhetian
Branch of Tbilisi State University in Akhaltsikhe.

Beridze told IWPR that, prior to the 1944 deportation, there had been a
history of ethnic strife between Meskhetians and local Armenians and
Georgians.

Another Georgian academic from the area, the ethnographer Tina
Ivelashvili, says she has been recording the oral history of the region.
"Muslim Georgians persecuted their Christian compatriots. I have
thousands of stories and facts on file to prove it," she said.

"With a heritage like this a new ethnic conflict in Georgia would be
inevitable," she went on.

Meskhetians themselves dispute these assertions. "I would not attribute
Georgians' hostility to the repatriation to their 'historical memory',
which, I'm sure, would reveal a lot of very diverse and contradictory
facts," said Marat Baratashvili, a Meskhetian who is head of the Union
of Georgian Returnees non-governmental organisation, NGO.

"The problem is that no one in Georgia really has any information about
what actually happened and what the return of Meskhetian Turks would be
like."

Baratashvili said that the deportation of his people did not even rate a
mention in Georgian history textbooks, or a stand in the local history
museum in Akhaltsikhe.

"Georgian parliamentarians like to say there is no land in Javakheti to
accommodate the returnees," he went on. "My colleagues and I have
explored the entire region - and the 72 villages evacuated by Stalin are
still uninhabited."

One pressing problem is that no one seems to know exactly what the full
implications of repatriation may be. Estimates of those who might wish
to return go as high as 200,000.

Arif Yunusov, an Azerbaijani scholar who has studied the issue, believes
the actual number of returnees would actually be far lower. "There is an
idea in Georgia that once they open the doors, the country will be
overrun with Turks," he said.

"The reality is that many - especially the younger generation - will not
want to uproot and start all over again in Georgia. But they should not
be denied the theoretical right to do so. I think no more than 10,000 of
the Meskhetian population in Azerbaijan will wish to return."

Meanwhile the draft law on repatriation, which has received the approval
of both the justice ministry and Council of Europe experts, is still
lying on desks in the presidential administration, awaiting a positive
verdict.

"I believe the draft law on repatriation is ready for parliament,"
deputy justice minister Zurab Ezugbaya told IWPR.

"But I don't think this is a good time to put the document to vote. With
less than a year to go before parliamentary elections, the deputies are
unlikely to pass an unpopular law like this."

Giorgy Chkheidze of the Association of Young Lawyers of Georgia, who is
one of the co-authors of the bill said that by not considering the new
legislation, the authorities were simply delaying the inevitable. "We'll
have to tackle this one way or another, whether to become part of the
wider European community or simply to prove we are responsible human
beings," he said.

"The problem can be solved if two conditions are met: a rational
mechanism for repatriation is adopted and information about the
situation is spread that is realistic and not hysterical."

But some Georgian parliamentarians are already upping the rhetoric over
the issue of the Meskhetians' return. "We will greet wolves like
wolves," deputy Guram Sharadze told a press conference recently.

Lela Inasaridze is head of the NGO Gulis Meskheti in Akhaltsikhe.
Margarita Akhvlediani in Tbilisi and Dan Brennan in Azerbaijan
contributed to this report.

.........................

 
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ISSN: 1477-7959 Copyright (c) 2003 The Institute for War & Peace
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CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE No. 163