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Georgia: Meskhetian Turks Closer to Return

New draft law guarantees return of deported people to Georgia but promises no help with resettlement.
By Natia Kuprashvili
This law reminds me of the well-known Georgian song where they tell a multi-coloured butterfly, ‘Don’t fly away, but don’t come flying here,’” said Madin Mamedov.

Mamedov is one of a small community of 1,200 Meskhetian Turks who settled in Georgia in the 1970s, some 30 years after they were deported from there by Stalin. He lives in a close-knit community in the village of Ianeti in the Samtredi region of western Georgia.

Now he and his fellow-villagers are facing the prospect of tens of thousands of other Meskhetian Turks returning to Georgia, following the long-awaited passage of a law on repatriation in the country’s parliament.

Mamedov worries that after 60 years of waiting, many of them will fall at the bureaucratic hurdles created by the new law.

“Most of my kinsfolk live in terrible poverty,” he said. “Many of them will have no documentation to confirm that they were deported. They will be unable to put their documents in order and won’t be able to return to the homeland at their own expense.”

The Meskhetian Turks have had a tragic history of multiple exile. They were originally a Muslim population living in Meskhetia, now part of the Samtse-Javakheti region of south-western Georgia. They generally prefer to call themselves Akhiska Turks.

Stalin deported a number of ethnic groups – Chechens and Ingush, Crimean Tatars and others - during the Second World War out of a paranoid concern that they might be less than loyal in case of invasion. In November 1944, it was the Meskhetians’ turn, and all of them were rounded up and despatched to Central Asia, with thousands dying en route in disease-ridden cattle trucks.

Violent clashes targeting Meskhetians in the Fergana Valley in 1989 prompted tens of thousands of them to flee Uzbekistan, where many had lived since deportation. Most are now scattered across the former Soviet Union, especially in Azerbaijan and southern Russia. Estimates of their numbers range from 60,000 to 200,000.

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 12 years overall to complete the entire process.

The first repatriation bill was drawn up in 2005 by the new government that followed the “Rose Revolution”. That law was drafted under the supervision of Giorgi Khaindrava, the then state minister for resolution of conflicts. One of the authors of that bill, Temuri Lomsadze, has helped draft the new law that went through parliament in a first reading on June 22.

Lomsadze, who is now a consultant with the European Centre for Minority Issues, admitted that the repatriation process might not be completed by the year 2011, as promised.

“However, the exact number of repatriates will be established during the coming year,” he said. “The greatest merit of this law is that it allows for the Muslim Meskhetians to be finally rehabilitated.”

“This law differs considerably from the document that was drawn up in Khaindrava’s time on the orders of President Mikheil Saakashvili,” he said. “We’ve removed from that bill whole chapters where the state pledged to assist the process of adaptation and integration of the returnees.”

Khaindrava, now an opposition activist, is critical of the new law for precisely this reason, saying it gives the Meskhetians nothing to return to.

“Apart from rehabilitation [restitution for their deportation], what the Muslim Meskhetians want most is to return to their motherland,” he said. “But the new law does nothing to promote the return process.”

The new law grants the right of return to the individuals deported in 1944 and their family members. Those who want to do so have one year from January 1, 2008 to submit an application either to the Georgian consulate in their country or at the ministry for refugees and resettlement in Tbilisi.

More controversially, applicants also have to provide documents to confirm they were deported.

Although the governing majority in parliament is backing the bill, other deputies have criticised it, albeit for sometimes conflicting reasons.

The law’s most bitter opponents belong to the Conservative Party, which is against a large-scale influx of Meskhetians as a matter of principle.

“This law goes against the interests of our country,” said party member Kakha Kukava. “It is a time bomb for Georgia.”

David Berdzenishvili, a parliamentarian from the Republican Party, is unhappy with the law for a different reason – he argues that it “creates hidden mechanisms for preventing any actual return”.

In Ianeti, the head of the village administration Gia Kopaleishvili said that from his experience, a large-scale population return would need to be planned carefully.

“In the [Seventies and] Eighties, the Muslim Meskhetians were resettled without any prior calculations or planning,” he said. “As a result, what we have is an impoverished community isolated from the outside world and poorly integrated. The repatriation process should be carried out so as to ensure that there are no more places like Ianeti in this country.”

The Meskhetians live apart from the main village of Ianeti in a tiny settlement of 26 households known simply as “Plot 9”.

Kopaleishvili feels “a different faith and the language barrier” keeps the Meskhetians isolated from their Georgian neighbours, who are Orthodox Christians. The Meskhetians speak Turkish rather than Georgian, although the children are now learning the latter at school.

The Meskhetians of Plot 9 expressed a sense of isolation from the wider community.

“The [Georgian] locals come to us only to buy sheep,” said one man, Aziz Mamedov. “They smile but they still call us Turks behind our backs. The politicians appear just before election time to win our votes. They promise us better living conditions, jobs, a new clinic and lots more but few of these promises are ever delivered.”

Yet both communities say integration is happening. Magda Chinijishvili, a journalist from nearby Kutaisi, says the Meskhetians of Ianeti have “changed enormously” in the last few years and identify much more strongly with Georgia.

Madin Mamedov recounted with tears in his eyes how his parents, wife brother and nephew had all died after resettling in Ianeti, and then his five-year-old son was accidentally killed by a shell.

“From the day I came to Georgia I have been dogged by death,” he said. “But despite that, I love my home, my village and my country. I am part of Georgia. I haven’t for one second considered leaving.”

The prospect of friends and relatives being allowed to return is making the Meskhetians feel more secure.

“It’s important for us to know that someone remembers us,” said villager Shah-Murad Bekadze. “They finally understood that it’s vitally important for a bird to have its nest. Help us get our relatives and family members back here. It doesn’t matter which corner of Georgia they live in. The important thing is that we’re all living under one roof in the same country.”

Natia Kuprashvili is the Georgian-language editor of IWPR’s Caucasus newspaper Panorama; Nino Gerzmava is a correspondent for the paper.