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Georgia: Unwanted Meskhetians

Deported from southern Georgia by Stalin, Meskhetian Turks are finding it hard to return to their homeland.
By Zaza Baazov

Fearful of provoking ethnic tensions, the authorities in Tbilisi are hindering the repatriation of Meskhetian Turks to the south of the country.

Ethnic Armenians, who constitute 90 per cent of the population in the Djavakheti region, oppose the return of this group, deported by Stalin back in 1944 to remote parts of Central Asia.

Repatriation of Meskhetians was one of the stipulations laid down by the Council of Europe when Georgia joined the organisation in 1999.

Over the last few years, separatist Armenians have stepped up their calls for Djavakheti's secession and the last thing they want is the appearance of tens of thousands of Meskhetian Turks.

Melik Raisian, an ethnic Armenian deputy from the region, said any talk of the Meskhetians' return was unrealistic. He said they have nowhere to return to and that any attempt to bring them back would be a "catalyst for confrontation".

Georgian nationalists are also against repatriation - unhappy at the extra economic burden the move will incur. Many say Georgia already has enough on its plate coping with a third of a million refugees from the Abkhazia civil war in the early Nineties.

But it is the fear of sparking ethnic conflict which is the main reason why the government is stalling on repatriation.

Legislation has been held up in parliament and a bureaucratic minefield set up for Meskhetians attempting to take up the right to live and work in Georgia.

The Council of Europe insisted that legislation facilitating the community's return should have been in place by July this year - and that thirty thousand or so Meskhetians, who've expressed a desire to come back, should be able to do so within the next ten years.

The council has threatened to impose sanctions on Tbilisi if it continues to resist its requests.

The Meskhetian community numbered about 100,000 when they were forcibly deported in just three days in late 1944 by Stalin's henchman Lavrenti Beria, on the grounds they were all potential Turkish spies.

Their exile to remote areas of Central Asia continued despite the break-up of the Soviet Union. Growing independence and nationalist movements worsened the situation for many for the community.

The worst incident occurred back in 1989 when there was a massacre of Meskhetians in the Fergana valley region of Uzbekistan. Other groups in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar have fallen victim to pogroms over the years.

In the late Eighties, a few hundred were allowed to return to Georgia but hardly encouraged to start a new life. They were given no financial assistance or citizenship and were accommodated in temporary lodgings where many bearly eke out a living.

They became victims again when nationalist ideology came to the fore under the presidency of Zviad Gamsakhurdia in the early Nineties. Returnees were trucked to the border with Turkey. A slogan of the day went "Not a single Turk on Georgian territory!"

"Today the Meskhetians are one of the last of the deported people with no right to return to their homeland," stated a fact-finding mission of the EU organistation, the Federal Union of European Nationalities, in 1998.

Iasin Khasanov and his wife who live in an old hostel in Tbilisi were two of those allowed to return to the country. They fled the Fergana massacres but are still waiting for their son and grandson - currently in Azerbaijan - to join them. The latter are unable to get passports or working permits.

President Shevardnadze's government has been plagued by separatism over his nine years in office and is naturally keen to avoid seeing another region seek autonomy or independence.

There seems little hope of a solution to the problem. If Shevardnadze is actively seen to assist the return of the Meskhetians he will anger Armenian and Georgian nationalists. If he fails to accelerate the process he will be penalised by the Council of Europe.

The Meskhetians, meanwhile, remain a pariah group wherever they happens to be.

Zaza Baazov is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi