Krasnodar Immigrants Fear Expulsion

Hundreds of thousands of migrants in southern Russia are coming under pressure to leave the region

Krasnodar Immigrants Fear Expulsion

Hundreds of thousands of migrants in southern Russia are coming under pressure to leave the region

About 200 Meskhetian Turks in Russia's Krasnodar region have been on hunger strike since the end of June, in protest at what they say is a drive by the local authorities to get rid of them.

The protesters, camped in the village of Kievskoe, have vowed to "starve to victory". Locals have formed a circle around the demonstrators to guard them against possible attacks by Cossacks.

"It's a disaster waiting to happen," said Tamara Karasteleva, director of the Novorossiysk Human Rights Committee. She complained that instead of talking to the protesters, the governor of the Krasnodar region, Alexander Tkachev, had simply called them "saboteurs".

The hunger-strikers say the local authorities deny their young people access to education, refuse to allow them to marry or be called up for military service, on the grounds that they are temporary residents.

The Meskhetian Turks are among the least fortunate Soviet minorities. Deported under Stalin from Samtskhe-Javakheti, in southern Georgia, to Central Asia in the 1940s, many were subsequently expelled from Uzbekistan during the Gorbachev era.

Some settled in Russia's Krasnodar region, hoping Georgia would honour its commitment to the Council of Europe and let them return to their home by the year 2010.

But here, too, they feel unwanted. Yusif Sarvarov, head of the international Meskhetian Turk organisation, Vatan, said the worst disability the community suffered was a bar on leasing land, which he said robbed them of "the only way we can support ourselves".

"By depriving us of the right to lease land, they are forcibly turning us into criminals," said Nuratdin Chukadze, a Vatan activist who has joined the hunger strike. "My family has been living here for nearly 15 years. We have nowhere else to go, so will remain on strike until Russia, as a successor to the Soviet Union, recognises us, former Soviet citizens, as bona fide members of the community."

The Turks are only one of several ethnic minorities facing an official backlash in the region, which is home to many communities. The Krasnodar Centre for Ethnic Cultures, which represents the various minorities in the region, says 250,000 Armenians live there alongside 40,000 Kurds, 30,000 Meskhetian Turks and smaller communities of Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Assyrians, Georgians, Crimean Tatars and others.

Local human rights activists complain of a growing "anti-immigrant psychosis" in the area, affecting all non-Russian minorities, in particular Armenians. Last October, Governor Tkachev publicly boosted this prejudice when he delivered a speech declaring that "people of different views and creeds will be deported". He followed this up this April by signing a new local law on residence permits, tightening the screws on immigrants.

Two Kurds from Armenia, Khudo Asoyan and Ishkhan Kuvatian, were the first victims of the legislation. The local authorities escorted them and their families to the railway station and forced them on a train to Rostov.

The Union of Armenians of Russia, which numbers two million members, complained, accusing the governor in a statement of "undermining the foundations of inter-ethnic peace".

Svetlana Mints, a local university professor and NGO activist, said Tkachev's stance threatened the racial harmony between the 128 nationalities living among the five million inhabitants of the Krasnodar area. "Ethnic intolerance, which has been massively instilled in people's minds by (local) leaders for years, threatens to upset the balance and disrupt peace in the community," she said.

But officials have ignored these complaints and maintain that the deportations of "illegal immigrants" will continue. Tkachev is equally unrepentant, even comparing the influx of newcomers from former Soviet republics to the "bandit raids of nomadic hordes in olden times". The governor accuses migrants of "squeezing out" Krasnodar people from their trades and crafts.

The authorities have enlisted the backing of Krasnodar's most famous natives, the Cossacks, for their xenophobic campaign. The chief, or "ataman" of the Yekaterinodar unit of the local Cossack troop recently declared that the governor could count on the support of "tens and hundreds of thousands" of them.

For all that, the populist campaign is unlikely to succeed in its aim of deterring migrants. Even if the administration drives many "foreigners" from the southern Caucasus, it can do nothing about the tens of thousands of mainly Muslim North Caucasians who are Russian citizens.

Local journalist Gennady Kurov says Muslims from Dagestan would soon fill any space vacated by exiled Turks, Kurds or Armenians. Kurov described the drive as hopelessly confused. "No one knows with certainty how many illegal migrants there are in the country," he said. "They call them all 'aliens', but just about anyone can be stigmatised as an alien."

Eduard Aslanov is the pseudonym of an independent journalist based in Krasnodar.

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