By Richard Rousseau
In another life I worked in Kazakhstan where, according to some estimates, more than 90,000 Meskhetian Turks live. One day after work I hailed down a “gypsy taxi” on my way home in the city of Almaty. The first car stopped. The driver did not have the usual Asian Kazakhstani features. I asked him in Russian: “Where are you from?" "I am from Kazakhstan, I was born here but my parents are Meskhetians,” he answered. I thought: at last, after hearing and reading so much about these people, I am in the presence of a ‘real’ Meskhetian. “Do you want to return to Georgia” I asked. “Of course not, I was born here, I have a family and know nothing about Georgia.”
In early January, at the request of the Council of Europe, the Law on the Repatriation of Meskhetians was approved by the Georgian Parliament and came into force. The Ministry of Refugees and Resettlement is handling requests for resettlement from Meskhetian Turks. According to the Ministry, the number of these settlement requests has reached 70,000. The deadline for submitting applications is January 1, 2010.
Georgia has a lot of ethnic problems within its territory. Over many centuries of history many ethnic communities have settled in the South Caucasus, and one example of an acute ethnic problem is this case of the Meskhetian Turks, who were historically based in the southern part of Georgia. In the 1940s, the Soviet regime deported this ethnic community massively. During the following years they lived in different parts of the Soviet Union, including Central Asia. Since the demise of the Communist regime, the Meskhetian Turk community has demanded to be repatriated to Georgia, although their old homes are now occupied by Armenians who were also deported from their native land by the Soviet regime and resettled in the region where Meskhetian Turks had lived for centuries. Recently, Meskhetian Turkish associations have also voiced their discontent over Georgian officials’ sluggishness in giving them citizenship and financial assistance, although by law the Georgian Government has no financial obligations toward the Meskhetian Turk repatriates.
Allegations of collaboration with the enemy during World War II, which were later proved to be nebulous, served as the basis for the deportation of Tatars, Chechens, Ingush and other ethnic minorities in the 1940s. It was hardly a coincidence that many of the homelands of these deported people had been either occupied by Nazi troops or located close to the front. Meskhetia (Samtskhe-Javakheti) was in fact located more than 125 kilometres from the deepest point of the German Army’s advance into the Soviet heartland, but the wording of the accusation was put in such a way that it related to Turkey, which was also considered an enemy of the Soviet Union. The most popular theory among Meskhetian Turks themselves postulates that the deportation occurred because Stalin had plans to invade Turkey during the closing stages of World War II. Arif Yusunov, an independent Azerbaijani scholar and expert on Meskhetian Turk issues, believes that the Kremlin planners viewed Meskhetian Turks in 1944 as a potential ‘Fifth Column’ that could disrupt Soviet invasion plans. Such a perception prompted their forced removal as a preemptive measure.
In the late 1989, communal violence erupted in the Fergana Valley, a region of Central Asia at the southern edge of Uzbekistan. This forced about 90,000 Meskhetian Turks to flee the region. More than half went to Azerbaijan and Krasnodar, the southern Russian region. A few hundred started to trickle back to Georgia in the hope of settling again in the houses they had left decades ago. From then on, the Meskhetian Turks have continued to encounter problems of status, nationality and integration in several CIS countries, and Georgia as well.
In 1999 Georgia joined the Council of Europe (CoE). As a condition of its membership Georgia had to adopt a law two years after it joined to facilitate the return of the Meskhetian Turks by 2011. However many social and political implications are linked with that issue for the Georgian Government and the international community. In general, the Georgian authorities have solid arguments for delaying the repatriation procedure.
Even though the majority of Meskhetian Turks say that they are Georgian, one can easily observe that not only their religion but also their ethnicity is mostly Turkish and not Georgian. This is the result of a long historical period of settlement on Turkish territory and their native Turkic language. In addition, their prolonged contact with the Turkish-speaking population of Central Asia after World War II has diminished considerably their Georgian identity. Samtskhe-Javakheti is a Georgian region bordering Turkey and Armenia. After the deportation of the Meskhetian Turks ethnic Armenians populated this territory. However there is a mixed ethnic population there since small numbers of Georgians, Greeks, and Russians live there as well. This is today’s reality.
The attitude of the Samtskhe-Javakheti population towards the repatriation of the deported Meskhetian Turk population is to some extent negative. The Georgian authorities take into consideration the fact that the population of that region is multi-national and multi-confessional, and the settlement of Meskhetian Turks on that territory would exacerbate an already tense situation. The process of repatriation should be undertaken very slowly and gradually, argues Tbilisi. The Meskhetian Turks should be repatriated not only to Samtskhe-Javakheti but also other regions of Georgia as well. Prejudice against these “Turks” lingers on. Christian Georgians living in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region see Meskhetian Turk returnees as “the Turks’ second great invasion,” a reference to the takeover of the region by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century.
In 2004, the Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN) conducted surveys of the regional population’s attitudes towards, and readiness for, the repatriation of Meskhetian Turks. The findings were far from being positive. The negative attitude of the local Georgian Orthodox and Armenian population has three historical and political sources. First, Georgians and Armenians still remember their ill treatment by Georgian Muslims. Second, their former territories were occupied by the Adjarian (Georgian) population and people of Armenian nationality before the 16th century. Third, the deported population's numbers have greatly increased, so there is a fear that the repatriation process will cause conflict with the local population, which could become a minority in the region.
Georgian Governments before and after the Rose Revolution have maintained a balanced policy on this Meskhetian Turk issue. Because of Georgia’s precarious economy, combined with its turbulent domestic and foreign politics, most politicians in Georgia, rightly, have argued for a pragmatic handling of the repatriation. No wonder Meskhetian Turks accuse the Georgian Government of taking a woolly-minded approach in resolving the repatriation issue. However, the Georgian state cannot afford more social disturbances in a region with an already fragile ethnic equilibrium.
The truth is that Georgia lacks the resources to undertake a substantive programme of repatriation. This is the nub of the issue. Armenians and Turks have been implacable enemies for most of the 20th century. Since the break up of the Soviet Union, hostility has been fanned by the struggle over Nagorno Karabakh, an Armenian-dominated enclave located in nearby Azerbaijan. The recent process of rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia will not improve relations overnight. Armenians in Samtskhe-Javakheti have openly warned of trouble if Meskhetian Turks were to return en masse. The Georgian Government is perfectly aware that the local predicament bodes ill for the returnees.
*Richard Rousseau, Ph.D. is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Georgia
Source: "Georgian Times", Tbilisi, 14 December 2009