The Caucasus, which unites Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and parts of Southern Russia including a number of autonomous republics and approximately fifty different ethno linguistic groups, is a very complex region.
Due to its strategic geopolitical location on the crossroad of Europe and Asia, the Black and Caspian Seas, the Caucasus has repeatedly been invaded by great powers Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks and Russians during the course of history. Despite the foreign command, the peoples and nations of the Caucasus have successfully managed to maintain unique cultural and political identity.
The latest of the long chain of cultural or political dominations in the region has been that of the Russian empire. The Tsarist and later Soviet control over the Caucasus during the last two centuries has lead to political, cultural and demographic changes, including massive deportations and migrations.
The 1944 deportation of so called Turkish Meskhetians (I will call them Meskhetians) in the 40s of the 20th century has been the most controversial deportation under the Soviet rule and remains a hot topic until now.
The deportation of Meskhetians, though legacy of the Soviet Russia’s state policy, has become a political and moral dilemma for the Georgian state after the country assumed responsibility to repatriate the deported Meskhetians upon Georgia’s accession to the Council of Europe in 1999.
My presentation will provide an insight into the historic background of the case, inform about the life of the Meskhetian people before and after the deportation; Georgia’s commitment before the international community specifically; the Draft Law on Repatriation; public opinion regarding the repatriation law and potential challenges related to resettlement of thousands of Meskhetians. The paper will also examine arguments of the pro-repatriation actors such as Meskhetian organizations, international organization and local NGOs; and finally will suggest findings and relevant recommendations.
National identity of the deportees - debate over the term
Georgian authorities refer to the deportees as “persons deported from Georgia in 1940s by the Soviet Regime.” In various sources and studies the deported Meskhetians have been named as Meskhetian Turks, Ahiska Turkleri (“Akhaltsikhe Turks”), Muslim Meskhetians, etc.
The term “Akhaltsikhe Turks” (“Akhyskha Turkleri” in Turkish) originates from the city of Akhaltsikhe. Being part of South Georgia’s historical province Meskheti, Akhaltsikhe used to be Georgia’s one of the best developed provinces culturally, politically and economically in the middle ages. The region fell pray to more powerful neighbours - Ottoman Empire, Persia and Russia starting from the 16th century to 19th century.
From the end of the 17th century Turkey took control over Meskhetia, forcing predominantly Orthodox Christian locals through economic or political tools to convert into Islam, follow Turkish customs and rules, and speak in the Turkish language which gradually became the only means of education and official communication. Yet, a big portion of population managed to speak Georgian at home, to follow Georgian customs and Christian confession in secret.
During the two-century period of Turkish invasion, the province became populated by a number of Turks, Khemshirs and Kurds which resulted in assimilation of the locals and newcomers. Initially, representatives of this new “ethnic” group were referred to Tatari (Muslim). In the Russian censuses since the 19th century the unifying name for these groups, indicating confession (Tatari), has been changed with the unifying name indicating ethnicity (Turk) in spite of the fact that the ethnic composition of “Turks” was largely diverse.
After deporting to Kazakhstan, the deportees were registered as ''Turk'', ''Azeri'', ''Muslim'', ''Caucasian'' or ‘‘Uzbek’’ in their passports, which even further complicated the identification problem. For instance, four brothers Zautashvilis (purely Georgian surname) were registered as “belonging” to four various nationalities.
Presently this people are called Turkish Meskhetians, Muslim Meskhetians or merely Meskhetians. The Georgian authority, as mentioned above, demand to use the term “persons deported from Georgia in 1940s by the Soviet Regime.”
According to Nana Sumbadze [Centre for Geopolitical & Regional Studies], 77.4% of the already repatriated deportees consider themselves Georgians, 12.3% think in much narrower than national or ethnic terms, of being Meskhetian, 4.8% cannot classify the self in regard of nationality, 3.4% perceive themselves as Turks and 2.1% name other nationality.
As for Georgia’s local population, 42.6% or respondents consider Meskhetians to be Georgians, 33.3% Turks and 24.1% others.
Historical Background - Before the deportation
XVI- XVII centuries
November 15 of 1944 - the date of the deportation - was neither beginning nor the end of Meskhetians’ suffering. Their tragedy began back in the 16th century when the Turkish Empire attacked Georgia, occupied its South - Western territory and created so called Akhaltsikhe Sapasho, an administrative unit, subjected to Turkey. In the second half of the 17th century the irreversible process of Meskhetians conversion to Islam was underway. Meskhetians whose Georgian language was recognized as the purest one, were banned from speaking in their native language. Instead, Turkish language was declared the official language. Conversion from Christianity to Islam became compulsory for everybody. Children were taught that speaking in Georgian language was a great sin in God’s eyes.
XIX - XX centuries
As a result of the war between Russia and Turkey in 1828-1829, under the Andrianopoli Peace Agreement, part of historical Meskheti - Samtskhe and Javakheti (10 administrative unit out of 24) was reintegrated with Georgia.
Turkey demanded that Muslim population of Meskheti be resettled in Turkey. And great part of Meskhetians reduced from 100 thousand to 45 thousand due to war affairs were removed to ''more natural environment''. Paskevich, a chief representative of Russia to Georgia had a plan of replacing them with ‘‘more reliable people''. In 1830, 35 thousand Armenians from Erzrumi and Karsi (Armenian territory occupied by Turkey at that time) were resettled to Meskheti. With the migration of local population, the process of selling Meskhetian land was underway. Everything was put up for sale including dwelling houses, mills, meadows, corn-fields, arable and non-arable plots of land populated and deserted villages.
Later, The Soviet Government contributed to Meskhetians' Islamisation as well. For instance, only Azeri and Turkish language Schools were opened in Samtskhe-Javakheti while local residents' unsatisfied requests for opening Georgian schools were kept in the archives. The Internationalist Soviet officials dismissed their requests saying ''You are Turks. Study in your native-language''.
Under the decree of Stalin, on the night of November 15, 1944, approximately 80 thousand Muslim Meskhetians were deported from Meskheti’s districts of Adigheni, Akhaltsikhe, Aspindza, Akhalkalaki and Bogdanovka (Ninotsminda from 1991) as well as from the autonomous republic of Ajara. They deportees were brought to Central Asia (deportation from Ajaria took place on 25-26 of November). According to the statistics, 457 people died on the way. In Meskheti some 30,000 Christian Georgians were forcefully resettled from Georgia’s Zemo Imereti and Racha regions to replace the deported Muslims.
Mikho Borashvili, Deputy Director of the Tbilisi-based Caucasian House NGO says: "Everything was over within 14 hours. People without any package of food or clothes were taken from various villages in American Lorries and put into luggage vans. Many of them got diseased or died of hunger and unsanitary. After arriving in the Middle Asia carriages were untied one after another. And the people deprived of the homeland had to look for their lost relatives for years.''
The reason for this cruel decision is unclear up to now. The most popular theory suggests that the move was part of Stalin‘s policy making attempts to evade a potential alliance between the Nazi-allied Turkey and the Meskhetian people who had established strong ties by this time.
The question is whether Stalin’s fears had any real ground. Unfortunately, the answer is no: Meskheti was located more than 100 miles away from the deepest point of the German army’s advance into the Soviet heartland. Thus, Meskhetian Turks as a people were never in a position to be disloyal to the Soviet state. On the contrary, Meskhetian Turks remained loyal to the Soviet cause during the war. For example, over 44,000 Meskhetian Turks fought in the Red Army, with only 16,000 of them surviving the fight against the Nazis.
Since the deportation in 1944, approximately 53 thousand were resettled to Uzbekistan, 29 thousand - to Kazakstan, and 11 thousand to Kyrgyzstan. In the Central Asian exile, Meskhetians lived under the so-called special regime, which restricted basic civil rights, including freedom of movement. The special regime was lifted with respect to Meskhetians only in 1956 following Stalin’s death. In the 60s with the change in the status of “special migrants," a new wave of migration took start. Many of Meskhetians resettled to Azerbaijan.
The most notorious was the “Tragedy of Fergana” (Uzbekistan) when hundreds of Meskhetians were killed and thousands were injured on the back of the clash at the market place leading to violent fight. The riots took place in 15 regions of Fergana. As a result19 000 Meskhetians were evacuated by the Soviet troops.
Conditions and challenges of deportees
Today the legal status of Meskhetians varies from country to country, and even within the regions of the same sanctuary country. Currently they live in Russia; Ukraine after the turmoil in the Fergana valley (1989) of Uzbekistan; Kyrgystan; Kazakhstan; Turkey; Uzbekistan; US; Azerbaijan as well as in Georgia. The most appalling situation in this respect is found in southern parts of Russia, especially in Krasnodar Krai where Meskhetians are openly treated as unwanted migrants. In Krasnodar, most Meskhetians have no permanent residency rights and many complain that they must pay monthly “re-registration taxes” to corrupt local authorities. Meskhetians can only get the temporary residence permit, which allows employment and studies, but is issued for only six-month period.
In Kirgizstan and Kazakhstan the deported Meskhetians have relevantly stable life conditions and equal if not higher living standards compared to those of the local population.
Meskhetians appeared in Ukraine after Fergana events. All 10 000 Meskhetians, who are settled in Southern parts of the country, have Ukrainian citizenship.
In 1992, Turkish Parliament adopted the law which stipulated that 500 families of Meskhetians would be allowed to resettle in town of Igdir. Article 6 of the law stated that Meskhetians, whom the Turkey decides to receive would get a double citizenship notwithstanding of which country they consequently decide to reside.
In recent years thousands of Meskhetian Turks have resettled in the United States as refugees.
About 40 000 Meskhetians live now in Uzbekistan. Uzbek government wants to maintain Meskhetians for economic reasons since Meskhetians are engaged in business life and are considered as “useful people.”
About one third of the total population of the deported Meskhetians - about 100 000 persons are living in Azerbaijan. They mostly are concentrated in rural areas and despite the hard climatic and geographic conditions; they have turned those regions into one of the most fruitful places in the country. Linguistic and cultural similarities with the Azeri’s have made the integration process easier.
First Meskhetians appeared back in Georgia in 1969, but the majority of them were forced to leave. During the period between 1982 and 1989, another wave of resettlement took place. However, once again the majority of them did not stay for long and left the country because of insecurity, the unsupportive attitude of the locals, as Georgian that inhabited these regions were not predisposed to their reintegration. Presently, Meskhetians living in Georiga number only about 1 000. They reside in Akhaltsikhe, Tbilisi, Adjara, Imereti and the Guria regions. The experience has shown that in those villages where Meskhetians were not resettled in groups, the integration and assimilation process has proved more successful. Especially for the young generation as the children attend school together with their Georgian counterparts. As for those, who were settled separately, for instance in Imereti’s Ianeti village, the integration process has been halted.
Georgia’s commitment, Draft Law, Challenges, Public Opinion
In 1999 as Georgia joined the European Council, it undertook responsibility for various obligations including repatriation of Muslim Georgians exiled by the Soviet Government in 1944. Mikheil Saakashvili and Lana Gogoberidze, the then ambassador of Georgia to the CoE signed the document. Saakashvili was the chairman of the committee on constitutional, judicial and legal affairs at the Georgian Parliament at that time.
CoE conditioned Georgia’s membership to the provision that it would “adopt, within 2 years after its accession, a legal framework permitting repatriation and integration, including the right to Georgian nationality, for the Meskhetian people deported by the Soviet regime; consult the Council of Europe about this legal framework before its adoption; begin the process of repatriation and integration within three years after its accession and complete the process of repatriation of the Meskhetian population within twelve years after its accession”.
Since Saakashvili assumed power following the Rose Revolution, the government realizing that the local population and economic conditions could not allow launching the repatriation process, the authorities rescheduled the process.
Between 1999 and 2007 several draft laws were prepared in Georgia. The latest, prepared by Georgian State Ministry for Conflict Resolution Issues, aims to provide legal tools for repatriation of the deportees and their descendants to their historic homeland. The repatriation system is based on the principles of restoring historic justice, voluntary resettlement of the deportees and envisages their gradual resettlement across the Georgian territory in accordance with the special quotas.
Under the presidential decree, the draft law was worked out in 2006. It should have been submitted to the Parliament for consideration in spring 2007, but reportedly due to technical reasons, the process has been putt of for unspecified time.
Meanwhile, under the Presidential decreee, the Ministry of Refugees and Accomodation was comissioned to take responsibility over handling the repatriation issue previously led by the State Minister for Conflict Resolution Issues.
Since the draft law has not been discussed by the parliament the issue has not become a topical issue in Georgia. However, public opinion is divided on the issue with each side giving quite strong arguments to support its position.
Some oppose Georgian government’s commitment, saying the Soviet Union and not the Georgian state is responsible for the unjustified deportation in 1944.
Georgian economy, though developing at a stable pace during the last years, is still unprepared for financing such a costly project (the government refrains from specifying the cost of the project). Meskhetians request Georgia's citizenship and restoration of their Georgian family names. If repatriated, they must be given monthly pension in compensation as well as residential and agricultural plots. Georgian lands have already been privatized and the law on repatriation i.e. possibility of re-distribution of the land may lead the country to a new conflict.
As a result of ethnic clashes with Ossetians and Abkhazians in the early 90s, Georgia has 300, 000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDP-s). President Saakashvili reportedly, relates the problem to restoring Georgia's territorial integrity saying while we have our own refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia we can not talk about Meskhetians' resettlement. Georgian Government does have a kind will to bring them back but its number one priority is internally displaced people, saying the country has to settle domestic problems first to host Meskhetians in a stable and peaceful country.
Some organizations of deported Meskhetians insist resettlement in Meskheti and speak about autonomy, which is associated for many people with threats of potential separatist movements in the province.
No campaigns have been carried out in order to prepare the public opinion for the repatriation issue. Besides, the government is cautious about the reaction of local population to the influx of thousands of Muslims to small and traditionally Christian Georgia.
Pro-repatriation actors - Meskhetian organizations, International organizations, local NGOs
Meskhetians established organizations after decree of 1956. Yet, their movement apparently lacks effective leadership and unity. The most powerful and popular organization is Vatan which was registered in 1991. Vatan aims to gain recognition of the fact that 1944 deportation was unjust in order to receive an official permission of “unconditional return” to Meskheti. Headquartered in Moscow, Vatan rests on the assumption that Meskhetians have distinct Turkish cultural identity. The organization has branches in Krasnodar of Russian Federation and an office in Azerbaijan.
Umid (Hope in Turkish) was created in 1994. It operates only in Krymsk district in Russia. Organization aims at the emigration of Meskhetians to Turkey.
Khsna (Salvation in Georgian) was founded in Kabardino-Balkaria and was officially registered in 1992. It rests on the assumption that deported Meskhetians are Islamized Georgians. Khsna has representatives in Krasnodar.
Latifshah Baratashvili Foundation Meskheti; Halil Gozalishvili International Association of Muslim Georgians - Gurjistan, The International Union of the Young Deported Meskhetians-Meskheti all are based in Tbilisi and are lobbying the repatriation process.
There is no exact statistics of how many deportees is willingness to be resettled to Georgia.
Beginning from 1996 international organizations stepped up efforts for finding a durable solution to the problem. In 1998, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), High Commissioner on National Minorities in cooperation with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and the Open Society Institute’s Forced Migrations Projects organized a meeting in Hague. Official representatives of Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Meskhetian organization Vatan participated in the event. The Hague meeting was followed by Vienna meeting in March, 1999. The scope of participants was enlarged by representatives of Ukraine, Turkey, US and Council of Europe. The meeting did not result in any plan of action.
The most active are Council of Europe and OSCE as well as UNCHR. CoE provides regular consultations for drafting the law of repatriation. OSCE has special projects aimed at the study of the problems and possibilities of development of Samtskhe-Javakheti region. UNCHR has funded the study of repatriated Meskhetians and also provided assistance for drafting the law.
Open Society Georgian Foundation funded a number of projects on this issue.
The Caucasian House is the most well-known and the oldest lobbyist for Meskhetian’s repatriation in Georgia. The organization strives to raise public awareness on the subject in order to prepare public opinion for the resettlement.
The repatriation advocates in Georgia argue that by bringing the descendants of the deportees to Georgia, we will restore the historic justice and fulfill moral responsibility before the international community. Moreover, the argument suggests that the returnees will contribute to the development of Georgia’s economy as a new workforce and as contributing taxpayers, and will shine light on the dismal demographic situation in Georgia.
Findings and recommendations
Dr. Davit Darchiashvili. The Executive Director of the Open Society Georgian Foundation
Dr. Davit Aprasidze Associate professor at Ilia Chavchavadze State University.
Zviad Abashidze Assistant-professor at Tbilisi State University
Temur Lomsadze, Office of the State Minister on Conflict Resolution Issues
Mikho Borashvili, Deputy Director of the Tbilisi-based Caucasian House NGO