The Problem of Muslim population of southern Georgia: prospects of deportation and the local resistance
1. Historical background of the problem
On early morning of November 15, 1944, an endless row of Studebecker cars, especially purchased for this reason, appeared on the roads of Meskheti, the southern province of Georgia (also known as Samtskhe-Javakheti). Local people were summoned to village centers, and all Muslims were given two hours‘ notice to collect their valuables, take provisions for 3 days and get into cars. 92,307 persons from five admininstative rayons of Southern Georgia: Adigeni, Akhaltsikhe, Aspindza, Akhalkalaki and Bogdanovka (now Ninotsminda), as well as from the autonomous republic of Ajaria, were thus deported to Central Asia (deportation from Ajaria took place on 25-26 of November). 457 people died on the way. The number of deportees slightly increased later as soldiers started to return to Meskheti from the World War II. In the place of the Muslims, some 30,000 Christian Georgians were then forcefully resettled from its other parts (Zemo Imereti, Racha).
This was part of Stalin‘s policy of forcibly resettling so-called „unreliable peoples“, that is potential collaborators with the Nazis and their allies, to Asian parts of the Soviet Union. Local Muslims were accused of close ties with Turkey, the ally of the Nazi Germany, and conspiracy against the Soviet Union. The deportation supposedly constituted a preventive security measure in the time of war and was intended.to strengthen the USSR border with Turkey.
Many years have passed since, and the issue of all other peoples who shared the fate of Meskhetian population is more or less clear by now: either they returned to their homes, or have found some other durable solutions. The prospects for Muslim Meskhetians, however, who are scattered accross different parts of the former Soviet Union and Turkey, continues to be uncertain.
The July, 31 1944 Decree n, 6279cc of the USSR State Committee of Defense referred to people subject to deportation as Turks, Kurds and Khemshils. The majority of those referred to as Turks were most probably of the Georgian origin, that is the people that had been Islamicised and Turkicised by the Ottoman Empire after it incorporated Meskheti, that had been ruled by the Georgian princes before, beginning from the second half of the 16th century. To the Georgian origin speak a number of historical sources, as well as materials on census described in 1870 publication of Tiflis Chancellery, were in Akhaltsikhe district 20855 persons are registered as Suni Georgians. The name tags attached to them, such as „Yerly“ (native), „Gurjo Ogli“ (offspring of Georgian) and „Gurjidan donime“ (turned from Georgian) all speak of their Georgian origin. The ‘real’ ethnic origin of Muslim Meskhetians, however, continues to be a point of contention among historians, some of whom reject the hypothesis of Islamicized Georgians and believe Muslim Meskhetian population to be descendants of Turkic tribes in the first place.
After eastern Georgia became part of Russia in 1801, the Empire made several attempts to extend its rule to Samtskhe-Javakheti. In 1828, the Russian Army, which included its new loyal Georgian subjects, won the battle at Akhaltsikhe, the main town and the stretegic fortress of the province, and subjected the region to the Russian throne. To the surprise of Georgians, however, who considered this to be reunification with a historically Georgian province, the Russians opposed the tendency of the part of the local population to come back to the Georgian culture, and, instead, pushed part of the local Muslim population to the south, that is, to the territories controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The ousted population was quickly replaced by some 35,000 Armenian refugees from Erzurum. This policy of ethnic resettlement was obviously aimed at inhabiting the strategic southern border region with more loyal and reliable subjects. However, the majority of Samtskhe-Javakheti population continued to be Muslim, that is‚ „unreliable“ because of links to Turkey.
The brief period of Georgian independence in 1918-21 underscored marginality of Meskhetian Muslim population within the context of emerging Georgian statehood. In several border conflicts between the new Georgia and the Ottoman Empire in its last period of decline, large part of the local Muslims sided with the latter. Stories of atrocities allegedly perpetrated by them against Christian Georgians and Armenians constitute crucial part of collective memories of the local population that are highly relevant to understanding current attitudes of the province’s population towards repatriation of the deported people.
Soviet Russia further pursued the policy of its Tsarist predecessor though added some new touches. While the Tsarist empire divided its subjects mainly into religious categories, the Soviet one introduced identity registration along ethnic lines. It was decided to attach to the majority of Meskhetian Muslims, apart from a small number of Hemshils (who are believed to be Islamicized Armenians), Kurds and Tarakama, the marker of ‚Azeris‘. Thus, religious marginalization of the local Muslims was appended by ethnic one, or rather reformulated into ethnic terms. The marker of ‚Turks‘ was first attached to this people in the 1944 decree and was intended to justify the deportation, as it was involvement in anti-Soviet conspiracy with Turkey that constituted its formal ground.
The life in deportation and current life conditions of Meskhetians. 53,163 people from Meskheti were resettled to Uzbekistan, 28,598 – to Kazakstan, and 10,546 – to Kyrgyzstan. First years were especially hard for deportees. 7.5% of them died in that period. Deaths outnumbered births 11.5 times. In the fifties, the situation improved and the deportees succeeded to arrange their lives in the new land. Many purchased houses and, through hard work in the fields, actually achieved higher level of affluence than the majority of local population.
April 28, 1956 marked the beginning of a new era in the life of the deported peoples. The USSR Supreme Soviet decree No135/142 lifted some restrictions for deportees, although did not allow them to return to places of original inhabitance. Another Supreme Soviet decree of October, 31, 1957 allowed deportees from Georgia to resettle to Azerbaijan. This decree refers to part of deportees as ‘Azeris’ rather than Turks as it had been the case in 1944. Only on January 9, 1974, all legislative acts restricting return of Meskhetians to the places from where they had been deported were declared invalid.
This did not imply the opportunity for actual return, however. Free movement of people within the USSR was restricted for all its citizens through the institution of propiska (residence registration). In the case of Meskhetians, special border status of the whole province from which they had been deported constituted an additional and very serious impediment: nobody could even travel to this region without procuring a special pass from the authorities. Therefore, large resettlements of people were only possible in the event of actual proactive policies of the government. While the Soviet state did organize return to their homes of some people deported during the World War 2 (such as Chechens or Ingush), in other cases (Meskhetians, Crimean Tartars, Volga Germans) such return continued to be resisted. Since 1956, representatives of these peoples organized themselves in movements for return and petitioned the government on numerous occasions, but the mentioned resettlement to Azerbaijan was the most the Meskhetian community could achieve. While the authorities opposed repatriation, some Georgian dissidents and intellectuals had been sympathetic to their cause and in the 1970s and 80s actively lobbied for their return. As a result of their efforts, several hundred Meskhetian families did return to Georgia, though none of them were allowed to go back to their home area: they were settled in other parts of Georgia.
The liberization of the Soviet regime and its following demise did not ease the condition of Muslim Meskhetians, but actually turned some of them into forced migrants once again. On June 3 of 1989, a violent intercommunal conflict started in Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan that led to eviction of the Meskhetian community from their homes by the local Uzbeks. Before these events, 109,000 deported Meskhetians resided in Uzbekistan. In the events of June 3-12, 112 persons were killed, 1,032 were injured, 856 houses were burned or destroyed. The riots took place in 15 regions of Fergana. 17,000 Meskhetians were evacuated by the Soviet Army troops. The clash repeated although in a smaller scale February and March of 1990. This time 2000 persons were evacuated, 4 persons were killed and 46 houses were burnt.
But they still could not return to Georgia, where the situation had dramatically changed in the meantime. After April 9, 1989 massacre against pro-independence demonstrators by the Soviet troops, nationalist slogans dominated the public discourse, and internal ethnic tensions were starting to pick up. The prospect of spontaneous resettlement of thousands of people who called themselves “Turks” was considered a recipe for creation of a new source of ethnic tensions and even another ploy by the Soviet authorities to undermine the Georgian movement to independence. As a result, leaders of the Georgian national independence movement, such as Akaki Bakradze and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who had previously supported the Meskhetian cause, reversed their position, actively opposed resettlement to Georgia of people who fled Ferghana Valley massacres or other Meskhetians, and called for at least postponing the issue until after the Georgian independence. It was since this time that sharp opposition to the return of Meskhetians turned into a steady trend of the Georgian public opinion, while only a handful of people continued to actively support the repatriation. Moreover, in a situation of anti-Meskhetian psychosis, part of them that had already resettled to Georgia was evicted from Georgia again.
As the Soviet authorities were reluctant to take the blame for another ethnic conflict and decided that people fleeing from Uzbekistan were resettled “to the agricultural regions of nechernozemie (non-black soil) of the Russian Federation, the region that suffered from the “deficiency of work force”. Those who were not evacuated but fled individually arrived in Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine. Many Meskhetians seemed to perceive their relocation as a temporary and felt that it provided them with a chance for finding more durable and better solution. As reported by the local authorities in Russia, 60% refused to go to work in Kolkhozs and Sovkhozs (collective and state farms) referring to the temporary character of their stay. However, the tension between the local communities and new arrivals in Russia expressed itself soon after appearance of Meskhetians in Russia.
Many Meskhetians found shelter in different places of the USSR where many of them still remain. Part of them managed to go to Turkey. There is no exact data on the number of Meskhetians at different locations. Census has not been carried out in some countries of ex-Soviet Union since 1989. Situation is further complicated by the fact that deportees and their descendants are registered under different nationalities, e.g. Turks, Azeris, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and even ‘Caucasians’. The total number of Meskhetians, however, can be roughly estimated at about 300 000. Estimation of their distribution in different countries is given in the graph:
2. Legal status of Muslim Meskhetians
Today legal status of Meskhetian population differs from one country to another and even between the regions of the same country. The worst condition is in the southern parts of Russia, namely in Krasnodar Krai, where deported Meskhetians are openly denied civil rights. According to the Russian legislation, like all Soviet citizens who had resided in the territory of Russia as of 1992, Meskhetians had the right to claim Russian citizenship. However, they are refused one. Meskhetians who reach the age of 16 are not able to get passports, and older people cannot restore them in the case of lost. Some managed to get them at the place of their previous residence in Uzbekistan. Others accepted the offer to serve in the army in exchange to getting passports, but found themselves deceived: the local authorities did not satisfy the request of the army to issue passports for them. Lack of passports and residence permits complicates their lives in numerous ways: their cannot register their marriages, hence their children carry their mothers’ rather than fathers’ family names; they cannot register purchase or sell of property such as houses or cars, neither can they obtain driver’s licenses; they are not allowed to make contracts of employment for longer than 2 months period, and they have problems in getting university education. Pensioners cannot get pensions in Krasnodar, so they have to travel to Uzbekistan to collect their moneys. Meskhetians can only get the temporary residence permits, which allows employment and studies, but is issued for six-month period only. Getting it is a costly and strenuous procedure.
Both legal and economic conditions are much better for deported Meskhetians in Central Asia and Kazakhstan. In Uzbekistan, they constitute more urban, entrepreneurial and relatively affluent part of population. Uzbek government wants to maintain Meskhetians for economic reasons. Therefore, contrary to their kin in Russia, it is those who want to leave the country that face difficulties. Bureaucratic and financial barriers are built against renouncing Uzbek citizenship, which is a necessary condition for obtaining the citizenship of another country (such as Georgia).
About one third of the total population of deported Meskhetians, about 100,000 people, reside in Azerbaijan. They mostly live in rural areas. From 55,000 to 70,000 hold Azeri citizenship, among them up to 40,000 are registered as ‘Azeris’ and 30,000 as ‘Turks’. Many still hold Soviet passports. Like in Uzbekistan, the problem for Meskhetians residing in Azerbaijan is renouncing Azerbaijani citizenship as it has the policy of keeping and assimilating its Meskhetian population.
All of roughly 10 000 Meskhetians who have settled in southern parts of Ukraine after Ferghana events, have Ukrainian citizenship.
Not having a citizenship of their country of residence is not always the result of the state policy. In some cases it is explained by the lack of need and economic reasons – living in villages does not require having passport, obtaining of which entail costs. Many young men do not seek citizenship, as they want to avoid army service.
In 1992, the Turkish Parliament adopted the law, which stipulated that 500 families of Muslim Meskhetians would be allowed to resettle in town of Igdir. Item 6 of the law stated that Meskhetians, whom the Turkey decides to admit would get double citizenship notwithstanding which country they consequently decide to reside. During 1993-1994 Turkey received only 179 families that comprised 750 persons. In the following years, the country changed its policy towards Meskhetians and ceased to support their immigration. About 12,000 people who immigrated until 1997 have a status of “national refugees” under the Law on Settlement No2510 that refers to “people of Turkish ethnic descent and Turkish culture”. Those falling in this category are entitled to migrate to Turkey, settle there and eventually receive citizenship. This status gives them access to work, education and health care. The permit is to be renewed every two years. Holders of the permit could theoretically acquire Turkish citizenship in 2 years, but in reality the process takes much more time. Presently, according to the information of Turkish embassy in Tbilisi, 25,229 Meskhetians live in the country.
Today 643 deported Meskhetians and their family members reside in Georgia, some 400 among them are adults. 389 or 97.2% have Georgian citizenship and only 11 are stateless.
From the end of 1993 the repatriates were granted the status of refugees which entailed monthly allowance of 14 GEL (about 7 USD) and free transportation in town on state owned vehicles and underground. However, in 1998, following the enactment of the new law on refugees, Meskhetians were devoid of such a status and respective benefits. In this law, the refugee was then defined as a person not having Georgian citizenship, for whom Georgia was not a country of origin.
Georgia’s accession to the Council of Europe (CoE) was supposed to stimulate creation of new and firm legal grounds for solving the Meskhetian issue. On April 29, 1999 the CoE Council of Ministers made a final decision on admitting Georgia to the CoE. This decision, however, was linked to a number of obligations that Georgian took. One of such provisions stipulated that Georgia 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”.
Two versions of draft laws were prepared in Georgia and presented before parliamentary committees, one prepared by then head of repatriation service Guram Mamulia and the other by Georgia’s Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA). In early 2001, following hearings in the Parliamentary Committee of Civic Integration and in the National Security Council, the draft of GYLA “On Repatriation of persons deported from Georgia in 1940s by the Soviet Regime” was taken as a basis. In March 2001, an official Georgian delegation traveled to Strasbourg to discuss the draft with CoE experts. The office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, that had funded the GYLA work on the draft, also took active part in the consultations. After certain alterations, the draft was handed to the Ministry of Justice for final revisions and submitting to Parliament.
The draft law prepared by GYLA stipulates for the two-phase procedure for getting citizenship. Deported person or his or her descendent, after presenting to the representative of Georgian government in the country of his or her residence documents proving the fact of deportation, gets approval for obtaining the status of repatriate. Then she or he arrives to Georgia and can seek the citizenship after a year. During this period, repatriates are supposed to decide whether they have adapted to the local conditions and were ready to apply for the Georgian citizenship. Authors of the draft consider that the Georgian government should sign agreements with governments of all the countries where the deported population currently reside. The law does not provide for legal rehabilitation of the deportees on the ground that the crime of deportation was committed by another state – the Soviet Union, and Georgia cannot take responsibility for it.
Some groups defending interests of Meskhetians criticized the latter point, as they insist on the necessity of rehabilitation and unconditionally granting Georgian citizenship without any waiting periods. Similar objections were raised by some international experts: they demanded that any legislation pertaining to the Muslim Meskhetians should not provide for the latter lesser status than one stipulated by the 1997 Georgian law Concerning the Social Protection of Repressed Persons and Acknowledgement of Those as the Victims of Political Repressions. The latter law expressly excluded deported Meskhetians on the ground that special legislation would take care of their issue.
Other criticisms of the draft issued by the experts refer to the presence of technicalities that would seriously complicate implementation of the law. Difficulty, if not impossibility of obtaining documental proof of a person’s or his ancestors’ deportation required by the draft can easily be envisaged. Another big problem refers to a possibility when the Georgian government denies to the claimant the status of repatriate after initial endorsement by the Georgian representation at the country of residence, or denies him or her the citizenship a year later. In this case, a repatriate who first sells his property at the place of residence, cuts out his social ties, arranges transportation and arrives to Georgia to get refusal, finds oneself in a legal vacuum and dire economic circumstances. Therefore, the deportee should have firm guarantees for obtaining Georgian citizenship before moving there. The draft also leaves a possibility of non-statelessness for some period of time, which may create a set of problem for repatriates.
There are a number of other issues in the existing draft that needs work. The main problem, however, is lack of movement with regards to the issue in the last period. According to Georgia’s obligations following the accession to the CoE, enactment of the law was expected by April 2001. However, as of beginning of 2002, the draft was still in the Ministry of Justice and no firm deadline for its enactment was define. Extreme complexity of the issue, unpopularity of the repatriation among the Georgian public, as well as bitter political infighting in the Georgian parliament that led to fragmentation of the erstwhile parliamentary majority are among the reasons. However, this also means that fate of Muslim Meskhetians continues to be uncertain and not clear prospect of its resolution is in sight. .
3. Main actors, their position and attitudes
Muslim Meskhetians and their organizations. As Muslim Meskhetians are scattered across countries and regions, so their problems and priorities differ. There is no single organization or movement that would represent their interests. On a number of crucial issues their attitudes are quite different and as the time passes by, these differences tend to increase rather than close.
The major dividing issues are the exact definition of the homeland and, respectively, the target of repatriation, as well as ethnic identity. With regards to the former issue, different groups of Meskhetians advocate three different options: the desirable place of residence may be Turkey, any place in Georgia or only Meskheti (Samtskhe-Javakheti). Naturally, there is also the fourth option of staying where they are. With regards to ethnic identity, majority of deportees consider themselves Turks, a small number perceive themselves as Georgians who had been forcibly Turkicized, and a considerable portion cannot point to any definite ethnic identity. Some researchers, however, note unstable or situational character of ethnic identity among Meskhetians: while being Muslims and having come from Meskheti constitutes a relatively hard core of their identity awareness‚ ethnic denomination may change according to circumstances and political expediency. In the documents of deported Meskhetians’ organizations dated back to early sixties Meskhetians tended to refer to themselves as Georgians, later on the “Turkic orientation” won over.
Deported Meskhetians began to organize themselves around demands of the repatriation after the 1956 decree lifted some restrictions for special settlers. Organized movement for rehabilitation and repatriation made first steps in February 1964 when the Temporary Organizational Committee for Liberation (VOKO) was founded. In 1990 VOKO evolved into Vatan (Fatherland in Turkish), which was registered in 1991. Vatan aims at the recognition that 1944 deportation was unjust and unconditional repatriation to Meskheti. Its program rests on the assumption that Meskhetians have distinct Turkish cultural identity. It wants repatriation legislation to recognize and protect their cultural heritage, to grant Meskhetians special cultural rights, such the right to receive at least part of their education in their own language. Vatan defines this as a claim to cultural rather than political autonomy. Head office of Vatan is situated in Moscow. It has branches in Krasnodar of Russian Federation and an office in Azerbaijan. Vatan is the only association which is recognized by Russian authorities as representing the deported Meskhetians and it has more supporters than any other Meskhetian organization, it still cannot speak for the whole deported population. The majority of Meskhetians are not aware of its existence. Being preoccupied with pushing for the repatriation, Vatan is not effective in dealing with the problems that deported Meskhetians face at their places of residence,
Another non-government organization Khsna (Salvation in Georgian) founded in Kabardino-Balkaria was registered in 1992. It rests on the assumption that deported Meskhetians are islamicized Georgians. Khsna has representatives in Krasnodar Krai of the Russian Federation. It calls for repatriation to the whole territory of Georgia rather than necessarily to Samtskhe-Javakheti. However, its following is small.
Several organizations of deported Meskhetians operate in Georgia: Latifshah Baratashvili Foundation – Meskheti; Halil Gozalishvili International Association of Muslim Georgians “Gurjistan”, “The International Union of the Young deported Meskhetians – Meskheti”. They tend towards Georgian self-identification and try to promote the Meskhetian case in Georgia and help small Meskhetian community that is already there.
Umid (Hope in Turkish) was created in 1994. It operates only in Krymsk district in Russia. Organization considers the deported population ethnic Turkish and aims at the emigration of Meskhetians to Turkey.
Several organizations are based in the Central Asia. In Uzbekistan Meskhetians are united in Tashkent’s Meskhetian Turks’ Cultural Center. The two organizations operating in Kyrgyzstan are the Association of Turks Residing in Kyrgyzstan and International Federation of Ahiska Turks of CIC countries (Ahiska is Turkish name for Akhaltsikhe). Both promote resettlement to Turkey.
Turkey houses seven associations of Meskhetians. Turkish citizens, who are descendants of natives of the province who arrived in the country before 1944 and hence did not experience deportation, run all of them. Majority of them operate in Bursa, are well organized and provide a considerable assistance to Meskhetians who arrive to Turkey.
The aspirations of rank and file Meskhetians as well as numbers of those who actually want to change their present place of residence are unknown. While many claim that they want to return, such a claim may imply having such option rather than denote actual readiness to leave home and start a new life. Attitudes towards repatriation vary according to the country of residence, life conditions, economic status and age. Those who are more affluent and live in places where they do not experience discrimination or pressure, naturally express less readiness to come to Georgia. The elderly, who personally experienced deportation, still cherish the idea of return. Many of them speak of their Georgian origin, some can still speak Georgian. Younger generation feels at home where they are and the major motive for resettlement would be the possibility of improving economic conditions.
The fear of the repetition of Ferghana is still there and makes part of the deported to consider repatriation. However, they also acknowledge that it is associated with difficulties. To begin the life in a new place, in the country that faces severe economic difficulties and has a high rate of economically motivated emigration, where most of them never lived, whose language they cannot speak, and whose quasi-official religion they do not share, is not necessarily the most attractive prospect.
The Georgian state. Georgian authorities routinely acknowledge that forcible deportation of Muslim Meskhetians is an unjustifiable act of cruelty. However, the Georgian state or society cannot be held responsible for the deeds of the Soviet regime. Georgia had never much say in the decisions taken by the Communist party leadership in Moscow. This was especially so during the Stalin rule, but even in a relatively relaxed post-Stalin regime Georgia just had to follow instructions from above. Moreover, while the Soviet government made overtly liberal decisions that seemed to lift restriction from the Meskhetians, these were often accompanied by a secret instruction that ran contrary to the ostensibly official policy. Good example for such practice is contained in the minutes of the October 26, 1972 meeting of the Politburo of Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party, which recommended to strongly encourage the deported population to remain permanently at their present places of residence while the published law had already lifted all legal restrictions for their return.
However, the fact is that the Soviet Georgian authorities were far from welcoming the repatriation. First Muslim Meskhetians appeared in Georgia in 1969, but soon were forced by the local authorities to leave. In the period between 1982 and 1989, 1972 Meskhetians moved to Georgia, but the majority left the country due to insecurity, unsupportive or even aggressive attitude of local authorities, isolation from the kin, unwillingness to pay for houses and economic hardships.
No steps to encourage repatriation were taken under the leadership of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first democratically elected president of independent Georgia.
Since 1993, the government began to take some steps for assisting the repatriation process. Small groups of Meskhetian students were admitted from the CIS countries. The government provided for them a hostel, an adaptation center and an opportunity to study in Georgia. The Meskhetians studied language and history at the adaptation center and attended preparatory courses for universities. Upon completion, they continued their studies in universities or in vocational schools. The scheme is still operating. Currently Meshketians study not only in Tbilisi, but also in the Akhaltsikhe branch of Tbilisi State University.
In 1994, a repatriation service was established under the Ministry of Refugees and Settlement to provide assistance to repatriates and coordinate efforts for further repatriation. Guram Mamulia, an active champion of the repatriation cause, headed it. In 1999, the State Commission on the Repatriation and Rehabilitation of the Population Deported from Southern Georgia was established.
Despite this small-scale progress, the Georgian government – as it was discussed above – is dragging its feet with regards to creation of a clear overall framework for solving the repatriation issue. The main problem is extreme unpopularity of the repatriation with the Georgian public. While international obligations, a wish to comply – or to be seen as complying – with general liberal values and pressure from human rights organizations prevent the Georgian government to contest the right to the deported population to return, almost no party or politician who cares for popular supports wants to be seen as an active champion of the repatriation. Conversely, some political capital may be gained from publicly resisting it. This is especially true of politicians from Samtskhe-Javakheti, for whom strong anti-repatriation stance is the absolute must.
It would be unfair to ascribe passive or active opposition of the Georgian politicains to the repatriation to populist considerations only. There are a number of very serious reasons why the process of repatriation should be handled with care. Major arguments against repatriation will be conidered in the following section.
Georgian public opinion. The attitude of the Georgian public towards the idea of repatriation can be described as predominantly negative. This attitude is reflected in publications, TV discussions, and various meetings as well as in public opinion surveys. In the province of Samtskhe-Javakheti, it is overwhelmingly negative. There is small difference between attitudes of Georgian and Armenian communities, though Armenians tend to be even more negative than Georgians.
Results of the study carried out in April, 1999 by the National Center for Population Studies pointed that only 6.6% of surveyed population of Tbilisi thinks that unconditional repatriation should take place. Especially hostile is the attitude of the Samtske-Javakheti population, the province from where Meskhetians were deported. Even Muslim representatives visiting the region are often me with hostility and even not allowed to do so by the local population and authorities.
Attitudes may be widely divided into three categories. Many people are radically opposed to the idea of repatriation and even deny the very right of the deportees to return. More moderate people admit that the idea of repatriation is justified as a matter of principle but under difficult circumstances that Georgia faces, repatriation en masse, especially the return of all the repatriates to the same area from which they have left, is unacceptable. Therefore, repatriation should take place, if at all, only gradually and under the strict control of the government. It is only a handful of people that advocate repatriation without any conditions attached to it. The existing official draft law (prepared by GYLA) may be considered to reflect the second attitude, while the one submitted by the former head of the repatriation service is based on the third attitude.
Both the opponents and supporters agree that public opinion is mainly against the repatriation. That’s why the opponents often call for a referendum on the repatriation issue – confident that they would win. The supporters, on the other hand, mainly appeal to human rights values in general and Georgia’s international obligations in particular. Therefore, in the last years the issue has been largely redefined as “the Council of Europe vs. national interests of Georgia”. Therefore, there have been statements that if the CoE insists on the repatriation, Georgia should quit membership this organization. This is notable as joining CoE in 1999 has been widely popular and welcomed by all political forces.
Ethnic identity of the deportees plays an important role. It has to be noted, that opponents of the repatriation tend to denote the potential repatriates almost exclusively as “Turks”, while the supporters tend to stress their Georgian origin. Some groups that champion repatriation do so mainly on the ground that deportees are really Georgians, even if Turkicized, although there are others – a relatively small group – who think that ethnic affiliation of the deported population cannot be the decisive factor as far as injustice was done to them and they should be able to return if they so wish. According to the summer 2000 survey of the Centre for Geopolitical and Regional Studies, 56.4% of those polled consider the knowledge of Georgian and/or the Georgian self-identity as necessary prerequisites for repatriation. Sceptics, however, say that if doors are open for the repatriation as a matter of principle, Georgia will not be allowed to discriminate among candidates according to their ethnicity.
Major fears and concerns that reside at the heart of the popular opposition to the repatriation lie in ethnic-communal, political, legal and economic spheres. are the following:
¨ Fear of Turkicization of the region and potential secessionist trends. People fear that after the repatriation, the demographic balance changes dramatically and the whole province will become predominantly Turkish and Muslim. Opponents tend to exaggerate numbers of deportees (sometimes even the figure of one million is used) and stress that Muslims have considerably higher birth rates than Christian Georgians whose birthrate has dramatically declined during the last decades. In this scenario, the Muslim Meskhetian are expected to outnumber everybody else in the province of Samtskhe-Javakheti, demand autonomy for it and eventually claim union with Turkey. Statements of some Muslim Meskhetian organizations that corroborate such claims are widely circulated in the media and among the population. Precedents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where ethnically based autonomy was used as a platform for launching secessionist claims, also strengthen these fears.
¨ Fear of ethnic tensions. People fear that the return of Muslim Meskhetians will lead to communal tensions. Moreover, some people say that they would resist repatriation with arms if it occurs. Stories of tension, bloodshed and atrocities between the Muslims on the one hand and Christian Georgian and Armenian population on the other hand during the 1918-21 period and afterwards are widely discussed and multiplied by media and politicians. The record of conflict between Turks and Armenians, and general Armenian perception of historical victimization by Turkey, is an additional factor of these fears.
There have recent reports about tensions over dormitory the rooms between Muslim Meskhetian students and IDPs who live in the same building.
¨ Comparisons with historical other injustices. It is a widely used argument in the discourse on the Meskhetian problems that the country cannot afford accepting new repatriates while the country has to take care of up to 300,000 IDPs from conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Why does international community insist on the return of Muslim Meskhetians, is frequently said, while no progress is achieved with regards to the return of refugees to those regions? Representatives of the Armeian community, on the other hand, appeal to earlier expulsions of their kind from Anatolia. Let the Turks account for earlier injustices first, they say, and only after that can they claim right to return to Samtskhe-Javakheti.
¨ Property Those inhabitants of Meskheti, who had been forcibly brought from different parts of Georgia and settled in the houses of deportees in 1944 fear that repatriates will reclaim their land and property. In general, recent land privatization has led to numerous dispute and tension notwithstanding ethnicity of local residents, and they fear that appearance of the Meskhetians may bring even greater problems.
¨ Economic situation. General economic situation in Georgia is another argument that is routinely mentioned to justify Georgia’s inability to accommodate large number of repatriates. According to the recent World Bank Report, about a half of the population lives below official poverty line. Due to underdeveloped economy, poor administration of state finances and corruption the Georgian state routinely fails to meet its social obligations that had been considerably cut. The above mentioned army of IDPs continues to be a considerable financial burden. Repatriation will be an additional burden on the state that already fails to carry other ones.
Despite all that, in Samtskhe-Javakheti as well as in other parts of Georgia there are cases of quite positive attitude of population towards the repatriates and there are examples of successful adaptation of those repatriates that had arrived earlier. The students of Akhaltsikhe branch of Tbilisi State University are well integrated in the community. Very satisfied with their social ties is the family of Beridze in village Mugureti of Akhaltsikhe region. Meskhetian community in Nasakirali, in West Georgia feels at home and has close ties with neighbors. The survey of the Centre of Geopolitical and Regional Studies demonstrates that those who have been in contact with repatriates are more likely to develop a positive attitude towards them and the repatriation issue as a whole. Majority of local respondents pointed that having met Meskhetians changed the attitude towards them to the better.
International organizations. Since 1996, international organizations stepped up their efforts for finding a durable solution for the problem of the deported Meskhetian population. In that year, UNCHR, IOM (International Organization for Migration) and OSCE held a regional conference on problems of refugees, displaced people and other forms of involuntary displacement in the CIS countries, and outlined the following principles for the solution: the need for voluntary and orderly return; assistance in integration in the historical homeland; provision of full and objective information on the situation in the country; increase of local population’s level of acceptance and understanding of the integrative process; the importance of not upsetting status quo and ensuring people’s safety in places of resettlement.
In September, 1998 OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities in cooperation with the UNCHR and the Forced Migrations Project of the Open Society Institute organized a meeting in The Hague. Representatives of Russian, Georgian, Azerbaijani governments and of the Meskhetian organization Vatan participated. The meeting emphasized the importance of the full political rehabilitation of deported Meskhetians and respect for their human rights, necessity of taking of 1996 CIS conference principles as guiding ones for the solution of the problem, the need of getting international organizations involved, regulation of legal status of deportees, decrease of cases of statelessness, development programs for the increase of ethnic tolerance at places of present and future residence, provision of all the necessary information required for taking an informed decision by Meskhetians were emphasized.
Vienna meeting in March, 1999 followed The Hague meeting. Representatives of Ukraine, Turkey, US and the Council of Europe enlarged the scope of participants. The meeting did not result in any specific plan of action. In the chairman’s declaration, the meeting underlined the need for joint efforts for finding acceptable solutions for all the parties concerned and gave all the concerned parties an opportunity to express their positions.
The Council of Europe, OSCE and UNHCR may be considered the most active among international organizations involved in the issue. CoE provides regular consultations for drafting the law of repatriation. UNCHR funded the study of repatriated Meskhetians and also provided assistance for drafting the law.
Open Society Georgian Foundation funded a number of projects: in 1999 The National Center for the Study of Population received funding for the study of the problems of deported population, in 2000 the Union for Humane Society studied ethno-social context of reintegration of deported Meskhetians. Two projects were realized by the International Union of Young Meskhetians-Meskheti, in 2000 project “56 years outside the motherland” and in 2001 a two day meeting on just repatriation.
United States Information Agency funded the publication of the book “The legal state of Meskhetian repatriates in Georgia” by M.Baratashvili of the Union of Georgian Repatriates. Two projects were funded by US embassy, one in 1999 targeted at the integration of repatriates, implemented by the Union of Georgian Repatriates and the second, in 2001 for the publication of 5 issues of newspaper “My Homeland-Georgia” by Association “Mamulishvili”.
At the moment, various international organizations that are represented in Tbilisi have similar attitudes towards their involvement in the issue: They are waiting for the law on repatriation and only after its enactment will they consider their involvement. Such attitude, logical as it is, has its drawbacks, as there are fewer chances to make any progress on preparatory work that is essential for the repatriation.
4. Conclusions and recommendations
Repatriation is a moral imperative for the Georgian state and society. It should be thoroughly planned to avoid the conflict and worsening of the living environment for people who have already experienced horror of deportation twice. At the same time repatriation should not turn out against the interests of local population who is in dire economic conditions and has almost no access to social benefits. Repatriation also should correspond to interests and security of the Georgian state. Realism with regards to options that the state has should prevail in the planning and implementation of the process of repatriation.
Adoption of a good law on repatriation is the most urgent and important issue. “Good” means that it should outline mechanisms that will promote successful integration of returnees with the local population and reduce the potential of conflict – but also be implementable, that is realistic. It should also avoid pitfalls such as throwing repatriates into a legal vacuum on any stage of the process or encouraging repatriation for transitory solutions, such as getting citizenship only for obtaining legal status enabling further emigration, or for getting property in order to sell it. It should spell out clearly such issues as possibilities of property restitution, rights and obligations of the status of repatriate (if such special status is envisaged by the law), as well as provide for the rights of those who fail to meet conditions for citizenship within a given period. The law has to clarify issues concerning the documented proofs of belonging to deported population that will not create insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles of the repatriates. The mechanisms for warranting the transparency of the process of repatriation should be worked out. It also should state clearly the requirements for citizenship.
Apart for the law, a set of policies should be planned for successful implementation of the repatriation process. Among other things, such policies should be based on careful study of attitudes, concerns and fears of the deported population on the one hand and the local population on the other.
Repatriation process should rest on the guiding principles outlined by 1996 CIS conference, conclusions of the Hague meeting and other recommendations by different experts. They can be summarized as the following:
The need of voluntary and orderly return, regulation of the status of Meskhetians in the countries of their present residence. As it was already outlined, the legal status as well as conditions of Meskhetians and the level of their integration varies considerably in countries of their present residence. The repatriation may be regarded really voluntary and in case it is not induced by the conditions at the present place of residence and is not aimed at escaping such a situation. Therefore, efforts should be directed towards regulating and improving legal status and living conditions of Meskhetians. This requires interstate cooperation as well as using leverage of international organizations.
Accessibility of full and objective information on the situation in the country. For many, especially elderly Meskhetians repatriation has acquired symbolic meaning and is linked to a mythologized image of homeland that hardly corresponds to reality. Georgian government has to provide Meskhetians at the places of their present residence with the reliable information on economic, social and political situation in the country. This should include detailed data on the chances of assistance that can be obtained (e.g. housing and payment schemes, availability of the land plots, employment and education opportunities, etc.) as well as obligations to be fulfilled by repatriates (service in the army). Repatriates should have access to information on requirements and procedures for obtaining citizenship.
Assistance in integration. Collective memories of deported Meskhetians are full of images of oppression and abuse. They have been subjected to manipulations by different countries and powers. This may account for their traditional alienation from the local inhabitants, and strong internal community ties as witnessed by a number of observers. Therefore special effort is to be made to ensure the integration of repatriates in new locations. Possibilities of contact and command of language are the two well-known factors facilitating integration. Repatriated Meskhetians acknowledge importance of these factors by expressing preference to living next to local population. Unlike most other countries where Meskhetians now live, Georgia is rather small and Meskhetians may not necessarily need compact settlements to retain kinship and social ties among themselves. But establishing cultural centers for Muslim Meskhetians is to be promoted. Opportunities for the acquisition of Georgian language are preferable to be provided even before repatriation. Special cultural events should be scheduled in countries of their present residence so that they learn about Georgian culture and make contacts.
Special schemes, like seed loans should be introduced to ease the adaptation to new economic surrounding. Repatriates have to get consultancy and legal advice concerning possibilities for economic activities.
Upon arrival repatriates should be able to continue to study the language in adaptation centers, where they also can learn about culture, history and the customs of the country, their own rights and obligations, master communication skills. Akhaltsikhe branch of Tbilisi State University has a successful experience in this regard and can be used as a base for regional integration center.
It is highly advisable for planners of repatriation to get acquainted with the international experience of working of integration centers.
Increase of local population’s level of acceptance and understanding of integrative process. For the success of adaptation favorable framework for the contact between local population and repatriates should be construed, as first contacts may provoke conflict as much as cooperation. The image of returnee as a competitor for the resources should be changed through channeling assistance to the local community in general rather than to returnees only. People should feel benefits of living next to repatriates.
The repatriation process is to be gradual to give population time and chance to evaluate its results. People should to be informed on the plans of repatriation as well as on stages of its realization. Through TV broadcasts, films, newspaper articles, books and exhibitions the true story of the Meskheti and its inhabitants, the history and the present day of Georgians living compactly in Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran is to be told. Personal stories of ordeals deported underwent after 1944 should be presented to local residents.
Not upsetting status quo in places of resettlement and ensuring people’s safety. Early warning system is highly desirable to monitor relations of repatriates with the local population, especially in Meskheti. Current population of Meskheti constitutes a diverse and sensitive group. It comprises such groups as indigenous Christian Meskhetians, Armenians resettled by the Russian empire in XIX century and Georgians who had been forcibly relocated to the houses of deported population from different parts of the country. All of them have their own memories and grounds for mistrusting the repatriates. More recently, IDPs from Abkhazia have been added to the problem and they carry their own set of concerns. Presence of secessionist trends among the repatriates cannot also be ruled out.
All the above mentioned issues have to be approached holistically. The program of integration of Meskhetians is to be worked out where the strategy, tactics, timing and mechanisms of implementation and as well as ways of monitoring are clearly formulated.