Meskhetians Setting Off Into New Exile But Vow To Continue Fighting

Radio Free Europe, Czech Republic
July 28

Russia: Meskhetians Setting Off Into New Exile But Vow To Continue
By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Earlier this year, the International Organization for Migration (IOM)
launched a U.S.-sponsored resettlement program designed to help
Meskhetians from Russia’s Krasnodar region emigrate. The first group
of 84 Meskhetians arrived in the United States in mid-July with the
hope of obtaining permanent resident status and, eventually, U.S.
citizenship. For these Meskhetians, this might well be the end of
their journey. But the plight of those thousands who remain in the
Krasnodar region is likely to continue until they, too, finally
depart, after clearing last-minute hurdles set up by local

Prague, 28 July 2004 — For the third time in 60 years, Russia’s
stateless Meskhetian community is setting off into exile.

Last week, 84 Meskhetians bid farewell to Russia’s southern Krasnodar
region and arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, under a U.S.
resettlement program. These few families are the first of a 9,000- to
10,000-strong contingent expected to emigrate to the United States
within the next few months.

Arrangements for their initial accommodation are being made by the
Lutheran Children and Family Services, a private voluntary agency
that is providing them with resettlement services, such as housing,
food, clothing, and other basic necessities.

Sarvar Tedorov is the local chief representative of Vatan
(Fatherland), a Moscow-based nongovernmental group that campaigns for
Meskhetian rights throughout the former Soviet Union.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Krasnodar, Tedorov said he and many other
Meskhetians have decided to accept the U.S. resettlement offer for
want of viable alternatives: “Just imagine a man locked in a room and
thrashed [by his captors]. Windows are closed, armed people and wild
dogs are guarding, but the fanlight has been left open. If this man
wants to escape, then he has to use this fanlight. Thanks to the
U.S., [we] are offered an opportunity to escape all possible forms of
harassment — including physical — by local authorities. [We] simply
have no other way out. We must save our children and our future.”

Of all Meskhetians, those who live in Krasnodar have probably
suffered the most in recent years.

Also known as Meskhis, the Meskhetians are the survivors or
descendants of a rural Muslim population of southern Georgia that
Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered deported to Central Asia in
November 1944 for reasons that remain unclear.”We must save our
children and our future.” — Sarvar Tedorov, the local chief
representative of Vatan (Fatherland), a Moscow-based nongovernmental
group that campaigns for Meskhetian rights

In 1989, following bloody pogroms that claimed dozens of lives in
Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley, tens of thousands of Meskhetians were
forcibly evacuated by the Soviet army and resettled in other areas,
mainly in Azerbaijan and Russia’s Krasnodar region.

Although Meskhetians themselves disagree on whether they descend from
ethnic Turks sent to colonize Georgia, or Christian Georgians who
forcibly converted to Islam under Ottoman rule, they are generally
described as “Turks” and perceived as such throughout most of the
former Soviet Union.

This has created particular problems for Krasnodar Meskhetians,
confronted with the nationalist, pan-Orthodox policy of Governor
Aleksandr Tkachev and his predecessor.

Most of Krasnodar Territory’s 13,500 Meskhetians are denied basic
civil rights — including access to work — and suffer from various
forms of harassment.

Only 4,000 of them have been granted Russian citizenship. As for the
rest, they have no legal status and continue to live in judicial and
administrative limbo 15 years after their enforced evacuation from

The U.S. Refugee Program was launched in mid-February with an initial
16 August deadline. It is open to all Krasnodar Meskhetians who
either have no legal status or are married to stateless individuals.

The Russian authorities have welcomed the U.S. initiative, saying it
will help close the Meskhetian issue and defuse ethnic tensions in
the Krasnodar area.

Yet rights groups and community elders accuse the Russian leadership
of hypocrisy.

Tedorov said local authorities have so far failed to deliver on a
written pledge to help Meskhetians organize their departure.

Vadim Karastelev runs the School of Peace, a Novorossiisk-based
nongovernmental group that campaigns for interethnic dialogue in the
Krasnodar area. He says that, despite official denials, regional
officials are creating last-minute hurdles for Meskhetians seeking
U.S. refugee status.

“Tkachev and the heads of administrative districts where Meskhetians
live have promised to help those who want to leave. But, in fact,
they are creating many obstacles,” Karastelev said. “The main problem
concerns real estate. Citing various pretexts, local authorities are
refusing to help Meskhetians sell their houses and other property.
This is why those who left [last week] had to give relatives a
power-of-attorney so that they can sell their houses on their

Despite these obstacles, Karastelev said he expects the next group of
emigrants to leave for the United States in September.

Community leader Tedorov said his family and others decided to apply
for U.S. refugee status after hearing Russian President Vladimir
Putin lend support to Governor Tkachev in a televised address.

“I [decided to apply] on 24 March,” Tedorov said. “Rather, it’s my
wife who applied on our behalf after she watched television. What she
heard [Putin say] made her cry. As the rest of my people, I have to
leave [for the United States]. But I will continue to fight for my
civic rights from there and make demands to both Russia and Georgia.”

Unlike other peoples deported during World War II, the Meskhetians
were not rehabilitated after Stalin’s death. In addition to being
denied the right to collectively return to their home region, they
are still awaiting an official pronouncement that their deportation
was unjustified.

When joining the Council of Europe five years ago, Georgia made a
commitment to provide a legal basis for the return of Meskhetians
with a view to organizing their collective repatriation.

Yet, citing potential troubles with its large Armenian community,
Georgia has done little so far. A few Meskhetians have returned
individually, but their number does not exceed a few dozen.

“Russia and Georgia are responsible for the fact that we’ve been
deported twice,” Tedorov said.

“Those of us who still have faith in the future will continue — from
the U.S. — to press these countries to recognize our rights.”
Tedorov added. “We must be rehabilitated.”