Georgia: Leaders Noncommittal On Meskhetian Repatriation Issue

Radio Free Europe, Czech republic
Jan 27 2005

Georgia: Leaders Remain Noncommittal On Meskhetian Repatriation Issue
By Jean-Christophe Peuch

Meskhetians in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe this week
reiterated its concern about the fate of the former Soviet Union’s
Meskhetian community, and revived calls for Georgia to urgently
organize their repatriation. Yet, Georgian authorities remain
noncommittal on the issue and continue to argue that conditions are
not yet appropriate for the return of this uprooted Turkic people.

Prague, 27 January 2005 (RFE/RL) — During a debate following his
address to the Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council
of Europe (PACE) yesterday, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili
remained as evasive as his predecessor on his plans to settle the
Meskhetian issue.

“I have great sympathy for the Meskhetians. I believe these people
have gone through great suffering, and I believe Georgia will do
everything so that this issue is settled,” Saakashvili said.

Russia’s pro-government lawmaker Vera Oskina criticized Georgia for
delaying the return of exiled Meskhetians. In response, Saakashvili
blamed Moscow for keeping the ethnic group in administrative limbo.

“In violation of all its international obligations, the Russian
Federation has granted passports and citizenship in huge numbers to
residents of [Georgia’s separatist republics of] Abkhazia and South
Ossetia. But it hasn’t granted a single passport to any of those
Meskhetians who live in Russia,” Saakashvili said.”If we see the end
many years ahead of us, then we can accept and understand this. But
what we cannot accept is that nothing is happening on this issue.
There should be a legal framework. There should be a campaign
[conducted among] the Georgian people so that they accept that [a
solution to the Meskhetian] issue.”

Saakashvili was referring to those Meskhetians who have resettled in
Russia’s southern Krasnodar territory following the pogroms that took
place in 1989 in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley.

Today’s Meskhetians — also known as Meskhis — are the survivors or
descendants of a rural Muslim population of southern Georgia that
Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1944 ordered deported to Central Asia
along with many other ethnic groups of the Caucasus region. But of
all these exiled peoples, the Meskhetians are the only ones who have
been denied the right to return to their homeland.

Estimates put the number of Meskhetians living in CIS countries at
somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000.

Following the 1989 Ferghana upheaval, tens of thousands of them were
evacuated to other Soviet regions, mainly Azerbaijan and southern

Although Meskhetians themselves disagree on whether they descend from
ethnic Turks sent to colonize the South Caucasus, or Christian
Georgians 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 Russian-based Meskhetians
confronted with the nationalist, pro-Orthodox policy of Krasnodar
Governor Alexander Tkachev. Deprived of any civic rights and
constantly harassed by regional authorities, most of Krasnodar’s
13,500 Meskhetians have decided to emigrate to the United States.

When Georgia joined the Council of Europe in 1999, it pledged to
start repatriating the Meskhetians within the next three years. But
except for some minor paperwork, almost nothing has been done to
facilitate the repatriation, and only a few individuals have been
able to return to Georgia.

Citing the Meskhetians’ alleged Turkic ethnicity, Georgia’s
successive post-Soviet governments have argued that their wholesale
repatriation could create tensions with the country’s large ethnic
Armenian community, which lives in the Meskhetians’ former home

Georgian officials also maintain that the separatist wars of the
early 1990s have triggered a massive inflow of internally displaced
persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They say because of
this, Georgia is financially and logistically unable to handle tens
of thousands of immigrants.

Lawmaker Elene Tevdoradze, who chairs the Georgian parliament’s human
rights committee, earlier this month said the repatriation of
Meskhetians would not start until IDPs are allowed to return to
Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

She also indicated that the government, which is considering drafting
some Meskhetian returnees into the army, is still unsure of their
loyalty to the Georgian state.

“We’ve been thinking about drafting into the army those [Meskhetians]
who really consider themselves citizens of Georgia, Georgians. So far
this is only an idea which, by the way, was first formulated by the
president. But although this is only an idea, we need to adopt a very
careful approach. We’re talking about the army and we must be sure of
those people we’re drafting,” Tevdoradze said.

The Council of Europe this week gave a clear indication that its
patience is beginning to run out.

In a resolution adopted on 24 January after a debate on Georgia’s
progress in honoring its obligations and commitments as a
member-state, the council’s Parliamentary Assembly reiterated its
demand that the Meskhetian issue be swiftly settled.

Matyas Eorsi is PACE’s co-rapporteur on Georgia and the co-author of
the draft report that was debated on 24 January.

In comments made to RFE/RL prior to the debate, the Hungarian
lawmaker said he understood the difficulties posed by the
repatriation of tens of thousands of immigrants. Yet, he said the
Council of Europe would not tolerate any further delay by Georgia in
addressing the Meskhetian issue.

“If we see the end many years ahead of us, then we can accept and
understand this. But what we cannot accept is that nothing is
happening on this issue. There should be a legal framework. There
should be a campaign [conducted among] the Georgian people so that
they accept that [a solution to the Meskhetian] issue is also part of
the justice they seek. If the Georgian people deserve justice — and
I’m sure they do — they should also think about the Meskhetians
because they, too, deserve justice,” Eorsi said.

During the debate, Turkish lawmaker Mevlut Cavusoglu also voiced his
support for the Meskhetian cause.

“We are fully aware of the difficulties Georgia has been facing [in
recent years]. However, we do not believe that such difficulties
constitute an argument for not fulfilling the obligation to
repatriate [the Meskhetians]. Therefore, I think that appropriate
legal, administrative, and political conditions should be created by
the Georgian authorities, without any further delay, for the
repatriation of the Meskhetian community,” Cavusoglu said.

Another Turkish parliamentarian, Murat Mercan, suggested the assembly
set a firm timeframe for the resolution of the Meskhetian issue.

His request was met. A final resolution voted at the end of the
hearings gives Georgia until 2011 to complete the repatriation