Prague, 29 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has initiated a program designed to help Meskhetians from Russia's southern Krasnodar region migrate to the United States.
The program was officially launched on 16 February on behalf of the U.S. government. Applications will be received by the IOM headquarters in Moscow, which will in turn hand them over to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for clearance.
"We have -- since the opening [of the program] on the 16th of February -- [received], I would say, upwards of 1,700 [family] applications. Normally there [are] about three persons per application, so it is more than 5,000 individuals who have applied so far."
Selected applicants will then be allowed to enter American soil under the U.S. Refugee Program, which grants asylum to individuals it deems have been persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, or for political reasons.
Under U.S. rules, eligibility for refugee status is decided on a case-by-case basis.
Upon arrival, immigrants will be assigned to private voluntary agencies that will provide initial resettlement services, such as housing, food, clothing, and other basic necessities.
The IOM will help arrange for the transportation of immigrants, who in turn will be expected to repay the cost of their transfer. Meskhetians will be eligible for permanent resident status one year after their arrival and, after another four years, for American citizenship.
Mark Getchell is the head of the IOM mission in Russia. He tells RFE/RL many Krasnodar Meskhetians seem willing to apply for refugee status in the United States.
"We have -- since the opening [of the program] on the 16th of February -- [received], I would say, upwards of 1,700 [family] applications. Normally there [are] about three persons per application, so it is more than 5,000 individuals who have applied so far," Getchell says.
Getchell says the IOM expects up to 10,000 individuals to volunteer for resettlement by the program's mid-August application deadline -- which may be extended if deemed necessary.
Only those Meskhetians who have no legal status are eligible for the refugee program. Unless they are married to an individual who has no legal status, U.S. authorities will not consider the case of those Meskhetians who enjoy civil rights under Russian laws.
Russian authorities claim they have granted citizenship to some 4,000 Meskhetians and are currently in the process of reviewing a few hundred more cases.
"The problem of the Meskhetians is closed and no longer exists," says Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin, referring last January to a newly effective law that reportedly makes it easier for former Soviet citizens to obtain Russian citizenship.
Chekalin's remarks are symptomatic of the attitude of many post-Soviet governments towards Meskhetians.
Today's Meskhetians -- also known as Meskhis -- are the survivors or the descendants of a roughly 100,000-strong rural Muslim population of southern Georgia that Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered deported on 15 November 1944.
Although Meskhetians themselves disagree on whether they descend from ethnic Turks sent to Georgia under Ottoman rule or Islamicized Georgians, they are generally described as "Turks" and perceived as such in most of the former Soviet Union.
The Meskhetians have been uprooted twice over the past six decades.
In 1989, after bloody pogroms that claimed dozens of lives in Central Asia's Ferghana Valley, tens of thousands of Meskhetians were forced to leave Uzbekistan and resettle in other areas, mainly in Azerbaijan and Russia's Krasnodar region.
Estimates put the number of Meskhetians living in CIS countries at somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000.
Sixty years after their deportation, the Meskhetians are the only ethnic group among World War II-era "punished peoples" -- as the late historian Alexander Nekrich once described them -- that is still awaiting an official pronouncement that their deportation for alleged collaboration with German occupation forces was unjustified.
Under a commitment made upon its entry into the Council of Europe in 1999, Georgia is expected to provide a legal basis for the return of Meskhetians with a view to organizing their collective repatriation.
Yet, very little has been done so far and the number of Meskhetians who have returned individually to Georgia does not exceed a few dozen.
Some 15,000 Meskhetians are believed to live in Russia's Krasnodar region.
Like other non-Slav refugees and displaced persons, most Krasnodar Meskhetians have been denied civic rights and suffer from isolation and xenophobic attitudes fueled by the local administration.
Krasnodar Governor Aleksander Tkachev maintains that his tough stance on refugees and immigrants has the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although the Kremlin denies the claim, rights groups blame Putin for failing to publicly disavow Krasnodar authorities.
Marat Baratashvili is the chairman of the Tbilisi-based Union of Georgian Repatriates, a nongovernmental group that advocates the return of Meskhetians to their original homeland. Baratashvili, himself an ethnic Meskhetian, tells our correspondent he has reservations about the U.S. resettlement program.
“I view this program with circumspection,” he says. “In itself, this idea is not bad. But it would have been better for the Meskhetians if their rights in Russia had been respected and if their rights in Georgia had been restored. In that case, the [U.S.] program would have been a wonderful thing. But under the present conditions it has nothing to do with respect of human rights. Apparently, it is a political decision made by the United States and Russia. The aim is to take this problematic issue away from the [Krasnodar] region and make things easier for Georgia too.”
Two years ago, after dozens of Krasnodar Meskhetians went on a hunger strike to protest discrimination from local authorities, Putin pledged to set up a special commission to examine their claims.
But during a visit to the region in October 2003, the Russian president did not signal any apparent willingness to address the Meskhetian issue.
Talking before an assembly of Kuban Cossacks, Putin urged Georgian authorities to take their responsibilities and provide for a quick return of the Meskhetian population.
Yet, the Georgian leadership in turn gave no indication it would take immediate action.
Then President Eduard Shevardnadze said Georgia could not face another influx of migrants until it finds a solution to the many problems posed by tens of thousands of displaced persons from the separatist republic of Abkhazia.
Georgian authorities also say they fear Meskhetians might claim ownership of lands and houses located in their home region of Samtskhe-Javakheti and create problems with the local Armenian population.
The new government that took over from the Shevardnadze administration last November has carefully avoided raising the Meskhetian issue.
In the words of Levan Berdzenishvili, a civil rights campaigner close to Georgia's current leaders, the Meskhetian problem is so controversial that "any government that would try to solve it must be ready to leave power."
Georgia's Prime news agency quoted Berdzenishvili as saying last October, "This issue must be settled. However, no one would ever forgive any government for trying to solve it."
IOM mission head Getchell, however, believes the U.S. government hopes that by taking a few thousands refugees it would help improve the fate of the majority of the Meskhetian population.
"It is just hoped by the government of the U.S., I think, that taking [an] initial group might relieve some of the pressure in the [Krasnodar] region to the point where for local authorities -- and perhaps for Georgia -- the numbers [of Meskhetians remaining in the region] will be smaller and the solutions may be more easily attainable," Getchell said.
Most Krasnodar Meskhetians reportedly see the U.S. refugee program as a painful opportunity to temporarily escape harassment from regional authorities.
The Caucasian Knot information website quoted community leader Sarvar Tedorov as saying (27 Feb), "Our people [have been uprooted twice] in 60 years and we do not want to [be uprooted] a third [time]. But if the Russian government and the administration of the Krasnodar [region] continue [with their policy toward the Meskhetians], we will have to leave, no matter where, to the U.S. or elsewhere."
Baratashvili believes most of his ethnic kin would prefer remaining in the Krasnodar region with all rights due to Russian citizens, or return to Georgia.
"My impression is that for them it is a temporary measure, a forced step. They are like a penned flock of sheep, which see that a gate has just opened in the fence. They rush toward that gate to escape the custody they live under in Krasnodar. They have the choice between dying there or going out toward freedom, even if this is a relative freedom because they still cannot return to Georgia," Baratashvili says.
Getchell of the IOM confirms that during talks with Krasnodar Meskhetians, he had the impression many saw the U.S. refugee program as a last-resort solution.
Yet, unlike Baratashvili, he does not believe the resettlement initiative is an attempt at postponing the settlement of the Meskhetian issue.
"What the U.S. is hoping is that this resettlement option is going to be part of a grander solution," he says.