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 Uzbekistan.
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 behalf."
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."