Meskhetian villagers in Russia's southern Krasnodar Krai today entered their seventh day of a hunger strike to protest what they say is systematic discrimination against their ethnic group. Although Meskhetians have been living in this area for 13 years now, the overwhelming majority of them are still denied basic civil, political, and social rights. These descendants of a small ethnic group deported from Georgia to Central Asia during World War II seem to serve as a catalyst for the prejudicial feelings of local authorities.
Prague, 28 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Having lost all hope of improving their lot through administrative means, members of the ethnic Meskhetian community in Russia's southern Krasnodar Krai went on hunger strike on 22 June to protest what they say is systematic discrimination against their group.
As the strike enters its seventh day, Meskhetian activists contacted by telephone told RFE/RL that local authorities have shown no willingness to enter into a dialogue with the protesters, threatening instead to make them see reason by force. Repeated attempts to reach regional officials for comment yielded no results.
As of yesterday, 27 Meskhetians were still on hunger strike in Kievskoe, a village of the Krymsk Raion, located some 30 kilometers northeast of the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. Seven protesters have already been hospitalized after they passed out for want of food.
A press release published on 22 June by the Novorossiisk Human-Rights Committee said some 200 villagers initially joined the protest movement, but subsequent reports suggest most of them had to give up after a few days on health grounds.
Bekzade Mamadalievich is a local Meskhetian leader who lives in a settlement close to Kievskoe. He told our correspondent that all that protesters are demanding is that local authorities grant them basic civil freedoms they are entitled to by law. "When you enter a striker's home, there is a sign saying: 'We are striking for our civil rights.' We [Meskhetians] have been stripped of all our rights. We have no rights. Absolutely none," Mamadalievich said.
The 68 Meskhetian families who reside in Kievskoe are direct descendants of one of the 16 peoples that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordered deported in the final months of World War II, under the fallacious accusation they had collaborated with the Germans.
Soviet Meskhetians, or Meskhis, then represented an estimated 110,000-strong Islamicized rural community living in a mountainous region of southern Georgia near the border with Turkey.
Unlike most of what late exiled Soviet historian Aleksandr Nekrich called the "punished peoples," the Meskhetians were not allowed to return to their homeland after Stalin's crimes were denounced in the late 1950s. Most of them remained in Uzbekistan, their initial place of exile.
In 1989, pogroms in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley forced tens of thousands of Meskhetians to leave and resettle in other parts of the Soviet Union, mainly in Azerbaijan and in Krasnodar Krai.
There are no confirmed figures on the number of Meskhetians now living in CIS countries, but they are estimated at between 200,000 and 300,000, mainly scattered across Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
More than half a century after their deportation, the Meskhetians are still seeking to gain formal rehabilitation and the right to return to their home region.
When Georgia joined the Council of Europe in 1999, it committed itself to facilitate the repatriation of all Meskhetians that would apply for return. Last year, the Georgian government approved a draft repatriation law that human-rights groups see as discriminatory, notably because applicants would need to produce documents attesting to their current citizenship -- a demand that Krasnodar Meskhetians, most of whom are officially considered stateless, cannot meet.
The Moscow-based Memorial human-rights watchdog believes up to 18,000 Meskhetians currently live in this southern Russian area, where the group says it is regularly harassed by Cossack paramilitary forces and regional authorities, who deny them any legal status.
Local authorities claim that nearly 4,000 Meskhetians have residence permits and that 3,000 have obtained Russian citizenship since 1989.
Whether these figures reflect reality is unclear.
The Memorial rights group said that, in the mid-1990s, some 95 percent of Meskhetians living in the Krasnodar region still had no residence permits. Since employment is prohibited for people without residence permits, local Meskhetians have been left with two possible sources of income: cultivation of vegetables on small acreages leased by collective farms or private owners, and trading in local markets. But even these meager privileges now belong to the past.
Aleksandr Osipov is a program coordinator for Memorial and the author of a 1999 report called "Russia's Experiment In Ethnic Discrimination: The Meskhetians of the Krasnodar Krai."
He told RFE/RL the situation of this Turkic-speaking minority has significantly deteriorated in recent months, with local authorities arbitrarily forcing landowners to cancel all leases with Meskhetians and canceling selling contracts for houses that Meskhetian families legally bought when they arrived in the region in the late 1980s. "They have been living in that area since 1989-1990 and, since then, they have been squeezed out. They have been facing all kinds of pressure so that their living conditions would deteriorate to such an extent that they would no longer stand it and leave. Last winter, their situation deteriorated further when local authorities started cutting off the only means of subsistence they had left. Land-leasing contracts they had signed were all of a sudden denounced. [Meskhetians] used to rent plots of land to grow vegetables they would sell on local markets, but they no longer have this possibility. Now they are barred from selling anything, even their own vegetables, under all kinds of fallacious pretexts. Also, dozens of [Meskhetians] who were on short-term contracts with local enterprises were all dismissed within a month," Osipov said.
Meskhetian leader Mamadalievich said the patience of the local population is exhausted. "[Officials from the local administration] came and said that, since plots of land were no longer legally registered, people had to pay fees. But [villagers] had no money for that. So they started confiscating people's belongings and taking everything they could take: wheat flour, cattle, etc. This happened in Kievskoe, too. This is why these people are on hunger strike now," Mamadalievich said.
Memorial blames Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev for openly fuelling hatred against non-Slavic ethnic groups he holds responsible for much of the crime in the region. The group notes that Tkachev has adopted an even more prejudicial stance than his predecessor, Nikolai Kondratenko, pushing for more radical measures against the estimated 185,000 refugees and immigrants who have arrived in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Attorney Natalya Kashchevaya is a member of the Novorossiisk Human-Rights Committee. She told RFE/RL that, although local authorities have launched an overall campaign against most non-Slavic ethnic minorities, including Kurds, Armenians, or Georgian refugees from Abkhazia, they nonetheless keep singling out Meskhetians as particularly undesirable, often with the support of local media. "Over the past two or three months, a number of production companies, both official and unofficial, have released various films saying that the Meskhetians are evil and that it is impossible to live with them on the territory of the Krasnodar Krai," Kashchevaya said.
On 20 March, the Moscow-based "Izvestiya" daily quoted Tkachev as saying at a regional cabinet meeting that the Kuban area, to which Krasnodar Krai belongs, was "the land of Cossacks" and that local authorities would soon take new, drastic measures "to make illegal immigrants leave." The newspaper quoted other participants as suggesting that "filtration camps," where all immigrants would be sent prior to deportation, be created and that charter flights to Uzbekistan be organized for all Meskhetians.
A week later, the Krasnodar Krai parliament passed a resolution strengthening immigration rules and asking regional law-enforcement agencies to study the feasibility of creating deportation centers. Legislators also voted a resolution asking the local government to negotiate with Moscow broader powers to fight "illegal immigration." It is unclear if these measures have been implemented.
Tkachev says his anti-immigration policy has the backing of President Vladimir Putin -- a claim denied by the Kremlin. Yet, Memorial's Osipov blames federal authorities in general, and Putin's office in particular, for their ambiguous attitude toward the Krasnodar governor. "I think [Tkachev] is 100 percent right [when he claims that he has the backing of the Kremlin]. In fact, the presidential administration has never disavowed or strongly objected to his comments. There was just a statement, from the administration's press secretary, I believe, asking Tkachev to no longer refer directly to Putin. That's all. In other words, nobody said that Tkachev was fundamentally wrong and that the [presidential] administration was protesting. All they did was ask that Putin no longer be directly referred to," Osipov said.
Osipov said he and other human-rights activists have sent several petitions asking federal authorities to interfere and force Krasnodar authorities to restore local Meskhetians their civil rights. He said nothing in the answers they have received so far indicates the views of Moscow officials fundamentally differ from those of regional leaders.