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 Russia.
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 region.
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 process.