Prague, 23 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The story of the Meskhetians of Georgia and, since 1944, Central Asia, continues to migrate from tragedy to tragedy.
The Meskhetians are an ethnically mixed group comprising mostly Muslim Georgians and some Kurds and Muslim Armenians, whose common identity was forged largely in the course of deportation. For almost 40 years, they have been lobbying for permission to return to their ancestral villages in southwestern Georgia.
The most recent attempt to secure such permission failed. Last week (September 17), Georgian special police detachments surrounded a hostel in Tbilisi. they rounded up about 40 Meskhetian men, loaded them on to buses, and deported them to the Russian Federation.
The men belonged to an 83-person delegation that had traveled to the Georgian capital the previous day to plead with the Georgian leadership for permission to settle permanently in Georgia. In their deportation action, the police left the women members of the delegation behind in Tbilisi.
Georgian Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze told journalists that he ordered the expulsion of the Meskhetians because, he said, they are aligned with supporters of the late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia who oppose the Georgian government.
The deportation recalls the mass expulsion of the Meskhetians from Georgia in November 1944 on Stalin's orders. The rationale for that action was the need to clear a strategically located region on the Soviet-Turkish frontier of elements suspected of pro-Turkish sympathies so that Soviet military operations could be extended into northeastern Turkey. On November 15, 1944, Stalin's forces uprooted the entire Meskhetian population of several districts in southwestern Georgia, totaling between 150,000 and 200,000 people.
The authorities forced the people into rail cars and transported them to Central Asia. Thousands died en route, and thousands more in the harsh conditions in which they were forced to live in exile.
Following Nikita Khrushchev's now-famous` "Secret Speech" to the 20th Soviet Communist Party congress in 1956, the Soviets lifted some restrictions that had been imposed on most of the deported ethnic groups. The speech disclosed selectively some of the evils committed during the Stalin era, But unlike the Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, and others, whose exile Khrushchev explicitly condemned, the Meskhetians weren't permitted to return to Georgia. Their efforts to do so were hindered by the fact that in many cases, their nationality arbitrarily had been changed to Turkish in their internal passports. Consequently, some were offered a chance to settle in Azerbaijan and accepted on the assumption that it would prove easier to resettle in Georgia from that neighboring republic. That assumption proved to be false.
By the late 1960s, the Meskhetians had split into two factions. One faction continued to push for a return to Georgia. The other launched a campaign for the permission to emigrate to Turkey. In the mid-1970s, the first of those two factions enlisted the help and support of the tiny Georgian dissident movement headed by Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who at the time was a faculty member of Tbilisi State University.
Now represented by an informal association called Salvation, the Georgia faction eventually registered a modest success in the early 1980s. Small-scale repatriation to Georgia got under way, presumably thanks to the efforts of then Georgian Communist Party Central Committee First Secretary Eduard Shevardnadze. That influx petered out, however, in the late 1980s.
A further catastrophe hit the Meskhetians in the summer of 1989. Ethnic clashes in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley resulted in the killing of 100 of them. About 4,500 Meskhetians were evacuated hurriedly from Uzbekistan to the Russian Federation, rather than Georgia.
Since the collapse of the USSR, local authorities in several cities in southern Russia, especially Krasnodar, have subjected Meskhetians to systematic harassment. The authorities refuse either to acknowledge them as Russian citizens or to grant them residence permits.
Following his return to Georgia from Moscow in 1992, Eduard Shevardnadze at first argued against allowing the Meskhetians to return to Georgia on the grounds that social and economic collapse precluded creating adequate conditions for their repatriation. But in December 1996, Shevardnadze signed into law a state program for gradually repatriating to Georgia by the Year 2000 approximately 5,000 Meskhetians.
Some Georgian political figures objected to the proposed repatriation on the grounds that the Meskhetians consider themselves Turks, and would thus constitute a potential separatist movement. Georgians and Armenians who for 50 years have inhabited the villages from which the Meskhetians were deported in 1944 threatened to take up arms to prevent their return.
In any event, whether for political or financial reasons, the 1996 program hasn't been implemented systematically.
One Georgian observer suggested that Shevardnadze would have been committing political suicide if he had made effective provision for the deported Meskhetians to return to Georgia before reaching a settlement of Georgia's troubling Abkhaz conflict. Such a settlement would be a necessity for creating secure conditions for those ethnic Georgians who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war to return to their homes.
So the Meskhetians renewed their lobbying campaign, seeking support from, among others Max van der Stoel, OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, and the Turkish government. Turkey's government has apparently come to an agreement with Tbilisi to allow some of the Meskhetians who wish to settle in Turkey to do so, provided that the remainder may return to Georgia.