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Georgia: Meskhetian Issue Stirs Society (Part II)

When Georgia became a member of the Council of Europe two years ago, it committed itself to the repatriation of Meskhetians deported in the early 1940s and their descendants. Recently, the Georgian government approved a draft repatriation bill that Meskhetian leaders and human rights groups describe as discriminatory. In this second part of a two-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports on the controversy from Tbilisi.

Tbilisi, 25 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The question of repatriating Meskhetians to their homeland has triggered passionate debates in Georgia and divided both public opinion and the political establishment.

Some people -- most of them Meskhetians -- believe that the former deportees and their descendants should be allowed to resettle in Meskhetia, the southern region where they lived until Stalin deported them in 1944.

But nationalist politicians are strongly opposed to repatriation. They say that the influx of tens of thousands of Muslims could ignite social and political troubles in the volatile Southern Caucasus republic.

The government denies any responsibility for deportations ordered by the Soviet regime. It says that it is ready to help the Meskhetians collectively return to Georgia -- but not to Meskhetia -- and to assist them in integrating into society.

There are no confirmed figures on the number of Meskhetians now living in CIS countries, but they are estimated at somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000.

Figures compiled by the Moscow-based Memorial human rights group show that up to 100,000 Meskhetians currently live in Kazakhstan. Another 60,000 are believed to have settled in Azerbaijan since the late 1950s. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan host 30,000 and 20,000 Meskhetians respectively, while another 10,000 live in Ukraine's Kherson region.

Some 70,000 Meskhetians have also settled in Russia, mainly in the southern Krasnodar region. Memorial and other human rights groups say they are harassed by Cossacks and local authorities, who deny them any legal status.

According to Guram Mamulia, who recently resigned as head of the government's Repatriation Service, the first Meskhetians who managed to return to Georgia in the late 1970s did so as individuals, not as an ethnic group. Mamulia says they numbered about 1,300 in the late 1980s, when half of them were driven out of the country by ethnic violence initiated by Georgia's nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Mamulia describes what happened:

"It was very brutal. There were collective beatings, attempts at intimidation, etc. Gamsakhurdia used to say that Meskhetians are Muslims, enemies of Georgia. 'Georgia first and foremost' was his motto, and he frightened people by saying that Georgia is an Orthodox country and that all non-Orthodox populations are enemies of the country. Other ethnic minorities also fell victim to abuses, but the Meskhetians were those who suffered most from [this violence]."

As a result of Gamsakhurdia's violent nationalism, more than 700 Meskhetians fled to Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan.

The situation of Georgia's ethnic minorities substantially improved immediately after Gamsakhurdia's ouster in 1992, and a few dozen Meskhetians managed to return to Georgia. But three years ago the Georgian parliament passed a law depriving all Meskhetians who had returned of the refugee status they had enjoyed since 1993. And only one in ten of the remaining 600 Meskhetians living in the country have so far been granted Georgian citizenship.

Alexander Nalbandov is the deputy head of the Georgian Security Council's Human Rights Department. In a talk with our correspondent, he reviewed the recommendations about the Meskhetians that the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly issued in 1999 prior to Georgia's accession to the pan-European body.

"To create within two years a legal basis for the repatriation of Meskhetian Turks, including granting of citizenship. To organize consultations with experts of the Council of Europe prior to the adoption of [a repatriation] law. The repatriation process should start within three years and should be completed within 12 years [after Georgia's admission to the Council of Europe]."

To meet these recommendations, the Georgian government earlier this year approved a draft bill that it says should provide a legal framework for the repatriation of Meskhetians and their integration into Georgian society.

This document -- a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL -- states that repatriated Meskhetians will be entitled to apply for Georgian citizenship within one year after their return. Georgian authorities would be legally obliged to grant or deny citizenship within one month after the application is filed.

The government also says it will set up a state-funded educational program to help Meskhetians integrate into the society. The majority of Meskhetians today are not familiar with, no less fluent in, the Georgian language .

Lawyer Zurab Burduli is a co-author of the draft law that was approved by the government. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said Georgian authorities have insisted that the repatriation process should be voluntary out of fear that Meskhetians living near Krasnodar will be expelled by Russia.

Burduli also said another major concern of the government is to ensure that the return of the former deportees does not trigger social unrest.

"We have to take into account that Georgia's social and economic situation is very, very bad. I do not know of any country in the world that, under similar circumstances, could possibly settle this issue in a couple of days, or even in a year. The process should therefore be progressive, perhaps regulated by quotas. Repatriation is one thing. But another thing -- to me and to a great number of [Meskhetians], this is very important -- is that these people should integrate into the society, feel comfortable in it, and become fully fledged citizens after a certain period of time. We should do everything to ensure they do not feel disappointed, and not decide that Georgia isn't the 'paradise' they've been promised and then leave Georgia after their return."

Burduli and government officials say that experts from the Council of Europe have already given their go-ahead to the proposed repatriation bill and that the draft has been sent to the Justice Ministry to be reworked. But Council of Europe spokesman Dmitri Marchenkov told RFE/RL that council experts were still examining the draft.

"There has been no final verdict on this draft and [our] experts are still working on it. Therefore, it would be premature to draw any conclusion."

The draft repatriation bill has triggered controversy among Meskhetian leaders and human rights groups. One of its provisions says that those applying for repatriation must produce documents attesting to their current citizenship. But human rights group argue that Meskhetian refugees living in Russia's Krasnodar territory will be unable to satisfy this demand because they are officially considered as stateless.

Another controversial point relates to documents that applicants should file to prove that they, or their parents, were deported from Meskhetia in 1944.

Former repatriation service head Mamulia, who drafted another repatriation bill that was rejected by the government, says the need to produce documentary evidence of deportation makes the draft law "discriminatory." Unlike Burduli, Mamulia says there are no existing documents certifying repatriation applicants are either former deportees or descendants of former deportees.

"These documents [proving that people were deported] have never existed. When these people were deported, nobody issued them with any such documents. Even if we admit that some kind of lists were kept [by the Soviet authorities], a long time has passed and two generations of Meskhetians have been born since the deportation. How could [a young Meskhetian] possibly produce documents proving that his grandfather -- who never had such documents -- was deported?"

Mamulia, together with his entire staff, resigned a few weeks ago to protest the approval of the draft repatriation bill by the government. He believes that Georgian authorities should have chosen instead a simplified procedure based on witness accounts:

"If a person cannot produce these [deportation documents], those who have already returned to Georgia could testify that this person is a descendant of a deported Meskhetian or that they have knew this person in exile. Such testimonies are legally valid. This procedure was included in our own draft bill and is similar to the one that exists under Georgia's law on the rehabilitation of victims of political repression."

Mamulia says he fears that, under the proposed repatriation law, returnees will be treated arbitrarily by bureaucrats, especially when applying for citizenship. He says Meskhetians should automatically be granted citizenship when they return to Georgia.

Meskhetians complain about another of the draft bill's provisions, which states that the government will decide where the returnees should live. Many insist that they should be allowed to return to Meskhetia. This is particularly true of older people who still have vivid memories of the deportation.

Meskhetian youth leader Iso Molidze says that he will feel comfortable anywhere in Georgia. But he says his parents, who currently live in Russia's southern Rostov-on-Don region, feel differently:

"Initially, my parents wanted to return to the village [they were deported from]. But they went there once and saw that everything had been destroyed. Now my father wants to buy a home in [Meskhetia's largest town,] Akhaltsikhe. He's 65 [years old] now. He was seven when he was deported. If he manages to get back to his homeland, he will feel like seven again."

The government strongly opposes the idea of resettling Meskhetians in their native region lest their arrival create tensions with the local population.

Some 100,000 ethnic Armenians were sent to Meskhetia in the early 19th century after Georgia was annexed to Russia. According to Meskhetian leader Klara Baratashvili, the Russians wanted to set up a Christian "cordon sanitaire" along the border with the Muslim Ottoman Empire.

After the Meskhetians were deported in 1944, the Soviet regime forced tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians to settle near the Turkish border. They took over the homes left behind by the exiled Meskhetians.

Today, the region is populated mostly by Christians. About half of the population of Akhaltsikhe is made up of ethnic Armenians. In Akhalkalaki, the main city of the southern Javakhetia region, Armenians make up as much as 90 percent of the population.

Russia still maintains one military base in the southern autonomous republic of Ajaria and another one in Akhalkalaki. Georgia suspects Moscow may be tempted to spark unrest among ethnic Armenians living along the Turkish border to destabilize the country. That concern makes the Meskhetian question a major security issue for Tbilisi.

Lawyer Burduli says Meskhetians will be free to settle in any part of the country once they are recognized as Georgian citizens. But government officials sound far less sure of that. Rusudan Berizde is the deputy secretary of Georgia's Security Council. Asked whether Meskhetians will be eventually allowed to return to their native region, she said:

"It will all depend on the settlement capacities [of the region]. For this, we would need land. Other people have been living in Meskhetia for decades now. Unlike Russia or the United States, Georgia is a country that has very little land. [Meskhetians] will be resettled according to our capacities and only in those regions where they will be able to cultivate the land."

Georgian officials say that they are committed to settle the Meskhetian question once and for all. But at the same time they say the 12-year framework set by the Council of Europe in 1999 is not realistic.

Opponents of the draft repatriation bill say the country's leadership is not interested in settling the issue. They argue that the government only half-heartedly yielded to international pressure and that its repatriation bill could turn into a dead letter.

Even lawyer Burduli, who drafted the repatriation bill on behalf of the Refugees Ministry, says he doubts that political leaders are determined enough to resolve the Meskhetian issue, which he describes as "very unpopular."

As for Mamulia, who resigned his post over the issue, he says: "Everything is being done so that Meskhetians will either decide not to come back or, if they do return, that they voluntarily leave after a while."