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Georgia: Meskhetians Search For Cultural Identity (Part I)

Under the Soviet regime, the Meskhetians -- a people of some 300,000 whose origins are in dispute -- suffered persecutions and mass deportations. More than half a century after they were uprooted from southern Georgia, they are now scattered across seven former Soviet republics, and are still seeking to gain formal rehabilitation and the right to return to their homeland. In this first of a two-part series on the Meskhetians, RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports from Tbilisi on the continuing controversy surrounding their national identity.

Tbilisi, 25 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When the former Soviet republic of Georgia joined the Council of Europe two years ago, it formally pledged to right one of the most patent historical injustices of the 20th century.

Among the 16 peoples that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered be deported in the final months of World War II was a 110,000-strong, Islamicized rural population living in Meskhetia, a mountainous region of Georgia located along the border with Turkey.

More than half a century after their 1944 deportation, the Meskhetians have not yet been officially rehabilitated. In fact, they are the only "punished people" -- as the late exiled Soviet historian Alexander Nekrich once described them -- that is still awaiting an official pronouncement that it has been historically wronged.

The Meskhetians have actually been uprooted twice. In 1989, after bloody pogroms in Central Asia's Ferghana Valley, tens of thousands of them were forced to leave Uzbekistan and resettle in other Soviet regions, mainly in Azerbaijan and in Russia's southern Krasnodar territory.

The traumas of both the 1944 deportation and the Ferghana pogroms left profound scars on the Meskhetians, who now live scattered in seven former Soviet republics: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia.

The reasons for Stalin's decision to deport hundreds of thousands of Meskhetians, Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars, Balkars, Kalmuks, Karachais, and other ethnic minorities to the deserted regions of Central Asia remain unclear.

Officially, the Soviet dictator accused all these minorities of collaborating with the enemy after German troops conquered the Crimean peninsula and the Caucasus region in 1941 and 1942. But some historians have suggested that Stalin sought to take revenge against ethnic groups whose allegiance to the Soviet regime had been frail before the outbreak of the war.

As for why the Meskhetians in particular were deported, some analysts believe that Stalin wanted to cleanse southern Georgia of so-called "unreliable elements" in anticipation of an offensive against Turkey after the war ended.

Whatever theory is correct, the largely groundless collaboration charges against deported peoples were lifted after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes and personality cult in 1956.

Unlike most of the deported peoples, the Meskhetians were not allowed to return to their homeland after 1956 because southern Georgia was still considered a strategic area due to its proximity to the Turkish border.

Only in 1991, during Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, was a rehabilitation bill drafted by the Soviet Union's Supreme Soviet. The bill provided for the return of the Meskhetians to their home region of Southern Georgia, but it was not adopted, no less implemented, because of the dissolution of USSR.

Who, exactly, are the Meskhetians, or Meskhis, as they are often called? They are, to begin with, a people known by several names. A 1998 OSCE-sponsored conference held in The Hague referred to them as "Meskhetian Turks." Georgian authorities prefer to use the term "Meskhetians," while the Meskhis sometimes call themselves "yerli musliman" -- Turkic for "local Muslim" -- or "Akhaltsikhe Turks" (ahisha turkleri) -- after Mesketia's chief town of Akhaltsikhe -- or simply "Turks."

Klara Baratashvili is the daughter of the late Meskhetian leader Latif-Shah Baratashvili, who was deported to Uzbekistan in 1944 with his entire family. Along with her brother Marat, she runs a non-governmental organization that is seeking formal rehabilitation for the 250,000 to 300,000 Meskhetians who are believed to live outside Georgia.

In an interview with our correspondent, Klara Baratashvili said her people should be considered part of the Georgian nation.

"The Meskhis are one of the components of the Georgian nation, one of its [original] tribes. They are Georgians in the same way that Kakhetians, Kartlians, or Imeretians are Georgians. They also played an important role in Georgia's history. The reason for this muddle [about their name] is that there's always been a confusion between nation and religion."

In the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks conquered southern Georgia and subsequently forced the majority of the local Orthodox Christian population to convert to Sunni Islam. The Meskhis subsequently adopted the customs of their new rulers, who registered them under Turkic names. Their language gradually turned into a combination of Georgian and Turkish idioms that has remained almost unaltered until now.

Confusion over the Meskhetians' ethnic origins grew when Georgia was forcibly annexed to the Russian empire in the 19th century. Considering Islamicized Meskhis simply as Turks, Russian settlers started calling them "Tatars," a term which was then used to describe all the empire's Muslim vassal populations.

When the Bolsheviks conquered Georgia, Armenia, and the neighboring Muslim republic of Azerbaijan in 1921, they compounded the confusion by using the term "Azerbaijanis" to designate Meskhetians.

The first organization to promote the return of the Meskhetians to their homeland appeared immediately after the deported people were allowed to leave their place of exile in 1956. But despite repeated protests and petitions to the highest Soviet authorities, the organization -- known as the Provisional Committee for the Return to the Homeland -- failed to achieve its goal.

A far more radical organization -- called "Vatan," after the Turkish word for "homeland" -- appeared in the aftermath of the 1989 Ferghana pogroms in an attempt to reinvigorate the repatriation process.

Vatan's leaders say that Meskhetians are ethnic Turks who speak a Turkic language and whose traditions resemble those of Turkey. They deny the existence of a specific Meskhetian nationality and they claim descent from Turkish settlers sent into Meskhetia during the Ottoman rule.

Rival organizations admit that Meskhetians living outside Georgia may sometimes consider themselves as ethnic Turks. But they argue this is largely due to a lack of information about their cultural and historical origins.

Vatan's belief that Meskhetians are "Georgified" Turks have made the organization unwelcome in Georgia, where it is not allowed to have representatives. Vatan is headquarted in Moscow and is particularly active in Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

Iso Molidze is a 29-year-old Meskhi who came to Georgia from his Kazakh hometown of Chimkent eight years ago. After he settled in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, he set up an association known as the International Youth Organization of Deported Meskhetians from Meskhetia.

Along with 40 other young Meskhetians and scores of refugees from Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, Molidze lives in a dilapidated building on the outskirts of Tbilisi's Gldani district. He told our correspondent:

"Young [Meskhetians] usually consider themselves Turks when they come here. But when they start learning [about their history], they start telling everybody that they are Georgians. Outside Georgia, they would never say that they are Georgians. Here in Georgia, it is different. Once they arrive here, they know that this is the end of the road. Their homeland is here."

Another factor complicating the ethnicity issue is that representatives of other minorities which are not ethnically Georgian were deported together with the Meskhis in 1944. Among them were Islamicized Armenians -- also known as Khamsheny or Khemshiny -- ethnic Turkish Taraqamas and ethnic Kurds.

Mikhail Mirziashvili is the director of Studio Re, a Georgian non-governmental organization that is completing a documentary film on the Meskhetians. He told RFE/RL that, despite their differences, all these ethnic groups are fighting for a common cause:

"These groups strongly differ one from another. They consider that they are all from Georgia. But 'yerlis' [that is, ethnic Georgian Meskhetians] would never recognize a Kurdish woman as one of theirs, even though these groups live and work together. In [the Kyrgyz capital] Bishkek, for example, the local Meskhetian organization is run by a Kurdish woman. Still, everybody knows that she is different."

Meskhetians generally agree that, even though some 10 percent of Georgia's population is Muslim, their nominally Islamic faith is among the main obstacles that prejudice Georgia's overwhelming Orthodox Christian majority against them.

Meskhetians also say Vatan's demands in the early 1990s that they be granted cultural and political autonomy once they were resettled in southern Georgia added fuel to the Georgian government's hostility.

Vatan leaders have since softened their stance. They no longer insist that Georgia grant Meskhetians special privileges, although they say it should recognize them as ethnic Turks.

Some experts consider Vatan's popularity in the early 1990s the result of Georgia's indifference toward the fate of those Meskhetians who had fallen victim to the Ferghana pogroms.

Zurab Burduli is a young Georgian lawyer who specializes in Meskhetian affairs. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said:

"In the 1980s, the Meskhetians were not pro-Turkish. But when they saw that the Georgian government was doing nothing to support them, that it was not even giving them the slightest hope that they could some day return to their homeland, they became pro-Turkish."

In 1992, the Turkish parliament voted to grant asylum to a limited number of Meskhetians. An estimated 10,000 Meskhetians are believed to have emigrated to Turkey since then, but Studio Re Director Mirziashvili says that many of them are not satisfied with their new life and are now considering returning to Central Asia.

The chief reason for the Meskhetians' troubles may simply lie in their history. Baratashvili says:

"The history of our [people] has been complicated by the fact that it always had to live on the borderline between two empires, between two religious confessions."

Meskhetian youth leader Molidze says he has never faced any hostility from his Georgian fellow students since he settled in Tbilisi. But he adds: "For us, the main problem is to learn Georgian language. For [the Georgians], the main problem is our faith."