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East: Berlin Conference Focuses On Plight Of Deported Nationalities Of Former Soviet Union

As RFE/RL reports, representatives of deported peoples of the former Soviet Union, including the head of the Mejlis of Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Djemilev, gathered in Berlin on 24 May to discuss the ongoing problems that their people still face.

Berlin, 27 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and the Free University of Berlin sponsored a conference on 24 May in the German capital on the problems of deported peoples and national minorities from the former Soviet Union.

In his opening speech to the conference, Uwe Halbach of the SWP talked about the plight of these deported peoples, many of whom are Muslims and who have not yet been able to return to their native lands.

"Against a background of Russian military violence in Chechnya," Halbach said, "it is all the more valuable to focus on those national movements that set about campaigning for rights by legal, peaceful, and constitutional means and with such enormous civil courage."

Halbach emphasized that there is a contradiction between the Russian claim, on the one hand, that the war in Chechnya is an internal Russian issue and, on the other hand, that it is being fueled by Islamic extremists from abroad. The West, he said, has not challenged Russia to explain this contradiction.

"For example, in the Russian and Western media, especially since 11 September, Islam in the North Caucasus and Central Asia has been presented as 'Afghanized' or 'Talibanized' and has links to such organizations as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hezb-ut Tahrir," Halbach said.

In addition to the featured speaker, Mustafa Djemilev, the head of the Mejlis (parliament) of the Crimean Tatar people and a member of the Ukrainian parliament, others who spoke at the conference included representatives of the Balkar, Cherkess, Nogay Tatar, Karachay, and Ingush peoples and of the Pontic Greek and Polish communities and the Meskhetians.

Djemilev -- who was imprisoned six times and who later went on a hunger strike that received international attention -- described in detail the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in May 1944 to Central Asia on charges of collaboration with the Germans. He admitted that some Crimean Tatars may indeed have collaborated, but said that on a percentage basis, no more Crimean Tatars did so than members of any other Soviet ethnic group.

He said conditions during deportation and in exile were so bad that over the next two years -- May 1944 to 1946 -- 46 percent of them died.

In a speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev admitted that the Kalmuks, Karachays, Ingush, Balkars, and Chechens had been wrongly deported. He did not specifically mention the Crimean Tatars, Meskhetians, or Volga Germans. The former groups were allowed to return to their homelands in 1957; the latter were not.

In the 1960s, Djemilev himself became one of the leaders of a Crimean Tatar youth movement. Also at that time, members of the Crimean Tatar community began writing to the Soviet leadership, appealing to be allowed to return to Crimea. Djemilev stressed the importance of the Crimean Tatar national movement on the evolution of the human rights movement as a whole.

In 1967, the Supreme Soviet issued a decree stipulating that the Crimean Tatars could live anywhere on the territory of the Soviet Union. But of some 12,000 Crimean Tatars who then tried to settle in Crimea, all but 100 were sent back to Central Asia.

In 1987, at the beginning of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost campaign, Tatars met in Tashkent and formed a committee to coordinate lobbying for their repatriation. And in July of that year, when Gorbachev ignored their appeals, they traveled to Moscow, where they held a mass meeting on Red Square witnessed by Western journalists.

Having lost all hope that the Soviet authorities would offer any help, the Crimean Tatars finally began spontaneously returning to Crimea. Initially, they encountered hostility from local authorities and had to resort to meetings, demonstrations, and hunger strikes in order to receive residence permits and to register their housing. But as a result of having stood firm, Djemilev says, "The population of the Crimean Tatars in the Crimea began to increase rapidly."

Djemilev says there are still thousands of Crimean Tatars living in Russia and Uzbekistan who are unable to move back to Crimea because of bureaucratic and financial obstacles. He said Ukraine should bestow on Crimean Tatars the status not of a minority but of the indigenous people of the Crimean peninsula, and that their language should similarly have the status of a state language. They should also be better represented in the parliament and government.

Barbara Kellner-Heinkele, an academic from the Institute for Turkology at the Free University of Berlin, is an expert on the Nogay, a Turkic people of the North Caucasus who were not actually deported but whose language is on the verge of extinction due to the influence of Russian.

There are currently some 700,000 Nogays dispersed between three regions of the North Caucasus -- Dagestan, Stavropol Krai, and the Republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia.

In a bid to reverse linguistic assimilation, journals for Nogay children in their native language are published in Makhachkala and Cherkessk. But Ramazan Kereytov, a Nogay who spoke at the Berlin conference, argued that in order to preserve their national heritage, the Nogays should have their own republic within the Russian Federation.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan became independent, the Christian Black Sea Greeks were viewed as outsiders. In the early 1990s, Greece offered to take the Black Sea Greeks living in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and they settled in Greece at a rate of 20,000 a year. Meanwhile, there are still Black Sea Greek survivors in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

The Greek representative to the conference, Georgii Melanifidi, emphasized that Russians are far more tolerant of Greeks than of some other ethnic groups from the North Caucasus. Even Russian policemen, he said, do not harass Greeks the way they do other "people of Caucasus nationality," such as Chechens and Azerbaijanis.

Speaking on behalf of the Meskhetian community of southern Georgia who, like the Crimean Tatars, were deported en masse in 1944 from their traditional homeland, Chingiz Neyman-Zade, a member of the Azerbaijan Union of Meskhetian Turks, said that despite all obstacles created by the Soviet authorities, the Meskhetians have succeeded in preserving their own language and culture.

"Our people for over 59 years have been able to preserve their language, their culture, their ethnic self-identification, and have been able to preserve their culture," Neyman-Zade said.

The conference closed with an appeal to the West that as it continues to focus on Iraq and its quest for new alliances in the war on terrorism, it should be ever mindful that there is still a war going on in Chechnya that has claimed just as many, if not more, casualties, and that there are small minorities which have not yet been completely rehabilitated.