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Caucasus Report: April 4, 2002

4 April 2002, Volume 5, Number 12

MESKHETIANS FACE YET ANOTHER DEPORTATION. Last month the leadership of Krasnodar Krai tightened residence requirements for the region in a move that human rights organizations fear may lead to pressure for the deportation of an estimated 13,000 Meskhetians who settled in Krasnodar after being evacuated from the Ferghana Valley in 1989 to escape violence at the hands of local Uzbeks.

"Vremya novostei" reported on 2 April that two Meskhetian families have already been forced to leave the village of Nizhnebakanskaya. The paper quoted one local human rights activist as saying that the krai government is deliberately escalating the conflict between local Cossacks and Meskhetians. (Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev has been quoted as affirming that "Krasnodar is Cossack land.") But krai officials insist they are simply implementing the federal government's directive on combating illegal immigration. That argument fails to convince, however, insofar as most of the Meskhetians hold Soviet passports and settled in Krasnodar prior to the demise of the USSR.

The threatened expulsion of the Meskhetians from Krasnodar is only the most recent misfortune to befall a community that through no fault of its own has become a political football. The ethnogenesis of the Meskhetians is disputed: The present-day Meskhetian community comprises for the most part the descendants of some 90,000-100,000 predominantly Muslim inhabitants of villages in Georgia's southwestern border region who were deported en masse to Central Asia in 1944 on the orders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Thousands died en route.

Following Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's crimes at the XXth congress of the CPSU in 1956, most of the other ethnic groups deported during the second world war, including the Crimean Tatars and the Chechens and Ingush, were exonerated and allowed to return home. The Meskhetians, for reasons that remain unclear, were not, and they began lobbying the Soviet authorities for permission to do so.

That process, inevitably, acquired political dimensions. Both scholars and the Meskhetians themselves dispute their origins: Some consider them Georgians whose forebears converted to Islam when the Samtskhe-Djavakheti region of Georgia constituted part of the Ottoman Empire. They accordingly lobbied, without success, for permission to return to Georgia. Others believe they are ethnic Turks.

When Georgia was granted full membership in the Council of Europe in April 1999, it undertook to facilitate the return to Georgia over a period of 10 years of those Meskhetians who wished to settle there. A commission established one month earlier by President Eduard Shevardnadze drafted legislation that rehabilitates the Meskhetians and grants them Georgian citizenship. But the repatriation has foundered both on the enmity many Georgians still harbor toward the Meskhetians and on material considerations, primarily a shortage of funds and the question of where the returnees will live (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 32, 10 August 2000). A Council of Europe rapporteur who visited Tbilisi last month reaffirmed that those Meskhetians who wished to settle in Georgia should be permitted to do so, but at the same time acknowledged that it may not be possible to find accommodation for all of them in the region from which they, or their parents, were deported.

A further obstacle to the return of the Meskhetians to southwestern Georgia is the unequivocal objections of the region's large Armenian population, an indeterminate number of whom support demands by the Virk political movement for territorial autonomy within Georgia. Mediamax on 19 February quoted Virk co-Chairman Mels Raisian as saying that the Meskhetians' return to a region with 85-90 percent unemployment is unwarranted and inexpedient. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Rolf Ekeus similarly concluded during a visit to Tbilisi last month that resettling the Meskhetians in Samtskhe-Djavakheti would in all likelihood exacerbate tensions in the region.

But an Azerbaijani journalist writing in "Zerkalo" in February quoted data compiled by the Vatan Society that unites those Meskhetians who consider themselves Turks which show that only 12 of the 220 villages from which the Meskhetians were deported are located in parts of Djavakheti where the population is predominantly Armenian. And 86 of the remaining villages are either deserted or the abandoned homes are being used as summer dachas. Asked during a recent visit to Baku why the Meskhetians should not be allowed to settle in those villages, Georgian parliament Speaker Nino Burdjanadze said that Georgia cannot cope at present with a massive influx of Meskhetian resettlers in addition to the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIA'S AZERBAIJANI MINORITY AIRS GRIEVANCES. Media coverage, both Armenian and international, of the rising tensions among the Armenian population of Djavakheti (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 10, 14 March 2002) has tended to eclipse the grievances of Georgia's estimated 500,000-strong Azerbaijani minority. But some of the Azerbaijanis appear to have been monitoring the ongoing demands by the Djavakheti Armenians for improved economic and social conditions and employment opportunities and have recently raised their grievances in a bid to wrest comparable concessions from the Georgian government.

The Azerbaijanis in Georgia, who live compactly in four raions southeast of Tbilisi, have been complaining of discrimination since at least the early 1980s. But since the collapse of the USSR, the Georgian leadership has consistently argued that the problems which the Azerbaijani minority faces are no different from, and no greater than, the socioeconomic problems facing the country's population as a whole.

In recent months, however, the Azerbaijanis have raised several specific issues that, they say, constitute discrimination. First, they complained in December that Mikhail Makhmudov, an Azerbaijani who was in line to become a Georgian parliament deputy by virtue of his placement on the list of candidates elected under the proportional principle from the former ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), was passed over in favor of a Georgian placed directly below him on that list. On 8 February, Georgia's Central Election Commission annulled the decision of former SMK General Secretary Eduard Surmanidze sidelining Makhmudov, and on 28 February he was formally inducted as a parliamentary deputy, raising the number of Azerbaijani deputies to six.

Also in late February, the Georgian parliament's commission for civil integration met with members of the unofficial Azerbaijani organization Heyrat, which represents the interests of the Azerbaijani minority. The Azerbaijanis complained that there is no provision for teaching the Georgian language in Azerbaijani schools and asked that the upcoming ruling requiring that any candidate for a civil service position be fluent in Georgian be suspended. They also asked that the history and geography of Azerbaijan be taught in schools where the majority of pupils are Azerbaijanis.

A third grievance, raised by Azerbaijani activists both at that meeting and at a demonstration in Tbilisi on 27 March, was discrimination against Azerbaijanis in the allocation of plots of land.

The six Azerbaijani parliamentary deputies issued a statement in Tbilisi in late February categorically denying that the Azerbaijani minority is demanding territorial autonomy. But they may not be speaking for all their co-ethnics. One Georgian Azerbaijani, Kyamal Muradkhanli, has argued that the Azerbaijanis "should have equal rights with Georgia's Armenian population." He claimed that there are fewer Azerbaijani than Armenian parliament deputies, even though Azerbaijanis form a larger percentage of the total population, and that while local officials in Armenian-populated areas of Georgia are generally Armenians, in Azerbaijani-populated areas Georgians are named to such posts. He also described the six Azerbaijani parliamentary deputies as being "passive" and amenable to manipulation by the Georgian authorities.

Parliament Deputies Zumrud Gurbanly and Ramiz Bakirov have, in turn, dismissed Muradkhanly as an agent of Russian intelligence. (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJAN POPULAR FRONT PARTY INCHES CLOSER TO REUNIFICATION. Over the past few days, the heads of the two rival wings of the divided Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (AHCP) have separately reaffirmed their willingness to reunite (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 11, 21 March 2002). Such a merger would, as commentator Arzu Samedbeyli pointed out on 23 March, again make the AHCP the strongest Azerbaijani opposition party.

On 2 April, Ali Kerimli, chairman of the reformist AHCP wing, said the party's Supreme Council established a working group the previous day to prepare for talks with the "conservative" wing on the conditions for reuniting. He added that "none of our members is opposed to the party's reunion" but at the same time conceded that his rival within the leadership, Central Election Commission Secretary Gudrat Gasankuliev, has "a different attitude" toward "the party's interests and the most appropriate tactical moves" than does the majority of his wing's members. Gasankuliev has made no secret of his desire to head the reunited AHCP, and he was quoted on 4 April by the independent newspaper "Sharg" as affirming that he is confident of his ability to bring a reunited AHCP to power.

Also on 4 April, Mirmahmoud Fattaev, who heads the Front's "conservative" wing, told Turan that the unification "is under discussion" and that the merger "will be completed successfully" at an upcoming AHCP congress. (Liz Fuller)

NEW CHECHEN FORUM MEETS FOR FIRST TIME. There is already at least one alternative forum for promoting a political solution to the conflict in the Public Consultative Council (OKS) established under the auspices of the State Duma-Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) working group on Chechnya, which was established on the basis of a decision taken six months ago (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 33, 8 October 2001). That group met for the first time in Moscow on 15 March.

The OKS comprises some 30 representatives representing Chechen factions with widely diverging political views, including "pro-Maskhadov forces," according to its coordinator, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, who is also executive secretary of the Duma-PACE group. It can therefore function as a conduit whereby the Russian leadership can communicate with the Chechen president. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "The current protest actions by our opposition do not meet with support from society. We do not intend to appeal to the masses to fight on our behalf. They must fight in the first instance for themselves and their rights." -- Ali Kerimli, chairman of the reformist wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, in an interview published in "Ekho" on 15 March.

"I do not believe that a person with even on drop of Azerbaijani blood in his veins could agree to give up Azerbaijani territories." -- Nazim Imanov, a leading member of the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party, quoted by "Ayna/Zerkalo" on 12 March.

"Georgia is a small country, but it has iron nerves." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, quoted by Caucasus Press on 25 March.