Like almost all countries, Georgia has a number of indigenous, rather than immigrant or displaced, national minorities. One of these is the Meskhetian or Meskh people. Some international bodies regard them as a variety of Turk, but Georgia has always maintained they are ethnic Georgians, and therefore natural citizens of the Georgian state, in much the same way Macedonians are regarded in Bulgaria.
But Georgia, despite centuries-long propaganda which morally obliges it to do so, has failed to ensure their repatriation from enforced exile and reintegration into the modern state. Why?
Who are the Meskhetians?
The Meskhetians are mostly ethnic Georgians who converted to Islam, some voluntarily but most not, in the sixteenth century when Georgia was under Ottoman rule. They are not, and never have been, ethnic Turks, merely “Turkish” by religion. The vast majority of Meskhetians consider themselves Georgian, and they always have.
They Meskhetians traditionally lived in Samtskhe-Javakheti in southern Georgia, and formed the majority in approximately 200 villages. However in the mid-twentieth century they were demonised by Stalin, and labelled Turks as a pretext to deport them from the border regions, in the same way the Chechens were under his rule.
According to a paper entitled Islam and Islamic Practices in Georgia, published in 2004 by George Sanikidze, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Georgian Academy of Sciences.
“After the establishment of Communist rule, Georgian-language secondary schools were replace by Azeri schools in areas with Georgian-speaking Muslim majorities, In addition, official document increasingly ignored the linguistic and cultural affiliations of Georgian speaking Muslims [in this region] …,
This did not take place in other Soviet regions with a high percentage of Moslems, such as Adjara, also in Georgia. The 1921 Treaty of Kars with Turkey guaranteed special rights to the local Moslems over matters of religion, culture and agriculture in a region they had administered for four centuries. But having thus shown how much they cared for the Moslems in the Caucasus the Soviets were quite happy to abuse other Moslem populations in the hope it would not be noticed, and the Meskhetians were major victims of this policy.
What Georgia is supposed to be doing?
The forced removal of various minorities from the Soviet Union was seen as a wrong to be righted by the countries which succeeded it. In 1999, when Georgia became a member of the Council of Europe (CoE), it agreed to adopt a legal framework to guarantee Meskhetian return and processed some applications by as early as 2007. Under the legislation adopted, applications would have to be made by June 1, 2009, and repatriation completed by 2011. But this timetable has not been adhered to.
More than 12,000 applications were filed, primarily by a Moscow-based organisation. But only a handful of Meskhetians have returned, perhaps no more than 1,000, and some of these have self-repatriated, or have since moved on to other countries. Most also found themselves unable to settle in their native region, from where Stalin had deported 90,000 of them in cattle cars in 1944 to Central Asia.
One of the most famous Meskhi was the Georgian national poet Shota Rustaveli. You will find no Georgian who regards this iconic Georgian cultural figure as Turkish. Yet the reason successive Governments of Georgia have privately given for dragging their feet is “a large-scale return of Meskhetians could destabilise the ethnic balance in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region” by reintroducing Georgians to it.
It is true that Samtskhe-Javakheti is primarily inhabited by ethnic Armenians, and such are the sensitivities to the Armenian minority, and its supposed desire to make Javakheti part of Armenia at the first opportunity, that importing more Georgians into the region carries political and security risks. However most ethnic Armenians are fairly well-integrated into Georgian society and speak the Georgian language. There may be an undercurrent of pan-Armenian sympathy in Javakheti, but that is irrelevant to the question of Meskhetian repatriation.
Nor are the Armenians objecting to the return of the Meskh in significant numbers. Most of the objections to the repatriation are coming from other Georgians, who choose to believe the Soviet-era propaganda that they are actually Turks and a perceived threat.
If the Government of Georgia thinks differently, as it has always maintained, it can validly claim that it “has to take the feelings of its electorate into account” if it does not want to take responsibility for fellow Georgians. However it cannot claim they are Georgian on the one hand, and then claim their entry will destabilise the ethnic balance in a Georgian region because they are not Georgian enough.
So what is the problem?
The real reasons for Georgia’s procrastination are not connected with the views of the local population, which are not often part of any Georgian government’s calculations. A bigger game is going on in which the Georgian agreement to resettle the Meskhetians, and consequent failure to do so, are merely a double bluff.
As soon as the programme of repatriating Meskhetians to Georgia was announced the US State Department stepped in. About 15,000 applicants were diverted to the US under a “special resettlement” programme. Since Georgia agreed to accept them about 15 times more Meskhetians more have ended up in the US than in Georgia, with new Meskhetian communities in Dayton, Ohio, Philadelphia and about 30 states forming almost overnight.
It is also known that the US government’s list of groups of “special humanitarian concern” refers to the Meskhi as Meskhetian Turks, not ethnic Georgians or Georgian-Meskhetians. They were put on this list during Soviet times following clashes with ethnic Uzbek in the Fergana Valley, which resulted in many being resettled in Krasnodar Krai. They remained on the list even after their fear of persecution was officially considered to no longer have any foundation. Nearly sixty percent of the Meskhetians who ended up in the US had Russian passports and residence documents.
The Moscow-based organisation which filed most of the repatriation applications is called Vatan. This NGO has long been active in promoting the repatriation of Meskhetians, but has also been accused of likewise supporting the idea that they are nevertheless Turkish.
In consequence, many Meskhetians in Russia have failed to file applications to return because they feel it damages their case to be branded ethnic Turks by Vatan, and try and get into Georgia on that basis. Why this organisation would try so hard to get a group of non-nationals resettled in someone else’s country is a matter of considerable debate.
Open sources explain that “it is unknown how many Meskhetians in Russia really wish to return, and how much Vatan is using the repatriation process to bring publicity to their cause.” As most of those who applied to go to Georgia actually ended up in the US, it can be inferred that Vatan’s activities are indeed largely a propaganda exercise designed to obscure some darker programme.
Stalin had method in his madness
Stalin did not brand the Meskhetians as Turks without reason. In time-honoured fashion, he was trying to split any potential opposition. As a Georgian himself he knew that nationalism was a way of life rather than a cause for his people, one with greater foundation than the Soviet state or his rule of it.
He therefore sought to divide Georgians and other nationalities by breaking them up, creating artificial borders and treating various “created nationalities” differently from other members of the nation they really belonged to. Many of these ethnic time bombs he thus imposed are still with us to this day.
Georgia doesn’t want another ethnic time bomb on its territory, given its history with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and its sometimes fractious relations with the countries its other minorities originated from. Some opposition parties see the repatriation as a “betrayal of Georgian values”, and although the need for historic justice is generally understood and appreciated, returnees who have lost their ties to Georgia’s religion, culture, language, traditions and way of life will inevitably be seen as traitors by other Georgians who have endured everything to release themselves from “foreign domination”.
It is known that the US is aware of this. In a leaked cable, former US Ambassador John Tefft highlighted these issues, and also the fact that if Georgia succeeds in joining NATO it could well see Turkish troops based in Georgia, as in the days of the Ottoman yoke every Georgian hears about in their school history lessons, with the Meskhetians seen as their fellow travellers. But what exactly is the US position on this question?
What is really going on?
Georgia and its paymasters have a lot to gain by supporting the restoration of historic justice. Recognising that the descendants of your own people, deported from your country when it was under foreign occupation, have a right to return to it is a strong tool for forging nationhood. The more of your own people can be settled within your borders, the more loyal they will be to your state, the more your state can justify its existence and the more it can thus be used as a legitimate, sovereign base for whatever your paymasters actually want to do there.
But doing this would resolve too many problems. It would render irrelevant a cause which binds a distinct group of people together. The US still refers to the Meskhetians as Meskhetian Turks, even while theoretically supporting their right to return to Georgia, because it can still use their cause to its advantage if they are classified as a separate people. They can be played off against Russia, which both drove them out and took them in, and Turkey, where they either belong or don’t belong.
But why does the US want to do this?
Ask a Chechen or Kist. Find out who the terrorists in the Pankisi gorge are, who trains them, who funds them, how they were imported to certain localities and have better lives then their Georgian neighbours. Find out how many deported Chechens have returned compared with the numbers in the United States. Work out where the practical loyalties of those who receive US material benefits really lie. Work out whether it is more acceptable to the outside world to say you want them to go home or to support their original removal and continuing dislocation.
The Chechens who went from Pankisi to Ukraine rapidly became Georgian citizens when they had shot enough people in Maidan Square. Maybe this is the pathway to returning to their homeland both Georgia and the US wants the Meskhetians to tread.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.