MINELRES: IWPR: Meskhetians head for America

MINELRES moderator minelres@lists.microlink.lv
Fri Aug 13 19:49:21 2004


Original sender: Institute for War & Peace Reporting <info@iwpr.net>



MESKHETIANS HEAD FOR AMERICA

Some of the world's most displaced people have left southern Russia for
Philadelphia.

By Mikhail Savva in Krasnodar

In the latest leg of an extraordinary 60-year odyssey, three small
groups of Meskhetian Turks left southern Russia for the United States at
the end of last month, as part of a US State Department-sponsored
initiative.

The departure of the first group of 11 Meskhetians on July 21 followed
years of wrangling with the local authorities in the Krasnodar region,
who had made them feel unwelcome for more than a decade. 

For the older people amongst them, Russia was their third place of
residence and the US will be their fourth, after southern Georgia, where
they were born, and Uzbekistan, where they were deported by Stalin in
1944. In 1989, tens of thousands of Meskhetian Turks fled Central Asia
after a pogrom against them, ending up in Russia and Azerbaijan.

Their problems in Krasnodar came to a boil last year as old Soviet
passports were phased out and replaced by new Russian ones. Many of the
Meskhetians living in Krasnodar region did not receive Russian
citizenship, and refused to take the "immigration cards" offered them.
As a result, January 1 this year left many Meskhetians without any
proper identity papers at all.

Accompanying his family to Krasnodar airport, as they left for
Philadelphia on July 21, Tianshan Svanidze, head of the local Turkish
Community organisation, said that the offer of "immigration cards" -
generally given to temporary visitors to Russia - had been entirely
unacceptable, "as we arrived in Russia in 1989, when the Soviet Union
still existed. But the authorities in the Kuban [Krasnodar region] are
refusing to register us and give our children Russian passports, and as
a result our people have been completely disenfranchised." 

Svanidze followed his family to the United States soon afterwards.

To many it seems surprising that the issue of 12,000 Meskhetians should
be such an emotive one in a province containing five million people,
many from other non-Russian ethnic backgrounds. 

Their strong traditions and high birth rate have antagonised some
locals, particularly the local Kuban Cossacks, who are traditionally
highly distrustful of Muslims and "aliens".

The Meskhetian Turks, who generally prefer to call themselves "Ahiska
Turks", are a close-knit group who lived in southern Georgia for
generations. In November 1944, some 120,000 people from the region - the
overwhelming majority of them Meskhetian Turks - were forcibly
transported to Central Asia. Unlike most of the other "punished
peoples", however, the Meskhetian Turks were not allowed to return in
the Fifties.

In 1989, around 13,000 resettled in the Krasnodar region from Central
Asia. Of the 12,000 Meskhetian Turks now living there, over 7,000 have
no Russian citizenship or residential registration required by law, but
as they had been living here already when the Russian Citizenship Act
took effect in 1992, citizenship should have been granted to them
automatically.

The majority of the Meskhetians are not registered locally and this
means that they cannot register their marriages or their cars or get
international passports.

Over the last few years their plight began to attract the interest of
international human rights groups, as well as the international refugee
agenices, the International Organisation for Migration, the IOM, and the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR. 

Alvaro Gil-Robles, commissioner on human rights for the Council of
Europe, who visited the region, said the local Meskhetians should
ideally be given three options: those wishing to emigrate to the US
should be able to do so. Similarly, those wishing to go to Georgia
instead should have that opportunity, but he said "this might be
problematic, since the Georgian side is involved". On the other hand,
those wishing to stay should also be able to do so.

Georgia agreed to allow the return of Meskhetian Turks as one of the
conditions for its entry into the Council of Europe in 1999, but almost
no progress has been made since then.

Russian human rights commissioner Vladimir Lukin, who accompanied
Gil-Robles on his tour, promised to petition the Russian Constitutional
Court to determine the status of the Meskhetian Turks in the Krasnodar
Province. Lukin also strongly criticised the Council of Europe for not
putting enough pressure on the Georgian government to change its stance
on the Meskhetians.

Eventually, in February 2004 the US government came up with a plan for a
voluntary resettlement of the Meskhetian Turks from the Krasnodar region
to the United States. The programme, administered by the IOM, accepts
resettlement applications only from Turks residing in Krasnodar region,
but not from neighbouring parts of Russia.

Mark Brown, who manages the resettlement programme for the IOM, said
that more than 5,000 Meskhetians in the region had applied to emigrate
to the US.

Krasnodar's controversial governor Alexander Tkachev has not concealed
his delight that the Meskhetians are leaving. "Kuban residents have
waited a long time for this to happen," he said. "The process has begun,
and we will be acting in a civilised manner, in full compliance with the
law. From the day they [Meskhetian Turks] came here, they have enjoyed
free healthcare, schooling and kindergarten care on an equal footing
with the natives. They have had many years to naturalise and accept the
Kuban lifestyle, but they have failed."

The Russian federal authorities have remained more of a detached
onlooker than active participant in resolving the Meskhetian issue, and
the breakthrough is being hailed by local non-governmental organisations
as a success for their activism.

The case is part of a wider issue of migration to Krasnodar region,
which the local authorities are seeking to restrict. Only 12,000
migrants came to Krasnodar region last year compared with 90,000 in
1992, as the local authorities try to restrict immigration. If this
trend continues, the influx of migrants to Kuban will soon be unable to
make up for the natural population loss.

Mikhail Savva is a professor at Kuban State University and a board
member of the Southern Regional Resource Centre, a Krasnodar-based
non-government organisation.