MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 522: excerpts

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Wed Dec 23 14:50:44 2009


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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 522, December 5, 2009

TBILISI CRITICISED OVER REPATRIATION
REQUESTS  Tens of thousands of Meskhetians apply to come
home, but Georgian officials accused of not doing enough
to help them.  By Fati Mamiashvili in Tbilisi

GEORGIA:
COLLAPSE OF ARMENIAN CHURCH PROVOKES ROW  Armenian
minority say incident illustrates their limited rights in the
country.  By Lela Iremashvili in Tbilisi and Hasmik
Hambardzumyan in Yerevan

AZERIS FACE SPENDING CRUNCH 
Economic experts warn budget cut resulting from falling oil
revenues could harm most vulnerable.  By Kenan Guluzade in
Baku

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TBILISI CRITICISED OVER REPATRIATION REQUESTS

Tens of thousands of Meskhetians apply to come home, but Georgian
officials accused of not doing enough to help them.

By Fati
Mamiashvili in Tbilisi

The Georgian government is coming under fire for its handling of
requests for resettlement from Meskhetians, an ethnic group deported by
Stalin in 1944.

The Turkish-speaking Meskhetians were among a group of nations exiled
from the Caucasus in 1943-4 on charges of treachery, but - unlike the
Chechens, Karachais and others - have never been allowed to return home.

They lived mainly in Uzbekistan until 1989, when ethnic clashes with
local Uzbeks drove them out. Most ended up in Azerbaijan and southern
Russia and have been there ever since, although Georgia committed a
decade ago to allow them back to into the country.

Around 10,000 Meskhetians who lived in Russia’s Krasnodar region were
resettled in the United States following clashes with the local
population, but the majority of the deported nation remains in limbo.

So far, the government has received more than 70,000 requests from
Meskhetians wanting to return to Georgia.

They have until the end of this year to register for resettlement in
Georgia, after which a special state commission will examine their
claims and decide within four months if they have a right to move to
Georgia.

Activists in Georgia, however, say the government has done too little to
ensure the Meskhetians will be able to settle in Georgia. Some previous
returnees have been forced to re-emigrate because they have failed to
find work in their ancestral homeland.

“The Meskhetians in Georgia have no work. They rent land, grow onions,
potatoes, other vegetables. This is the only source of earnings for our
family,” said Geydar Latifov, a Meskhetian who moved to Georgia seven
years ago.

He said he has all the documents required to show that his family
originated in the village of Chechla, in the Adigeni district, but the
nine
members of his family were still unable to obtain Georgian citizenship.

“My daughter Mariam was born seven months ago in Gori. I want her to
have our real Georgian surname, Pipinadze. I have appealed repeatedly
with this request to the authorities, but they keep refusing me,” he
said.

Experts and activists say the government has not done nearly enough to
help the returning Meskhetians find a place to live and work, and that
the legal basis of their return is also doubtful.

“In the first place, it is necessary to increase the number of people
working on their repatriation. It is necessary to set up a more or less
independent service, which will control this process. It is necessary to
solve the questions of housing, language and many others,” said Temur
Lomsadze, deputy chairman of the Fund for Assistance of Repatriation.

Iulon Gagoshidze, the state minister for diaspora matters, said
Meskhetians could receive Georgian surnames, and a fast-track route to
citizenship if they provided all the correct documents to the state
commission. But activists say it is very hard for them to produce
documents, considering the regular disruptions they have suffered since
their deportation.

They need to collect 13 different documents, printed either in Georgian
or English, which is difficult since most of them speak Russian. The
Meskhetian organisation Vatan said it costs 100 to 120 US dollars to
collect the documents, which is a huge sum for many would-be repatriants
and a problem that the government says it is working on.

“I have met Meskhetians living in Azerbaijan. They live very poorly, and
all the necessary certificates - birth, marriage, health conditions,
place of residence - must be paid for and are not cheap. But it is
hardest of all to find archive materials to confirm their deportation in
the 1940s,” Gagoshidze said.

Even if the Meskhetians manage to collect all their documents, their
problems are not over, since financial help from the state will be
minimal or non-existent. New arrivals must find their own homes, and
their own work, according to Paata Beltadze, a lawyer.

“By law, the state must give them a fast track to citizenship, but the
law does not include any financial obligations,” he said.

Gagoshidze said he was aware of the problems faced by new arrivals, but
that Georgia had so many refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia to
deal with that it was not able to support them.

“Six Meskhetian families have already left Georgia for ever because they
were not provided with conditions to live,” he said.

Activists say other Meskhetians could share their fate if the government
did not take its obligations to them more seriously.

“If the government of Georgia wants these people to be able to
integrate, they need courses in the Georgian language, trips around the
country, and so on. And the most important thing is that they need
financial support, either from the state, or from a donor organisation,”
Eka Metreveli, an expert in the Meskhetians' problems, said.

Latifov is still hopeful though that his fellow Meskhetians will come
home.

“We have a house and land in Azerbaijan, which we will sell if we
receive citizenship, get our old surnames back and are given help to
improve our living conditions,” he said.

But it looks unlikely that they would be able to move to their former
homes, which are in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. Javakheti is mainly
now home to Armenians and Georgians and the government will want to
avoid any potential conflict between them and the returnees.

“I do not think it would be correct to settle all the repatriants
together in Javakheti. This would involve the creation of a new large
compact population, conflicts with the local population, and also will
not help the integration of the Meskhetians into Georgian society,” said
Tsira Meskhishvili, head of the organisation Tolerant.

“Our organisation has worked on the question of repatriation for five
years, and worked with the local population, to prepare it for the
return of the Meskhetians. However, the local residents still are very
negatively inclined to this and feel aggression towards them. We must be
very careful in the question of their resettlement.”

Fati Mamiashvili is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.


GEORGIA: COLLAPSE OF
ARMENIAN CHURCH PROVOKES ROW

Armenian minority say incident illustrates their limited rights in the
country.

By Lela Iremashvili in Tbilisi and Hasmik Hambardzumyan in Yerevan

The collapse of an Armenian church in Tbilisi has angered Georgia’s
Armenians and provoked accusations that the government is not protecting
ethnic minority rights.

The Saint Gevorg of Mughni church dated from the 13th century and stood
in the Georgian capital’s historic centre until it fell down on November
19. No one was hurt, but locals blamed the government, saying it had
failed to protect a religious monument.

“They spent money on all these secondary things. Now, for New Year, they
have hung lights above all the roads. Meanwhile churches, and many
houses, are still not repaired,” Gayane Khachturova, a resident of
Tbilisi’s old town, said.

“The government needs to spend its money correctly.”

The authorities promised to restore the church immediately, but did not
manage to head off outrage in Armenia, where people feel the Georgian
government discriminates against the Armenian Apostolic Church. 

Students, politicians, religious figures and youth groups protested
outside the Georgian embassy in Yerevan on November 24, demanding the
registration of their church by Tbilisi and the return of buildings
confiscated in the Soviet era.

"Georgia’s conduct over the issue is impermissible and unacceptable for
a civilised and Christian country,” said Vahan Hovhannisian, a member of
the Armenian parliament from the nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party. 

"Only international pressure on Georgia can work here and this is what
we intend to do.”

Dashnaktsutiun, and other Armenian groups, said the Georgian government
had ignored calls for the church to be restored and persistently refused
to satisfy the demands of the Armenian minority, which makes up about
five per cent of the Georgian population.

Ethnic Georgians, who are almost 80 per cent of the population, are
overwhelmingly Orthodox and their church has different beliefs to the
Armenian Apostolic Church. The Orthodox Church has strong influence in
the country, and Armenians say their own faith is discriminated against
as a result.

“Of course, the Georgian Orthodox Church is to blame here, since it is
very aggressive against national and religious minorities. Today, as a
result of this aggression, no religious movement in Georgia apart from
the Orthodox Church has legal registration,” said Shirak Torosian, a
member of the Armenian parliament from the Republican Party and chairman
of the Javakhk union, which campaigns for Georgia’s Armenian minority.

His words found support in Georgia, where activists accused the Georgian
government of not taking enough care of ethnic minorities. Armenian and
Georgian believers have regularly clashed over the ownership of
churches, with Armenians accusing their rivals of effectively stealing
buildings that belonged to them before the Bolshevik revolution.

“The Georgian authorities explain the delay in repairing the church of
Saint Gevorg by referring to its disputed ownership, but this is not a
genuine reason. Other churches are in the same condition, and those are
ones that the Armenian church has no claim to. The situation must be
resolved,” said Arnold Stepanyan, chairman of the pressure group
Multinational Georgia.

“At the moment the Armenian Apostolic Church is asking for the return of
five churches in Georgia. Four of them are in Tbilisi, and one is in
Akhaltsikhe… It is hard to estimate the number of Armenian churches on
Georgian territory, since different researchers and organisations give
different figures. The figure normally given is 150.”

Nikoloz Vacheishvili, head of the National Agency for the Preservation
of Cultural Heritage, said the church, which is owned by the state and
has not operated since Soviet times, would be restored at once.

“Work on the restoration of the church has already started. Now, the
parts needing urgent repair are being strengthened by Tbilisi city
hall,” he said.

“These works will be finished by April or May 2010. After that a budget
will be prepared and sources of financing identified for the restoration
work.”

He said a commission could also be set up, containing officials and
religious leaders from Armenia and Georgia, to decide to whom the church
really belongs. He said a group of officials from Armenia had come for
talks already.

“We invited them to take part in the drafting work, and in the
restoration work. I think our Armenian colleagues were satisfied,” he
said.

Stepanyan, however, said the main problem was that the Armenian
Apostolic Church did not enjoy the same advantages in Georgia as the
Georgian Orthodox Church. He said the lack of registration made it
difficult for Armenian religious communities to pay taxes, to register
property, and to reach believers in prison – since that required
permission from the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The Georgian Patriarchate, however, said the lack of registration was
not its doing, and urged the government to afford the Armenians legal
status.

“This is a question for the state, and not for the Orthodox Church. I
think that some kind of status must be awarded to them. Of course, this
must not be same as that of the Orthodox Church with its special role in
the history of the country, but there must be a particular legal
status,” said Gerasime, Metropolitan of Zugdidi and head of the
patriarchate’s department for external affairs.

“As far as I know, this question is now under discussion.”

Lela Iremashvili is a freelance journalist. Hasmik Hambadzumyan is a
reporter with Panorama online.

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