The return of the Meskhetians
by David Nissman
On May 15, the Turan news agency carried a statement from EduardShevardnadze’s personal representative for human rights on Georgia’swillingness to allow the repatriation of at least some MeskhetianTurks to Georgia. Two months later, Shevardnadze himself announcedthat Georgia was willing to permit the return of a few Meskhetianfamilies. These news items highlighted the fact that the Meskhetianshad been deported from their homelands in Georgia in 1944 andnow resided in various other locations throughout the former SovietUnion. Their tragedy as a people is, regrettably, one shared byrepresentatives of some sixty other nations, beginning from thelate 1930s and lasting throughout the present. Especially forthe Meskhetians, it has been a very bad century. But who are theMeskhetians? And what did they do that led to the expulsion fromtheir ancestral homes in the 1930s, their exile as a people fromGeorgia to various parts of Central Asia in 1944, and their forceddeparture from Uzbekistan in 1989?
The Origins of a People
The Meskhetians are ethnic Georgians who were both turkifiedand Islamized sometime at the end of the 18th century. They traditionallyinhabited the areas known as Akhaltsikh and Akhalkalak along thepresent Georgian-Turkish border, a region called Meskhet-Javekhetiain classical literature. After the Russian Empire had solidifiedits hold over Georgia, imperial bureaucrats referred to the Meskhetiansas "Georgian-Sunnites." Census reports from Tsaristtimes established that some 59,000 Georgian-Muslims, 80,000 Armenians,3,000 Kurds and 1,000 Terekeme (known under their deportationname of Khemshils (turkified Armenians) lived in that region.
The first Soviet census in 1926 established that the ethnic distributionin Akhaltsikh and Akhalkalak remained unchanged since the Tsaristperiod. It should be added that the area was geographically favoredwith good soil, good pastures, and a thriving industry in wine,beer and the manufacture of furniture. Unfortunately, the areawas also in a poor geopolitical position: it bordered Turkeyand the population was not considered to be, by the standardsof Soviet vigilance established by Stalin and his Ministry ofDefense, politically reliable.
A Stalinist decree in June 1937 created special control zonesfor regions along the Turkish, Iranian and Afghani borders. Abyproduct of this decree was that the population in these newborder zones was automatically deemed "politically unreliable"by the authorities. Such peoples were to be resettled in CentralAsia: at first in Kazakhstan, later in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.Although little is known about the precise ethnic breakdown ofthe first wave of deportations from these regions of Georgia,21,064 "resettler households" were deported to Kazakhstanby March 1939, according to a recently published archival document. These deportees included Koreans, Turks, Armenians and Kurds.The legal reasoning for the deportation was based on the conceptof "preventive incrimination" and it is known that thisconcept was first applied to Turk-Meskhetians, Kurds and Khemshins.(Despite these implications, 40,000 Meskhetians subsequently foughtin the Red Army, and eight of them received the Hero of the SovietUnion medal for their bravery and courage in combat.)
In July 1944, the second wave of deportations began, and 16,700households of Turks, Kurds and Khemshins were moved from the Georgianborderlands, including Ajaria, to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.By the end of the year, a total of 77,000 people had been movedfrom the Meskhetian regions. An essay about the deportation publishedin a Georgian literary magazine in 1989 under the title "We– the Meskhetians" mentioned that the Meskhetians themselvestended to justify the deportation by thinking that Russia wasgoing to war with Turkey and that Stalin, in his infinite wisdomand compassion, was moving a peaceful population away from theborder for their own protection! It is notable that America playedan unwitting role in this deportation process: deportees wereconveyed in Studebakers newly acquired via the lend-lease programto the railroad stations from whence they were to be sent to theirnew locations.
Shevardnadze’s representative claimed that during 1944, 90,000Meskhetians were deported. Added to the figures from the late1930s, one obtains a figure of more than 100,000 Meskhetian deportees. Now they want to come back.
The Rehabilitation of the Meskhetians
In 1968 the Georgian Supreme Soviet declared that the Meskhetians,Kurds, Turks and Khemshins had been deported without cause andwere, in fact, innocent of all crimes. But they were not allowedto return from their place of exile. Aside from the rehabilitationdecree, all mention of the Meskhetians disappears from the media,including samizdat archived in the West. This does not mean thatthey had lost their sense of identity, or their receptivenessto trends spreading throughout the then USSR. A year later, theCrimean Tatar Movement for Return to the Homeland came to prominencewhen several members of its leadership were put on trial in Tashkentfor various anti-Soviet activities, including their natural desireto return to the Crimea from which they had been exiled as a nationin 1944.
The Crimean Turks were also concentrated in Uzbekistan, in theFerghana Valley in fact; in other words, in the same region wherethe Meskhetians themselves had concentrated. The Meskhetian Turksand the Crimean Turks must have been well aware that they hadboth been unjustly condemned to live away from their homelands.The full light of publicity, however, fell on the Crimean exiles;perhaps the Meskhetians were less vocal, or less attractive tothe Moscow dissidents who took up the Crimean cause. For whateverreason, almost nothing was heard about the Meskhetians for anothertwenty years.
The Expulsion of the Meskhetians from Uzbekistan
In the spring of 1989, clashes took place between the Uzbeksand the Meskhetian community in Uzbekistan. The clashes reachedtheir culmination in June of that year. The cause of the clasheshas never been explained. Moscow maintained that the high rateof unemployment, coupled with Meskhetian favoritism in the region,was the cause; others suggested that the Meskhetians had laidclaim to the best lands and that Uzbeks were excluded from theprocess; and still others implied that the conflict was createdto divert public attention from the Gdlyan-Ivanov affair thatallegedly involved the effort by the state to quash a criminalsyndicate which had stolen an immense amount of gold. At thispoint, it does not matter what the cause in fact was, the resultwas the Meskhetian were condemned to wandering once again.
In the wake of the Uzbek-Meskhetian clashes, the Meskhetiansleft Uzbekistan as refugees, this time heading towards Azerbaijanand Kyrgyzstan: in an interview granted to Kommunist,the Azerbaijan daily newspaper, in June 1989, F. Khalmukhammedov,a secretary of the UzSSR CP, still held out hopes that the 10,000Meskhetian refugees in Azerbaijan would return to Uzbekistan.In Kyrgyzstan, the government was more sanguine about it: theyset up an "operational staff" to handle the influx ofthe some 4,000 Meskhetians who had already arrived from Uzbekistan.
Ever more Meskhetians arrived in Azerbaijan: an article on thisnew surge of refugees lamented that "it is impossible toprovide all of them with warm houses all at once." The refugeeswere resettled in Saatly rayon, a politically active Lezgian regionof Azerbaijan. The Lezgians were also involved in their own nationalliberation movement and tensions were already high between Sadval(the Lezgian movement) and the Azeri authorities. It is worthnoting that a teacher in Tabasaran Rayon in Daghestan (the otherregion struggling with the Lezgian insurgents) contributed 1,000rubles to the support of the refugees — not much, but a thousandrubles more than the entire world community. The new refugeesdid not ease tensions between the Azeri government and Sadval.These were not the only refugees Azerbaijan had to contend with:by the end of 1989 there were more than 200,000 Azeri refugeesfrom Armenia and Nagorno-Karabagh who also needed support.
By 1991, there were approximately 60,000 Meskhetians in Azerbaijan,awaiting permission to return to their homelands in Georgia. Georgiahas its problems: its economy is in a state of collapse, thereis constant tension with the Abkhazians, and the Meskhetians wishto return to the lands they were forced to evacuate more than50 years ago. According to Shevardnadze’s spokesman, "therights of the Turks-Meskhetians will be restored, they will receiveprivileges, will be exempted from taxes and can choose whateverplace they like to live in the territory of Meskhetia." Healso said that 40 families would be permitted to return. He alsonoted that there were some 300,000 Meskhetians also awaiting tochance to return. At the current rate of return, the Meskhetianswill suffer well into the next century as well.
David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.