An unfulfilled promise of Europe: The perennial exile of the Meskhetian Turks
Having read the headline of the present article, the interested reader might wonder: “Who are the Meskhetian Turks?” and, “What promise have they been waiting for to be fulfilled?” And the interested reader would not be alone in nor at fault for his ignorance. Indeed, the Meskhetian Turks, an ethnic group that formerly inhabited the Meskheti region of Georgia, have been, with their bitter experience of brutal deportation and over 70 years of living in exile, perhaps the most neglected group among the peoples forcibly uprooted by Stalin’s order in 1944. While their Turkic origins are subject to scholarly debate, today most of them perceive themselves as Turks. The unfulfilled promise can be understood in two parts: First, the Meskhetian Turks remain one of the few groups not to have been officially rehabilitated or allowed to return from their exile, and are currently dispersed over nine countries throughout the Eurasian territory of the former Soviet Union. Second, after Georgia’s accession to the Council of Europe in 1999, the country had been obliged to pass a law on the Meskhetian Turks’ repatriation. The law was passed by the post-Soviet Georgian administration in 2007, but to this day, no concrete policies aiming at the facilitation of the promised repatriation have followed. Both the Council of Europe and related international initiatives following the case have long since lost interest, in part due to their distraction by the persistent tensions surrounding Georgia’s separatist regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The perennial tension of the Meskhetian Turks, however, is and must be understood as a European problem.
The year 2014 marked the 70th anniversary of the Meskhetian Turk’s deportation, and Georgia for the first time has permitted an official memorial service to take place on Georgian soil. Ever since the night of November 15, 1944, the horrors of deportation and the desire to return to their homeland has been deeply entrenched in the collective memory. The dilemma of minority protection in the post-Soviet space is a too well known one throughout the European Union, where Brussel’s leverage all too often ends with the adoption of promising, but ultimately ineffective legal frameworks by new or prospective member states. The same applies to similar initiatives by the OSCE, or, in the present case, the Council of Europe.
“Georgia, Europe Started Here” was the slogan the Georgian Government’s Department of Tourism had emblazoned on its official website until 2011. Throughout the country, one will find many more references to the European-ness of Georgia, and the rhetoric of most of the elite is drenched with a European focused discourse. Georgia’s foreign policy is based on the tenet that Georgia is an old, if not the oldest, European country, one which has been taken down civilizational cul-de-sacs, be they in the guise of Persian, Ottoman, Russian, or Soviet empires, but which in recent years had sought to retake its rightful place in Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the narrative goes, liberated Georgia from the imposed communist experiment that had tucked it away far behind the Iron Curtain and destroyed the promise of the first independent Georgian republic of 1818-1921, suppressed by the Red Army shortly after enacting a democratic constitution.
Following and according to this discourse, communism’s collapse and Georgian independence created the opportunity for Georgia’s “return to Europe”. The best way to prove Georgia’s alleged European-ness, would have been to come to terms with the legacies with which it had been burdened by the 68 years lasting experiment of Soviet rule in Georgia. Initial steps of rapprochement seemed promising: In the mid-1990s, EU assistance to the country was seen as increasingly important, and a first Partnership and Cooperation Agreement was negotiated between Georgia and the EU. Georgia’s admission to the Council of Europe in 1999 was viewed as a further, essential symbolic step in Georgia’s path “back to Europe”. The Georgian Rose Revolution was eventually followed by the inclusion of Georgia and its neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, into the European Neighborhood Policy in November 2006. Despite these links and Georgia’s confrontation with European standards, its reluctance to face a historic responsibility reveals the limited reach of European institutions, as well as the absence of commitment to live up to a self-proclaimed European identity.
It is, to be fair, a heavy historical weight that Europe has been charged to lift. Some of Stalinism’s most atrocious crimes were committed on Georgian soil. Between 1936 and 1952, more than 20 major population groups, including eight entire ethnic groups, were displaced from their ancestral homelands on Stalin’s orders. Among these eight peoples, totaling over 2.2 million people, was the approximately 110,000-strong rural Muslim population of the mountainous region of Meskheti, whom Stalin ordered to be deported in 1943-44. Under the watchful eye of NKVD troops (the predecessor of the infamous KGB), the entire Muslim population from 220 villages of the region was rounded up, herded into cattle wagons and dumped thousands of kilometers away in Central Asian republics, primarily in the Fergana Valley, Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, as well as South Kazakhstan. It is believed that Stalin wanted to cleanse Southern Georgia of so-called ‘unreliable elements’, as he eyed Turkey’s provinces Kars, Ardahan and Artvin with the vision of reclamation after the end of World War II.
In February 1956, five of the eight peoples (the Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush and Balkars) were named in Khrushchev’s famous speech at the XX Communist Party Congress, in which deportations of national minorities were referred to as one of the crimes committed by Stalin. In 1957, these five groups were granted the right to return to their places of origin. In this speech, Khrushchev did not, however, mention the Turks of Meskheti.
In June 1989, two years before the fall of the Iron Curtain, this tragic fate would reach another low mark. In that year, the Meskhetian Turks living in Fergana province in Uzbekistan became victims of violence and riots, and more than 100 died. By order of the Soviet government, approximately all 17,000 Meskhetian Turks living in this region were evacuated to Central Russia. Nowadays, there are compact settlements of Meskhetian Turks in Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. There is also a considerable number of Meskhetian Turks in Turkey, where they are known as Ahiska Turks. It is hardly possible to determine the precise number of Meskhetian Turks. Current estimates vary significantly, since many Meskhetian Turks residing in Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries have been registered as Azeris or Uzbeks.
But why weren’t they resettled to their native homeland in Georgia? Despite their martyrdom, in 1989, the authorities of Georgia recommended that the government of the USSR should restrain from the repatriation of Meskhetian Turks to their places of previous residence. The major arguments offered as justification were the dearth of land and housing in the regions of previous residence of Meskhetians; overpopulation in the regions; the necessity of relocating people from areas exposed to recurring natural disasters; inability to provide work for repatriates; and fear of interethnic conflicts.
Today, 26 years later, the reasons brought forward by the Georgian administration for the stagnation of repatriation efforts, don’t differ much from those of the former socialist administration. Overall, Georgia seems to securitize the issue in public discourse, as Andrei Khanzhin, a renowned expert on the Meskhetian Turks, noted during an interview. To be fair, the challenge of integrating a Muslim population into a country that already has serious issues with several minority groups and two de-facto independent enclaves on its territory, concerns seem justified to a certain extent. Moreover, due to a history of ethnic clashes with Georgians and Armenians in the period prior to their deportation, Meskhetian repatriation is also met with overwhelming local resentment, including threats to resist the return by force.
The Meskhetian Turks themselves, while sharing the same ethnic origin, different age, class and gender hold to different views on their present and future. The right to return has had a central place in nearly all Meskhetian Turks’ demands, not because any of their leaders supposed that Georgia could take back 300,000 Meskhetian Turks and their descendants, but because of a deeply felt need for acknowledgement, encompassing recognition that the initial expulsion took place and that a primordial wrong was committed.
If Europe means to hold itself and those countries that would ascend to it, to the values it purports to believe in, and if it seeks to do so with an understanding of the challenges and complexities of that which it refers to as its own “neighborhood”, and if Georgia wants to make European-ness as much as a present marker as it is an origin story, then that is a wrong that must be righted.
The author of the article would like to express his gratitude to interviewee Andrei Khanzhin, co-author and editor of the book The Meskhetian Turks at Crossroads: Integration, Repatriation or resettlement? (LIT, Berlin, 2007), which has become an authoritative resource on Meskhetian issues for practitioners in Georgia and among international organizations, as well as within the academic community.
Photo credit: Paulo Araujo (Creative Commons).