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Repatriation of Meskhetian Turks still a divisive issue

By Shorena Labadze
Tuesday, July 15
Over a year after parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of a draft law on the return of Meskhetian Turks to Georgia, the issue is still proving divisive.

Last week the UK-Georgia Professional Network organized an informal event on the issue, screening a documentary film on Meskhetian Turks and hosting a public discussion.

The film documents Meskhetian Turks that have already returned to their historic homeland of Meskheti—what is, roughly, today’s Samtskhe-Javakheti province—in southwestern Georgia.

Provided they declared themselves to be ethnically Georgian, Tbilisi has allowed the return of Meskhetians since the 1990s. Last year parliament passed a law on the official procedure of their repatriation, in accordance with a Council of Europe commitment.

“The people didn’t have contact with us at all. They even used to throw stones and insult us, but now we have warm relations with them,” a small Meskhetian Turk girl says in the film. She had recently converted from Islam to Christianity.

Nika Chitadze, a political science academic, said the local population in Meskheti is extremely averse to the topic in general.

“I have visited those people and they don’t even want to hear about it [the issue of returning Meskhetian Turks]. Some say they will move if Meskhs come, others say they will fight with them,” Chitadze said.

There is concern amongst some sections of society that the Islamic Meskhetian Turks pose a threat to the Georgian nation.

Former MP and leader of the People’s Front party Nodar Natadze criticized the film for only portraying the positive “good sides” and not the “black points” of repatriation.

Natadze says they mostly identify themselves simply as Turks and not Meskhetian Turks. This, he adds, is cause for concern as Georgia’s “national safety” will be under threat if thousands of “Turk people” relocate to the country.

Nika Chitadze, the academic, also says that “national safety” is a factor that must be considered.

“Georgia must undertake the responsibility to protect social, religious, political and economic rights in general, but there is also the issue of ‘national safety’ and we can’t turn a blind eye to this,” he says.

Government officials have played down concerns over the repatriation procedure.

“The repatriation process will be conducted first by taking back the people who have relatives now living in Meskheti. It will be carried out gradually. We won’t let them settle densely…We don’t need new villages,” says Irakli Kokaia, the head of a department for repatriation.

The eligibility criteria for repatriation is strict. So much so that Elene Tevdoradze, the former head of parliament’s Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee, described it last year as a “law of non-repatriation.”

Hopeful returnees must have documentary evidence that their relatives were deported, and they have a small window in which to apply for repatriation—this calendar year. The State Ministry for Refugees and Resettlement has received only 15 applications so far.

Historian Davit Japaridze says the exact number of the Meskhetian Turks is not known. It is widely thought to be in the region of 300 000 to 400 000.

Manana Elbakidze of the Caucasian Institute says the low number of applications received so far indicates the law is not effective.

Meanwhile Nodar Natadze, the political party leader who warned of the danger repatriation poses to Georgia’s national security, also criticized the law for being “discriminative” towards Meskhetian Turks.

“The law doesn’t consider the interests of the people and violates their human rights…The way out is working on a new law,” Natadze said.

Meskhetian Turks were forcibly deported from Georgia in 1944. When Georgia joined the Council of Europe in 1999, Tbilisi undertook to begin the repatriation process within three years and complete it in 12.

The event was part of UK-Georgia Professional Network’s Platform for Debate project that aims to provide a neutral platform debating public policies.