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April 07, 2009, Tuesday

Return of Meskhetian Turks to Georgia delayed

Meskhetian Turks are a part of the Anatolian Turkish population. The homeland of the Meskhetians is a region consisting of 10 small Turkish districts, currently under the control of Georgia.This area was left to Russia under the April 1829 Treaty of Edirne between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. The said region remained in the Soviet Georgian part when the border between Turkey and Soviet Russia was agreed under the Treaty of Moscow signed on March 16, 1921. The Moscow administration, concerned about a possible rapprochement between Turkey and the Meskhetian Turks, exiled 120,000 people on the night of Nov. 15, 1944, to Central Asia. This started the Meskhetian Turks issue. Currently, about 500,000 Meskhetian Turks dispersed throughout Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and the Russian Federation are unable to return to their homeland in Georgia; more importantly, they are not allowed to become citizens of the countries wherein they reside. Thus, Meskhetian Turks are the only people unable to return to their homelands within the former Soviet Union territories.

During the membership process in the Council of Europe in 1999, the Georgian government pledged to pass a law allowing the Meskhetian Turks to return to their native land in two years, ensuring their integration with Georgian society, to implement this law within three years of the completion of the membership process and to complete the entire return process within seven years (by 2011). However, the Georgian administration has delayed the return of Meskhetian Turks to Georgia, arguing that the Rose Revolution in 2003-2004, political and economic troubles and the war with Russia in August 2008 made it unable to take the necessary steps.

The law promulgated on July 17, 2007, had been considered as an important step forward, ensuring the return of the Meskhetian Turks to their native land despite some of the unpleasant provisions included. According to this law, Meskhetians wanting to return to Georgia would be allowed to apply for return at the Ministry for Refugees and Settlement or the Georgian diplomatic missions based in the countries where they currently resided during the period between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2008. During the application process, they would be asked to present the documents issued by the Soviet authorities prior to their deportation in 1944. Georgian authorities declared that those who had lost these papers could acquire the necessary documents from the state archives; if it was not possible to replace the lost documents, the applicants could also confirm the loss via a court decision.

However, the law was not fully implemented for various reasons, including the presidential elections held in January and the parliamentary elections in May as well as the war with the Russian Federation in August 2008. For these reasons, the application period has been extended to July 1, 2009. The civil society organizations representing the Meskhetian Turks are unable to organize and consolidate their powers. The law requires that applications be made in either English or Georgian; however, the Meskhetian Turks speak Turkish and Russian. The supplementary documents required by the Georgian authorities in support of an application (health report, AIDS test, etc.) are costly -- about $400 must be spent on an application.

It is expected that the number of applications will have reached 40,000 by the time the deadline expires. Twenty thousand out of 80,000 Meskhetian Turks in Azerbaijan have already filed their applications although there is no interest for a return to Georgia among Meskhetians in Central Asia. About 12-20,000 applications might be declared inadmissible, due to not fulfilling the proper bureaucratic guidelines.

The problems of these people will remain and continue to be a serious issue beyond the application deadline; it is now high time for Turkey and Georgia to introduce reformative policies to deal with the problems of the Meskhetian Turks.

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