July 7th, 2007 by jibs
Joseph Stalin collectively punished the Meskhetians (or Meskhetian Turks) for alleged treason of the USSR. The Meskhetians, usually of Turkish orientation and predominantly Muslim, used to live in the southern part of Georgia (Meskheti) along the Turkish border. Supposedly, they were prepared to side with the Turkish army in case it invaded the Soviet Union during the World War Two. This, of course, never materialized, but the Meskhetian Turks were not absolved of the crime they never committed: as a result 100,000 Meskhetians were deported to the central Asia in 1944.
The Meskhetians were deported twice. In 1989, a pogrom in Uzbekistan was carried out against the Meskhetians, who for their own security had to be airlifted by the Soviet military to Azerbaijan, Ukraine, the Krasnodar and Stavropol krai and Kabardino-Balkaria in Russia, where (except for Azerbaijan) their presence is resented both by the population and the regional authorities.
The question of repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks was raised on many occasions, often involving a bitter controversy within the Georgian society. Today, on the background of Georgia’s strive to live up to the “European standards” in almost all economic, social and political spheres, and its top priority to regain control over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Meskhetian question is raised once again. The acting government of Mikheil Saakashvili seems to be taking steps towards their repatriation, while most opposition parties are doing their best to oppose this process.
Everything about the Meskhetians is entangled in controversy, even the basics about who they are, where they come from or whether Meskheti is really their home.
What do the Georgian historians say?
Meskhetians are the descendants of the deported Tatars, and this is how we should call them. They are not Muslim Georgians, but are Tatars.
According to Maskharashvili, in 1625 the local governor allied with the Ottomans and helped establish a garrison for the Ottoman army in Meskheti region. The Meskhetians, he argues, are thus the descendants of those soldiers and have nothing to do with the Georgians. Apparently, historically these people were referred to as Tatars - or permanent enemies who robbed, enslaved and kidnapped ethnic Georgians.
Maskharashvili says that during Georgia’s brief independence between 1918-1921, these Tatars attempted to separate from Georgia, but failed. Nevertheless, “they managed to kill thousands of Georgians.”
Moreover, he claims that their deportation in 1944 was almost consensual:
A very simple plan was worked out. Whoever said he was Georgian, would stay in Georgia. And whoever said he was Tatar and hated everything Georgian - only those were deported.
Vakhtang Guruli (author of the highschool level Georgian history textbook):
In 1578, Meskheti came under the control of the Ottoman Empire and a Muslim governor was appointed to manage this territory. Since then, for centuries a process of islamization has been under way. No one forced anyone to adopt the Muslim religion, but if a Georgian (Christian) wanted to advance his career, or purchase property in the Ottoman Empire, he had to adopt the Muslim religion.
Guruli claim that in 1944, the local authorities informed the Meskhetian Turks that if they said they were Georgians they would be allowed to stay, and if they said they were Turks, they would be deported to central Asia. “The majority said they were Turks”, claims Guruli, “only it is hard to establish whether they really meant it, or they were under the influence of Muslim priests.” Thus, he says, they agreed to deportation.
(the interview was published in Georgian newspaper Basta, July 1-7, 2007)