I have been attempting to follow the resettlement of Meskhetian Turks from Krasnodar Krai in southern Russia to the US for the last couple of weeks. I have written more extensively on the plight of the Meskhetian Turks elsewhere on this blog. But, prehaps a brief summary is in order here. The Meskhetian Turks are the native population of Meskheti-Javakheti in Georgia, a territory acquired by the Russian Empire from the Ottoman Empire in 1828-1829. On 15-28 November 1944, the Stalin regime forcibly dispersed the entire population of more than 90,000 people across Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Here the Soviet government placed them under special settlement restrictions. They could not leave their assigned settlements without special NKVD permits, they carried special ID cards marking them as legally inferior citizens, they had no choice in their work assignments, they had to regularly register with NKVD commandants and a set of separate and unequal laws administered by the NKVD ruled their lives. The Meskhetian Turk special settlers suffered extreme material privation during the first years of exile. Lack of sufficient food, proper shelter, clothing, shoes and medical care took a heavy toll of lives. Malnutrition, typhus and other poverty related ailments killed over a fifth of the population in less than five years. The Soviet government released them from the special settlement restrictions on 28th April 1956. Neither the Soviet or subsequent Georgian government ever allowed the Meskhetian Turks to return their homeland in significant numbers.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the Meskhetian Turks had a fairly well organized national mass movement that engaged in a peaceful campaign for repatriation to Georgia. It conducted a lobbying effort using letters, petitions, meetings, peaceful demonstrations and moral appeals in an attempt to convince the Soviet government to allow them to return home. In the early 1970s, the failure of the repatriation movement led to demands to be allowed to emigrate from the USSR and settle in the Turkish Republic. This movement also failed to achieve any concrete results.
In 1989, a pogrom in the Ferghana valley resulted in a second relocation for many Meskhetian Turks. Nearly 90,000 Meskhetian Turks left Uzbekistan soon after this event. About 15,000 ended up in Krasnodar Krai, a territory with a little over five million people, mostly Russians. The local government here refused to grant permanent residency to a majority of the Meskhetian Turks and the rights to hold most jobs, attend higher education and own property that goes with such legal documentation. Their lack of legal protection exposed them to Cossack intimidation and police harassment. Officially stateless the displaced Meskhetian Turks did not qualify for refugee status according to the United Nations because they never crossed an international border. They remained in a legal limbo unable to return to Georgia, immigrate to Turkey or even go back to Uzbekistan.
At the behest of some creative people, most notably Mark Hetfield, the State Department came up with a plan to resettle Meskhetian Turks from Krasnodar Krai in the US. This solution aimed to end the ongoing persecution of the Meskhetian Turks in the region. It of course does nothing to address the larger long term problem of the hundreds of thousands of Meskhetian Turks living in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and other areas outside their historic homeland. But, it did show a way out of the box created by the arbitrary definitions of citizenship, nationality and refugee status created by the ex-Soviet states, the UN and Meskhetian Turk activists themselves. None of these actors had ever considered the option of settlement outside of the former Soviet states or Turkish Republic. I will have more to write on the issues of citizenship, nationality and refugees and the example of the Meskhetian Turks in later posts.