By Fati Mamiashvili in Tbilisi (CRS No. 522, 04-Dec-09)
The Georgian government is coming under fire for its handling of requests for resettlement from Meskhetians, an ethnic group deported by Stalin in 1944.
The Turkish-speaking Meskhetians were among a group of nations exiled from the Caucasus in 1943-4 on charges of treachery, but - unlike the Chechens, Karachais and others - have never been allowed to return home.
They lived mainly in Uzbekistan until 1989, when ethnic clashes with local Uzbeks drove them out. Most ended up in Azerbaijan and southern Russia and have been there ever since, although Georgia committed a decade ago to allow them back to into the country.
Around 10,000 Meskhetians who lived in Russia's Krasnodar region were resettled in the United States following clashes with the local population, but the majority of the deported nation remains in limbo.
So far, the government has received more than 70,000 requests from Meskhetians wanting to return to Georgia.
They have until the end of this year to register for resettlement in Georgia, after which a special state commission will examine their claims and decide within four months if they have a right to move to Georgia.
Activists in Georgia, however, say the government has done too little to ensure the Meskhetians will be able to settle in Georgia. Some previous returnees have been forced to re-emigrate because they have failed to find work in their ancestral homeland.
"The Meskhetians in Georgia have no work. They rent land, grow onions, potatoes, other vegetables. This is the only source of earnings for our family," said Geydar Latifov, a Meskhetian who moved to Georgia seven years ago.
He said he has all the documents required to show that his family originated in the village of Chechla, in the Adigeni district, but the nine members of his family were still unable to obtain Georgian citizenship.
"My daughter Mariam was born seven months ago in Gori. I want her to have our real Georgian surname, Pipinadze. I have appealed repeatedly with this request to the authorities, but they keep refusing me," he said.
Experts and activists say the government has not done nearly enough to help the returning Meskhetians find a place to live and work, and that the legal basis of their return is also doubtful.
"In the first place, it is necessary to increase the number of people working on their repatriation. It is necessary to set up a more or less independent service, which will control this process. It is necessary to solve the questions of housing, language and many others," said Temur Lomsadze, deputy chairman of the Fund for Assistance of Repatriation.
Iulon Gagoshidze, the state minister for diaspora matters, said Meskhetians could receive Georgian surnames, and a fast-track route to citizenship if they provided all the correct documents to the state commission. But activists say it is very hard for them to produce documents, considering the regular disruptions they have suffered since their deportation.
They need to collect 13 different documents, printed either in Georgian or English, which is difficult since most of them speak Russian. The Meskhetian organisation Vatan said it costs 100 to 120 US dollars to collect the documents, which is a huge sum for many would-be repatriants and a problem that the government says it is working on.
"I have met Meskhetians living in Azerbaijan. They live very poorly, and all the necessary certificates - birth, marriage, health conditions, place of residence - must be paid for and are not cheap. But it is hardest of all to find archive materials to confirm their deportation in the 1940s," Gagoshidze said.
Even if the Meskhetians manage to collect all their documents, their problems are not over, since financial help from the state will be minimal or non-existent. New arrivals must find their own homes, and their own work, according to Paata Beltadze, a lawyer.
"By law, the state must give them a fast track to citizenship, but the law does not include any financial obligations," he said.
Gagoshidze said he was aware of the problems faced by new arrivals, but that Georgia had so many refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia to deal with that it was not able to support them.
"Six Meskhetian families have already left Georgia for ever because they were not provided with conditions to live," he said.
Activists say other Meskhetians could share their fate if the government did not take its obligations to them more seriously.
"If the government of Georgia wants these people to be able to integrate, they need courses in the Georgian language, trips around the country, and so on. And the most important thing is that they need financial support, either from the state, or from a donor organisation," Eka Metreveli, an expert in the Meskhetians' problems, said.
Latifov is still hopeful though that his fellow Meskhetians will come home.
"We have a house and land in Azerbaijan, which we will sell if we receive citizenship, get our old surnames back and are given help to improve our living conditions," he said.
But it looks unlikely that they would be able to move to their former homes, which are in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. Javakheti is mainly now home to Armenians and Georgians and the government will want to avoid any potential conflict between them and the returnees.
"I do not think it would be correct to settle all the repatriants together in Javakheti. This would involve the creation of a new large compact population, conflicts with the local population, and also will not help the integration of the Meskhetians into Georgian society," said Tsira Meskhishvili, head of the organisation Tolerant.
"Our organisation has worked on the question of repatriation for five years, and worked with the local population, to prepare it for the return of the Meskhetians. However, the local residents still are very negatively inclined to this and feel aggression towards them. We must be very careful in the question of their resettlement."
Fati Mamiashvili is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.