The Parliament of Georgia has at last adopted the law to repatriate citizens forcefully deported from the country in the 40s of the last century. But the fatted calf seems likely to be spared – the current story is in many ways different from the parable of the prodigal son. It is about repatriation of the deported Muslim Meskhetins.
Optimists say that Georgia will no longer be the only post-Soviet country to fail to repatriate its own deported citizens; that the country’s international obligation will be finally fulfilled; that the country will receive additional aid from the West; that… The list of pros is quite long.
As usual, however, the optimists are outnumbered by pessimists. The latter can be divided into two distinctive groups. The first one consists of die-hard opponents – ranging from nationalists to peasants farming the lands that once belonged to the deported residents – who fervently oppose any kind of repatriation. They can give 1001 reasons for shutting the door on every possibility of return. “They” do not speak Georgian and have a different religion – the nationalists stress. “They” are rich and have enough greenbacks to buy up entire Georgia – the “economists” warn. “They” will throw us out of our homes and grab our lands – the peasants daunted by ultra-right propaganda fear. They, they, they…But most of the opponents have never seen “them”…
The second group of pessimists is much smaller than the first one and includes those who feel some sympathy for the deported Muslim Meskhetins. Their pessimism is fuelled by prohibitive sentiments of the Georgian society and the newly adopted legislation. In their opinion, given the current attitudes of our “patriots”, few will risk a return to Georgia. Besides, they say, the law has a lot of covert and overt loopholes, which can ruin many dreams of return.
One of the leaders of the National Movement Giga Bokeria’s statement is worth noting: “We will not assume any responsibility. We will do only what is in our interest. On the one hand, it will be an act of historical justice. On the other hand, every effort will be made to ensure that our national interests are not endangered in the process…”
So, let’s look at the law, which is dura lex…
The first paragraph of Article 3 specifies eligibility requirements for the status of a repatriate – only forcefully deported citizens or their direct descendants are considered eligible. The provision seems reasonable and legitimate.
However, the second paragraph of the article explains that spouses and underage children of “the individuals who meet the requirements of paragraph 1” can apply for the repatriate status only if these “individuals” themselves have applied for the status and only with their consent. One may wonder what will happen if an eligible “individual” dies or opts not to return to Georgia for some reasons. If so, it seems that descendants of this “individual” will automatically become ineligible to get back to their historical motherland.
Article 4 sheds light on what kind of documents should be submitted for obtaining the proud status of being a lawful repatriate. In particular, the article specifies 10 different documents. There is no need to examine all of them at length, but some do deserve a closer look.
Applicants should submit a document (or documents) to verify the fact of forceful deportation. “What a brilliant idea!” – Mr. Bender would have said. Is the document supposed to have Lavrenty Beria’s signature? Applicants are also required to file their personal income and property statements. Our lawmakers added the last provision to the law after concerns were raised in the parliament that a lot of uncontrolled money might be smuggled into the country. At the same time, the government makes “Herculean” efforts to woo investors. Pretty strange logic…
However, these documents are not the end of the story for applicants. The first paragraph of Article 7 warns that the Georgian government reserves the right to impose additional eligibility requirements for the repatriate status. It means that even after submitting all necessary papers an applicant may have to provide additional information.
The second paragraph of the same article stipulates that in order to obtain the repatriate status applicants may have to be interviewed in person or may be required to pass an examination in regard to their civil integration. It is to be hoped that the interview will be free from prejudice. As to the integration, the knowledge of Georgian is supposed to play a key role in the process (according to the law, fluency in Georgian will be given a priority). I wonder how many applicants will be able to pass the Georgian language exam at the first attempt.
SED LEX, OR NOT SUBJECT TO APPEAL
But the fifth paragraph of this article is undoubtedly the most intriguing one. It states that provisions of the General Administrative Code of Georgia are not applicable to the application procedure stipulated by the given law. (Article 4, Paragraph 5).
Specific provisions of the Code are given in Article 8 (Paragraph 3), which clarifies that Articles 177 and 178 (part 3) of the General Administrative Code of Georgia are not applicable to administrative decisions to grant or deny the repatriate status. Let’s get to the bottom of this. The above mentioned articles of the General Administrative Code deal with the right to appeal against administrative decisions. Under Article 177 an appellant can appeal against a decision in a superior administrative department, while under Article 178 (part 3) an appeal can be filed in court.
In other words, the decision of the ministry for refugees and settlement to grant or deny the repatriate status is final and cannot be appealed against. Apart from the fact that such an important decision will depend on a public servant’s goodwill and personal attitude (Heaven knows on the basis of what official directives and instructions this decision will be made), there is another serious danger: giving a public servant the power to issue the final “verdict”, which is not subject to appeal, creates a fertile ground for corruption. I think that many applicants will quickly find out the cost of a particular public servant’s “yes”. Hardly anybody can foretell whether the public servant will be able to resist temptation when offered a “present” in the best tradition of the Caucasus.
What “they” think about the problem and what our experts deem
Until recently the Krasnodar province of Russia has been one of the most hostile regions for Muslim Meskhetins. At one point they were even ranked as the “worst enemies” in local public opinion polls and Russian authorities demanded, to the horror of our nationalists, that Georgia collected its “Turks”. However, the Georgian government’s problem was solved by the USA, which has given green cards to almost 12,500 Muslim Meskhetin residents of the region, with some 250 Muslim Meskhetins still awaiting entry visas. These people will hardly apply for repatriation to Georgia. Only 2,500 Muslim Meskhetins will remain in the Krasnodar province after the US immigration program ends this October, according to the Novorossysk Human Rights Committee (NHRC).
I asked Tamara Karasteleva, the executive director of NHRC, how many of these people, who are still viewed in Georgia as the most likely candidates for repatriation, were willing to return to Georgia. “We put this question to every Muslim Meskhetin we know but have never received an affirmative answer,” she replied.
Have attitudes changed after the repatriation law came into force in Georgia?
“Those Muslim Meskhetins who know about the law – and only a few do – evaluate it rather negatively and are going to petition the Secretary General of the Council of Europe,” Mrs. Karasteleva emphasised. The Muslim Meskhetians who migrated to the USA are expected to follow suit, according to NHRC. Their leader, Sarvar Teodorov, is currently busy preparing a similar petition.
Other Muslim Meskhetin leaders do not seem excited at the law either. In one of his interviews Yunus Zeyrek, the chairman of the international federation of Muslim Meskhetin organisations, denounced the new legislation as inappropriate and disappointing. “Muslim Meskhetins will have to continue living in this world as a people without their homeland,” he remarked bitterly.
I have already described how opponents of repatriation in Tbilisi reacted to the law. Let’s now listen to those who do not regard it as part of an “international conspiracy” or a “nuclear explosive” (see, for instance, Akhali Taoba 18.07.07).
David Japaridze, former member of the now-disbanded repatriation commission says, “Under the law the identity of the candidates for repatriation must be established on the basis of specific documents, which can verify their forceful deportation. However, the overwhelming majority of the deported Muslim Meskhetins do not have such documents. The law says little, if anything, about state mechanisms to control the repatriation process, about adaptation and integration programs, and adaptation centres. It is totally unclear how they will be repatriated”.
Beka Mindiashvili from the ombudsman’s office echoed Japaridze’s views. He welcomed the law as the government’s “first real step” towards repatriation of Muslim Meskhetins. At the same time, however, he emphasised that it was a rather general document, which gave few details of the repatriation process and did not provide safeguards against tensions and conflicts the repatriation may trigger.
According to Elena Tevdoradze, the Chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, the law will give Muslim Meskhetins only one benefit – it will enable them to make a choice between return and stay. But the law does not provide for any guarantees. The initial draft envisaged the government’s responsibility for accommodation and settlement. In the final version it has been removed. “I think that few will agree to return,” Mrs. Tevdoradze said.
In the opinion of Marat Baratashvili, the president of the Union of the Repatriates of Georgia, one of the main shortages of the law is that it does not recognise the deported Muslim Meskhetins as victims of political repression. “The law says nothing about adaptation centres. Eligibility criteria are too stringent and vague – it is unclear how the repatriate status will be granted. Decision-making rests entirely with public servants. The law does not provide for decent repatriation – people have to prove that they are not at fault for their deportation,” Mr. Baratashvili said.
Naira Gelashvili, the chair of the Caucasus House, agreed that the law did not create conditions for “decent repatriation”, while Emil Adelkhanov of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development condemned it as a “very contemptuous document.” For Mr. Adelkhanov the most appalling feature of the law is the deadline – it will be in force only from 1.01.08 to 1.01.09. No applications will be accepted after January 1, 2009.
SIXTY YEARS OF SOLITUDE
Despite its shortages, however, the repatriation law is in fact the only legal opportunity for those who want to get back to their historical homeland, whatever the cost. It is the place they were deported from many years ago in army trucks and cattle cars. And now they want to get back in the hope to find their homes after sixty years of solitude. Perhaps just this long-standing yearning for homeland these people have nourished for years is what makes them worthy of respect. Just for this reason they deserve a chance to return and become citizens of the country they have never forgotten.
P.S. According to Ibrahim Burkhanov, the chairman of the Azerbaijan-based society “Vatan”, several Muslim Meskhetin families have already returned to Georgia, at their own expense, and several dozen Muslim Meskhetins have bought real estate in the country, since the repatriation law came into effect.