Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Most Meskhetian Turks are Sunni Muslims who speak an East Anatolian variety of Turkish. Uzbekistan had one of the largest communities of Meskhetian Turks in the Soviet Union, but a pogrom which started in the Ferghana Valley in 1989 led to most of these to flee the country, so today estimates suggest that around 22,500 remain in the country, mainly in Bukhara, Navoi and Samarkand. While many are involved in agriculture, they still constitute a rather urbanised, entrepreneurial and affluent segment of society.
The entire population group of Meskhetian Turks, an estimated 90,000 to 120,000, were deported from Georgia by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in November 1944 as a preventive measure ‘for their own safety’ – the accusation of ‘collaboration with the enemy’ never being advanced against them. They never acquired official permission to return to their homeland. Most of them resettled in Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan.
By 1989, 208,000 Meskhetian Turks lived in the Soviet Union, the main settlements being in Uzbekistan (106,000) and Kyrgyzstan (21,000). Meskhetian Turks became victims of mob violence in the Ferghana valley in June 1989; inflamed by economic competition, unemployment and population pressure, rioting continued for two weeks, leaving at least 100 Meskhetians dead and more than 1,000 injured. The scale of violence required the intervention of Soviet troops. It is estimated that more than 60,000 Meskhetians left in the immediate aftermath of the violence. Most of these initially resettled in Azerbaijan, with some in southern Russia such as in Krasnodar, as well as to neighbouring countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Their native Georgia for its part did not welcome their return, hindering their immigration by denying them residence permits and even using force against them in 1991.
The situation of the less than 15,000 remaining Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan has been one of anxious stability. While the situation has stabilised since most members of the minority have fled the country, the remaining Meskhetians tend to speak Uzbek and hide their ethnic background.
The relatively few remaining Meskhetian Turks appear to have chosen to try to camouflage themselves as Uzbeks since the events of 1989 and the departure of most members of this minority. Although the situation is stable and they continue to maintain cultural centres – although without any substantial assistance from authorities – the reality is that many members of this minority prefer to hide their ethnic origins and are now trying to blend in with the Uzbek majority. This would also partially give them better prospects for employment given the various Uzbekisation policies in place.
Some Meskhetian Turks wish to emigrate, but this option remains impractical for a great many of them: on the one hand Uzbek authorities have a number of requirements to discourage further outward migration, and in any event their ancestral homeland in Georgia is not greeting them with open arms. Those who have property in Uzbekistan may also find it difficult to liquidate their assets at anything close to their value in the current economy in Uzbekistan.
Updated September 2018
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