Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2010 national census, there are 4,825 Meskhetian Turks in the Russian Federation. However, official figures appear to vastly understate their true numbers. In the mid-1990s there were an estimated 72,000 Meskhetians living in the Russian Federation. Determination of their numbers today is difficult due to geographical dispersal and difficulties experienced by Meskhetians in formally registering residence and receiving identity documents. Most Meskhetians are ethnic Turks – of whom, according to the 2010 census, there are an additional 105,058 – whilst some are Turkified Georgians. They are Sunni Muslims.
Until 1944 Meskhetians lived in Meskheti and Javakheti along the Georgian-Turkish border. For many years they were classified as Turks. In 1944, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin deported the Meskhetians to Central Asia, with thousands dying en route in cattle- trucks. Rehabilitated in 1968, they were not allowed to return to Georgia despite several attempts in the 1970s.
In June 1989 Meskhetians living in the Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan were attacked by Uzbeks and more than 100 were killed. Most Meskhetians fled to the Caucasus with more than 11,000 moving to the Krymski district in Krasnodar Krai. Georgia, through a combination of procrastination, local opposition and a lack of resources, has so far failed to provide mechanisms for a mass repatriation of the Meskhetians. Their original places of settlement in southern Georgia are not only amongst the country’s most economically depressed, but are also now largely populated by Georgia’s Armenian minority, which is strongly resistant to the return of the Meskhetians as representatives of the historical ‘Turkish’ enemy.
Meskhetians also faced strong opposition to their presence in Russia, especially from Kuban Cossacks. Some moved to Azerbaijan or settled in eastern Turkey. In February 2004 a programme implemented by the International Organization of Migration provided opportunities for Meskhetians to be allowed entry into the United States. Thousands were subsequently resettled there.
While Meskhetian Turks did not experience marked difficulties in other areas of the Russian Federation, their treatment in Krasnodar Krai throughout the 1990s and the mid-2000s was characterized by social prejudice, official stigmatization and police harassment. Violence against the communities, including periodic pogroms, took place frequently during this period.
A bill formalizing procedures for the repatriation of Meskhetians to Georgia was passed in the Georgian parliament in 2007. Many reportedly experienced continued difficulties since then in securing Georgian citizenship.
Drawing on the 2010 census, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were about 178,000 stateless persons in the Russian Federation in 2011. While the majority may belong to Roma and other communities, there is a substantial number who are Meskhetian Turks who immigrated to the Russian Federation in 1989 due to security concerns and settled in various regions, mainly in Krasnodar Krai. Upon their arrival, Meskhetian Turks experienced difficulties in obtaining official documents and Russian citizenship. As a result, Meskhetian Turks in the south of the country were not granted citizenship despite numerous attempts to reach local authorities. Their lack of official documents left them unable to access legal employment, healthcare or financial assistance from the state.
While their situation in recent years has reportedly improved somewhat, with some formerly stateless Meskhetian Turks now being granted citizenship, rights groups have highlighted that many in practice continue to struggle to access documentation due to corruption and discrimination. Indeed, while according to figures provided by the Russian authorities nearly all Meskhetian Turks in Krasnodar Krai have been granted Russian citizenship, this fact is disputed by human rights activists, who argue that in the south of Russia hundreds of persons have still not been granted Russian citizenship, despite repeated appeals to the local authorities. They can only rely on passports of the defunct USSR as means of basic identification.
The stateless persons who remain in Krasnodar Krai suffer from widespread discrimination. Absence of citizenship in practice results in the inability to access a number of rights, such as free healthcare, benefits or pensions. Persons without citizenship cannot be legally employed or even travel (as a passport is required in Russia to buy a train ticket). While the children of stateless persons can normally go to school, they cannot take the secondary school examination without a passport. Due to the absence of valid documents, Meskhetian Turks were also not able to get financial help from the state following the flooding of some villages in 2012.
Meskhetian Turks continue to be victims of xenophobia and ethnically-motivated violence. Many of these incidents go unreported; the Moscow Helsinki Group in 2014 documented cases of Meskhetian Turks who had been victims of ethnically motivated attacks but who did not report these instances to the police – due to fear of reprisals and distrust of law enforcement officials themselves.
Updated December 2020
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
- Sakha (Yakuts)
- Kabards and Balkars
- Karachay and Cherkess
- Khants and Mansi
- Meskhetians or Meskhetian Turks
- Russian or Volga Germans
- Ukrainians, Belarusians and Kazakhs