Parliament paved the way for the eventual repatriation of the Meskhetian population after it passed a proposal by 134 to 14 votes on June 22.
The draft law, approved with its first hearing, will establish procedures for the repatriation, next year, of Meskhetians – survivors or descendants of a rural Muslim population who were deported by Joseph Stalin from southern Georgia in 1944.
However, as Elene Tevdoradze, a lawmaker from the ruling party, put it during the hearings on June 22, the draft law contains such “strict criteria of eligibility” that the proposal can be better described as “a law on non-repatriation.”
Potential returnees must apply at the nearest Georgian consulate or at the Georgian Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation some time between January 1 and December 31, 2008.
Giga Bokeria, an influential lawmaker from the ruling party and a co-author of the draft law, defended the restrictions, saying that the one year period would enable the authorities to determine exactly how many people were willing to return.
“Based on this information we will be able to plan - rationally and based on our national interests – the pace of the process,” Bokeria said.
Applicants will also be required to submit old Soviet papers to prove they, or their descendents, were actually deported from Georgia in 1944.
The draft law does not oblige the Georgian authorities to provide any financial support to the returnees.
The process will be administered by the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation. The interior and justice ministries, however, will also be involved, with the right to veto any applicants based on undetermined criteria.
Despite these restrictions, which some lawmakers conceded were “too strict,” the opposition Conservative Party was vocal in its criticism of the draft law and, indeed, the very idea of repatriating the Meskhetian population.
“By repatriating them we are planting a time bomb which poses a threat to the country’s unity and territorial integrity,” MP Kakha Kukava of the Conservative Party said during the parliamentary hearings on June 22.
Such fears are based on a popular misperception that most Meskhetians identify themselves as ethnic Turks. Many people refer to them as ‘Meskhetian Turks’ – a term resented by the Meskhetians who are descendants of Christian Georgians forcibly converted to Islam under Ottoman rule.
MP Pikria Chikhradze of the opposition New Rights said that the authorities should be aware of the threat posed by, as she put it, “political Islam.”
“Islamist foundations are behind some of the active Meskhetian groups… Everyone avoids discussion of this, but we should not turn a blind eye to it,” she said on June 22.
MP Kakha Kukava also saw the dark hand of Russia, suggesting that Russian special services were behind certain Meskhetian groups.
“Turkey and Russia have been lobbying on this issue and the Georgian authorities unfortunately yielded to this pressure,” he said.
In March 2006, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said in Tbilisi that Turkey was ready “to contribute to this process” of repatriation of Meskhetians.
Moscow on several occasions in the past accused Tbilisi, as the Russian Foreign Ministry put it, of “not even trying to demonstrate that it wishes to solve the issue.”
Georgia undertook a commitment to repatriate the Meskhetians in 1999 when it joined the Council of Europe.
MP Giga Bokeria said on June 22 that by passing the draft law the Georgian authorities “are putting an end to this issue, which was used as a propaganda weapon against Georgia.”
Opponents have also complained that the draft law does not stipulate or regulate where returnees can or can't live. Opposition lawmakers from the Conservative and New Rights parties said they should not be allowed to settle as a bloc in one particular location.
Although unsaid, these MPs specifically mean Samtskhe-Javakheti, which is currently predominately populated by ethnic Armenians. It was from here in 1944, in what was then known as Meskheti, that the Meskhetians were deported.
Lawmakers from the ruling majority said that although the proposal may contain potential threats, the authorities were capable of tackling them.
“Every move or decision in itself may pose a certain level of threat. But the Georgian state can deal with them,” MP Maia Nadiradze, majority leader in Parliament, said.
Unlike many opposition groups, the Republican Party supported the initiative.
“For the first time the Georgian state is saying that deportees have the right to come back after going through certain procedures. In certain cases, however, I think, these procedures are too strict,” MP Davit Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party said.
Republicans, however, were critical of the authorities’ failure to provide a proper public awareness campaign, so as to bring the population on board behind the proposal.