Revival of Cossacks Casts Muslim Group Out of Russia to U.S.

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 18, 2005; A19

KRASNODAR, Russia -- Thousands of Muslims from a small
ethnic group known as the Meskhetian Turks are fleeing
this Black Sea region for the United States. The
exodus is caused by what human rights groups call a
campaign of persecution sanctioned by local
authorities and spearheaded by the Cossacks, a Russian
militia that fought for the czars and is being

In the past year, just more than 5,000 Meskhetian
Turks have resettled in the United States as refugees,
and 4,400 have approval to immigrate, according to the
U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Another 7,000 have filed
applications that U.S. officials are reviewing.

"I call it soft ethnic cleansing," said Alexander
Ossipov, an analyst at the Institute for Humanities
and Political Studies in Moscow. "The local
authorities decided which ethnic groups were desirable
and which were not. It's government based on a racist

The United States has criticized actions of the
Krasnodar authorities in State Department human rights
reports and at meetings of the 55-country Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russian officials in the south say the Meskhetian
Turks are foreigners who have no right to remain in
Russia. They play down reports of Cossack violence.

In interviews, leaders of the Meskhetian community
expressed dismay that the Russian government has not
curbed the actions of the local authorities and has
said it intends to formalize the role of the Cossacks
as an auxiliary force in law enforcement nationwide.

President Vladimir Putin has proposed a law that would
allow Cossacks to serve in special units in the
military, assist the police and work in border
control, counterterrorism and counter-drug operations.
Political analysts predict the legislation will pass
in the next few months.

"There is a long-felt need to confer a legal status on
the activity of Cossack units," Putin said in May at a
meeting with Cossack leaders. "Cossacks serving in
Cossack units keep law and order."

The Cossacks' reemergence is part of a broader revival
of vestiges of the Russian past, both czarist and
Soviet, that for many people invoke national greatness
and patriotism, a goal of the Kremlin. The trend began
under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and has
continued under Putin.

"How can Putin make police out of people who have no
respect for the law?" said Sarvar Tedorov, 57, a
community leader who lives in the town of
Varenikovskaya, about 80 miles from Krasnodar. "Is he
completely blind? They break into our houses, even
during prayer. They humiliate us and call us names.
The beatings are regular."

Originally from southern Georgia near the border with
Turkey, the Meskhetians are a rural, Turkish-speaking
people who have often been buffeted by their Russian

In November 1944, Joseph Stalin ordered their
deportation from Georgia to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and
Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia for alleged sympathy with
the Nazi forces that invaded the Soviet Union. Nearly
90,000 people were uprooted.

In June 1989, Soviet authorities ordered the
evacuation of the Meskhetian Turks from Uzbekistan
after they became the target of ethnic rioting there.
About 12,000 moved to Krasnodar; many others went to
central Russia.

In 1991, Russia passed a law that all former Soviet
citizens who lived permanently in Russia when the law
came into effect were deemed Russian citizens, as long
they didn't renounce that right within 12 months. In
most parts of Russia, Meskhetian Turks became

In Krasnodar, however, officials balked and denied
official residency papers to the Meskhetians, the
prerequisite for citizenship applications, said
Ossipov, who has written extensively about the plight
of the group for Memorial, a Russian human rights
group, and the U.N. refugee agency.

Meskhetians say local officials also have blocked
implementation of a more recent law that on paper
makes it easier for them to obtain Russian

The officials say the Meskhetians are citizens of
Uzbekistan who spurned their chance to become Russian
citizens. "Theirs is not a problem with the Krasnodar
region, it's a problem of their own creation," said
Valery Ostrozhny, deputy head of the Department for
Monitoring Migration in the Krasnodar regional

In meetings of international organizations, Russian
officials have said that the Meskhetian Turks should
be repatriated to Georgia, their historic homeland.
Memorial and other groups insist that any return to
Georgia should be voluntary and should not be used to
deny Meskhetians their rights in Russia, including

Without residency permits, the Meskhetians in
Krasnodar became isolated in their towns and villages.
According to reports by Memorial, their homes were
labeled illegal, they could not legally hold jobs,
their marriages were not recognized and the births of
their children were not officially recorded, extending
the state of limbo into succeeding generations.

"It's impossible to live here," said Rustam Zautadze,
35, also from Varenikovskaya, who is moving to
Baltimore soon with 17 other family members, including
his wife and three children, his parents, his siblings
and their children. "Several times, Cossacks and
police came to my house and asked for our papers,
which of course we don't have. And then they fine us.
If they catch you on the street, they arrest you. I've
spent several weeks in detention centers."

Local officials said such cases are rare. "Where the
local authorities did something wrong," Ostrozhny
said, "the courts ruled against them. But there aren't
many of those cases."

The region's top leadership appears to endorse
administrative harassment. "Most of the Meskhetian
Turks do not want to get out of our territory," Gov.
Alexander Tkachev said in a speech in September 2001.
"I think all available mechanism of pressure and
persuasion will be employed to make the number of
departing guests rise."

In a speech a year later, Tkachev, who some analysts
see as a possible presidential candidate in 2008,
said: "We must protect our land and the native
population. This is Cossack land and everyone knows

The Cossacks are descended mostly from Russian serfs
who fled to the south in the 16th century to escape
czarist authority. Later, they became a special
military community for the czars, producing generation
after generation of soldiers famed for their bravery
and horsemanship.

As the czar's cavalry, they helped in the conquest of
Siberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Most famously,
they harassed Napoleon's troops during the French
retreat in 1812. After the Russian revolution in 1917,
the Cossacks fought against the Red Army. That brought
on severe repression that led thousands of them to
side with the Nazis during World War II .

That is a period Cossack leaders prefer to forget.
Vladimir Gromov, chieftain of the Cossacks in the
Krasnodar region, instead holds forth on how the
Cossacks saved Europe from "Islamic aggression." They
were instrumental in defeating the invading Turks at
Vienna in 1683, he contends.

Gromov said that Russia again needs to be protected
from Muslim outsiders. "Meskhetian Turks and other
ethnic groups should live in their historical
birthplace," he said. "Not here."

"I have to save my family from the persecution,"
Tedorov said. He said he will be moving to Phoenix
this month with his wife, two of his children,
daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. They will join
two of Tedorov's daughters already living in Arizona.

Vadim Karastelev, director of the Human Rights Center
in Novorossiisk in the Krasnodar region, expressed
concern that with the Meskhetian Turkish population
dwindling, the Krasnodar authorities will turn their
attention to other ethnic minorities -- Batum Kurds,
Armenian Khemshil and the Yazidis.

The Batum Kurds and the Yazidis have already written
the American embassy seeking refugee status in the
United States, citing "endless persecution, repression
and humiliation."

 2005 The Washington Post Company


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