Meskhetian Turks also known as Meskheti Turks (Turkish: Ahıska Türkleri, Georgian: თურქი მესხები t'urk'i meskhebi) are an ethnic subgroup of Turks formerly inhabiting the Meskheti region of Georgia, along the border with Turkey. The Turkish presence in Meskheti began with the Turkish military expedition of 1578, although Turkic tribes had settled in the region as early as the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Today, the Meskhetian Turks are widely dispersed throughout the former Soviet Union (as well as in Turkey and the United States) due to forced deportations during World War II. At the time, the Soviet Union was preparing to launch a pressure campaign against Turkey and Joseph Stalin wanted to clear the strategic Turkish population in Meskheti who were likely to be hostile to Soviet intentions. In 1944, the Meskhetian Turks were accused of smuggling, banditry and espionage in collaboration with their kin across the Turkish border. Expelled by Joseph Stalin from Georgia in 1944, they faced discrimination and human rights abuses before and after deportation. Approximately 115,000 Meskhetian Turks were deported to Central Asia and only a few hundred have been able to return to Georgia ever since. Those who migrated to Ukraine in 1990 settled in shanty towns inhabited by seasonal workers.
The origin of the Meskhetian is still unexplored and highly controversial. But now it seems to emerge two main directions:
- The pro-Turkish direction: The Meskhetians were ethnic Turks, in which some Georgian were ethnic parts.
- The pro-Georgian direction: Georgian historiography has traditionally argued that the Meskhetian Turks, who speak the Kars dialect of the Turkish language and belong to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, are simply Turkified Georgians converted to Islam in the period between the sixteenth century and 1829 when the region of Meskheti-Dzhavakheti was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
However, Anatoly Michailovich Khazanov has argued that "it is quite possible that the adherents of this view oversimplified the ethnic history of the group, particularly if one compares it with another Muslim Georgian group, the Adzhar, who in spite of their conversion to Islam have retained, not only the Georgian language, but to some extent also the Georgian tradition culture and self-identification. Contrary to this, the traditional culture of Meshetian Turks, though it contained some Georgian elements, was similar to the Turkish one". Kathryn Tomlinson has argued that in Soviet documents about the 1944 deportations of the Meskhetian Turks they were referred to simply as "Turks", and that it was after their second deportation from Uzbekistan that the term "Meskhetian Turks" was invented. Furthermore, according to Ronald Wixman, the term "Meskhetian" only came into use in the late 1950s. Indeed, majority of the Meskhetians call themselves simply as "Turks" or "Ahiskan Turks (Ahıska Türkleri)" referring to the region, meaning "Turks of Ahiska Region". The Meskhetians claim sometimes that the medieval Cumans-Kipchaks of Georgia (Kipchaks in Georgia) may have been one of their possible ancestors.
In 1578, the Ottoman Empire managed to conquer Meskheti during the Ottoman-Safavid War (1578-1590), although it was not secure as a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1639, when a treaty was signed and brought an end to Persian attempts to retake the region.
On 15 November 1944, the then General Secretary of CPSU, Joseph Stalin, ordered the deportation of over 115,000 Meskhetian Turks from their homeland, who were secretly driven from their homes and herded onto rail cars. As many as 30,000 to 50,000 deportees died of hunger, thirst and cold and as a direct result of the deportations and the deprivations suffered in exile. The Soviet guards dumped the Meskhetian Turks at rail sidings across a vast region, often without food, water, or shelter; according to the 1989 Soviet Census, 106,000 Meskhetian Turks lived in Uzbekistan, 50,000 in Kazakhstan, and 21,000 in Kyrgyzstan. As opposed to the other nationalities who had been deported during World War II, no reason was given for the deportation of the Meskhetian Turks, which remained secret until 1968. It was only in 1968 that the Soviet government finally recognised that the Meskhetian Turks had been deported. The reason for the deportation of the Meskhetian Turks was because in 1944 the Soviet Union was preparing to launch a pressure campaign against Turkey. In June 1945 Vyacheslav Molotov, who was then Minister of Foreign Affairs, presented a demand to the Turkish Ambassador in Moscow for the surrender of three Anatolia provinces (Kars, Ardahan and Artvin). As Moscow was also preparing to support Armenian claims to several other Anatolian provinces, war against Turkey seemed possible, and Joseph Stalin wanted to clear the strategic Georgian-Turkish border where the Meskhetian Turks were settled and who were likely to be hostile to such Soviet intentions. Unlike the other deported Muslim groups, the Meskhetians have not been rehabilitated nor permitted to return to their homeland. In April 1970, the leaders of the Meskhetian Turkish national movement applied to the Turkish Embassy in Moscow for permission to emigrate to Turkey as Turkish citizens if the Soviet government persisted its refusal to allow them to resettle in Meskheti. However, the response of the Soviet government was to arrest the Meskhetian leaders.
In 1989, riots broke out between the Meskhetian Turks who had settled in Uzbekistan and the native Uzbeks. Nationalist resentments against the Meskhetians who had competed with Uzbeks for resources in the overpopulated Fergana valley boiled over. Hundreds of Meskhetian Turks were dead or injured, nearly 1,000 properties were destroyed and thousands of Meskhetian Turks fled into exile. The majority of Meskhetian Turks, about 70,000, went to Azerbaijan, whilst the remainder went to various regions of Russia (especially Krasnodar Krai), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine.
Around 2,000 Meskhetian Turks have been forced to flee from their homes in Ukraine since May amid fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists. Meskhetian Turkish community representative in the eastern city of Donetsk, Nebican Basatov, said that those who have fled have sought refuge in Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and different parts of Ukraine. Over 300 Meskhetian Turks from the Turkish-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine have arrived in eastern Turkey’s Erzincan province where they will live under the country's recently adopted asylum measures.
According to the 1989 Soviet Census, there were 207,502 Turks living in the Soviet Union. However, Soviet authorities recorded many Meskhetian Turks as belonging to other nationalities such as "Azeri", "Kazakh", "Kyrgyz", and "Uzbek". Hence, official censuses do not necessarily show a true reflection of the real population of the Meskhetian Turks; for example, according to the 2009 Azerbaijani census, there were 38,000 Turks living in the country; however, no distinction is made in the census between Meskhetian Turks and Turks from Turkey who have become Azerbaijani citizens, as both groups are classified in the official census as "Turks" or "Azerbaijani". According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report published in 1999, that 100,000 Meskhetian Turks lived in Azerbaijan and the defunct Baku Institute of Peace and Democracy stated, in 2001, that between 90,000 and 110,000 Meskhetian Turks lived in Azerbaijan, similarly, academic estimates have also suggested that the Meskhetian Turkish community of Azerbaijan numbers 90,000 to 110,000.
More recently, some Meskhetian Turks in Russia, especially those in Krasnodar, have faced hostility from the local population. The Krasnodar Meskhetian Turks have suffered significant human rights violations, including the deprivation of their citizenship. They are deprived of civil, political and social rights and are prohibited from owning property and employment. Thus, since 2004, many Turks have left the Krasnodar region for the United States as refugees. (A large population of which, comprises nearly 1300 individuals is in Dayton, Ohio). They are still barred from full repatriation to Georgia. However, in Georgia, racism against Meskheti Turks is still in popularity, due to difference beliefs and ethnic tensions.
Meskhetian Turks are predominantly Sunni Muslims with a Shiite Muslim minority.
The Meskhetian Turks speak an Eastern Anatolian dialect of Turkish, which hails from the regions of Kars, Ardahan, and Artvin. The Meskhetian Turkish dialect has also borrowed from other languages (including Azerbaijani, Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek) which the Meskhetian Turks have been in contact with during the Russian and Soviet rule.