Persecuted group headed to U.S.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

MOSCOW -- The first members of a long-persecuted minority group began leaving southern Russia for the United States on Wednesday as part of an agreement between Moscow and Washington, officials said.

Eleven Meskhetian Turks departed Krasnodar, about 750 miles south of Moscow, on their way to Philadelphia, said a representative with the Geneva-based International Organization of Migration. Another 30 are to leave for the United States in coming days.

The Meskhetian Turks will be given refugee status in the United States and resettled by volunteer and charitable organizations, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

More Meskhetian Turks could move to the United States in the weeks and months ahead, the official said, adding that all who want to move -- and are approved by U.S. Homeland Security officials -- will be allowed emigrate.

Krasnodar regional authorities said more than 5,000 Meskhetian Turks intend to leave.

"We are going to Philadelphia. Houses, jobs, the whole package is prepared for us. We don't need anything else," Tiashin Svanidze, the head of the Meskhetian Turks diaspora in Krasnodar, told NTV television.

Mark Brown, a representative of the migration organization, said the U.S. State Department specified how people will be selected.

"They must be Turks from Uzbekistan who live in the Krasnodar region. If there are 500 people, OK, they will go. If there are 15,000, all will be accepted. That is, there is no quota," Brown told NTV.

About 20,000 Meskhetian Turks live in limbo in Krasnodar and surrounding regions in the southern Russia, unable to get official residence permission or to rent land -- the result of strict anti-immigrant regulations that regional authorities have imposed.

The regulations have been popular in Krasnodar, where ultranationalist Cossacks work alongside police to keep order and many resent the influx of immigrants fleeing poverty in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Meskhetian Turks were deported en masse to the Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan from the then-Soviet republic of Georgia in the 1940s. In 1989, racial violence broke out in Uzbekistan, and many Meskhetian Turks fled to Krasnodar.

The State Department cited the Meskhetian Turks in its human rights report last year, noting that Krasnodar authorities subject them to special registration requirements, requiring them to register as "guests" every 45 days.

Other measures included a prohibition on employment or commercial activity in markets and being subjected to document checks, detentions, and other harassment by police, the report said.

"The administration of Krasnodar Governor (Alexander) Tkachev appeared to be attempting to use economic measures to force the Meskhetians to leave the territory," the report said.

Tkachev, who has proclaimed that neither Russia nor Krasnodar should be "an open house" for outsiders, blamed Georgia for not doing more to take the Meskhetian Turks back to their ancestral homeland.

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