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

Rustam Zautadze, 35, and his family, Meskhetian Turks who live in southern Russia, are moving to Baltimore as refugees. Zautadze packs with his wife Gulmira, 29, sons Ibragim, 13, and Dzumali, 10, and daughter Fedena, 5.
Rustam Zautadze, 35, and his family, Meskhetian Turks who live in southern Russia, are moving to Baltimore as refugees. Zautadze packs with his wife Gulmira, 29, sons Ibragim, 13, and Dzumali, 10, and daughter Fedena, 5. (By Sergei Duvanov For The Washington Post)

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

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 revived.

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 ideology."

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 neighbors.

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.


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