The Ahiska Turkish, sometimes referred to as Meskheti Turks, were a group of ethnic Turks that inhabited Georgia’s Meskheti region on the border of Turkey. While the Ahiska Turks are now dispersed throughout the former Soviet Union, United States and Turkey, the group had formally been in the region since the late 1500s.
The History of the Ahiska Turks
In 1578, the Turkish military expedition brought the group to the Meskheti region, although historians believe Turkic tribes had settlements in the area since the 11th and 12th centuries.
The Ottoman Empire conquered Meskheti during the Ottoman-Safavid War, although the region did not become an official part of the empire until 1639. At this time, a treaty was signed that ended Persia’s attempts to retake the region.
The group’s origin has not been explored and is still considered highly controversial. But there are two general schools of thought:
- The Meskhetian Turks were Turkified Georgians who converted to Islam between the 16th century and the 1800s during the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
- The Meskhetian Turks were ethnic Turks.
Deportation in 1944
The Ahiska Turks remained in the region until 1944 when Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of CPSU, ordered the deportation of the Meskhetian Turks, which totaled 115,000, from their homeland. The Turks were driven from their homes and sent onto rail cars in secret.
- 106,000 were sent to Uzbekistan
- 50,000 were sent to Kazakhstan
- 21,000 were sent to Kyrgyzstan
Up to 50,000 of the deportees died of starvation, cold and thirst. They were left at rail sidings across a vast area, and often left without any food, shelter or water.
Unlike other nationalities deported during World War II, the Meskhetian Turks were apparently deported for no reason. The entire operation remained secret until 1968 when the Soviet government finally recognized the deportation and finally revealed their reasoning for doing so. The Soviet Union in 1944 had been preparing to initiate a pressure campaign against Turkey.
Stalin wanted to clear the area where the Meskhetian Turks were settled, as he knew they would likely be opposed to the Soviet’s intentions.
The Meskhetian Turks were not rehabilitated, nor were they granted permission to return to their homes.
Leaders of the Meskhetian Turkish national movement appealed to Moscow’s Turkish Embassy in 1970, asking for permission to emigrate to Turkey if they were not allowed to resettle in Meskheti. Rather than offering help, the Soviet government arrested the leaders.
Further Deportations in 1989
Tensions boiled over in 1989 when riots broke out between the Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan and the Uzbeks. Hundreds of Meskheti were either injured or killed, and nearly a thousand properties were completely destroyed.
Thousands of Meskheti Turks fled into exile. About 70,000 fled to Azerbaijan. The remainder dispersed into various regions of Russia as well as the Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Where are the Ahiska Turks Today?
The Meskheti Turks were once again forced to flee their homes in Ukraine amidst fighting between pro-Russian separatists and the government. Nearly 2,000 Turks have left their homes and sought refuge in Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey and other areas of Ukraine.