Research and institutional setting

The majority of my fieldwork took place over a one-year period in Caucasian Georgia, between 2014 and 2015. It consisted of two stays, lasting eight and four months, respectively, in the village of Nasakirali (founded by returnees in the late 1970s) and the town of Akhaltsikhe, where the majority of Meskhetians arrived after 2007. My research draws upon qualitative research methods such as semi structured interviews and participation in family and community activities (e.g., harvesting, tea plucking, seasonal work trips to Turkey, etc.) as well as through small surveys and genealogical analysis. The vast majority of the 59 individuals living in Akhaltsikhe (nine households) arrived from Azerbaijan. During the time of my fieldwork, no one had yet obtained Georgian citizenship. They had repatriated independently of the legal framework laid out by the Georgian government and, thus, had not made use of the relevant laws. Most held the official ‘repatriate status’, a situation they denounced as unjust in view of their histoiy and collective memories of deportation and dispossession, and of the Georgian government’s unfulfilled duty of rehabilitation. Indeed, a 2015 motion of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe describes the repatriation programme as ‘mostly focused on providing a legal repatriate status to the eligible applicants and not on facilitating the actual repatriation itself.4 My analysis, therefore, takes into account that the explicit, public aims of governance should be investigated in combination with their (un)intended effects, brought forth through informal practices as well. As Castles (2004: 854) warns, thinking exclusively in terms of the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of migration policies limits our capacity to deconstruct agendas and goals that might be hidden or inexplicit. What (if anything) lies beneath the regulatory framework of the laws, however, is beyond the scope of this work. However, a disenchanted attitude towards state powers is resonant with the inclinations of many Meskhetians I met and with anthropology’s vocation.

Within this theoretical framework, parallel to examining informality as a way to realise rights and achieve incorporation into the country of immigration by means other than institutional paths (Berenschot and van Klinken 2018: 97; Rigo 2011; Sassen 2002: 6), I also consider it as part of local theories regarding the management of mobility by states. My primary preoccupation is, thus, informality within local interpretative narratives, which thrive in an atmosphere of expectation and distrust. As such, research participants attributed informality to the state as a way of surreptitiously ‘getting things done’, instrumental to conspiratorial schemes against their collective return to what they consider their homeland. Often, when return migration and full membership projects failed at the individual or family level, these narratives posited the state's intentionality and hostility. A direct consequence has been growing mistrust in institutions governing citizenship and immigration. What emerges as chiefly pertinent here is the inclination of survivors of deportation or subsequent generations to read past and present suffering as programmed, and to reject explanations that postulate accidentality (Mann 2005: 8).

At the time of my fieldwork, the tiny community of Meskhetians in Akhaltsikhe consisted of nine households, with a total of about 60 to 70 people. Typically, each household included three, sometimes four generations: an elderly, possibly direct witness of the 1944 deportation; her/his daughter/son, with their spouse, both of working age, who provided the practical impulse to repatriation; and their teenage children and, often, grandchildren.

From the strictly normative view often expressed by the government, Meskhetians’ predicament is, in essence, a form of deranged, reckless migration, since they dispensed with some of the formal requirements of the law that should have allowed their settlement and naturalisation in Georgia, thus leaving Azerbaijan ‘too soon' and finding themselves in legal limbo. Needless to say, opinions of this sort have generated resentment, since most Meskhetians understand their right of return as a form of historical compensation that cannot be circumscribed solely through legalistic arguments.

To complicate things further, a new citizenship law was adopted by the Georgian government in April 2014 during my fieldwork. This law introduced a more restrictive visa regime, which abolished the pre-existent ability of foreigners to reside in the country for 360 days without requiring a residence permit.5 For my research participants, the law’s effects were potentially disruptive, since most were citizens of Azerbaijan.

This sudden and largely unexpected change in the legal framework exposed the fragility of Meskhetians' presence in a country to which they claimed a moral-historical right of collective return. At this particular juncture more than ever during my fieldwork, the theme of citizenship seemed charged with emotion, and conjured imaginative new forms of membership frameworks (Shafir 1998: 23). This imaginative effort was, needless to say, fraught with fears, since the new law could potentially shift the ground under the feet of people whose citizenship and sense of home lacked a formal status in the country. Memories and collective narratives of suffering at the hands of the Soviet state were, thus, mobilised along a continuum of persecution culminating in today’s legal framework for repatriation. Arguably, an internalised sense of deportability played a role in this, since the relationship between their citizenship rights and the state (Peutz and De Genova 2010: 15) was promptly structured along narratives similar to those ingrained in their group identity for decades.

My fieldwork extended to their sending communities in Azerbaijan as well. Here, the failure of the repatriation programme has generated frustration and inspired the spread of conspiratorial interpretations of the procedures adopted by the Georgian and Azerbaijani governments in handling repatriation.

From a broader perspective, the circumstances of these communities—both in Georgia and Azerbaijan—fall within the peculiarities of contemporary human mobility and the restructuring of nation-states in globalisation. Indeed, the latter has led to an increase in modes of governing borders and populaces, which favour discipline over repressive state control (Geiger 2013: 34; Zolberg 2006: 443). In this sense, Meskhetians’ relationship with borders and citizenship systems suggests that the reach of the states can affect latent, informal control through forms of graduated or partial membership that withholds the rights accorded to full citizens (Ong 2006: 82; Krujit 2002: 37; Schonburgh 2007: 17). These regulatory grey areas, in this case at least, seem to be perpetuated by a variety of mechanisms—at the interstices of two or more citizenship regimes—which include the mere disregard for repatriates’ conundrums as well as informal, yet seemingly institutionalised practices. It is against such a theoretical background, and the experiences of my research participants, that I advance the idea of dual citizenship as an imaginative horizon, and, possibly, a practical solution. Holding two citizenships (their country of origin’s as well as Georgia's, their elective homeland) would accommodate the actual life circumstances and aspirations of those (very few) in the Meskhetian transnational diaspora who opted to repatriate.

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