Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Exuberant Patriotism or Dangerous Xenophobia

The legacy of Josef Stalin's predilection for uprooting ethnic groups and brutally shifting them around the Communist empire still has the power to spark conflict in the Caucasus. The latest political scuffle erupted in Georgia last week, over the issue of the repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks. Tens of thousands of these people were expelled from Georgia back in 1944 and transported in cattle trucks to Central Asia. Thousands are believed to have died of cold or starvation during the horrific journey east. Their tragic story doesn't end there; in 1989, many were forced to leave their homes again after an outbreak of ethnic violence in Uzbekistan.

The Georgian government has just introduced draft legislation that will allow some of the Meskhetian Turks and their descendants to return, fulfilling a human rights commitment that Georgia made years ago. But some people are distinctly unhappy about the suggestion that thousands of Muslims could be on their way home to the villages of Meskhetia, near the Turkish border.

The Conservative Party says Georgia has enough problems with separatists without Turks coming back and demanding their own language schools, regional autonomy, and maybe somewhere down the line, unity with Turkey. "They are speaking in Turkish, their religion is Islam, and we are not sure that they will be loyal to Georgia's government and territorial integrity," said leading Conservative Kakha Kukava. This isn't anti-Muslim prejudice, Kukava insisted -- it's just that Georgia is a small, relatively poor country that can't even cope with the 200,000 or so refugees from the separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The line between exuberant patriotism and outright xenophobia can be thin in a relatively new state like Georgia, which still fears that its identity and independence is under threat from outsiders. The proliferation of Chinese-owned shops in Georgia over the past year has brought some ugly sentiments to the surface. One admittedly marginal party leader recently "joked" that if a Chinese couple went to bed at night, there would be four of them in the morning. More mainstream politicians have also made unpleasant statements about Chinese immigration, some of them using the kind of language that ends political careers in Western Europe.

President Mikheil Saakashvili often stresses that Georgia's many ethnicities should live together in Utopian bliss. "I will be an Azeri for those who hate Azeris, and I will be an Armenian for those who hate Armenians. And despite this, I will remain 100 percent Georgian," he said recently. Unfortunately for Saakashvili, by no means do all of his compatriots think the same way.

Matthew Collin is a Tbilisi-based journalist.