Involvement of ethnic minorities into decision-making processes in Georgia
Interview by Kristina Shonia, ICRP | In order to strengthen and develop democracy, it is necessary to ensure equality between individuals in the country. Protecting the rights of ethnic minorities and promoting a society based on diversity and pluralism significantly determines the quality and development of the country’s democratic status.
Georgia is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multicultural country; where the law gives equal rights and duties to every person and protects his identity, where the representatives of different nationalities have lived for decades and in many cases for centuries, in addition to Georgians.
At different stages of history, along with the main ethnic group – Georgians, representatives of other ethnic groups also played an important role in the development of the country.
Georgia pays special attention to the preservation of identity and civil integration of the population living in its undivided territories, Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, as these regions are currently occupied by the Russian Federation and there is a threat of assimilation of the ethnic groups living there.
We have reached out for more clarity Mr. Giorgi Sordia – Associate professor at the University of Georgia, author of number of books and publications in Turkish and Middle East history and politics, currently works in the fields civil society development, national minority integration and inclusion, studies nationalism and statehood in Georgia. He is the Director, Founder of Center for the studies of ethnicity and multiculturalism (CSEM). Since 2010 manages civil society development projects at the European Centre for Minority Issues – Caucasus. He earned his PhD at Tbilisi State University.
What data do we have today and where are the most populated ethnic minorities?
According to the 2014 census in Georgia, the proportion of ethnic minorities in Georgia is 13.2 per cent. Ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians remain the largest minority groups in the country at respectively 6.3 and 4.5 per cent. National minorities in Georgia are mainly concentrated in two regions: Kvemo Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti
Let us get started about Kvemo Kartli and then Samtskhe-Javakheti cases. What is the picture about geographical location and demographic of the region?
Kvemo Kartli is an administrative-territorial unit of Georgia located in the south-eastern part of the country. Region borders Samtskhe-Javakheti in the west, Tbilisi, Shida Kartli, and Mtskheta-Mtianeti in the north, Kakheti in the east, Republic of Azerbaijan in south-east, and Republic of Armenia in the south.
From ethnic point of view, region of Kvemo Kartli is the most diversified one. According to the data of the latest 2014 population census, total number in the region reaches 423,986 persons. Out of them the majority of 217,305 persons (51.25%) is represented by ethnic Georgians, however a considerable share falls to ethnic minorities. Here Azeris are represented by the largest number, in particular, their total number in the region reaches 177,032 persons (41.75%), the third largest ethnic group in the region are Armenians with 21,500 persons (5.07%). Other ethnic groups living in the region are Russians, Greek, Romas, Assyrians, Kurds, and others.
In the region, populated in its majority by Azeri ethnic groups, existence of such mixed rural settlements as the ones mentioned above, stresses the existence of a potential core for inter-ethnic tension, especially with the consideration of the fact that geographically these villages are located in direct proximity with state borders of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
What is the state policy towards this region?
Policy of the government of Georgia towards the region of Kvemo Kartli is a component of the general policy on civic integration of ethnic minorities, which aims at full-fledged integration of the region and its inclusion in general Georgian political, economic, social, cultural, and other processes. The above-mentioned policy is being carried out by the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, however agencies such as Ministry of Education and Science, Ministry of Culture, and Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure participate in the process. During the past years state economic and political intervention in the region of Kvemo Kartli aimed at the following priorities: projects on rehabilitation of international, intra-state, and local motor ways; rehabilitation of public schools; construction/rehabilitation of bridges, drinking water systems; installation of external electrical systems; construction/rehabilitation of houses of culture, stadiums, sports halls, clubs, etc.
What extent are minorities integrated and what problems do they face?
Region of Kvemo Kartli is topical in the political space because of several important factors. First, this is the region where a considerable part of the population belongs to ethnic minorities. As we saw above, their share in the region almost equals to the number of Georgians, though in certain municipalities (Marneuli, Bolnisi, Dmanisi) ethnic Azeri considerably exceed Georgians in number and present the absolute majority; secondly, unlike Samtskhe-Javakheti, another region compactly populated by ethnic minorities, in Kvemo Kartli there is a large number of settlements that are ethnically mixed and thus carrying potential for conflict, namely Azeri-Armenian, Azeri-Armenian-Georgian, and other settlements of a similar configuration; third, the region has a border function, it borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan, correspondingly, tension of political situation in both these countries or kindling of an acute ethnic confrontation might automatically reflect in complication of situation in Kvemo Kartli too; fourth, region of Kvemo Kartli is characterized by stable and growing economic potential, its agricultural importance must be specifically mentioned. It is one of the most important sources of providing agricultural products to Tbilisi.
Due to the fact that a big part of the population of Kvemo Kartli region is presented by ethnic minorities, civic integration of the local population and the region in general is an acute issue. Notwithstanding the fact that Kvemo Kartli is in direct proximity of the capital (geographically Tbilisi is a part of Kvemo Kartli too), integration quality of the region in common state spheres is dramatically low. The following must be singled out from among the problems related to civic integration.
What about language barriers and education?
During the past years state faced an extremely acute challenge of being able to offer high-quality education to ethnic minorities, facilitate dissemination of the state language among the minorities, at the same time providing preservation and development of linguistic originality of the minorities. Main policy implementing entity responsible for the fulfillment of a corresponding action plan in this sphere is the Ministry of Education and Science.
Based on the example of the Kvemo Kartli region, the most important factor causing the educational vacuum is low level or complete lack of knowledge of the state, i.e. Georgian language among the local Azeri-speaking population. There is no exact statistical data, what percentage of the population does not speak Georgian, however according to evaluations conducted in various years, for example, 42% of population of the Marneuli municipality do not speak Georgian at all, 35% only know a certain number of words, while only 3.8% can fluently speak and write Georgian.
In such circumstances possibilities of the local population to receive education in Georgian higher education institutions is incredibly low. Due to this, a larger part of the local youth prefers to receive higher education in Azerbaijan, while after graduation only a small part returns. However, the situation has improved to an extent within the framework of a beneficial, so-called positive discrimination policy conducted by the Ministry of Education and Science. One part of the beneficial policy is a practice, implemented since 2012, to enroll ethnic minority students in higher education institutions, which implies only taking exam in general skills in a corresponding minority language. Based on this exam students are enrolled in a one-year state language preparation course. Having successfully completed it, they have the possibility to receive full Bachelor degree in Georgian language in a Georgian higher education institution. If we look at the number of ethnic minorities enrolled in higher education institutions since 2012 and corresponding dynamics, we have a distinct increase of the number of minorities in Georgian higher education institutions. For example, if we take the region of Kvemo Kartli, 522 students were allowed to continue studying in Georgian higher education institutions based on results of Azeri-language general skills test. In 2016 the number of students enrolled based on Azeri-language test increased to 660 persons.
Notwithstanding increase in the number of Azeri-speaking young people admitted to Georgian higher education institutions, general educational engagement of young people from Kvemo Kartli region as compared to other regions is dramatically low. One of the reasons for this is a weak school educational system in the region which does not provide learning Georgian language on a corresponding level. Moreover, Azeri-speaking educational system in the region is much better developed, in particular, according to the official data of the Ministry of Education, there are 116 public schools in Kvemo Kartli with Azeri-language sectors, out of which 82 schools have Azeri as the only language of instructions, while other schools offer mixed sectors: Georgian-Azeri, Georgian-Azeri-Russian, Azeri-Russian, and Armenian-Azeri. It can be said that out of two challenges, the state fulfills teaching native language among minorities on an adequate level, while it does not facilitate dissemination of the state language among the local Azeri-speaking population.
What extent are ethnic minorities interested in participating in political processes?
Engagement of local population in Kvemo Kartli, especially ethnic minorities, in both local and central levels of exercising power is dramatically limited. If we compare Kvemo Kartli to Samtskhe-Javakheti, which is mainly populated by ethnic Armenians, it is visible that quality of political engagement of Azeri is considerably lower than that of Armenians. In case of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda municipalities, reins of power are fully entrusted to representatives of local ethnic Armenian groups who take up positions such as local counselor, deputy local counselor or other key positions. In case of Kvemo Kartli the local ethnic Azeri community only shares the local governance fragmentarily and insufficiently. Unlike Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda, in municipalities of Kvemo Kartli an Azeri has never held the position of local counselor, and with rare exceptions, all other key positions are assigned to non-Azeri. Such a lack of balance between Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli is also confirmed by the results of the latest 2017 local self-governance elections.
Could you share us about the economic situation and religious condition?
Kvemo Kartli is an agricultural region. Almost 20% of potato harvest of Georgia grows in this region, mainly in such high mountain regions as Dmanisi, Tetritskaro, and Tsalka. Other varieties of vegetables, namely, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, as well as a number of fruits grow in Kvemo Kartli lowland, especially in Gardabani and Marneuli districts.
Besides agriculture, cattle-breeding also holds an important place in the local economy. Cattle and sheep breeding is especially significant in high mountain areas of Kvemo Kartli. Recently egg production has also increased, comprising 60% of the national production.
Industrial production in Kvemo Kartli is represented by a number of manufactures of national significance. Rustavi processing metallurgical factory, Rustavi chemical factory, Rustavi Heidelberg cement factory, Rustavi steel factory, and Bolnisi gold mining must be specifically mentioned.
In the recent years significance of Azeri oil and gas state company Socar has especially increased in the region. Socar is the most important foreign investor in the region providing full gas supply to Kvemo Kartli villages, including villages where ethnic Armenians are represented. Socar also supports the region in various directions, including education, culture or other structural projects.
In regards to religion distribution too, Kvemo Kartli region is characterized with diversity. The majority of Georgians living in the region are Orthodox Christian, a small part, especially Georgians living in Tsalka municipality who resettled from Adjara region and live under the status of eco migrants, practice Sunni Islam. Russians and Greeks living in the region are Orthodox Christians, though from the linguistic point of view the latter are Turkish-speaking. The majority of Armenians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Azeri living in the region practice Islam and represent the most numerous religious group in the region. According to the latest statistical data, Islam has 398,677 followers on the entire territory of Georgia, which comprises 10.74% of the country’s population. The largest part of them live in Kvemo Kartli region.
What is the situation in Samtskhe-Javakheti?
Samtskhe-Javakheti is an administrative unit in the south-eastern part of Georgia. Located on a territory of 6,413 sq. m, it borders Turkey and Republic of Armenia in the south, Kvemo Kartli in the east, Autonomous Republic of Adjara in the west, and Imereti region in the north. There are 5 towns, 7 settlements, and 258 villages in the region. Administratively the region is divided in municipalities, with the total of six municipal units (Adigeni, Akhaltsikhe, Borjomi, Akhalkalaki, Ninotsminda, and Aspindza) and the town of Akhaltsikhe as its administrative center.
According to 2014 census, population of Samtskhe-Javakheti is 160,504 persons. From the ethnic point of view, the majority in the region is presented by Armenians, with 81,089 persons, which constitutes 50.52% of the region’s population. Georgians are the second largest group with 77,498 persons, which constitutes 48.28% of the total population. Other ethnic groups are presented by relatively insignificant numbers, among them Russians (712 persons) and Greeks (420 persons) must be mentioned.
As we can see, there are two main ethnic groups in the region, out of which Armenians present the absolute majority in historic region of Javakheti that consists of two municipalities – Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda. In Akhalkalaki municipality number of Armenians reaches 41,870 persons, while Georgians are represented by 3,085 persons. In Ninotsminda municipality these figures are 23,262 persons for Armenians and 1,029 for Georgians. Georgians constitute the majority in Adigeni, Aspindza, and Borjomi municipalities, while the town of Akhaltsikhe and Akhaltsikhe municipality have mixed population.
Municipalities of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda, mainly populated by ethnic Armenians, are ethnically less diverse, the majority of villages are Armenian, though there are a few ethnically mixed and non-Armenian villages, for example, there are 6 Georgian villages in the Akhalkalaki municipality: Kotelia, Chunchkha, Ptena, Gogasheni, Apnia, and Azmana, and 4 mixed Georgian-Armenian villages: Baraleti, Khospio, Murjakheti, and Okami. Ninotsminda municipality is more homogeneous, there are only two mixed Georgian-Armenian villages there: Spasovka and Sameba. There are another two villages in Ninotsminda that need to be mentioned, namely Orlovka and Gorelovka, where there are still representatives of a Russian religious community of dukhobors left. Their number decreases every year, however there are still several hundred people left, mainly the elderly.
What are the main factors defining peculiarities of the region?
- Unlike Kvemo Kartli region, where ethnic Azeri do not adequately participate in political processes, in Samtskhe-Javakheti, and especially in Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda municipalities, local Armenians are fully involved in exercising power. For example, all main positions in municipal administration, including the position of the head of administration are traditionally occupied by local Armenians. It is Armenians that constitute the majority of the local municipal council as well. As the result of the latest 2017 local election, 31 out of 38 members of Akhalkalaki municipal council, and 25 out of 26 members of Ninotsminda municipal council are Armenians, while in Akhaltsikhe out of 33 members Armenians are represented by 8 members;
- One of the most important peculiarities of power execution in the region is the existence of informal local «clans». This practice exists since the 1990s and remains relevant today. Clans imply groups united under business interests and enjoying patronage of the authorities which guarantees their loyalty towards the government. Election of local Armenian representatives from ruling parties into central government and especially the parliament takes place based on this;
- Similar to Kvemo Kartli, a very important problem in Samtskhe-Javakheti is knowledge of the Georgian language. There are no exact data, however it can be said that the majority of local Armenians do not speak Georgian on communication level, which obstacles their general integration into common Georgian political, educational, and economical space. The problem of knowing the state language also exists among the local authorities and local council. Due to this, public administration is often performed in Russian or Armenian, though decrees and written communication with the central government is conducted in Georgian;
- For many years the region existed in full informational isolation, the most convenient means of receiving information were Russian and Armenian informational channels. Currently Georgian Public Broadcaster has the technical capacity to cover the region, however practice shows that the majority of the population is still oriented on foreign informational channels. As a result, population awareness on Europe and European Union is extremely low, however economic and political integration unions initiated by Russia enjoy popularity. For example, according to the research conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in December 2017, in regions compactly populated by national minorities 56% of the population support membership in the Eurasian Union initiated by Russia;
- Samtskhe-Javakheti is a border region. There are border checkpoints in Akhaltsikhe municipality (border with Turkey) and Ninotsminda municipality (border with Armenia). It is the checkpoint on the border with Armenia that Armenian population of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda uses most frequently. For them it is a very important checkpoint, as it gives them the possibility to travel to the historical motherland. Another thing that must be taken into account is that a large part of the Armenian population of Javakheti has relatives in Armenia and culturally and emotionally they are closely connected with Armenia.
Hospitality characteristic of Georgians, uniting against a common enemy, protecting freedom and fighting for it, significantly contribute to the possibilities of ethnic unity.
Tolerance, respect for other people’s religion is also characteristic of Georgians, which is one of the factors of peaceful coexistence with different ethnic groups.