By Ruzanna Stepanian
The International Crisis Group (ICG) has published a report on Georgia’s Armenian and Azeri minorities that studies the discontents of the two communities.
ICG analyst Levon Zurabian told RFE/RL that in conducting the study they focused more on the political rights of Armenians and Azeris living in Georgia – such as how far Armenians and Azeris are represented in Georgia’s government bodies.
Considering the fact that minorities consider themselves full citizens of a country only when they have the opportunity to be represented in central and regional government, the report makes a point that in this sense ethnic minorities’ political participation and representation in Georgia is ‘disturbingly low’.
It is said in the report that ‘Georgia has made little progress towards integrating Armenian and Azeri minorities, who constitute over 12 per cent of the country’s population.’ In particular, ‘Armenians and Azeris are underrepresented in all spheres of public life, especially government’ and the lack of dialogue between them and Tbilisi ‘adds to perceptions of discrimination and alienation.’
“In the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, where Armenians make about 55 percent, Georgians and not Armenians mainly occupy government posts. The same situation is in Kvemo-Kartli,” Zurabian said. “There are many reasons for this situation. One of the problems is, of course, the lack of culture of due tolerance towards minorities in Georgia. Very often they are treated like ‘second-class’ citizens, or at least this is the perception of minorities themselves.”
According to Zurabian, inability to speak the state language is also a serious impediment to the integration of Armenians and Azeris living in Georgia. Both in Javakheti and Kvemo-Kartli Armenians and Azeris speak Georgian poorly. Meanwhile, under Georgian law, state jobs are contingent on knowing Georgian.
In the past in those regions Armenians and Azeris could get by with their native languages, communicated with each other in Russian and did not need to speak Georgian. Today that the Georgian legislation has made it a condition minorities feel deprived of their rights.
“Naturally, as a result of such policy minorities are more often deprived of posts and begin to drop out of political life. It has caused very serious dissatisfaction,” Zurabian said.
Taking into account the dissatisfactions of Armenians and Azeris living in Georgia, the report says that ‘while there is no risk to these situations becoming Ossetian or Abkhaz-like threats to the state’s territorial integrity’, tensions in Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo-Kartli are obvious.
Despite some concern in Georgia that the demands of Armenians and Azeris also may result in separatist steps, Zurabian says that during his trip to Javakheti he didn’t meet anyone who would have a desire to secede from Georgia. According to the analyst, the demands of Armenians are different: “They demand an autonomy. Of course, different people understand different things under that word. There are people who say autonomy and mean a full political autonomy where they will elect all authorities and there are people who understand it as a more linguistic and cultural autonomy.”
To relieve the current tensions and solve problems of minorities’ integration, in its report the ICG presents about two dozen recommendations to Georgia. Some of them include: to strengthen Georgian as a second language (GSL) teacher training, development of GSL teaching materials and opportunities for minorities to learn GSL in primary and secondary schools, but before the new generation learns the language there should not be discrimination against minorities. The Group urges the Georgian government to introduce legislation allowing minorities also to use their native language to communicate with administrative authorities.
According to Zurabian, this is not a novelty and this requirement also proceeds from the Framework Convention on Ethnic Minorities’ Rights.
Additionally, the ICG calls upon Georgia to ‘take affirmative action to encourage minorities’ representation in central and regional government’, to amend laws to enable minorities to serve as officials without knowing the state language at least for an interim period of ten to fifteen years, to allow judicial proceedings in Azeri or Armenian in municipalities with over 20 per cent minorities as well as remove legal and administrative barriers to registration of political parties on a regional or ethnic basis.