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The future of Georgia’s ethnic minorities

The neglected implications of Salome Zurabishvili becoming the President of Georgia.

December 18, 2018 - Anastasia Mgaloblishvili - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Anastasia Mgaloblishvili

On November 28th, the second-round of the Georgian presidential elections were held and Salome Zurabishvili was voted as the next president of the country. The opposition was quick to take on the streets following the news of Zurabishvili’s victory, protesting the elections to have been – as runner-off Vashadze – put it “a criminal farce.” As the report by the OSCE stated: “The second round of Georgia’s presidential election was competitive and candidates were able to campaign freely, however one side enjoyed an undue advantage and the negative character of the campaign on both sides undermined the process.”

Salome Zurabishvili’s victory signifies three turning points for the future of Georgian politics — the widely criticised administration of the elections puts into question Georgia’s role as the leader of democracy in the South Caucasus region, Zurabishvili’s comments on the Russo-Georgian war weaken Georgia’s position in its diplomatic struggle against Russia and Zurabishvili’s rhetoric on Georgia’s ethnic minorities strengthens ethnic nationalistic sentiments in Georgia. Although the former two points have been topics of discussion in the international media, Zurabishvili’s comments on Georgia’s ethnic minorities have been relatively disregarded and hence remain an important issue to examine. Ethnic nationalism is a prevalent issue in Georgia’s democratisation and stride towards the West as it impedes civil cohesion in the multi-ethnic society and antagonises the country’s ethnic minorities.

In a visit to Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region, populated by 90 per cent of Armenians, Zurabishvili criticised former president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili for granting citizenship to a majority of Turks, but not to the Armenians. A joint statement issued by a group of NGO’s condemned Zurabishvili’s comments as being xenophobic and racist and invoking hatred, contradicting principles of liberal democracy and equality, and invoking historic conflict. Considering Armenia’s historic past with the Ottomans, such statement only further antagonises the Turks, who also constitute a minority in Georgia. Similar to the ethnic Armenian population in Sametskhe-Javakheti region, most ethnic minorities in Georgia are concentrated in isolated regions of the country, with limited knowledge of Georgian and difficulty integrating with the majority of the population. This has not been the first racist and xenophobic statement made by Zurabishvili, who has previously expressed her fear of Georgia’s most touristy streets of Shardeni and Aghmashenebli turning into “hookah streets.”

In a country whose history has consisted of constant foreign domination, ethnic nationalism has served as an instrument of self-preservation, and hence a strong ethnic-nationalistic rhetoric is nothing new with the Georgian leadership. Georgians protected themselves from foreign threat by strongly identifying with and taking pride in their unique language, culture, and identity as one of the first Christian countries in the world. Ethnic nationalist sentiments had amplified even further during the Soviet occupation of the country, when the country was divided territorially into a hierarchical system based mostly on the nationality of the residing population. Following Georgia’s independence from the USSR, these sentiments were not diminished, as the Georgian state’s inability to provide its basic functions led people to confine their trust and security in the Georgian Orthodox Church – which remains the most trusted institution in the country. Today, however, with 13 per cent of Georgia’s population consisting of ethnic minorities – Turks, Armenians, Azeris, Chechens, Abkhazians and Ossetians, ethnic-nationalistic rhetoric among the Georgian leadership and population only hinders the country’s democratisation and stride to building an inclusive civic society.

The Georgian post-independence leadership has not succeeded in the integration and inclusion of the minorities into the Georgian society. The country’s firstly elected President– Zviad Gamsakhurdia – frequently targeted the “ungrateful minorities” with his ethnic chauvinistic rhetoric. His successor Eduard Shevardnadze’s government was unable to deliver basic core functions of the state – leading the majority of Georgians to seek security and support from the Georgian Orthodox Church, while the ethnic minorities developed an even stronger sense of isolation and neglect from the state. Although the Western-oriented Mikheil Saakashvili attempted to better integrate the minorities and create a sense of a civic-based nationalism in the country by improving the infrastructure in their regions and by enforcing the teaching of Georgian language in their schools, his rhetoric and policies suggested otherwise. The minorities feared Saakashvili was trying to assimilate them with Georgians rather than provide them with a free and safe space for the practice of their own culture. Saakashvili also increased governmental funding to the Georgian Orthodox Church, giving it priority and legitimacy over other religious denominations in the country.

Considering how embedded ethnicity is in Georgia’s identity, leadership cannot be considered the only solution to build a civic-based nationalism, but rather a much-needed step towards the process. Creating trust among the Georgian population is an important step in creating a civic and inclusive society, and Zurabishvili’s antagonising comments in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region only slows the process down. The president-elect’s inability to emerge as a uniting figure in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society significantly weakens her presidency.

Anastasia Mgaloblishvili graduated from Tallinn University of Technology’s International Relations program in June 2018. She is currently pursuing an internship in the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office and will continue her studies in the London School of Economics from September 2019

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