Georgia: Frustration Grows Among Azeri Community

Radio Free Europe, Czech Rep
July 23 2004

Georgia: Frustration Grows Among Azeri Community
By Jean-Christophe Peuch

While Georgia is striving to restore control over its northern
separatist province of South Ossetia, tension is brewing in its
predominantly Azeri southern districts. Local residents blame the
Georgian president for failing to deliver on pre-election pledges to
improve social conditions in the region. The situation has sparked
concerns in neighboring Azerbaijan, where voices are rising in
defense of Georgia’s largest Muslim minority.

Prague, 23 July 2004 (RFE/RL) — Since they were elected a few months
ago, the two young leaders of Azerbaijan and Georgia have been vowing
mutual friendship and pledging to take neighborly ties to new
heights, while increasing bilateral trade to unprecedented levels.

Yet, concerns over the fate of Georgia’s sizable Azeri community have
cast a shadow over this idyllic picture.

Estimates generally put the number of Georgia’s Azeris at around
350,000. Most of them live in four of the six administrative
districts of the southwestern Kvemo Kartli region, an area that is
known as Borcali in Azeri. Azeris account for nearly 50 percent of
the Kvemo Kartli population.

Tensions began rising after Georgian security forces two months ago
raided Azeri border villages and arrested a number of residents as
part of what was officially presented as an attempt to put an end to
smuggling operations from Azerbaijan.

In recent weeks, Baku-based newspapers have been reporting on alleged
extortion, arbitrary detentions, and other forms of harassment
against Azeri community leaders. First among them has been the
Russian-language “Zerkalo” daily, which has been spearheading a
campaign of support to Kvemo Kartli Azeris.

But Georgian authorities deny any wrongdoing.

Kvemo Kartli Governor Soso Mamzishvili tells our correspondent that
such accusations are unfounded:

“All these reports about alleged violations of ethnic Azeris’ rights
are out of place. What [these people in Baku] say or write is sheer
provocation. Neither I nor any other Georgian has had any conflict
[with ethnic Azeris]. There can be no talk of rights violations
against [Georgia’s] Azeris,” Mamzishvili said.

Azeris are Georgia’s second-largest ethnic minority group after the

They are also among the least integrated — a circumstance that
officials in Tbilisi generally ascribe to the fact that 90 percent of
them reportedly do not speak Georgian.

Azeris, in turn, blame the successive Georgian governments that took
over from Soviet rule.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, collective property was abolished
throughout Georgia. But as Azerbaijani poet Eyvaz Borcali tells
RFE/RL, the then government of hard-line nationalist President Zviad
Gamsakhurdia denied Kvemo Kartli Azeris the right to purchase land.

Borcali is a native from Kvemo Kartli who runs a Baku-based
nongovernmental group known as the Borcali Society. He says most
Azeris continued to be denied land ownership rights after former
Georgian Communist Party head Eduard Shevardnadze returned to power
following Gamsakhurdia’s ouster.

“Shevardnadze has done nothing good [for the Azeris]. He made only
empty pledges, and he did nothing [to correct his predecessor’s
policy]. Many Azeris are denied access to lands that belonged to
their ancestors. Those lands have been taken by Georgians and are
being given to Azeris for temporary use. [Sometimes] the Georgian
owners are not even from the region. There are cases of urban
Georgians who own lands in villages that have been Azeri since the
dawn of time and let them to local residents,” Borcali said.

Unofficial figures show up to 70 percent of Kvemo Kartli’s
predominantly rural Azeris are still denied access to land and are
forced either to rent plots or hire themselves to Georgian farmers.

Georgia’s Azeris are now showing signs of impatience.

Earlier this year, Azeri demonstrators picketed Saakashvili’s office
in Tbilisi to request that land be redistributed fairly among Kvemo
Kartli residents. They also demanded that steps be taken to restore
Turkic village names that were
“Georgianized” under Gamsakhurdia and that Azeris be better
represented in local administrations.

Observers generally agree that simmering tension in Kvemo Kartli
partly stems from the high expectations raised by the recent change
of political leadership in Tbilisi.

During his election campaign in December 2003, Saakashvili promised
Kvemo Kartli residents that he would meet their political and social
demands, vowing to grant all citizens equal rights regardless of
their ethnicity.

As other Georgian regions, Kvemo Kartli voted massively for
Saakashvili’s National Movement-led coalition in the 28 March
legislative elections. But now local Azeris are demanding action.

Unlike many in Baku, Azerbaijani lawyer Isaxan Asurov — another
native of Kvemo Kartli — does not believe the situation of Georgia’s
Azeris has significantly deteriorated under the new Georgian
leadership. Yet, neither has it improved, he says.

“One cannot say that the situation has worsened. Simply it remains
unchanged, and that worries people. During his election campaign,
Saakashvili himself raised such issues as the land reform or the
under-representation of local Azeris in official structures. But he
has still to fulfill his promises. That explains why we are unhappy,”
Asurov said.

Kvemo Kartli Governor Mamzishvili denies Georgia’s new leaders have
remained idle in the past seven months and says measures are being
taken to address the land issue.

“We are taking steps. We are currently reviewing all land contracts.
With respect to land, Georgians and Azeris alike face problems. We
are taking back all lands that have been purchased without being put
up for auction and we will organize new tenders. We are
redistributing land according to the existing legislation,”
Mamzishvili said.

Mamzishvili is the third governor to run the region since
Shevardnadze’s ousting. He claims that, since he was appointed last
February, he has managed to bring gas and electricity supplies in the
region to near nationwide standards.

Borcali says that, even if that were true, that would not be enough
to alleviate the plight of Kvemo Kartli Azeris. “When one is supplied
with gas and electricity,” he says, “that does not mean that one’s
problems are solved.”

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS