Indigenes and Settlers: Minorities in Georgia are seeking the same pluralism ethnic Georgians long sought

Indigenes and Settlers: Minorities in Georgia are seeking the same. pluralism ethnic Georgians long sought.

For many years, most Westerners complacently assumed a world moving toward interdependence and international cooperation, toward a time when smaller nations would lose their relevance. Resurgent nationalism has challenged that view. As did decolonization in the 1960s, the breakup of the Soviet Union has spawned a myriad of states demanding entry into the world community.

The combination of newly independent, multicultural republics and weak democratic institutions has focused the world's attention on minority rights, as it had in Central Europe in the 1920s and 1930s and Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the conduct emerging states take toward their minorities has become a barometer of their democratic intentions. A prime example of this is Georgia, where the government has restricted the national rights of the 30 percent of the new state that is Abkhazian, Russian, Adzhar, or another of the area's many ethnic minorities.

In Georgia, as in other former Soviet republics, ethnic minorities have begun demanding cultural and educational equality, greater political and economic representation, even secession. Driven by economic anxieties, the absence of central power, and a fear of being locked into permanent second-class status, minorities are challenging the hegemony of the dominant ethnic groups.


Under Soviet rule, Georgian cultural and political boundaries became more, rather than less, distinct. The Soviet constitution encouraged dominant ethnic groups to believe they had the right to privilege and control in their republic, and Moscow let Georgians establish a political and cultural hegemony. Soviet propaganda also reinforced the deep attachment Georgians had for their territory, an attachment that was rooted in the republic's small size, its vulnerability to annexation, and a perception of land as a precious resource. On the whole, Georgia's minorities lacked equal access to political and economic power and faced social and educational disadvantages, despite Soviet "ethnic equalization" policies. Some assimilation occurred in cities.

With the election in October 1990 of a Georgian nationalist government led by Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the barriers to integrating minorities into the political system rose even higher. The language of Georgian politics today speaks of special treatment for ethnic groups on the basis of history or prior settlement or by dint of numbers. The government, which perceives all minority attempts to carve out spheres of cultural or economic sovereignty as challenges to its people's spatial and social homogeneity, has taken few measures to create multilingual or multinational structures to incorporate non-Georgians into the life of the republic.

Georgian leaders base much of their ethnic policy on a distinction between indigenes and settlers. They have elaborated a theory of minority rights in which non-Georgians, even those who have been living in the republic all their lives, have no inalienable right to reside in Georgia, much less to enjoy equality with ethnic Georgians. Thus, the government abolished the South Ossetian autonomous region in December 1990, leading to a bitter war between Georgians and Ossentians. It justified this move by terming the nineteenth century. In this view, the Bolsheviks had illegally granted the Ossetians autonomy in 1922 as a reward for anti-Georgian activity during the civil war of 1918-20. Gamsakhurdia even called on South Ossetians to return to their "real" homeland in neighboring North Ossetia.

In his 1990 election campaign, Gamsakhurdia showed equal disdain for Georgia's other ethnic minorities:

We regard those non-Georgians who forced themselves on us and gave themselves on us and gave themselves land and housing [as illegitimate inhabitants who], taking advantage of lawlessness... and the helplessness of the Georgian nation, became second occupiers. They include Armenians and Azeris, and there are Ossetians and Abkhaz - people of various nationalities who are hostile to Georgians.

Such declarations feed Georgians' sense of insecurity and competition for scarce resources, combined with a history of foreign invasion, Russification, and weak representation in the Georgian republic's periphery, have encouraged Georgians to support chauvinistic programs to advance majority rights.

The government, with the support of all Georgian political parties, has made Georgian expansion into areas dominated by other ethnic groups a priority. Several measures attempt to achieve this goal, ranging from settling native Georgians in minority areas to providing financial incentives for non-Georgians to emigrate. "Georgianization" policies in schools have been expanded, and the media has fostered a hostile atmosphere, describing non-Georgians as foreigners or highlighting their non-Christian culture. A variety of new laws restrict the ability of resident non-Georgians to register separate national or regionally based parties, a fact that in effect excludes them from national politics.


Putting up the strongest organized resistance to these nationalist policies are the non-Georgian minorities with the most to lose - Abkhazians and South Ossentians. These two minorities had received some territorial rights under the Soviet system, and they also retained their cultural institutions and occupied top administrative posts within their own regions. Nevertheless, the relative numbers of Abkhazians and South Ossetians declined steadily, and both were overrepresented in low-paid manual and rural occupations. As a result, like Canada's Quebecois (except that their demographic position is far weaker), Abkhazians and South Ossetians argue that Affirmative action won't protect minority cultures like their own. The Abkhazians in particular, a people of 70,000 with no homeland outside Georgia, fear cultural extinction.

The collapse of central power ended even the limited protection that the Soviet constitution had provided. Like almost every ethnic group in the former Soviet Union, the Abkhazians and Ossetians have organized political parties to advance their interests and participate in electoral campaigns, although these and all regional parties were excluded from the October 1990 parliamentary elections.

Given the fears engendered by economic and political chaos and the absence of effective channels of arbitrations, such as independent courts or parliamentary commissions, party competition has magnified ethnnically based distrust and conflict. In 1988, Abkhazian intellectuals and local Communist Party leaders formed Aidgilara (National Forum), which has gained wide support in its campaign against what it calls the Georgian government's "purposeful destruction of the Abkhazian people." Aidgilara has called for Abkhazian secession. Further, attempting to overcome their numerical weakness, Abkhazians have linked up with a proposed Caucasian Confederation of 4 million North Caucasians that would have its capital in Sukhumi, now the capital of Abkahzia.

On a local level, Abkhazians and Georgians have come into violent conflict. The worst case began when the Georgia government created a Georgian division of the "Abkhazian" university in Sukhumi in July 1989. About 14 people died and over 500 were wounded in the ensuing violence as Abkhazians protested this perceived infringement of their educational "sovereignty." The conflict soon developed into a war of laws: the Abkhazian state sovereignty in August 1990, immediately enacting a series of laws to assert the Abkhazian legislature's prerogative over the Georgian parliament. The Georgian parliament responded by rejecting these laws as unconstitutional.

The Georgian-Ossetian clash has been much bloodier. The emergence of Georgian nationalism stimulated the formation of Adomon Nykhas, the South Ossetian Popular Front. The Ossentians declared a Soviet Democratic Republic of South Ossetia, and in December 1990 they organized regional elections to a new South Ossetian parliament. That same month, the Georgia legislature abolished South Ossetia's autonomy, arrested South Ossetian leaders, and declared a state of emergency. Since then, a civil war, exacerbated by the introduction of Soviet Interior Ministry troops, has resulted in close to 100,000 refugees who have fled to the safety of their ethnic majorities.

In this civil war, South Ossetians are looking to North Ossetia, in Russia, for aid. North Ossetia, embroiled in its own ethnic dispute with the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, has condemned Georgian action and provides a refuge for South Ossetian partisans. Conciliation talks, including intervention by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, have failed to end the dispute. The war continues to breed faceless and brutal national stereotypes, making resolution even more difficult. This war will probably continue until either South Ossetia regains its autonomy, with wide powers of self governance, or South Ossetians abandon their homes entirely.

While Abkhazians and Ossetians present the most organized opposition, the 1989 census counted fourteen officially recognized national minorities in Georgia; nine of these number over 30,000. For example, Armenians and Azerbaidzhanis, heavily concentrated in the South, have felt the pressure of Georgian nationalism. Like other minorities, they were de facto disenfrachised by the ban on participation of regionally based parties in the 1990 elections. The government has deliberately resettled Georgians into Armenian and Azerbaizhjan regions, and Georgian societies have purchased land for the use of Georgians. The government has also encouraged the Georgian church to expand its proselytizing efforts in non-Georgian areas, and it has appointed Georgian governors to supervise minority regions.

Both Armenian and Azerbaidzhani communities have clashed with native Georgians and joined other minorities in calling for Moscow's intercession. Underscoring the Georgian conflict with Armenians and Azerbaidzhanis are historical and cultural resentments against Armenians' former economic dominance in Georgia and the repression of Georgian statehood by the Turkic Ottoman empire. Georgian newspapers fan this hostility daily. Attacked as aliens in the national press, accused of illegally occupying Georgian land, unsure of their rights to citizenship or to their own culture, Armenians and Azerbaidzhanis have begun to view emigration as the best solution to an intolerable situation.

Georgia's 340,000 ethnic Russians, many of whom are low-level bureaucrats and factory workers who don't speak Georgian, are particularly vulnerable to the regimen of nationalism and economic decline. Predominantly urban, they lack networks or territorially based communities and have failed to organize effectively to protect themselves. Several elements highlight the weak position of Russians, including the departure of the Dukhobors, a Russian religious sect that had resided in Georgia since the 1840s, the rapid disappearance of Russian-language newspapers and journals, and the lack of civil and political guarantees for the Russian community in a September 1990 agreement between the governments of Russia and Georgia.

A major cause for the increased hostility to local russians was the Soviet army's brutal suppression of a Georgian independence demonstration on April 9, 1989. Twenty people died that day, and Soviet Interior ministry troops played a provocative role. The lack of prosecutions for the killings, the hazing of Georgian recruits in the Soviet army, and the bias of the Russian-language military press have all added to the isolation of local Russians, as did Moscow's hostility to Georgian aspirations for independence and its imposition of an economic blockade.

Georgia's other minorities face analogous plights. The 1989 census mentions neither Adzhars - Muslim Georgians living in their own autonomous region - nor Meskhetians, who Stalin expelled from southern Georgia in 1944 and who have fought to return since their rehabilitation in the 1950s. Both groups are suffering under an authoritarian nationalist government that wants to impose ethnic homogeneity. Meskhetians have nowhere to go: 60,000 were expelled from their Uzbekistan exile in July 1989. In desperation, many Meskhetian seek to emigrate to Turkey, and the survival of a distinct Meskhetian identity is in jeopardy (see "The Tragedy of the Meskhetian Turks" on page 36).


Georgia seems to be yet another instance of a paradox apparent since the nineteenth century: oppressed nations oppressing their own minorities in the name of ethnic rights. It gives credence to the critique of nationalism advanced by conservatives like the nineteenth-century British historian Lord Acton, who declared, "The greatest adversary of the rights of nationality" is the theory of nationality.

However, the conflict of majority versus minority extends beyond ethnic strife. In Georgia, as in Eastern and Central Europe, conflicts over national rights are part of broader disputes over political pluralism. Gamsakhurdia's autocratic actions aimed to silence not only ethnic minorities but his Georgian opponents as well. And none of the major opposition groups that accused President Gamsakhurdia of establishing a dictatorship and expelled him from office after a two-week bombardment of the Georgian parliament are likely to take a much more tolerant view of minority rights. They have no major disagreement with Gamsakhurdia's nationality policy.

Admittedly, to balance minority and majority rights and construct a system that satisfactorily accommodates or represents all ethnic groups is almost impossible. Even politically stable Western democracies like Canada, which has institutionalized ethnic conflict, can't solve this dilemma. In ethnicaly fragmented Georgia, which lacks any history of institutions to reconcile conflict the difficulties are enormous. Having experienced minority status themselves within the larger Soviet Union, the Georgians, like their own ethnic minorities, are insecure about their national survival.

Georgians and non-Georgians alike believe that it is who you are born, rather than where you are born, that determines rights. Nevertheless, only a firm institutional guarantee of minority representation and self-governance will restore the trust of Georgia's minorities. This trust is a prerequisite to establishing ethnic coexistence, a governable state, and, most important of all, democracy in Georgia.


Elizabeth Fuller, "Georgia's Adzhar Crisis," Report on the USSR, August 9, 1991.

Stephen Jones, "Glasnost, Perestroika, and the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic," Armenian Review, Summer/Autumn 1990.

Darrell Slider, "Crisis and Response in Soviet Nationality Policy: the Case of Abkhazia," Central Asian Survey, Winter 1985.

U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Report on the Supreme Soviet Elections in Georgia, November 27, 1990.

Ronald Suny, The Making of the Georgian Nation, I.B. Tauris, 1989.

Ben Whitaker, ed., Minorities: A Question of Human Rights? Pergamon Press, 1984.

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