Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azeris Angry Over Georgia Killing

A local land dispute has escalated following the death of an elderly Azerbaijani woman in southern Georgia.
By Sofo Bukia

The newly appointed governor of Georgia’s southern Kvemo Kartli region, which has an Azerbaijani majority, has vowed to catch the killers of a 65-year-old woman who died during a protest rally.


However, the killing and the long-running dispute behind it have already taken on an inter-ethnic dimension, which is now attracting the attention of officials in Baku.


Hilal Idrisova was killed on December 3 when a land dispute between local villagers and a stud farm boiled over. Several dozen people from the Marneuli district settlements Kvemo Kulari and Kirikhlo had protested at a nearby horse stud farm, which they claim is using land that is the villagers’ by right.


“They told us, ‘You have no rights to this land, so shut up and go home’,” said Elsevar Mamedov from Kvemo Kulari.


In the ensuing clash between the villagers and the farm’s owners, security guards and staff, the elderly Idrisova was shot in the chest and killed, while another local resident, Ramiz Sadygov, was shot in the leg. Doctors treating him at the district hospital fear the limb may yet have to be amputated.


“I begged my mum to stay home that night,” Idrisova’s distraught daughter Fatima told IWPR. “What’s the use of that land now that she is gone?”


The farm’s managing director, Vakhtang Rukhadze of the Georgian Horse Rearing Association, has rejected all accusations of involvement in the death and wounding, and claims in turn that the villagers had provoked his men.


“They threw rocks at us. I have three injured and concussed men to show for it. I have no weapons, and no one at the farm has any, so where did the shots come from?” he asked.


“A few of our cars and items of field machinery were broken, and this happens almost every day. We have complained everywhere, including to the president, but no one wants to tackle this.”


The death has increased tensions in the Azerbaijani community, which has a population estimated at between 350,000 and half a million.


Following last year’s peaceful “Rose Revolution,” the new Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili declared Georgia’s Azerbaijanis to be a “national treasure” and promised to help them solve their problems.


However, in Marneuli, serious issues over land ownership remain.


The problem dates back to the beginning of Georgia’s land reforms in 1996, when rural collective farms were disbanded and the state gave generous amounts of land away to peasant farmers.


But the residents of Kvemo Kulari and Kirikhlo claim they lost out in this deal, as every household in these villages ended up with just a quarter of a hectare of land - far less than the one hectare they were legally entitled to.


The Kulari stud farm owns 1,155 hectares of land, 500 of which is claimed by the local villagers for their farming needs. “There is no other arable land in the district. The horse farm has it all,” one villager complained to IWPR.


The Kulari farm was formerly owned by the Tbilisi hippodrome and is now owned by the city-based Jockey Club.


The club says it legally acquired the land at Kulari on lease for 49 years, and has all the appropriate documentation. It then leased the farm to the Georgian Horse Rearing Association for a ten-year period.


“These are no ordinary horses,” said Viktor Goglidze, who takes care of the animals. “These are purebred English racehorses with all the papers and everything. We have around a hundred and they need lots of land.”


The owners of the stud farm are proud of their fine horses and the distinguished history of the farm, which was founded in 1902, and point out that the majority of its 100 grooms are Azerbaijani. They also say that they are confident of investment from the United States following a recent successful visit by horse specialists from Kentucky.


However, many local villagers said that they thought the farm’s main business was actually selling wheat to neighbouring Armenia – not that they objected to this in and of itself.


“We don’t care who they sell their wheat to,” said Gasham Garaev. “It’s the land we want.”


But following the violent death of Hilal Idrisova, they are demanding that her killers be brought to justice.


The Kvemo Kulari and Kirikhlo residents had expressed their anger repeatedly before the shooting incident, disrupting horse farmers’ sowing work and blocking the local highway.


According to one local, Levan Mamaladze - the former governor of Kvemo Kartli under ex-president Eduard Shevardnadze - promised the Azerbaijanis the disputed land used by the stud farm in exchange for their votes during the 2000 presidential campaign. Mamaladze is now in hiding after being charged with the embezzlement of millions of dollars.


His successor Soso Mazmishvili refused to be held responsible for any deal or promise made before his time in office. “I told them I would look into it,” he told IWPR. “I’m not a feudal lord to promise any land to anyone.”


But one week ago Mazmishvili himself was dismissed and replaced as governor by Zurab Melikishvili, the minister for regional policy and a former close ally of President Saakishvili.


“I hope we can work this out,” Melikishvili told IWPR his on first day in office. “In any case, we will have to try to [persuade] the stud farm cede some land to the people.”


Meanwhile, the dispute in Kvemo Kartli has provoked anger in Azerbaijan, where parliamentary speaker Murtuz Aleskerov told the national media, “Saakashvili had promised the Azerbaijanis would be represented in executive and legislative government and law enforcement agencies.


“He also promised to resolve the land issue. But none of this has materialised.”


Azerbaijani analyst Rasim Musabekov believes that the quarrel is a symptom of both nations’ change in administration. “There was a time when the authoritarian ruler of Azerbaijan could resolve issues with his Georgian counterpart, but not anymore,” he said. “Now a lot will depend on Georgia’s Azerbaijanis themselves and how active and persistent they are.”


Sofo Bukiya is a reporter for the newspaper 24 Hours in Tbilisi. Rauf Orujev, a reporter for the Ekho newspaper, contributed to this report from Baku.