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

Georgia: Azerbaijanis Back Saakashvili

The Azerbaijani community in Kvemo Kartli was fiercely pro-Shevardnadze once, but loyalties change fast.
By Tea Lobzhanidze

Ethnic-Azerbaijanis in Georgia’s Kvemo Kartli region, once a stronghold of Eduard Shevardnadze, flocked to the new, revolutionary powers in Tbilisi in recent parliamentary elections – but from expediency as much as choice.

After loyalty to Shevardnadze through most of the 1990s, the large Azerbaijani community would not appear to be a natural supporter of Mikhail Saakashvili. The American-trained lawyer overthrew the former longtime communist boss and Soviet foreign minister in a peaceful revolution in November and was elected president in January.

But in parliamentary elections on March 28, 76 per cent of votes cast in Kvemo Kartli were for Saakashvili’s National Movement-Democrats. The level of support in the southeastern province was even higher than the landslide figure nationally of 67 per cent.

Azerbaijanis say the abrupt shift in loyalty reflects the delicate relationship between Georgia’s largest ethnic minority and the central authorities. In Kvemo Kartli, the 223,000 Azerbaijanis are the main group, accounting for 45 per cent of the population, which, in addition to Georgians, includes Russians, Armenians and others. Most Azerbaijanis there are unable to speak Georgian.

“The government has the power and Azerbaijanis know that if they don’t support it they will not be trusted and therefore, in the end, lose out. So we have no other choice,” Kamandar Ismailov, deputy administration head in the town of Marneuli, told IWPR. “We supported Shevardnadze. We are afraid that the opposition often changes its opinion. It can use us, then simply forget about us.”

In the past, such loyalty was in part ensured by the vote rigging so prevalent across Georgia. In the most recent elections, there were also reports of numerous, though not systematic irregularities. The chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, Zurab Tchiaberashvili, spoke of “alarming” incidents.

Another factor swinging the vote has been a series of well-timed moves by Saakashvili, for whom uniting this fractured country is a chief goal, including his visit to Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev in Baku in March. Saakashvili has also turned on the charm, telling Georgia’s approximately 285,000 Azerbaijanis they are a “national treasure”.

Azerbaijani representatives say that in any case their community, as an ethnic minority, has little option other than backing the will of the majority.

But the culture of almost automatic allegiance to those in power has been particularly tested in recent months.

For several years, the local governor was Levan Mamaladze, a key Shevardnadze ally. In any kind of poll he could count on almost unanimous support, while public protests were unheard of. But Mamaladze was ejected after Saakashvili’s rise and, in the face of a corruption investigation opened in December, fled the country. He is now on Interpol’s wanted list.

“We were very frightened when the revolution happened. Everyone said then that Georgia’s new authorities would put the non-Georgian population under a strong pressure,” Rafik Gajiev, member of the non-government organisation Geirati, which represents ethnic minorities of Kvemo Kartli, told IWPR.

“No one has ever tried to find out whether Mamaladze was corrupted or not. We lived in peace, worked and supported our families. Mamaladze treated us with respect, often we addressed him with requests and he always responded with understanding,” Gajiev said.

Between September and December of 2003, the governor was Zurab Kobiashvili, before he too was removed. In his place came a National Movement party member, 32-year-old Zurab Melikishvili, though this time only for two months.

Since February, the post has been filled by Soso Mazmishvili, just 30 and an active member of the National Movement.

Despite early wariness, he and his new region have begun to warm to each other. “I declare my absolute trust in you and will see that each of you have your rights protected,” he told a community meeting soon after taking office.

Ismailov said that although Mazmishvili had little to show for his rule so far, he was part of Saakashvili’s team and therefore “we support him all the same”.

Gajiev credited the latest governor with improving gas and electricity supplies and said, “We’ll give him time.”

“The country has a government again, and that’s the most important thing,” he went on. “We Azerbaijanians have a special respect for stability.”

Mazmishvili says one priority is to help overcome the language barrier: 90 per cent of Azerbaijanis in the region do not speak Georgian.

He has also vowed to end what he described as crooked land deals under which a few dozen Azerbaijanis ended up with farms of 100 to 700 hectares on which they used large numbers of barely paid Azerbaijani workers. The landowners then depended on the local authorities and the hired hands on their bosses.

The authorities “clung to us and we clung to them”, said Ali, a small-scale farmer from Gardabani, who asked for his last name not to be used and, like most Azerbaijanis here, was reluctant to discuss the controversy.

Tea Lobzhanidze is a correspondent for IWPR’s Caucasus newspaper, Panorama.