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

Georgian Azeris Locked Out By Language

Controversial new language legislation may further isolate Georgia's 300,000-strong Azerbaijani minority.
By Zaza Baazov

Vagif, a 34-year-old Azerbaijani from the small southern Georgian town of Marneuli, is by local standards a prosperous man. His house has a sheet iron roof with a large antenna, and inside his children watch Cartoon Network, just like their counterparts all over the world.


But Vagif is worried about his life and the future and asks for his surname not to be used. "If (President) Shevardnadze steps down tomorrow, the Azerbaijanis who live in Georgia, will be seriously worried about their security," he said. Most of the current opposition to the head of state seems to be either pro-Armenian or Georgian nationalist, he added.


On top of their purely political worries, this ethnic community has a more basic problem: almost all of Georgia's Azerbaijanis do not speak Georgian and have few opportunities to learn it. The linguistic isolation of such a large group could be storing up as yet unforeseen problems for Georgia, especially if a new draft law on the Georgian language is voted through parliament later this year.


Georgia has around 300,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis, most living in villages in the southern region of Kvemo Kartli, not far from the capital Tbilisi, and near the borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan.


One reason for the region's strong local identity is that it is largely economically self-sufficient. The hard-working Azerbaijanis support themselves through farming and dominate Georgia's agricultural markets.


On the political front, they are less fortunate and unwitting pawns in cross-Caucasian politics. Earlier this summer, the villagers were angered when opposition leader and former justice minister Mikhail Saakishvili, who is widely regarded as sympathetic to Armenia, called the Azerbaijanis of Georgia "a pitiful nation".


In response, Alibala Askerov, the head of the Society of Azerbaijanis in Georgia, Heirat, appealed to politicians in Baku to speak up in support for their co-nationals across the border.


The Georgian Azerbaijanis are easily manipulated at election time, said David Chaduneli, who works for the NGO International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy.


On June 2, local-election day, Chaduneli said officials in the village of Kalinino in the Gardabani region brazenly accompanied voters right into voting booths, explaining that they needed help with filling out their ballots. Not surprisingly, Georgia's Azerbaijani-populated regions have a record of delivering exactly the election result that the ruling party and local leadership wants.


Despite their proximity to the Georgian capital, lack of basic language skills has placed the Azerbaijanis in a complete information vacuum.


Ramin Bairamov, chairman of the society Inter-cultural friendship in the Kvemo Kartli region, recounted episodes, which it would be hard to make up: how for example local Azerbaijanis looked for the name of Heidar Aliev - president of Azerbaijan - on voting ballots, because they did not realise that Georgia was another state.


"Why should we expect anything else?" Bairamov said. "The thing is most local people watch Azerbaijani television channels, read Azerbaijani newspapers and take no part in the socio-political life of Georgia."


"Although office work is done in Georgian in the whole country, concessions are made for leaders in this region who don't speak the language well enough," Karakhan Khiyalov, deputy head of Gardaban region, told IWPR. Khiyalov said that the local authorities, schools, clinics and other state offices write all their documents in Russian, as they used to in Soviet times.


Efforts to encourage people in the region to speak Georgian have been ineffectual. The State Language Chamber, a government body that's been charged with the task, organised free language courses for state employees in the region. But in two years just 120 people attended the classes.


A separate presidential programme for extra financing of Georgian language teaching in non-Georgian schools offered teachers bonuses of 50 lari (almost 22 US dollars) a month, a sum almost equivalent to their average salary, but even this did not attract the required number of teachers to the region.


A few years ago one of the Azerbaijani schools in the village of Nazarlo opened a Georgian department, recalls Mamed Mamedov, a local parliamentary deputy and the overwhelming majority of parents sent their first-grade children there. But four years later, when the children had finished primary education, they found that there was no one who could teach them history, biology or mathematics in Georgian.


"It's a big problem," said Kazanfar Gulamov, the headmaster of a school in the village of Kesalo. "To work successfully a teacher should speak Azeri as well, and in reality many of the Georgian language teachers don't have any special education."


After several years teaching Georgian in a village school, Tsiala Luarsabashvili decided to learn Azeri. "After that a lot changed, both with the pupils themselves and the progress they made," she said. "When the children realised that I know and understand their language they got closer to me."


This fragile situation could be further undermined this autumn if, as anticipated, the Georgian parliament passes a new language law. If a current draft under discussion is passed, knowledge of Georgian will be compulsory for anyone working in a state institution.


To some Azerbaijanis this is part of a campaign of veiled discrimination against their community, and analysts have warned the authorities that they should take care not to alienate them.


"In a situation, when ethnic Azerbaijanis, are inclined to regard Azerbaijan as the guarantor of their security and the regime in Baku often sees its compatriots in Georgia as the guarantor of stability in the relations between the two states, the Georgian leadership should use all its professional skills in the way it conducts its inter-ethnic policies in Kvemo Kartli," commented Emil Adelkhanov of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi.


Zaza Baazov is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.


More IWPR's Global Voices