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Minority Language Controversy in Georgia

Critics of European language charter warn that granting legal rights to linguistic minorities could weaken Georgian statehood.
By Natia Kuprashvili
  • Academics Salome Kenchoshvili and Guram Svanidze attend a conference on the European language charter in Tbilisi. (Photo: Nugzar Sularidze)
    Academics Salome Kenchoshvili and Guram Svanidze attend a conference on the European language charter in Tbilisi. (Photo: Nugzar Sularidze)

The Georgian government regularly says it wants to live up to European standards, but the question of granting rights to minority language groups remains deeply divisive.

Back in 1999, the then government gave itself a year to decide whether to ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. More than a decade on, no decision has been taken either way.

The debate in Georgia is complicated by the question of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two separatist regions with their own languages which Moscow has recognised as independent states.

In Georgia, there are fears that awarding a formal status to languages and dialects might promote other separatist tendencies in this small country, perhaps spurred on by Russia.

Experts who took part in a September 13-14 conference in Tbilisi expressed concern that ratifying the European language charter could weaken the state.

Nika Laliashvili, a member of the parliament from the opposition Christian Democrats, tried to assuage such fears and encouraged ratification.

“According to the charter, the awarding of official status is the prerogative of the state, so we would not send to the Council of Europe lists of languages that might pose a threat to our country,” she said. “By adopting this charter, we can take one more step towards Europe, and the sooner we do this the better.”

The document, agreed by the Council of Europe in 1992, differentiates a “regional language”, spoken by a large concentration of people in a particular area of a country, from a “minority language” spoken across the state generally.

In Georgia, a distinction can be made between Svan and Mingrelian, which are relatives of standard Georgian and are spoken in the west of the country; and separate language such as Armenian and Azerbaijani, spoken in regions adjoining those two Caucasian states.

The 2002 census in Russia divided the ethnic Georgians living there into Svans, Mingrelians and Georgians, while this year’s census this year adds Gurians and Kutaisans to the list. This leads experts in Georgia to suspect that Moscow is playing up differences in the hope of fostering a sense of ethnic separateness among these groups, and thus weakening Georgian nationhood.

Guri Otobaya, a Mingrelian-speaking poet, said, “Russia has long been trying to separate Samegrelo off from the rest of Georgia on the basis of linguistic difference. I remember how in Soviet times they even produced a special alphabet [for Mingrelian] in Leningrad, but that didn’t get anywhere. My translation [from Georgian to Mingrelian] of the poem ‘The Knight in the Tiger Skin’ is written using the Georgian alphabet.”

He added, “Samegrelo’s residents consider themselves Georgians, so I don’t believe our enemies can succeed with these old tactics now. But all the same, I wouldn’t be surprised if they tried. As far as I know, Russia is still divides Georgians according to the region they come from.”

Teimuraz Gvantseladze, a professor of languages at the Patriarch’s University in Tbilisi, said he worried that speakers of languages like Armenian and Azerbaijani as well as Svan and Mingrelian might start campaigning for recognition.

“That would divide the country into parts, since according to the charter, if the state proclaims a language to be a minority or regional one, the people who speak it acquire the right to conduct administrative proceedings in that language rather than in the state one,” he said.

While most European Union members have ratified the language charter, some like the Baltic states have held back from doing so out of concern that granting new rights to substantial minority populations could lead to instability.

“We could end up in the same situation as Dagestan,” said Mamuka Areshidze, director of the Caucasus Centre for Strategic Investigations, referring to a region of southern Russia that has dozens of small languages and hugely complex ethnic politics.

“Every village will have its own language,” he warned.

Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan has expressed concern about the Armenian minority in Georgia who do not speak Georgian and struggle to access state services. In an interview on Russian television, he called for Armenian to be recognised as a regional language there.

The trouble with setting a precedent for Armenian, Areshidze says, is that the door would then be opened to a multiplicity of claims.

“If Armenian gains the status of a regional language, then why not Greek or Azerbaijani?” he asked.

The Georgian parliament is not yet ready to debate the European charter, but its research department has identified problems with signing it.

In a statement, the department said ratification and the obligations that placed on the signatory state must not mean that “a state or a group of people with an interest in a language should use this to harm the country’s sovereignty or territorial integrity”.

Natia Kuprashvili works for the Georgian Association of Regional Broadcasters.

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