GEORGIA: POTENTIAL SEATS OF ETHNIC CONFLICTS

Lia MELIKISHVILI


Lia Melikishvili, Ethnologist, D.Sc. (Hist.), research associate, I. Dzhavakhishvili Institute of History and Ethnology (Tbilisi, Georgia)


Today, any nation in the world, be it the dominant nation or an ethnic minority, tends to associate its identity in any state with its citizenship rather than with its ethnic affiliation.1 It proved hard to implant this principle across the post-Soviet territory that is still guided by Soviet mentality especially evident in conflict contexts. Merab Mamardashvili, famous Georgian philosopher, wrote: The feeling of citizenship is alien to the Soviet man not because he is too smart or too dumb. He is devoid of an awareness of citizenship as one of the possible feelings. If there is a possibility of this feeling in man, if he can translate it into his practical activity, it becomes indispensable for him in the sense that he cannot imagine himself without it: if there is no such feeling, then I do not exist either.2 It is absolutely necessary for the members of the dominating nation and for ethnic minorities, whether they want it or not, to shake off their feeling of ethnic nationalism and teach themselves to live in one polyethnic state based on mutual respect, tolerance, forgiveness, etc. This idea has appeared in many scholarly and political writings, yet reality is different. Necessity and reality have few things in common. No nation wants a conflict, yet history of mankind is brimming with contradictions, conflicts and bloody wars, the majority of them caused by the problems of ethnic minorities. Lets have a look at Georgia: are there potential seats of open ethnic conflicts?

Like many other countries Georgia is a multinational state. For many centuries various ethnic groups came and settled on its territory. According to the 1989 census, it was home to several scores of nationalities, about ten of them living in compact groups. They formed what I call the micro-islands of ethnic minorities. Some of them found themselves in frontier areas living close to the states peopled by identical ethnic groups. Such are Armenian settlements in Javakheti bordering on Armenia, Azerbaijani settlements in Kvemo Kartli bordering on Azerbaijan, Ossetian settlements in Shida Kartli bordering on North Ossetia (Alania), Kistin (Vainakh-Chechen) settlements bordering on Chechnia, Avar settlements bordering on Daghestan. I use a conventional term of the first different ethnic type to describe those who live in these ethnic islands. Certain non-Georgian ethnic groups are more isolated from their ethnoses because their original territories have no common frontiers with Georgia. Their members live, as compact or dispersed groups, in all the regions of the republic. They are Russians, Greeks, Assyrians, Kurds, and others. They can be tentatively called the second different ethnic type. Abkhazia belongs to neither of the two groups despite the fact that its location (away from Georgia proper and next to the Georgian border) fed the separatist tendencies. It should be added that policy-wise the Abkhazians look at Russia rather than at Georgia their kindred ethnos. From this it follows that according to these features they are somewhere in between two different ethnic types.

Ethnographers have pointed out that a special micro-world that combines cultural elements of several ethnoses is formed in the zones of the first different ethnic type. The political situation triggers very specific processes there, called to life by the considerations of security. Two ethnoses show their readiness to accept mutual concessions based on their traditions. This leads to a special strategy.

In peacetime life in such border areas is closed to outside influences and has little to do with the social life in the rest of the country. During crises the role of such areas becomes more important. The local population can alleviate the crisis or help improve relations between ethnoses. It should be said, however, that the islands of the first type may themselves become sources of tension and trigger disorders.

Georgia has paid a lot of attention to its border areas at all times. Its rulers did their best to introduce culture, education and Christianity there. They built churches and offered local people special privileges: the border areas have at all times offered excellent possibilities of triggering unrest there, therefore it was wise to bring the Georgian and non-Georgian population closer together to create a solid foundation for the state, a sort of a toehold. This explains why the ethnic minorities living along the frontiers have been an object of Georgian states constant attention.

Over time, and for several reasons, Georgians became an ethnic minority in these areas while the former ethnic minorities acquired domination there and started oppressing the Georgians living on their micro-territories. The title ethnos was being partially assimilated.

The latest events have shown that the seats of tension first appeared in the zones of the first type where the local people look at themselves as kindred to the title nations of the neighboring states and want to become reunited with them even if their ancestors came there from different countries. Here is an example: the ancestors of the majority of the Armenians in Javakheti did not come from neighboring Armeniathey came from Turkey. The Azerbaijani population of Kvemo Kartli has its roots in Iran rather than in neighboring Azerbaijan. At the same time nobody expects open troubles among the members of the second different ethnic type.

The political, economic, and social crisis of the last decade equally hit not only the dominant ethnic groups but also the ethnic minorities. Political awareness among the Georgians and ethnic minorities increased. Alongside the external forces, local political elite contributed to crises: to retain power it opted for ethnic opposition. Politicians in Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as the leaders of the Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities were fanning ethnic nationalism. Georgian nationalism just added more fuel. Ethnic nationalism became an instrument of political machinations drawing more and more people into rising tension. Fast economic decline, a shaky social situation and the information vacuum contributed to the crumbling of self-awareness. Under Soviet power all ethnic groups (ethnic minorities) knew that they were living in a single state called the Soviet Union. Upon its disintegration, they lost the basic element of their identity and had to look for a new one. At first, it was logical to look for it in the former Soviet Union. Under communist power the population was rigid and indoctrinated, that is, caught in the pinching limits of thinking and a definite mentality structure. There was an illusion that a new identity for the people of the first different ethnic type was easy to acquire: they believed that they could detach their areas from Georgia, thus changing its frontiers, and join the kindred republic (the latter at that time felt no enmity toward Russia perceived as the Soviet Union). These efforts would have been followed by ethnic and territorial conflicts that might, over time, develop into full-scale wars. One could expect external involvement in such conflicts. For certain reasons, neither Javakheti nor Kvemo Kartli, two potentially conflict-prone areas, followed this path.

Territorial conflicts in border areas are not limited to Georgiathey are a common trait. Ethnic minorities that live in compact groups along frontiers are everywhere a factor of risk. Scientists know several types of such conflicts. For example, American professor Donald L. Horowitz identifies two types of the phenomenon: separatism and irredentism.3 He describes separatism as the attempt to detach land and people from one state of which it is part. He defines irredentism as the incorporation of certain neighboring regions having an ethnically kindred population into a state ready to incorporate them. He writes further that the result of separatism is a new state, while the result of irredentism is redemption of a definite territory by the state that expressed its readiness to redeem this or that group. This is not a simple annexation, he writes, it is based on ethnic kinship.4

The ethnic balance can be destroyed in the regions that detach themselves through separatism or irredentism. As a result the polyethnic micro-region may turn into a monoethnic one: members of the ethnos not kindred to the dominating one may refuse to live in a new state while the members of the formerly dominant nationality may leave the territory altogether and move inside the country as forced migrants. Other ethnic groups living on the same territory may decide to go to their historical homelands.

The same author has pointed out that irredentism is not that frequent in real life because the state prepared to incorporate an ethnic group may be poorer than that in which the given group is living; it may be an authoritarian state or unattractive for other reasons. In addition, those at the helm of the irredentist state may treat their potential compatriots as boorish or as people who lived too long under alien cultural influences.5

There are six frontier territories in Georgia with non-Georgian populations living compactly: Abkhazia, Shida Kartli (so-called South Ossetia), Kvemo Kartli, Javakheti, the Pankissi Gorge and the Kvareli District. Without going deep into their past I can say here that the people living in them are no longer newcomers, or guests. They are expected to share the interests of the dominating ethnos. Life, however, shows that the areas are conflict-prone.

Each of the above territories could turn into a seat of an ethnic conflict, yet the factors of risk are present in four of them. In two others there will be no open clashes despite the fact that conflicts caused by everyday, social and even political problems occur from time to time, which can be passed for ethnic conflicts. In two of the four territories (Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia) open conflicts are raging. In Kvemo Kartli and Javakheti Azeris and Armenians did insist on an irredentist variant (they wanted to join the neighboring republics with kindred dominant populations). There is no reason here to probe into the roots of each of the conflicts and try to explain why certain conflicts were smothered. Here I shall limit myself to enumerating the potentially explosive areas in my country.

Our country, as any other polyethnic state in the world, will have to settle the frontier disputes and learn to live with their volatile nature.

I have said above that four out of six areas are highly explosive. Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia have already entered into conflicts; in two others (Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli) one can discern a pre-conflict situation (the term is conventional). In two others (the Avar-populated Kvareli District) and the Pankissi Gorge populated by Kistin Chechens there are no signs of a factor of high risk. In other words, the pre-conflict situations in two districts may develop into an open conflict prompted by separatism or irredentism. But there are practically no chances of an open conflict in the two latter areas due to a number of reasons. In the conflict-prone areas one expects both separatist and irredentist conflicts caused by the following factors: compact population groups living along the frontier; kindred ethnoses directly across the frontier; the thought that the share of the potential ethnic minority in the total population is not small; the use of their own tongue and dedication to their traditional culture, identity, and self-name; the dominating position in the area of settlement; an autonomy and official authorities; definite ethnic composition of the local authorities, and the negative economic and social context.

The conflict in Abkhazia can be considered a separatist one though, at the beginning, there were attempts to make it an irredentist conflict. It vacillated between the confederation of the neighboring Caucasian peoples and the idea of joining Russia. Finally, with Abkhazia wishing independence it became a separatist conflict. The conflicts in the other three regions can be described as irredentist, that is, they wanted to join their kindred neighbors. One of the regions has already experienced an open conflict. The other two express no desire to join other countries because the political situation in Georgia has changed, yet the areas remain potential seats of irredentist conflicts (if the situation changes).

Let us have a look at the Pankissi Gorge and the Kvareli District. I have already said above that one can expect there neither open clashes nor conflicts that may develop into clashes. The factors that lead to conflicts are the same there as elsewhere, yet the share of the local ethnic minorities in the countrys total population is too small. Communication with the kindred republics across the border is not an easy taskthey are divided by mountains. Despite this, there is a very special ethnic and political situation there. The Pankissi Gorge is crime-ridden, yet this opposition will never follow the road traveled by the Abkhazian and Ossetian ethnic conflicts.

It follows from the above that the volatile situations among ethnic minorities living in frontier areas can be divided into two groups: the high-risk and the low-risk situations. The former are potential seats of open ethnic conflicts (there are four of them); the latter will hardly develop into ethnic conflicts (two regions). In the first group there are two types of conflictsan irredentist (so-called South Ossetia) and separatist (Abkhazia). Kvemo Kartli populated by Azeris and Javakheti populated by Armenians belong to the potentially volatile zones. At the very beginning all four areas were conflict-prone: in two of them no open conflicts developed and, under favorable conditions, will not develop in future.

The ethnic minorities dispersed in the country or living compactly in its heartland will never start ethnic conflicts. Another type of opposition can be expected there triggered by everyday, social, cultural, and legal problems that may take a form of claims addressed to the state institutions and the dominating nation. What is more, members of the non-Georgian population living inside the country do not share the irredentist aspirations of the same ethnos living along the borders. For example, Abkhazians in Adzharia did not side with the demands of the Abkhazians in Abkhazia while 100 thousand Ossets living in Georgia proper and in Tbilisi failed to back the claims presented by the 60 thousand-strong population of the Osset autonomy. One can say that the potential ethnic conflicts at the frontiers may develop into open conflicts if the share of ethnic minority in the total numerical strength of the dominant nation is conducive to it.

As an ethnologist I cannot pass over in silence the fact that the ethnic conflicts are unfolded and moved further by political leaders. Many years of field research have confirmed (this was especially true of the recent period) that the people in Shida Kartli (so-called South Ossetia) and Abkhazia did not want ethnic conflicts. As they drew closer, common people became tense or even frightened with a prospect of a conflict while the ethnic elite (that was working together with us) never concealed its intentions. In most cases, it is the elite that channels politics, therefore much depends on who is in charge. The reasonable and educated part of the ethnic elite has nothing against Georgia, supports the idea of its territorial integrity, and does not want it to fall apart. This is graphically demonstrated by the Abkhazian and Osset examples.

It is the destructive elements among the ethnic elite that start conflicts through manipulating peoples minds. At the early stages the major part of the population keeps asideit is drawn in at the later stages. In this way, ethnic issues may have nothing in common with the conflict that is being unfolded. It becomes ethnic-orientated when people are drawn into it. It is the elite that triggers the conflict and it alone can stop it: they can, and are prone to, seed hatred, organize opposition and involve the masses into violence with the results destructive for them. Peace and harmony among the elites is precisely peace among nations of which so much is said today by those who wittingly or unwittingly destroy it.6


1 On 25 March, 1993 a rather liberal law on Georgian citizenship was adopted that gave equal rights to all nationalities living in Georgia, there were no limitations in it since it proceeded from the zero variant.

2 M. Mamardashvili, Besedy o filosofii, Tbilisi, 1992, pp. 144-145 (in Georgian).

3 The term irredentism, derived from the Italian "terra irredenta" (unredeemed land), was first used to refer to the Italian-speaking areas (Trieste, Trentio, etc.) under Austrian rule during the second half of the 19th century. Italy, after achieving unification, fought Austria repeatedly in order to annex those territories. After World War I the irredentist movement blended with fascism. Despite the fact that the term is not quite popular among politicians and political scientists I am convinced that this division is logical. It provides a better idea of the conflict situations now unfolding in Georgia.

4 See: D. Horowitz, Irredentizm, separatizm i samoopredelenie, Natsionalnaia politika v Rossiiskoi Federatsii, Moscow, 1993, p. 145.

5 Ibid., p. 147.

6 V.A. Tishkov, Kontseptualnaia revoliutsia natsionalnoi politiki v Rossii, Issledovania po prikladnoi i neotlozhnoi etnologii, No. 100, 1996, pp. 30-31.


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