While Georgia is striving to restore control over its northern separatist province of South Ossetia, tension is brewing in its predominantly Azeri southern districts. Local residents blame the Georgian president for failing to deliver on pre-election pledges to improve social conditions in the region. The situation has sparked concerns in neighboring Azerbaijan, where voices are rising in defense of Georgia's largest Muslim minority.
Prague, 23 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Since they were elected a few months ago, the two young leaders of Azerbaijan and Georgia have been vowing mutual friendship and pledging to take neighborly ties to new heights, while increasing bilateral trade to unprecedented levels.
Yet, concerns over the fate of Georgia's sizable Azeri community have cast a shadow over this idyllic picture.
Estimates generally put the number of Georgia's Azeris at around 350,000. Most of them live in four of the six administrative districts of the southwestern Kvemo Kartli region, an area that is known as Borcali in Azeri. Azeris account for nearly 50 percent of the Kvemo Kartli population.
Tensions began rising after Georgian security forces two months ago raided Azeri border villages and arrested a number of residents as part of what was officially presented as an attempt to put an end to smuggling operations from Azerbaijan.
In recent weeks, Baku-based newspapers have been reporting on alleged extortion, arbitrary detentions, and other forms of harassment against Azeri community leaders. First among them has been the Russian-language "Zerkalo" daily, which has been spearheading a campaign of support to Kvemo Kartli Azeris.
But Georgian authorities deny any wrongdoing.
Kvemo Kartli Governor Soso Mamzishvili tells our correspondent that such accusations are unfounded:
"All these reports about alleged violations of ethnic Azeris' rights are out of place. What [these people in Baku] say or write is sheer provocation. Neither I nor any other Georgian has had any conflict [with ethnic Azeris]. There can be no talk of rights violations against [Georgia's] Azeris," Mamzishvili said.
Azeris are Georgia's second-largest ethnic minority group after the Armenians.
They are also among the least integrated -- a circumstance that officials in Tbilisi generally ascribe to the fact that 90 percent of them reportedly do not speak Georgian.
Azeris, in turn, blame the successive Georgian governments that took over from Soviet rule.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, collective property was abolished throughout Georgia. But as Azerbaijani poet Eyvaz Borcali tells RFE/RL, the then government of hard-line nationalist President Zviad Gamsakhurdia denied Kvemo Kartli Azeris the right to purchase land.
Borcali is a native from Kvemo Kartli who runs a Baku-based nongovernmental group known as the Borcali Society. He says most Azeris continued to be denied land ownership rights after former Georgian Communist Party head Eduard Shevardnadze returned to power following Gamsakhurdia's ouster.
"Shevardnadze has done nothing good [for the Azeris]. He made only empty pledges, and he did nothing [to correct his predecessor's policy]. Many Azeris are denied access to lands that belonged to their ancestors. Those lands have been taken by Georgians and are being given to Azeris for temporary use. [Sometimes] the Georgian owners are not even from the region. There are cases of urban Georgians who own lands in villages that have been Azeri since the dawn of time and let them to local residents," Borcali said.
Unofficial figures show up to 70 percent of Kvemo Kartli's predominantly rural Azeris are still denied access to land and are forced either to rent plots or hire themselves to Georgian farmers.
Georgia's Azeris are now showing signs of impatience.
Earlier this year, Azeri demonstrators picketed Saakashvili's office in Tbilisi to request that land be redistributed fairly among Kvemo Kartli residents. They also demanded that steps be taken to restore Turkic village names that were
"Georgianized" under Gamsakhurdia and that Azeris be better represented in local administrations.
Observers generally agree that simmering tension in Kvemo Kartli partly stems from the high expectations raised by the recent change of political leadership in Tbilisi.
During his election campaign in December 2003, Saakashvili promised Kvemo Kartli residents that he would meet their political and social demands, vowing to grant all citizens equal rights regardless of their ethnicity.
As other Georgian regions, Kvemo Kartli voted massively for Saakashvili's National Movement-led coalition in the 28 March legislative elections. But now local Azeris are demanding action.
Unlike many in Baku, Azerbaijani lawyer Isaxan Asurov -- another native of Kvemo Kartli -- does not believe the situation of Georgia's Azeris has significantly deteriorated under the new Georgian leadership. Yet, neither has it improved, he says.
"One cannot say that the situation has worsened. Simply it remains unchanged, and that worries people. During his election campaign, Saakashvili himself raised such issues as the land reform or the under-representation of local Azeris in official structures. But he has still to fulfill his promises. That explains why we are unhappy," Asurov said.
Kvemo Kartli Governor Mamzishvili denies Georgia's new leaders have remained idle in the past seven months and says measures are being taken to address the land issue.
"We are taking steps. We are currently reviewing all land contracts. With respect to land, Georgians and Azeris alike face problems. We are taking back all lands that have been purchased without being put up for auction and we will organize new tenders. We are redistributing land according to the existing legislation," Mamzishvili said.
Mamzishvili is the third governor to run the region since Shevardnadze's ousting. He claims that, since he was appointed last February, he has managed to bring gas and electricity supplies in the region to near nationwide standards.
Borcali says that, even if that were true, that would not be enough to alleviate the plight of Kvemo Kartli Azeris. "When one is supplied with gas and electricity," he says, "that does not mean that one's problems are solved."