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Georgia: Ethnicity Proposal Stirs Debate On Nationality And Citizenship

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 22 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The re-emergence of nationalism has been one of the defining features of post-communist societies across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

But while many national and ethnic conflicts in the area have been fought as military campaigns during the past decade, some battles are being waged on paper.

In Georgia, a group of parliamentarians has introduced a bill to restore the category of "ethnicity" or "nationality" on passports and identification documents. After the fall of communism, many post-Soviet states and countries in Eastern Europe, including Georgia, dropped the ethnicity category, in line with standard Western practice.

But the idea of re-introducing the classification has fanned nationalist emotions in Tbilisi and raised concerns among some Western observers. Antti Korkaakivi, a senior official at the Council of Europe's Human Rights Division, told RFE/RL this week (Jan. 21) there is no universal or Europe-wide standard on whether to include ethnicity as a separate category in personal identification documents. But he added that he does not know of a single Western European democracy where this is standard practice.

The Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, which now comprises 40 member states from East and West, was established 50 years ago to promote democracy, the rule of law and human rights across the continent. Georgia, like its neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan, has special guest status at the Council and is seeking to join it as a full member.

Korkaakivi says the mandatory inclusion of an ethnicity category on public documents could violate the Council's newly adopted European Framework Convention on National Minorities:

"The main rule of the Framework Convention on the protection of national minorities, which entered into force in early 1998 -- its main rule and underlying idea is that a person belonging to a national minority has the freedom, or should have the freedom, to choose to be treated or not to be treated as such.

"And if there is an ethnicity line included in an identification document, that should definitely reflect this rule -- i.e., ethnicity should not in any way be imposed upon a person. If a person does not want to be treated as a member of a national minority, he or she should have the right to stay out of that."

In a recent radio speech, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze called for reasoned debate on the ethnicity issue, but he also indicated he was leaning towards those who favor re-introducing the category. Shevardnadze said Georgia had its own traditions and it was, in his words, "not right to follow the West blindly in the matter." He did not give specific reasons.

But observers warn that Georgia -- a multiethnic state comprising tens of thousands of Armenians, Ossetians, Kurds, Jews, Abkhaz and other minorities -- could encourage separatism and discrimination if the bill becomes law.

Korkaakivi, at the Council of Europe, says a better solution in this case would be to follow Russia's example. In Soviet times, Russia maintained a mandatory separate nationality or ethnicity entry in identification documents, as did all other Soviet republics. But the line was made voluntary in newly issued Russian passports.

"In the discussion that was going on in the Russian Federation some time ago, the end result, which was a discretionary ethnicity line, certainly looks to me like it is much more along the lines of the ideas underlying the Framework Convention on National Minorities. Imposed ethnicity is something that is not in line with the convention."

In some cases, of course, national minorities may wish to be distinguished from a society's majority -- to ensure that their specific character and traditions are recognized and valued. But, Korkaakivi stresses, the guiding principle is that this should be voluntary. Korkaakivi notes that in his native Finland the Swedish minority, which comprises about 6 percent of the population, has the right to use its language in official business. The state also funds Swedish-language schools and cultural institutions for those who want to use them. But on their passports, all Finns -- whether ethnic Swedes or otherwise -- are simply Finnish citizens.

Different countries have different rules on acquiring citizenship. The United States recognizes the so-called "right of soil," meaning that anyone born on U.S. territory becomes a citizen regardless of ethnic origin or parentage. Other countries, such as Germany, derive citizenship from bloodlines, meaning that someone who is not born in Germany but can prove ethnic German ancestry is entitled to citizenship. Others born in Germany but of foreign parents cannot get immediate citizenship.

Those rules may soon change. The new German leftist government is keen to amend the country's 80-year-old citizenship laws in order to grant citizenship to more resident foreigners -- particularly among its more than two million Turkish residents, many of whom were born in Germany.

But human-rights experts say it does not matter so much what rules a state uses to determine citizenship. What is important is that, once citizenship is granted, all citizens are treated the same, without regard to gender or ethnic identity.

And, as many studies have demonstrated, including a recent survey on Ukraine by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, ethnic identity is hardly a scientific or objective measure. It is, to some degree, what people choose to make it.

The study, entitled "Ethnic Re-identification in Ukraine," showed that since independence in 1991, a significantly higher proportion of Ukrainian residents chose to identify themselves as ethnic Ukrainians, compared to official Soviet statistics back in 1989.

While some of the change was due to ethnic-Russian emigration from Ukraine, the study shows that if forced to declare a particular ethnic allegiance, most people will write down what they believe will most satisfy the authorities. In case they are of mixed ethnic background, they will tend to identify themselves with the dominant ethnic group in a country. All the more reason, say human-rights campaigners, to leave ethnicity off official documents and let people keep it a private or public matter, as they see fit.

Ukraine, like most post-Soviet states, has since dropped its ethnicity category.