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Georgia's Azeri Minority Treated As 'Second-Class Citizens'

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (right) with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Tbilisi in 2007. Despite paying frequent visits to their co-ethnics in Georgia, Azerbaijani officials do little to help them.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (right) with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Tbilisi in 2007. Despite paying frequent visits to their co-ethnics in Georgia, Azerbaijani officials do little to help them.
The motivation of Farda Gadirov, the young Azeri man from Georgia who killed 13 people and wounded 13 more in the bloodbath at Azerbaijan's State Oil Academy on April 30, remains a subject of conjecture. But his biography is typical of that of many members of Georgia's ethnic-Azeri community, some 200,000 of whom have left Georgia since 1992, either to escape perceived discrimination or in search of employment.

Gadirov's parents are reported to have left Georgia 15 years ago for the Russian Federation, where his uncle had established his own business. Gadirov reportedly left Russia several months ago because, as a citizen of Georgia, he found it impossible to register and find legal employment. He is said to have travelled to Baku several weeks ago to take up an offer of work there. But competition for jobs in Baku is becoming increasingly fierce as the impact of the global financial crisis belatedly bites: State Statistics Committee Chairman Arif Valiyev was quoted last month by Eurasianet as saying there are currently five applicants for every vacant position in Baku.

Azerbaijanis are the second-largest ethnic group in Georgia: at the time of the 2002 census they accounted for 6 percent of the total 4.6 million population. Sabir Mehtiyev of the Tbilisi-based NGO Georgia is My Motherland estimated in September 2007 that of a population of 702,200 Azerbaijanis, more than half had left Georgia, leaving only some 248,000.

The overwhelming majority live in four rural districts southeast of Tbilisi. Those who have jobs work primarily in agriculture and petty trade. But the unemployment rate among them is exceptionally high -- possibly up to 90 percent, compared with 13-14 percent for Georgia as a whole.

This is partly the result of the difficulties inherent in obtaining the right to a plot of agricultural land, and partly due to major flaws in the education system, specifically a chronic shortage of bilingual teaching staff qualified to teach the Georgian language to Azeri students at local schools. There are reportedly between 160-230 schools in Georgia where the language of instruction is Azeri. But of 300 Azeris who took the qualifying examination for school directors in early 2007, only seven received a passing grade. Paradoxically, most directors of schools where Azeri is the language of instruction are Georgians who do not speak Azeri.

It is not clear whether the publication in 2007 of a new draft Georgian education law that envisaged abolishing Azeri-language instruction in schools by 2009 has served to speed up the rate of out-migration. It was their ignorance of the Georgian language that impelled 10 Azeri conscripts to desert from the Georgian Army in October 2005.

Because so many young Azeris who leave school have only a rudimentary knowledge of Georgian, their employment opportunities within Georgia are limited. In 2005, Azerbaijan's ambassador to Georgia, Ramiz Gasanov, told Caucasus Press that of 4,500 Azeris who graduated from high school in Georgia that year, only 27 went on to study at Georgian universities; many left for Azerbaijan to continue their studies there.

And the minority who can speak Georgian fluently apparently face discrimination in seeking white-collar jobs. Of the 80-120 local government employees in the Georgian districts with a majority Azeri population, only 20 are Azeris. Alibala Askerov, who heads the NGO Geyrat (Honor) was quoted by on December 7, 2007, as saying his organization has a list of 500 Azeris who speak fluent Georgian and are qualified to hold such posts, at least 50 percent of which, he argued, should go to Azeris. He said that virtually all key posts in the local police, law courts, and prosecutor's office are held by Georgians; only a handful of local teachers and doctors are Azeris.

The labor market is not the only area in which Georgia's Azeris allege discrimination. They claim that since the early 1990s, successive Georgian governments have implemented overtly nationalist policies that entailed, among other things, substituting Georgian toponyms for Azerbaijani ones and erecting huge Christian crosses in the vicinity of Muslim ceremonies. They also accuse individual Georgian politicians, including current President Mikheil Saakashvili and Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze, of using insulting language when speaking of the Azeri minority, according to Caucasus Press on May 22, 2002.

In late 2007, when Azeri businessman Fazil Aliyev sought to register as a candidate for the early Georgian presidential election, the head of his campaign staff was arrested and charged with plotting a coup, and Aliyev was pressured to withdraw his candidacy.

In addition to Askerov's Geyrat, which recently announced that it will campaign to have Azeri designated a regional language in the relevant districts of southeastern Georgia, at least two other organizations seek to defend the rights of Georgia's Azeris.

The Congress of Azeris of Georgia held its constituent congress in Tbilisi in February 2008. Initially it denied having any political objectives and defined its aim as protecting Azeris' rights. But its chairman, Ali Babayev, complained to on January 13, 2009, that the Georgian authorities regard, and treat, Azeris as "second-class citizens."

And last month the Congress formally appealed to President Saakashvili to reopen the market at Sadakhlo, where the frontiers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia converge, to provide trading opportunities for local Azeris. Saakashvili issued a decree closing the market in 2005 as part of a broader crackdown on smuggling and the black economy.

The more politically engaged National Association of Azeris of Georgia, with over 14,000 members, is based in Baku; it seeks to have Azeri designated not just a regional language but an "official" language in Georgia. The association's relations with the Azerbaijani authorities are tense: its two newspapers were forced in late 2006 to suspend publication.

Senior Azerbaijani officials visit the Azeri-populated districts of Georgia regularly, but the Azerbaijani authorities have done very little in terms of seeking to pressure Tbilisi to take any serious measures to allay their co-ethnics' long-standing multiple grievances.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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