Integration of ethnic Azeris starts with language: challenges in economic integration, access to public services, media and political participation

Published in Society
Sunday, 25 March 2018 13:04

The Constitution of Georgia stipulates that the state language of Georgia is Georgian. The status of the official language creates grounds for, on the one hand, the social isolation and exclusion from economic and political spheres of people who do not speak Georgian and, on the other hand, the banning on the use of a minority language in administrative domains.

79 year old Nargila Hamidova, a resident of Sadakhlo village of Marneuli district says that the linguistic barrier has made them feel isolated from Tbilisi and they have little interaction with the majority Georgian populations: “Our social and economic links are overwhelmingly to Azerbaijan. Trade is done in Azeri or Russian, rarely in Georgian. We feel alienated and isolated from the rest of the country that we reside in. Although we are the citizens of Georgia and said to have equal rights as citizens, the lack of the knowledge of the state language has formed us into secondary citizens, in fact”.

In Kvemo Kartli, Azeri is predominantly spoken. Even though the region is close to Tbilisi, ethnic Azeris maintain less economic and social ties with Georgia than they do with their kin state. Linguistic isolation makes these ties ever closer.

According to head of Borchali Public Union Zalimkhan Mammadli, if this situation continues, minorities risk soon being unable to communicate with the rest of the population and suffering harder economic and social marginalization. “The state should implement programs to maintain dialogue between ethnic Azeris and majority Georgians and further promote flexible Georgian language trainings in the regions densely populated by minorities to encourage their social and economic mobility, which will subsequently contribute to balanced socio-economic development throughout the country.” 

The language of administrative proceedings shall be Georgian, in accordance with the applicable Law of General Administrative Code of Georgia. As all communication and correspondence are conducted in Georgian, ethnic Azeris who do not speak Georgian struggle to access public services. 24 year old Tajir Jalilov, a native of Iormughanlo village of Sagarejo district says: “Azeri language may be spoken when accessing public services in our village. However, no multilingual public services are officially provided. Because all official documentation and correspondence have to be submitted in Georgian, there is no guarantee that we can access those services in or mother tongue”.

As reported by the Community Center of Iormughanlo village, Azeri minorities need to acquire official documents, submit official complaints only in Georgian. Applications submitted in languages other than Georgian are not reviewed. An official of the community center said that if non-Georgian speaking citizens want their concerns represented at the community or higher level, they have to use translation services at their own expense. Legislation is only published in Georgian and not available in minority languages, added the official of the community center.

Ethnic Azeris of Georgia also face difficulties accessing information in the Georgian media because of the language barrier, the phenomenon which can only accentuate the isolation and alienation felt by these communities in the Georgian society. According to Musa Musayev, a 62 year old native of Sadakhlo village of Marneuli district, on account of the information vacuum, even sometimes they are becoming vulnerable group for hostile propaganda: “As little information from the Georgian media is available in languages understood by us, we often rely on foreign news sources for information, such as Azerbaijani or Turkish media. As a result of the information vacuum, the information is late to reach, sometimes even in a marred form. Some foreign, including Russian channels also accessible through satellite, but the programmes they broadcast are highly politicized and biased against Georgia.

The media is referred as the forth branch of a government and people may very well be affected by hostile media. Therefore, according to head of Borchali Public Union Zalimkhan Mammadli, the people need to be better and duly informed about the life of the state if they are to be expected to integrate into mainstream Georgian culture. Zalimkhan Mammadli says that considering the low level of knowledge of the state language and significant number of ethnic Azeri population living in Georgia, at least it is advisable to broadcast special media coverage with simple texts in easy Georgian read at a slower speed, along with ensuring media pluralism: “This would not only ensure to keep abreast of the ongoing developments, but also benefit the learning of the state language and encourage the non-Georgian population to practice understanding and speaking basic Georgian”

Regarding this issue, Alibala Asgarov, who heads the NGO Geyrat, mentions that it is important to encourage the production of programs with translated subtitles and dubbing in the minority languages.

Ethnic Azeris political participation and representation – a key to more effective integration – is disturbingly low. In the 150-member Georgian Parliament there are only 4 Azeri representatives. Very few government officials at higher levels are of Azeri origin. This reflects the general situation in Georgia, where all decision-making positions are held by ethnic Georgians. The predominantly Azeri populated Kvemo-Kartli region has never had an ethnic Azeri governor. Only the deputy governor is ethnic Azeri. Azeris are also significantly underrepresented in local government. In Marneuli the mayor, in Gardabanai, Dmanisi, Bolnisi the deputy mayor are Azeris. This is mainly due to the fact that the government relies on only ethnic Georgians run local affairs and partly because of the insufficient knowledge of Georgian by ethnic Azeris. According to the Report on the Situation of the Protection of the Human Rights and Freedoms in Georgia in 2017 released by the Public Defender of Georgia, ethnic Azeris tend to be better represented only in local councils at town and village level in the regions they densely populate. 

Member of the Georgian parliament Azer Suleimanovi stresses that active involvement of ethnic Azeris in the political life of the country largely depends on the government’s efforts to encourage them to start working in the public service. According to Azer Suleimanovi inability to speak the state language was ethnic Azeris’ biggest problem in the 1990s and there are currently significant number of highly-educated ethnic Azerbaijanis with fluent Georgian, who are even well-suited to hold senior posts at the government and politics. “Lack of Georgian among the newer generation of ethnic Azeris is no more than an illusion intentionally contrived to put artificial barriers to ethnic Azeris. It is because of the current state program and the government policy that the ethnic Azeris are subjected to failure to hold civil service posts and excluded from political participation. We have always raised this issue before all levels of government, but not any action is taken.”

As reported by the Public Relations and Communications Department of the Administration of the President of Georgia, the government of Georgia has always emphasized high importance of ethnic minorities to Georgia’s political and social development: “Various projects, “Learn Georgian” that has been held for almost three years being one of them, are being implemented within the framework of Presidential Reserve Fund to support the integration of ethnic minorities, including ethnic Azerbaijanis, and encourage their participation in political and social life of Georgia.”

The opinion of interviewees and experts make it clear that ethnic Azerbaijanis of Georgia should have the right to an identity, and the right to participate in the social, economic and political life of Georgia. This implies, first of all, the need to promote the official language of Georgia. At the same time, the right of ethnic Azeris to use and develop their native language should not be undermined as it should be recognized as part of the linguistic and cultural heritage of Georgia. It is also undeniable proof that strong integration of ethnic minorities into the whole society of a country would prevent a possible outbreak of any interethnic tension and conflict.

This article was prepared within the framework of the project implemented by the Human Rights House Tbilisi and cofunded by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and National Endowment for Democracy. The article does not express opinions of Human Rights House Tbilisi or the donors. The views expressed herein are those of the author only.

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By Ramil Huseynov


Integration of ethnic Azeris starts with language: challenges in quality education and employability

Published in Education
Tuesday, 27 February 2018 17:35

In Soviet times, the great majority of the population of Georgia spoke Russian, which served as the language of inter-ethnic communication. 66 year old Bayram Abbasov, an intellectual from Telaveri village of Bolnisi district describes that since Russian was the common language, they had little or no knowledge of Georgian. “We did not feel disenfranchised if we did not know Georgian. Education at our school was provided only in Russian. Our teachers did not speak Georgian. As a result, we did not receive adequate Georgian language educational opportunities. After Georgia gained independence, Georgian became the only official language and Russian, the lingua franca from the Soviet times, is no longer accepted for communication. The decline of Russian as the language of communication and poor command of the Georgian language has been a severe obstacle to quality education, employability and thereby our integration into the Georgian society.”

A number of development challenges caused by the lack of knowledge of Georgian are pervasive in the today’s Georgian society. This is especially true for the Azeri communities living compactly in areas bordering their kin-states, with which they have closer ties than with the rest of Georgia, largely because of the so-called ‘language barrier’. In order to tackle the problem, the state first of all has to create appropriate conditions for learning Georgian because integration starts with language.

Ethnic Azeri minorities are marginalized through their lack of access to quality education, particularly with regard to the teaching of the Georgian language.

Preschool education is a level at which ethnic Azeri children in Kvemo Kartli is to start to acquire basic knowledge of Georgian. But the children in this region suffer from the lack of kindergartens, although the number of parents wishing to bring their children to Georgian kindergarten has increased significantly for the recent years. On account of the lack of kindergartens, children cannot master the Georgian language. Subsequently, primary education becomes much more difficult for them.

27 year old father of two little children Samir Bayramov who lives in Imiri village of Marneuli district says that because there is no kindergarten in Imiri village his children cannot acquire elementary skills in Georgian. Children who do not go to kindergarten, fall behind those going to one. “Some families sent their kids to the kindergartens in adjacent Tsereteli village and these kids already know Georgian. But we cannot afford it. If we had our own kindergarten in our village then all our kids would go. Because children are better prepared for schools in kindergartens where they start to learn Georgian”. 

Photo 1. Samir Bayramov’s children are among the thousands left without a kindergarten

According to head of the preschool center of Marneuli district Zaur Karamov, the lack of kindergartens is not a problem only in Marnueli district, but it is a common problem in Kvemo Kartli region. “There are 12 kindergartens in the whole Marneuli district, meeting only about one-third of the demand. New kindergartens are built when the budget allocated is sufficient. Every year at least a new kindergarten is built and 2 more kindergartens are to be commissioned soon”, he notes. Zaur Karamov added that school readiness groups are functioning under the schools. The aim of the program is to develop Georgian language, cognitive and communication skills of 5-6 year-old children before entering school.

Another major issue is the lack of adequate teaching of the Georgian language in minority schools. According to the Law of Georgia on General Education, teaching of the Georgian language is mandatory in general education institutions providing education in minority languages. But the quality of the teaching of the Georgian language is not promising.

Georgian history teacher of Sadakhlo village school number 2 of Marneuli district Khayala Sharifova says that this is mainly due to the ineffective bilingual textbooks. “Only 70% of the material in textbooks is translated into the Azerbaijani language, while the remaining 30% is left in the state language. In many cases, the translation is so erroneous that it can hardly be understood by the teachers, pupils and parents. Subject teachers who do not speak the state language sometimes leave out and do not explain the content of the 30% of the textbooks left in the state language or have to seek assistance from Azeri speaking Georgian teachers for translation.” 

Photo 2. Ethnic Azeri school children still have to use erroneous and poor quality textbooks.

Appointment to minority schools of Georgian teachers who are not proficient in minority languages is also a main obstacle to quality education. In these schools, Georgian is not used as the language of instruction and many of the students do not speak it.

According to 17 year old Eltun Karimov studying in the 11th grade of Didi Muganlo village school of Marneuli district, on account of the lack of bilingual teachers they cannot learn Georgian at school. “Our Georgian teacher does not speak any Azeri and we do not speak any Georgian. How can we communicate? This is an issue for us”, says Eltun Karimov.

Georgian language teacher of Sadakhlo village school number 2 of Marneuli district Lala Jalilova agrees that the state language should be taught by qualified bilingual teachers who are capable of delivering lessons in the state language and making meaningful comparisons in the native language, when necessary. It is also stipulated in Article 13 of the Hague Recommendations Regarding the Education Rights of National Minorities that the state language should be taught as a subject on a regular basis, preferably by bilingual teachers who have a good understanding of the children's cultural and linguistic background.

The Report on the Situation of the Protection of the Human Rights and Freedoms in Georgia in 2017 released by the Public Defender of Georgia reaffirms that teaching the state language remains a serious challenge in the regions with compact settlements of ethnic minorities. In order to enhance the effectiveness of the teaching of the Georgian language and resolve the problem of integration caused by this language barrier, Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia have been implementing various civil integration programmes aiming at the integration of minorities into society through improving the teaching of Georgian. In the report the Public Defender reiterated the inefficiency of existing bilingualtextbooks. As reported by the Ministry of Education and Science, an intensive work is underway for the creating of new bilingual textbooks.

Georgian remains the only language of higher education, as predicated by the applicable Law of Georgia on Higher Education. Access to higher education in Georgia is therefore impossible in practice for ethnic Azeri young adults who cannot master Georgian. They have to turn to their kin-states or Russia if they wish to pursue their studies.

23 year old Mirza Ismayilov who is a graduate of Azerbaijan Technical University and native of the Vake village of Dmanisi district notes that Georgian language was taught in their school, but not to the extent that fluency was achieved. “Those seeking to go to university preferred to go to Baku to study in Azeri rather than to Tbilisi”, mentioned  Mirza Ismayilov.

Bringing minority students into Georgian universities is very important for their integration. As stated by the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia, the quota system for national minority students, which was put into practice by the government since 2010, resulted in substantial increase of the number of ethnic minority students enrolled in higher educational institutions of Georgia. A research report on “The effectiveness of one year Georgian language program for ethnic minorities at higher education institutions” released by Center for Civil Integration and Inter-Ethnic Relations also revealed that the number of Azeri speaking enrolled students tripled (the number of enrolled students was 194 in 2010 and 556 in 2015).

Knowing Georgian is mandatory for employability in Georgia. Therefore unemployment related to the lack of Georgian language skills remains a big problem for Azeri minorities.  79 year old Nargila Hamidova, a resident of Sadakhlo village of Marneuli district says that she has 3 children, all of whom are out of work. “All my daughters are university graduates. Even one of them has 2 diplomas. They cannot find jobs in Georgia, due to inability to speak Georgian”

The language issue is also a serious setback for the participation and representation of minorities in the state apparatus. The applicable Law of Georgia on Public Service stipulates that public servants are obliged to speak fluent Georgian as it is a basic requirement for holding a post in public service. As reported by Alibala Asgarov, who heads the NGO Geyrat, all powerful and decision making positions are occupied by ethnic Georgians. Alibala Asgarov adds that even Azeris with excellent Georgian have little chance of jobs in policy-making and administrative bodies.

According to the applicable Law of Georgia on Official Language, the State shall provide persons employed in the public service with opportunities to study the official language. In 2017 Report on the Situation of the Protection of the Human Rights and Freedoms in Georgia, the Public Defender of Georgia highlights that public servants with insufficient knowledge of Georgian are provided with the opportunity to study the Georgian language. But according to Alibala Asgarov, there have been reported cases of some Azeri minorities being fired from their posts on account of the insufficient level of the Georgian language, without giving them an opportunity to develop their Georgian language proficiency. 

Photo 3. Alibala Asgarov, the head of NGO Geyrat

Alibala Asgarov also mentions that the government of Georgia has never had an elaborate State Program to teach Georgian to and increase employability among ethnic minorities. Instead Georgian has been dictated to minorities as a demand. It is high time to act rather than demand something, concludes Alibala Asgarov.

This article was prepared within the framework of the project implemented by the Human Rights House Tbilisi and cofunded by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and National Endowment for Democracy.

By Ramil Huseynov

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More ethnic Azeris are on the move from Georgia than ever before

Published in Society
Monday, 22 January 2018 18:34

Georgia is the most ethnically diverse state in the South Caucasus, with Azeri ethnic minorities constituting 6.3% of its population. Azeri ethnic minorities are present especially in the border province of Kvemo-Kartli, the region where unemployment and poverty that has spread over, pushing many ethnic Azeris to leave their place of origin.

This is how 62 year old Musa Musayev depicts the real situation in his native Sadakhlo village of Marneuli district: “We have been suffering from increasing problems of hardship, unemployment and discrimination. Most of us, who are uneducated and unable to speak Georgian, cannot find jobs. The ethnic Azerbaijanis, most of who work as black collar workers, receive only 15 lari per day. We face discrimination in employment and are subject to labor exploitation.
Even there are many Azerbaijani companies operating in Georgia, all of which mostly employ ethnic Georgians for white color jobs. The government of Georgia is not interested in creating employment opportunities in the areas where ethnic Azerbaijanis live. The working places are established in places where majority Georgians live. There was a bazaar in Sadakhlo village where the local inhabitants of the village could sell their products to earn their basic living. The bazaar has been closed and thereby ethnic Azerbaijanis have to find work either in remote areas or to flee from their place of orgin. In account of the persistent problems of hunger, unemployment, the village has been abandoned. My only son has left Georgia for Turkey to work, my 2 brothers has abandoned Georgia with their family memebrs to work in Azerbaijan.”
The recent results of 2014 General Population Census also reveal a decline in the number and share of Azeri ethnic minorities from 284761 persons, accounting for 6.5 % of the total population of Georgia in 2002 to 233082 persons, accounting for 6,3% in 2014. The historical population trend suggests that the number of Azeri ethnic population has declined since 1989 (307556 persons).
Migration is the main reason for the decrease of the number of the ethnic Azeri population in Georgia. In general, the migration is driven by push and pull factors, in reference to “Country Report: Georgia” developed under the EU project on “Costs and Benefits of Labour Mobility between the EU and the Eastern Partner Partnership Countries” for the European Commission.

Push factors are the negative factors that force people to emigrate from their home countries. Sometimes these factors leave people with no choice but to forcefully leave their country of origin. Therefore push factors are usually involuntary or forced migrations. A few example of push factors are: lack of jobs, few opportunities, "primitive" conditions, political fear/persecution, poor medical care, loss of wealth, natural disasters, etc.

Pull factors are exactly the opposite of push factors. Pull factors are the positive factors in the destination country that attract people to leave their home. Therefore pull factors are usually voluntary migrations. Examples of pull factors are better job opportunities, better living conditions, political and/or religious freedom, enjoyment, education, better medical care, security, etc. Many specific reasons falling under push and pull factors have driven or attracted ethnic Azerbaijanis to relocate.

Georgian is an only official language of Georgia and knowledge of Georgian is essential in order to access everything, from higher education to state services. Historically, ethnic Azeris did not need to learn Georgian. The Azerbaijani language is mainly spoken when accessing all types of services in Azerbaijani minority populated areas. Thereby ethnic Azeris speak a little Georgian to sell their agricultural produce, which is the main source of income for their families. The lack of ability to speak Georgian language has contributed ethnic Azeris being isolated and prevented their integration and effective participation in Georgian society. 68 year old native of Sadakhlo village of Marneuli district Sedbar Ibadova says that her only sun had to flee from Georgia to Azerbaijan, facing language difficulties. According to her, “Azerbaijanis living in Georgia think that they do not hope the government of Georgia will create conditions to support ethnic Azerbijanis of Georgia even if they should be able to speak fluent Georgian. Thereby most families encourage their children to learn either Russian or Azerbaijani”.  

In the case of youths, the situation is even more dramatic: due to the inability to get proper Georgian language courses, youth are excluded from the process of civic integration. Azerbaijani pupils often graduate without mastering the Georgian language, which deals a blow to any hopes of entering university for most graduates from Azerbaijani minority schools. Very few number of Azeris who graduate from high schools in Georgia go on to study at Georgian universities; many leave for other countires to continue their studies. One Azeri activist in Georgia says, ‘Students can only study in the Azeri language, which is impossible here. They therefore leave for Azerbaijan, where they saw more prospective for development. Consequently, there is a significant number of Azeri students choosing to study in their respective kin states, many of whom will not return to Georgia to seek employment upon their graduation”.

The linguistic isolation of Azeris is also linked to the lack of atmosphere to practice Georgian in areas where ethnic Azerbaijanis are compactly populated. Georgian language teacher of Azizkand village school of Marneuli district Zabil Gojayev substantiates that the main reason why ethnic Azeri pupils are not interested in learning Georgian is the Azerbaijani speaking environment they live, where they never use Georgian language. This factor, whether directly or indirectly, has served to speed up the rate of out-migration. Zabil Gojayev added that the government of Georgia has applied stimulatory measures to encourage ethnic Azerbaijanis to learn Georgian, continue higher education in Georgia, thereby to prevent the flow of prospective human capitals from Georgia: “Only mathematics exam is applicable for ethnic Azerbaijanis to get admitted to universities, after which they can benefit from 1+4 quota. Another stimulatory measure taken by the Georgian government is the guarantee of free higher education of ethnic Azerbajani students in case they do have any failure at university exams.”  

The unemployment rate is exceptionally high in areas predominantly populated by Azerbaijani minority communities, where most inhabitants work in agriculture and petty trade.
Equal access to employment is hindered by language-related issues. Because so many Azeris have only a rudimentary knowledge of Georgian, their employment opportunities within Georgia are limited. 18 year old student of Sadakhlo village school Isa Gurbanov says that his three uncles fled from their native Sadakhlo village facing financial difficulties, lack of employment opportunities. Seeing the inevitability of increasing unemployment problem, he is also planning to leave Georgia once he finishes his high school.

Many members of ethnic minorities face discrimination in employment based on education and language because they lack proficiency in Georgian, a requirement for public-sector jobs. Law provides that citizens have the right to be public servants, provided they have “adequate command of the official language.” This law has served to exclude ethnic minorities from participating in government. The native of Sadakhlo village Musa Musayev pointed out that he had previously worked in government agencies, but had to resign due to the lack of knowledge of Georgian language. According to him, “you might have promising career in Georgia only if you speak Georgian.” Another member of ethnic Azeri community mentions, “there is an understanding among the ethnics existing in Georgia that all in Georgia should serve to Gergians and Georgia's Azeri minority are treated as 'second-class citizens' by the Georgian government.”

Highlighting the discrimination of ethnic Azeris in employment, Alibala Askerov, who heads the NGO Geyrat notes that it is the case in Georgia that the ethnic Azeris who can speak Georgian fluently face discrimination in holding senior posts. “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”.

Existence of insufficient contacts between minority and majority populated regions of Georgia, i.e., the problem of isolation is another factor that has paved the way for the exclusion of Azerbaijani ethnic minorities from the Georgian society. Some ethnic Azeri people assert that they even haven’t been to Tbilisi, but they very frequently travel to Baku and other regions of Azerbaijan. The gap between the minorities and majority and the gap between the regions is very big problem threatening the integration of the state regions and parts.  

The same alarm can be referred to Georgian majority in respect of the migration rate and obviously migration is not only ethnic Azeri minority problem. Since the establishment of the independence almost millions of Georgians has left their places for the economical reasons. The population trend reveal a constant decline in the number of the population of Georgia from 1989 (5400841 persons) to 2014 (3713804). As of November 2017, the estimated number of the population of Georgia was 3718200 persons, only a slight increase (+4396) compared to that of 2014 General Population Census. According to results of 2014 General Population Census, the number of the population of Georgia totaled 3713804 persons, which was 15% less compared to the 2002 census data (4371535 persons).
The ethnic Azerbaijanis have increased their share of the Georgian population despite the fact that their number has actually declined since 1989. In the last Soviet census of 1989, there were 307556 ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia, whereas in the last Georgian census of 2014, there were 233082.
But the percentage of the ethnic Azerbaijanis in the population increased from 5.7 percent in 1989 to 6.3 percent in 2014 because even more ethnic Georgians left Georgia than did ethnic Azerbaijanis.
Whenever and wherever ethnic Azeris leave, this is only due to the reason that they have no alternative. “We would not leave, if we were provided with good opportunities to live in Georgia. We are so obsessed to our native village that wherever we are, our hearts are beating with our place of origin”, concludes Musa Musayev.
This article was prepared within the framework of the project implemented by the Human Rights House Tbilisi and cofunded by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and National Endowment for Democracy.

By Ramil Huseynov

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