Georgia?s ethnic minorities left in the dark on NATO membership
r.amirejibi-mullen at qmul.ac.uk
Thu Jul 3 20:31:43 UTC 2008
Messenger, July 3
Ethnic minorities in Georgia are less likely to know about and support
the country?s NATO membership bid than other Georgian citizens, a
local organization which works with minorities said yesterday.
The group, Public Movement ?Multinational Georgia,? is launching a
campaign in ethnic minority-populated regions to educate residents
about the Western military alliance which, its leadership pledged this
spring, Georgia will one day join.
?We do not want to see two separate political directions emerging in
regards to NATO membership, with popular feeling among minorities and
the [state] center becoming alienated from each other,? said Sian
Davies, a volunteer for the youth union of Multinational Georgia.
NATO integration has been a foreign policy ambition for two successive
Georgian governments, but in poorly-integrated ethnic minority areas,
citizens remain skeptical and uncertain of how they will fare with
Georgia as a member state.
The NGO ran focus groups last week in Samtskhe-Javakheti province?s
Akhalkalaki district, which is overwhelmingly ethnic Armenian.
?Although everyone involved had heard of NATO, most knew only about
its military activities, associated it with the coalition war in Iraq
and were unaware of specific benefits NATO membership could bring for
the Georgian armed forces,? said Davies.
NGO secretary general Ilona Kochoi said that in Akhalkalaki schools,
teachers aren?t informed enough to answer questions about NATO, ?even
though the children are often curious.?
Residents of poverty-mired Akhalkalaki fear Georgian foreign policy
could ultimately cost them work. In a sense, it already has.
A Russian military base was once a major employer and economic motor
for the district. It closed last year, leaving the area bereft of jobs
and increasingly dependent on remittances from relatives working
abroad, particularly in Russia.
Interviewees were worried that NATO membership could make it more
difficult for them to travel to Russia for work, or could weaken state
ties with Armenia. Some also fear NATO integration would bring Turkish
soldiers and military bases to their region, dredging up old memories
of Turkish persecution.
Georgian military analyst Koba Liklikadze said ethnic minorities in
Georgia see NATO as a ?hostile organization.?
?They must understand that NATO guarantees not only military safety
but also defends their interests,? he said.
NATO information centers in Georgia, which are tasked with promoting
the alliance domestically, say they are making efforts to reach ethnic
?We are aware about this problem and it really exists, especially in
the areas populated with ethnic minorities. From time to time, we take
NATO representatives and military experts there, hold seminars,
distribute booklets and other printed materials among the residents,?
a representative of a NATO information center in Tbilisi said.
The Saakashvili administration has made the bid to join NATO a
centerpiece in its foreign policy platform, saying membership in the
alliance will provide security against Russia and further integrate
Georgia into the West.
In the January presidential election this year, Georgians voted on a
plebiscite asking whether Tbilisi should continue pursuing NATO
63 percent of voters in Akhalkalaki voted for NATO membership,
according to the Central Election Commission, well below the national
average of 77 percent.
Public Movement ?Multinational Georgia? is also planning to talk about
NATO integration with ethnic Azeri residents in Kvemo Kartli.
Ethnic minorities and NATO
Messenger, July 3
Georgia?s critical bid for membership in NATO has broad, if not
unquestioning, support here. But ethnic minorities, particularly the
sizable Armenian and Azeri communities, are in danger of being left on
Ethnic minorities in Georgia are unlikely to be well-informed on NATO,
and less likely than other citizens to support membership in the
This is in large part another symptom of the weak integration of
Georgia?s ethnic minorities. Most are poor, many do not speak
Georgian; predictably, they are at best on the margins of civic
society and practically unrepresented in high office.
In one ethnic Armenian district, Akhalkalaki, the closure of a Russian
military base there plunged its residents into even deeper penury.
Many work in Russia and send money home. Now, among other concerns,
they fear Georgian membership in NATO could take away that option.
In a referendum accompanying the January presidential poll, 63 percent
of Akhalkalaki voters supported the bid for NATO membership, far below
the national average of 77 percent. And they?re hardly a renitent
bunch: 87 percent picked incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili for president,
compared to barely half of voters nationwide.
Their worries are clear. The government is not oblivious; its efforts
to shore up support for NATO across the whole country should continue
with strong backing. Georgia needs NATO, and the integration campaign
will not be helped if the country?s impoverished ethnic minorities are
unhappy about membership.
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