Georgia?s ethnic minorities left in the dark on NATO membership

Rusiko Amirejibi-Mullen r.amirejibi-mullen at
Thu Jul 3 20:31:43 UTC 2008

Shorena Labadze
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  
minority residents.

?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  
the wayside.

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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