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Life beyond Paravani

 

Vardanush Malkhazian is 60 years old. She lives in Ninotsminda, and like 98% of the local population of this village, she is Armenian by ethnicity.

Along with other women, Vardanush is now harvesting potatoes. She says she will sell them to re-sellers at GEL 0.35 per kilogram. She is not unhappy about her life, but thinks that an increase in pension would make it better.

Artush Gharslan does not participate in the the potato harvest as he is not fond of cultivating the land. Instead, he makes dolls out of candy wrapping paper. He says he’s even exhibited them once. He also has a permanent job at the Ninotsminda Culture Center where he is a worker and paid a monthly salary of GEL 168. This, coupled with his pension, is enough to support the family. Sometimes he is even casted in local theatre productions: at the end of this year, he will perform a role in “Nazar the Brave” by Hovhannes Tumanyan.

Artush has three daughters. The youngest daughter has opened a studio in Moscow and teaches Georgian, Armenian and Russian dance. The husband of his eldest daughter is a truck driver in Russia who worked on state contracts and, instead of a salary, was given a flat in Moscow.

Artush Gharslan does not like Europe. He says that due to European standards his plot of land was altered. When a new road was built outside his house, he was told that it was constructed in accordance with European standards, however, the pavement was built at such a height that it covered half of his fence. To get from the road into their yard, Artush’s family had to install stairs. He says that in Russia this would not have happened.

Virtually no one knows Georgian in Ninotsminda. They speak in Armenian with one another and communicate with Georgians in Russian.

“It is my own problem that I do not speak Georgian, but if the next generation does not speak Georgian, it is because of problems of the government,” Agasi Zalalian says.

Agasi is a representative of the civil society organization Public Movement Multinational Georgia (PMMG) in Ninotsminda. Now he is monitoring the pre-election process in his capacity as an independent observer. He visits a precinct to check on whether or not the process is being carried out according to the regulations; that the voter lists are being properly verified, et cetera.

He complains that the government does not do anything in Ninotsminda. “The same person has represented our constituency in the parliament for that past 20 years now and for each election the government mobilizes its resources so that voters are forced to vote for the candidate nominated by the government,” Agasi says.

He believes that if ethnic minorities are given more employment opportunities and if economic conditions in Georgia are improved, the chances of integration will increase.

PMMG is a long-standing partner of Europe Foundation. It received its first grant from Europe Foundation in 2008, for the monitoring and evaluation of the pre-election process; then, in 2011 a large-scale project was implemented with the financial assistance of Europe Foundation, which pursued the aim of providing ethnic minorities with the possibility of fair and equal justice.

As Arnold Stepanyan, the founder of PMMG  recalls, that was the first ever instance when the government agreed to cooperated with them. A legal dictionary was compiled in Armenian and Azerbaijani languages and translators were retrained, thereby providing a possibility for ethnic minorities to receive fair justice.

The integration of ethnic minorities is an issue upon which the public and civil sectors have yet to achieve agreement. Stepanyan thinks that the state strategy on integration is ambiguous and general and that there is a lack of proper understanding of what kind of “product” is expected as a result of integration. In other words, it remains unclear which model of integration will be implemented by the Georgian state.

Ninotsminda will soon see the opening of a kindergarten, one of the results of the advocacy campaign conducted with the financial support of  Europe Foundation. The project worked to set up civil monitoring groups and to identify pressing problems facing the population in Ninotsminda municipality. During this process it became clear that the only kindergarten operating in Ninotsminda was too small to satisfy the needs of families there. They say, a new building is ready and will open this year.

At the initiative of Multinational Georgia and the funding from Europe Foundation, civil monitoring groups have already been set up in seven villages in the Tetritskaro district. The aim of this program is also to identify pressing problems and advocate for their solution.

“Clearly, such projects will solve particular problems faced by ethnic minorities, but this cannot tackle the problem of integration,” Arnold Stepanyan says.

The integration of ethnic minorities is an issue upon which the public and civil sectors have yet to achieve agreement.

Stepanyan thinks that the state strategy on integration is ambiguous and general and that there is a lack of proper understanding of what kind of “product” is expected as a result of integration. In other words, it remains unclear which model of integration will be implemented by the Georgian state.  "There are many examples of integration throughout the world. We do not yet know which model to choose, as this issue is not even discussed. When speaking about integration, the state places emphasis mainly on the protection of cultural rights and the preservation of culture; it can also be seen that state security interests always prevail over minority rights,“ Stepanyan says.

According to him, on the one hand, it is logical to consider the issue of minorities from a security standpoint, but on the other hand, the absence of a long-term strategic vision is a serious problem and impedes the actual integration of minorities.

 “We fully realize that we are talking about rather complex regions where neighboring Russia tries to use ethnic minorities for its political aims. That’s why the state often gives preference to security issues over the rights of ethnic minority; but if ethnic minorities do not identify themselves as full-fledged citizens and patriots of the Georgian state, these security threats will heighten over time instead of subside,” Stepanyan says.

Ethnic minorities comprise around 20 percent of Georgia’s population. According to the survey “Knowledge and Attitudes towards the EU in Georgia” (2017), conducted by Europe Foundation, 54 percent of ethnic minorities living in Georgia think that Georgia’s best political ally is Russia whereas 70 percent of the Georgian-speaking population supports the country’s EU integration.

This does not come as a surprise to Arnold Stepanyan. “It simply cannot be otherwise because ethnic minorities live in an absolutely different information environment: they do not speak the state language, do not hold prestigious social niches and, consequently, are not adequately engaged in the process of public administration; also, they are less competitive on the labor market, and so on and so forth,” Stepanyan says.

“People arrive from China and learn Georgian in three months. Thus, motivation is a crucial thing. Ethnic minorities must have motivation to learn Georgian as this will open up greater prospects for them,” he goes on.

Ahead of the presidential election, members of Multinational Georgia organized meetings with presidential candidates for ethnic minorities. The candidate promises did not differ much – among the issues emphasized were the young generation, the funding of education abroad, investments, et cetera.

Political promises were, as always, encouraging; however, until they are delivered, the only visible investment in, for example, Nonitsminda is a school of Armenian culture and history which was opened by an Armenian businessman based in Russia.

 

Author:  Ketevan Magalashvili

Photos by:  Natela Grigalashvili

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