Sunday, December 9, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Georgia’s Domestic Muslim Problems Resurface

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 9 – Tbilisi’s continuing problems with its two largest Muslim minorities, the Azerbaijanis and the Adjars, have resurfaced since Georgia’s parliamentary election, and while these have received less attention than events in the capital, they may ultimately be even more important for the development of that South Caucasus country.

            When his party dominated the Georgian parliament, President Mikhail Saakashvili was able to restrict coverage of these problems, but under the more open media regime of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, they are attracting more attention, leading some to blame the new government for them and others to suggest that this attention will help resolve the situation.

            According to the Georgian census of 2002, approximately 10 percent of Georgia’s population are Muslim, but Muslims there say that the actual figure is twice as high.  Most are Azerbaijanis and Adjars, but there are also Tatars, Chechens, Chechen-Kistintsy and other North Caucasians.

            As a result, relations between the Georgian government and Georgians in the opinion of Avraam Shmulyevich, president of Israel’s Institute for the Eastern Partnership and an expert on the Caucasus, “the religious sphere is almost a question of life and death for the preservation of the Georgian state” (

            Most of Georgia’s ethnic Azerbaijanis live in the Kvemo-Kartli region, where they form roughly half of the population According to observers, “both the Georgians and Azerbaijanis consider this region theirs historically and are certain their ancestors lived there from time immemorial” (

            Tensions between these two communities have risen over the last several months as a result of more than a dozen attacks on Azerbaijani families.  Mubariz Akhmedoglu, the director of the Azerbaijani Center for Political Innovation, says that the motive behind these attacks was “not theft but rather a desire to put pressure on the Azerbaijanis in Georgia.”

            A recent independent study released in Tbilisi suggested these problems were intensifying because “for every 20 Georgian babies” in the region, there are 80 Azerbaijani children.” This demographic divide, the study continued, would mean that “the number of Azerbaijanis really living in Georgia would already have reached 15 percent of the country’s population if there were not so great an outflow of the population from these regions to Azerbaijan and to Russia.”

            Faced with these demographic challenges, Ali Mamedov, a Georgian Dream member of parliament, said, the Saakashvili government restricted the rights of the Azerbaijanis in Georgia in never-before-seen ways.  The number of Azerbaijani language institutions was cut, and ethnic Georgians who did not know Azerbaijani were put in charge of Azerbaijani secondary schools.

            Moreover, according to Mamedov, the previous Georgian government carried out a land reform in the region in a highly discriminatory way.  Ethnic Azerbaijanis received less than a sixth of a hectare while ethnic Georgians received on average “three to four hectares.” And Tbilisi even renamed “numerous Azerbaijani villages and population points.”

            But the sharpest interethnic conflict involving Georgia and it Muslims in recent weeks has been with the Adjars. On October 25, “local residents in the village of Nigvziani [in the Adjar area] blocked access to a Muslim prayer room and demanded an end to the conducting of Muslim religious services there.”

            Not only did Georgian law enforcement agencies intervene to protect the Muslim Adjars, but Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili spoke out about this clash, saying that it was “completely alien” to Georgia and asked followers of both traditions in Georgia not to fall victim to provocations (

            These clashes have led outside observers to reconsider the ways in which the previous Georgian government dealt with its Muslim minority, why such conflicts are surfacing now, and how the new Ivanishvili regime is likely to proceed (

            In the view of some, like Azerbaijani political analyst Chingiz Mamedyarov, Saakashvili created many of the current problems because he sought to portray his country to the West as “the leader of the entire Caucasus” and thus acted in ways that violated existing arrangements about Islam in Georgia and Azerbaijan.

            Last year, Saakashvili promoted the establishment of the Administration of Muslims of Georgia as an institution separate from and not subordinate to the Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus based in Baku, headed by Sheikh Allakhshukyur Pashazade, and responsible for all the Muslims of the Caucasus from the time of the Soviet Union.

            Not only did that cut off the Azerbaijanis of Georgia from Baku, Mamedyarov said, but because many of those involved in the new administration have links to radicals in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, this move brought “to the borders of Russia international Islamic extremism” and assisted “the financing of militants in the republics of the North Caucasus.”

            But others suggested that however much it might have upset some, Saakashvili’s move in this direction was completely understandable given the desire of Georgia to have administrative control over its own Muslims. And it is simply not the case, Shmulyevich argued, that the new group is infected by Salafi extremism.

            “The official leadership of the Georgian Muslims,” including administration had Dzhemal Paksadze, are “ideological opponents of the Salafis.” “For ideological reasons, it has no ties and cannot have ties with the Salafis. On the contrary,” Shmulyevich insists, it is engagedin “a struggle for influence among the Muslim population of Georgia.”  

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