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Conflicts, ethnic nationalism and economic hardship threatens stability and security in South Caucasus

13 June 2002

Unresolved conflicts, economic and social hardship and ethnic nationalism pose serious challenges to minority rights, stability and security in the South Caucasus, warns a new report from Minority Rights Group International (1). The report analyses the prospects for minorities in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, and the scope for further ethnic division and fragmentation in a region of substantial ethnic and religious diversity.

MRG’s report describes the breakaway republics of Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh and South Ossetia (2) as indicative of a trend towards mono-ethnicism. Conflicts over these territories have meant the expulsion and flight of ethnic groups, large-scale population displacement and suffering. Conflicts are unresolved and the threat of small-scale violence in the border zones escalating into serious fighting is ever present. The situation in Abkhazia is particularly precarious: kidnappings and killings are common, over 90 Russian peacekeepers have died in ambushes and mine explosions, and six UN staff were killed in October 2001.

As MRG’s report documents, there is an urgent need for increased minority protection and participation across the region. Minorities in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia are denied access to education and professional opportunities, and participation in political processes. Standards of healthcare and social security have fallen dramatically. An estimated 3.5 million labour migrants – mostly minorities – have left their homes, mainly for Russia, over the past decade. Political corruption persists and law enforcement is weak – these factors militate against a relationship of trust between communities and states.

The situation in Georgia is of particular concern. Armenians form the largest minority, mostly living in Javakheti where they constitute 95 per cent of the population. Javakheti hosts a Russian military base, and close relations between the military and Armenians are regarded as a security threat by the Georgian majority. Anti-Armenian sentiment is -more on the rise – Armenians are being pushed out of political and economic positions in the capital. In Georgia’s Pankissi valley relations between Kists, Ossetians and Georgians are extremely tense (3), exacerbated by widespread possession of firearms and virtual lawlessness. Russia regards the area as a security threat, claiming that Chechen and ‘international terrorists’ move into the valley disguised as refugees; the US claims that fighters from Afghanistan are in Pankissi, and is providing training and logistic support to Georgia.

MRG’s report highlights positive measures which should be taken to minimize the likelihood of further ethnic division, civil strife and loss of life in the region. MRG urges the international community and regional governments to promote a culture of tolerance and mutual respect. Governments should facilitate the effective participation rights of minorities in political, social and economic life. International donors should ensure that minority issues are mainstreamed in project development and implementation.

Notes for editors

  1. The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities by Anna Matveeva. Published 14 June 2002.
  2. Conflict over Abkhazia (bordering Russia and Georgia) dates back to the Soviet period. Abkhazia proclaimed independence in 1999, but tension between Abkhazia and Georgia remains high. Nagorno Karabakh is a predominantly ethnic Armenian area on the territory of Azerbaijan. Conflict dates back to 1988 and remains unresolved. The situation in South Ossetia is relatively stable – open hostilities between South Ossetia and Georgia have subsided, but issues around the region’s political future remain unresolved.
  3. Kists (ethnically closely related to Chechens) constitute 65 per cent of the population, Georgians 24 per cent and Ossetians 11 per cent.