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Georgia’s popular revolution heralds new era of hope and uncertainty

25 November 2003

Georgia’s popular revolution has created the possibility of a new era of development, rights and tolerance in the troubled state. However urgent interim measures and political sensitivity are required to ensure that the opportunity for political, economic and social reform is not lost, say rights experts. The protection of minority rights is an important factor in ensuring peace and stability in a country torn apart by years of conflict and political and economic corruption, stated Minority Rights Group International (MRG) today. Some uncertainty remains over how the former opposition party will respond to minority concerns, which has led some minority groups to take only a cautiously optimistic view of the future. The rapid implementation of minority rights standards offers the opportunity for the new government to relieve any such concerns.

MRG together with its partner organizations in Georgia have stressed a need for local and international actors to work together to monitor the situation and encourage a culture of tolerance, due to concerns over tensions developing along ethnic lines. According to reports received by MRG prior to the revolution, constitutional rights of minorities such as their right to vote, have been questioned by former opposition groups, who may now be in a position to exercise political power. MRG has called for measures to ensure the full and effective participation of minorities in all areas of political, social and economic life in Georgia. The interim government’s expressed intention to establish inclusive democracy and hold new elections offers an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to minority rights and restore the confidence of minority groups. The OSCE Mission to Georgia reported manifold irregularities during the elections and now has a vital role in monitoring and reporting on the actions of the new government. It must remain alert to the possibility of conflict and unrest taking on an ethnic dimension, and should continue to support minority communities.

Georgia was temporarily excused the need to ratify the Council of Europe (CoE) Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), when it became a member the CoE in April 1999, and still has yet to do so. According to MRG, a further measure to instil confidence in the future treatment of minorities in Georgia would be for the new government to accede to the FCNM and to incorporate its provisions into its constitution as soon as possible. MRG has long advocated the European wide ratification and implementation of this important minority Convention, since it offers a valuable, legally binding minimum standard of good practice regarding minority rights protection and promotion. Georgia has numerous minority groups including Abkhaz, Armenians, Azeris, Kists and Ossetians.

Georgia’s long-standing internal territorial disputes over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, may prove to be further cause for concern, since some of those now likely to take power have expressed desires to re-integrate these lost provinces. Abkhazia’s de facto secession followed a bloody conflict, which resulted in over 200,000 Georgians fleeing Abkhazia in September 1993. The new Abkhaz leadership then proclaimed formal independence from Georgia in November 1999. If these provinces are to be peacefully re-integrated, which some consider unlikely, it will require important concessions to be made by the new Georgian government in regard to minority rights and autonomy of these regions, concessions which have failed to be made in the past.

As Minority Rights Group International highlighted in its May 2002 report, Armenians form the largest minority in Georgia, 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 has been rising in recent years and Armenians found themselves pushed out of political and economic positions in the capital. In Georgia’s Pankissi valley relations between Kists, Ossetians and Georgians were described as ‘extremely tense’, 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 has provided training and logistic support to Georgia.

Notes for editors

The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities‘ by Anna Matveeva. Published by Minority Rights Group International (MRG). May 2002. ISBN 1 897693 44 3.

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].