Replacement of toponyms
Until the 1930s, Turkic toponyms dominated in the historical region of Borchali inhabited by Azerbaijanis and Georgians. But from the 1930s, the hegemony of titular nations began to grow in all union republics, and this process did not pass Georgia by either. During this period, the following Turkic toponyms were replaced.
Rustavi. The former name—Bostanscheher, Bostandere or Bostan-Kalaki (Lordkipanidze and Muskhelishvili, 1988:95)—was replaced in 1947. According to data for 2014, 3.73% of the residents of the city of Rustavi were Azerbaijanis. Rustavi is also the administrative center of the region of Kvemo Kartli.
Bolnisi. The former name is Choruk Gamarli, changed in 1944. Although the municipality of Bolnisi itself is populated mainly by Azerbaijanis, approximately 80% of the population of the city of Bolnisi are Georgian. The villages of this municipality were also renamed.
Marneuli. The city, formerly called Borchali, was renamed in 1947 (Gurgenidze, 1957:51). Most Georgian Azerbaijanis live in the municipality of Marneuli. The names of the villages in this municipality were also changed.
Gardabani. The original name of the town was Garatepe, and it was called Garayazi until 1947 (Gurgenidze, 1957:51) when it was renamed Gardabani. The villages around the town were also renamed.
Dmanisi. The former name, Bashkechid, was replaced in 1947 (Gurgenidze, 1957:51). Although Azerbaijanis make up the majority in the municipality itself, there are only 14.5% of them in the town. The villages of the municipality were also renamed.
Tetritsqaro. The former name of the town is Agbulag. It was renamed in 1944 (Gurgenidze, 1957:51). Compared to other municipalities of the region of Kvemo Kartli, there are relatively few Azerbaijanis here—7.3% of the total population.
Tsalka. The former name of the town is Barmagsiz, renamed in 1932 (Gurgenidze, 1957:51). Of all the municipalities of the region of Kvemo Kartli, this one has the smallest Azerbaijani population—6.8%.
Many Azerbaijanis live in Sagarejo, a municipality in the region of Kakheti. The historical territory that united seven villages in this area was called Garachop. At the moment, only one village bears this name. According to data for 2014, Azerbaijanis make up 33.16% of the population of this municipality.
The second wave of “Georgianization” of toponyms took place in the early 1990s, under Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Mtredi Public Union identified 31 villages in Bolnisi renamed during this period. Despite a number of statements by local initiative groups seeking to restore the former Azerbaijani toponyms, the government has taken no action so far, which also contradicts the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which came in effect in 2006 (Wheatley, 2009:60-61).
It is curious that, although the names of municipalities and villages in Kvemo Kartli and Kakheti were Georgianized, the Turkic toponyms in the region of Lagodekhi bordering with Balakan have been preserved. The names of the villages in this municipality, such as Ganjala, Uzunchala, Garachala, Kabal, remain unchanged to this day. Azerbaijani toponyms have also survived in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi: Georgians still use names such as Sheitanbazar, Ortachala, Gala, Meydan and Narikala.
Georgian Azerbaijanis during the Soviet period
From 1921, when Soviet rule was established in Georgia, and until the mid-1980s, there were no issues between Georgians and Azerbaijanis in this region, with the exception of the replacement of said toponyms. But with the beginning of Perestroika and Glasnost, nationalist sentiments were on the rise in Georgia, as well as in other republics. The population census of 1979 and 1989 showed a rapid increase in the number of Azerbaijanis living in Georgia, which greatly annoyed the Georgian nationalists. Their leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia said that the Kremlin played a political game against Georgia by deliberately increasing the number of Azerbaijanis in Georgia. Likening the rapidly growing Azerbaijani population to breeding rabbits, Gamsakhurdia perceived this as a threat to Georgia (Poch and Medvedev, 2005:246).
The first wave of Georgian nationalism began in the late 1980s with the removal of most Azerbaijanis in Kvemo Kartli from their positions in local government. In 1989, radical Georgian nationalists launched the campaign of pressure and threats against Azerbaijanis. At first, some groups in Bolnisi tried to stop shops from selling bread to Azerbaijanis, and Azerbaijani doctors in hospitals in some areas of Marneuli and Bolnisi were fired. According to Azerbaijani sources, in order to sow panic in the city of Bolnisi, Georgian nationalists began to arrange small explosions in Azerbaijani quarters. In response to this, the Azerbaijani population of some villages formed self-defense groups armed mainly with hunting rifles. The Georgian government did nothing to protect Azerbaijanis. Thus, in September and October 1989, about 800 families were forced to move from Bolnisi to Azerbaijan (Cornell, 2002:160). Azerbaijani sources say that 27,510 people were expelled from their homeland in the Borchali area during Gamsakhurdia’s reign. Moreover, over a hundred Azerbaijanis were killed during ethnic clashes in Georgia between 1989 and 1994 (Ibrahimli, 2006:58).
Borchali autonomy and the first years of independence
The policy pursued by Georgian nationalists in Bolnisi provoked a backlash in 1989. In mid-1989, the Azerbaijanis already began to discuss the establishment of an autonomy with Rustavi as its capital. However, this idea did not receive much support among the public. Even the armed clashes in June of 1989 and late 1990 between Azerbaijanis and the Svans who were relocated to Marneuli because of the 1987 landslide did not create any separatist tendencies in the region (Cornell, 2002:212-213). Interestingly, despite the threats and persecution, in the referendum on Georgia’s independence, the majority of votes for independence came from the regions inhabited by Azerbaijanis. Thus, in Marneuli, where more than 80% of the population were Azerbaijani, 86% of voters voted for independence. For comparison, in Akhalkalaki, where more than 90% of the population were Armenian, the figure was 52% (Department of State, 1991:74).
However, Azerbaijanis’ support of Georgian independence did not change the attitude towards them in the region. After Gamsakhurdia came to power, the campaign of persecution and threats intensified. In 1992, the rumor spread in Tbilisi that Azerbaijanis were preparing to secede from Georgia and join Azerbaijan. Following the rumors, an armed group of the president’s henchmen (Mkhedrioni) began preparations to march on Marneuli. This march could end with ethnic cleansing, as had happened in Tskhinvali in 1989. But the potential act of violence was prevented by the Azerbaijani government. The Azerbaijani Popular Front government immediately appealed to the Georgian government, saying that Azerbaijan had no intention of annexing the region and that reports of the Azerbaijani community in Georgia wishing to secede from the state were nothing but lies. Following the official denial of the rumors, the nationalist march to Marneuli was canceled (Cornell, 2002:211).
Shevardnadze’s and Saakashvili’s presidencies
During Shevardnadze’s presidency (1995-2003), all Gamgebeli (head of regional administration) in all of Kvemo Kartli were Georgian. At the same time, in the neighboring region of Javakheti, Gamgebeli were appointed from among the local Armenians. Under Shevardnadze, Azerbaijanis received only minor posts in regional administrations. In addition, minor Azerbaijani bureaucrats were allowed to engage in corruption in return for their allegiance to the Governor of Kvemo Kartli Levan Mamaladze. As a result, the local Azerbaijani population did not have the opportunity to voice their complaints. The number of Azerbaijanis in local municipal councils was also small: in the areas populated mainly by Azerbaijanis (Marneuli, Dmanisi and Bolnisi), the vast majority of the Gamgeoba (head of municipal administration) were Georgians (Wheatley, 2009:18). The number of ethnic Azerbaijanis in the regional elected bodies, Sacrebulo (mayor’s office) or assemblies was also very small, given the predominance of Azerbaijani population. In Dmanisi and Bolnisi municipalities, Azerbaijanis accounted for two-thirds of the population, but only 38% of the members of the municipal council were Azerbaijani. And in the municipality of Marneuli, where Azerbaijanis made up more than 80% of the populations, only 55% of the members of the municipal council were Azerbaijani. Besides, no Azerbaijani MP was elected in the region of Kvemo Kartli until 1999. The first Azerbaijani to get into the Georgian Parliament was Shevardnadze’s ally Azer Suleymanov, and he had little influence in the region (Wheatley, 2009:35).
Mikheil Saakashvili, who was elected Chairman of the National Movement party in 2002, was a well-known figure in Borchali. On March 1, 1991, he appeared on television, justifying Armenian separatism in Karabakh, and the Geyret (“Honor”) society translated his speech and published it in the Sabah newspaper. Saakashvili calling the Azerbaijanis who supported Shevardnadze “fools” during the municipal elections provoked protests and unrest in Borchali. In November 2003, on the eve of the presidential elections, Saakashvili arrived in Borchali as part of his election campaign. This visit was marked by a hand-to-hand fight between representatives of the National Movement and Azerbaijanis, Shevardnadze’s supporters from the village of Fakhrali in Bolnisi (Katz, 2006:90). Against this backdrop, some Georgian experts predicted that Saakashvili would receive few votes from Borchali. On the eve of the elections, the leader of the Geyret society, Alibala Askerov, openly called Saakashvili a nationalist and an Armenianophile, and said that they would not vote for him. But, contrary to expectations, in the elections held on May 28, 2004, Saakashvili received 76% of the votes in the Borchali region (Ibrahimli, 2006:83). Regional Azerbaijani activists questioned these figures. According to them, Saakashvili could get only 30-40% of the votes in this region. After being elected president, Saakashvili declared 2004 the year of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, displeasing not only Azerbaijanis, but also other minorities. And it was by Saakashvili’s decree that in 2013 Gamsakhurdia was posthumously given the country’s highest award, the Order of the National Hero.
Azerbaijani organizations in Georgia
The first organization founded by Georgian Azerbaijanis was the Azerbaijan Society, established in 1990 in Tbilisi. The Birlik (“Unity”) and Dayag (“Support”) groups were set up in Tbilisi in 1992, and the Umid (“Hope”) society emerged in Gardabani in 1994. But the largest organization of the Azerbaijani community at that time was Geyret established in Marneuli (Cornell, 2002:212). While pursuing a moderately nationalist line, the organization helped protect Georgian Azerbaijanis during the riots of the early 1990s and helped resolve conflicts within the local Azerbaijani community later. However, the movement began to disintegrate in the late 1990s, with several prominent members of the organization taking government posts. Geyret currently operates as a small NGO. According to the leaders of the organization, during the 2006 election, its members were pressured because they put forward their candidacies for local government and law enforcement. Although the activists of the organization sometimes organize protest rallies against the Georgian government, they no longer have their old influence on the local Azerbaijanis.
Another Azerbaijani organization operating in Kvemo Kartli is the National Assembly of Georgian Azerbaijanis (GAMA), established in 2001. On nationalist issues, GAMA takes a more radical position than Geyret. Its leader, Dashgin Gulmammadov, supports establishing a confederation in Georgia and giving Azerbaijani the status of official language. The Georgian government has a particularly negative attitude towards GAMA. Interestingly, official Baku backs the Georgian government’s policy towards groups suspected of supporting separatism in Georgia. British historian Jonathan Wheatley sees the arrest of Dashgin Gulmammadov in Baku in 2009 as a result of cooperation between the two governments (Wheatley, 2009:37-38).
The interests of the Azerbaijani community in Kvemo Kartli are also represented by the Congress of Georgian Azerbaijanis (GAK). It was established in March 2008, uniting at least 12 Georgian-based Azerbaijani NGOs. GAK has a more moderate political line than GAMA and Geyret. The main goal of the congress is to protect the rights of ethnic Azerbaijanis and help them integrate into Georgian society.
A resolution adopted by the Georgian government in 1992 prohibited the privatization of land plots within 21 km of the state border. In 1994, the Georgian Cabinet of Ministers lowered this “limit” to 5 km. In 1996, when after the adoption of the law on land ownership, the privatization process began, and these lands were divided among the owners. And before that, the state leased most of the border territories using a nontransparent mechanism.
Theoretically the 21 km limit applied to all border regions, but in reality, the Azerbaijanis in Kvemo Kartli were affected the most. Wealthy Georgians from Tbilisi acquired the state lands and began to lease them to locals for profit. This caused a lot of discontent and conflicts. One of such conflicts took place in Marneuli, in the village of Kulari (Ashagi Gullar) in December 2004, when a confrontation between the locals and workers of a horse farm built by a Georgian businessman resulted in the death of an elderly Azerbaijani woman (Wheatley, 2009:47).
In July 2005, the Georgian parliament passed a law on the privatization of state-owned farmland. Under this law, the privatization now also covered the cultivated areas, pastures, artificial ponds for fish farming and areas previously leased by the state. This law lifted the border limits. However, in the first seven months of 2006, about 8,000 Azerbaijanis received only 0.5 hectares under this law (International Crisis Group, 2006:5). Although the current situation is much better than a few years ago, the land issues of some Azerbaijanis in the region still remain unresolved.
Economic discrimination and unemployment
Before Saakashvili came to power, the main source of income not only for local Azerbaijanis, but also for many Georgians and Armenians, was the Sadakhli market located on the border with Armenia. Before the market was closed in December 2005 as a result of an anti-smuggling operation, it was the main economic powerhouse of the region’s population. After the tightening of customs regulations in 2006, the market ceased to exist for good. Local Azerbaijanis demanded the Sadakhli market be reopened, claiming they were targeted specifically by the Georgian government’s anti-corruption campaign. Even GAK, known for its loyalty to the Georgian government, joined the protests (Wheatley, 2009: 39). Nevertheless, the Sadakhli market remained closed.
In addition, in the 2000s, Azerbaijanis living in Kvemo Kartli were prohibited from selling agricultural products on the street, further aggravating their economic situation.
Another major problem of Azerbaijanis in Kvemo Kartli is high unemployment. There are no exact figures available, but the unemployment rate in the region is estimated at over 50%. While making a significant impact on the capital, the economic development of recent years has had little effect on most rural areas of Georgia. The high unemployment rate among Azerbaijanis in Borchali is due to the obstacles artificially manufactured for them by the local administration, the closure of the Sadakhli market and ignorance of the Georgian language, which reduces dramatically their employment opportunities in government agencies. As a result, there is a substantial migration from the region to Azerbaijan and Russia.
Information blockade and other problems
Another problem in the region is that the population lives in an information vacuum. The head of one of the Marneuli NGOs complained that he had to go to Tbilisi in order to find out what was happening in the country. Compared to other regions of Georgia, local Azerbaijanis have relatively few sources of information. According to the ECMI study, the non-Georgian population of the municipalities of Gardabani, Marneuli and Dmanisi get news on average through one local TV channel. Only 3.5% of Azerbaijanis in these three municipalities can get information on local TV channels, whereas the figure is 74% in the neighboring predominantly Armenian-populated Javakheti. This is due to the lack of local TV channels broadcasting in the Azerbaijani language in Kvemo Kartli. News broadcasts in Azerbaijani are aired only by the Bolnisi-based Kanal 12 TV company—only once a week (Wheatley, 2009: 39).
Azerbaijanis living in Bolnisi are also unhappy that Christian crosses are being installed in Azerbaijani villages. In late 2008, the Bolnisi Municipal Council installed crosses in the villages of Chapala (Gochulu) and Kvemo Bolnisi (Kepenekchi) at the initiative of the Georgian Patriarchate. Following the coverage of the incident in the Azerbaijani media, the Bolnisi Municipal Council removed the crosses, promising this would not happen again. But in April 2009, local Georgian activists, with the participation of local officials, installed crosses in another Azerbaijani village (Wheatley, 2009:61). This issue still remains a stumbling block between religiously sensitive Azerbaijanis and Georgians.
One of the reasons shaping the less than positive attitude of the Georgian public and elite towards national minorities is that most of the ethnic minorities do not speak the official language of the country. The language problem continues to stand between the state and the minorities. And the national government plays a significant role in this situation. Although Georgian society consists of numerous linguistic groups that have preserved their linguistic heritage for thousands of years, the minorities are targeted by the overt policy of “Georgianization”, and therefore ethnic minorities perceive integration into Georgian society as their “absorption” by the titular nation. The reluctance of a certain part of the Georgian political elite to make even smallest concessions to ethnic minorities in the language issue creates a backlash. This position of the Georgian authorities leads to the radicalization of the demands put forward by Azerbaijanis, Armenians, Kists and other ethnic minorities living in the country. Although there has been some progress since 2003 in respect of the “ethnic proportions” in parliamentary and municipal elections, there are still general issues. Following Saakashvili, the current government also continues to idealize Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was intolerant of ethnic minorities. Gamsakhurdia is painted in history books as a hero fighting against Russia, with avenues and streets named after him. These are examples of the nationalism persisting in the Georgian ruling elite. The fact that the villages renamed under Gamsakhurdia have yet to get their original names back shows that the “Zviadist” tradition is still alive.
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