NINO KAKHISHVILI , NETGASETI.ge
How do the ethnic minorities of Georgia see their own role in the process of peaceful settlement of internal conflicts in Georgia?
"I think that today, if I had the opportunity to meet Abkhazian and Ossetian youth within the framework of various projects, the benefits would be mutual. For my part, as an ethnically non-Georgian, but a citizen of Georgia, I would provide information on how Georgia is seen by ethnic groups, how ethnic groups live here, how our rights are protected and what path we have taken to integration", -24-year-old student Erna Shkoyan told Netgazeti.
Born in the village of Heshtia, Ninotsminda region, Erna Shkoyan recalls that before arriving in Tbilisi, she had no information about the occupied territories of Georgia.
"In my first year as a student, I attended one training course, within the framework of which we were taken to the Museum of Occupation. I didn't have any information about this museum or the occupation until then. There was a map of Georgia hanging on the wall in the village school, we knew what territories where occupied, but no one has ever talked about the meaning of occupation, nor about what happened and why. However, today, when I feel like a full-fledged citizen of Georgia, I study, work here and I think I enjoy equal rights, I already see my role in the process of peaceful settlement of conflicts", - said Erna Shkoyan.
Until 2007, Zaur Khalilov, executive director of the Civil Integration Fund, was involved in the peace process.
Speaking to Netgazeti, Khalilov says that after 2008, there are less and less opportunities for peace dialogue and, therefore, ethnic minorities have less experience of communication with Abkhazians and Ossetians.
"However, the inclusion of ethnic minorities would only bring a positive effect. I will tell you a personal example. On August 6, 2008, I went to Abkhazia as a member of the executive board of the Open Society Georgia Foundation. At that time, several projects were being implemented in the occupied Abkhazia, and we wanted to know what these resources were spent on. It should be noted that only one person was selected to conduct monitoring from here and this person was ethnically non-Georgian. This was perceived as an interesting step by the Abkhazians, because they saw us as like-minded people.
We have always said to include ethnic minorities in the peace processes. Sooner or later, both Abkhazians and Ossetians will ask where the largest ethnic groups are. We have many common topics, starting with the problem of preserving our native language and culture. These people come and communicate with us. Therefore, the involvement of ethnic minorities works", says Zaur Khalilov.
As a citizen of Georgia, Zaza Kalashov, the chairman of the Georgian Kurdish association "RONAI" [the association unites Yezidis, Muslims and Christians], considers himself obliged to participate in the peace process.
"It would be important and interesting for them to see that national minorities are also involved in the peace processes. Our integration in this country and relations with ethnic Georgians should become an example for Abkhazians and Ossetians. They should see that Georgia is equally open to everyone", says Zaza Kalashov.
In addition, as Kalashov says, we should not avoid talking about the problems of ethnic groups.
"Yes, according to the Constitution of Georgia, ethnic minorities have the same rights. However, unlike other nations, we, the Kurds, do not have our own theaters, ensembles [as, for example, in the case of Armenians and Azerbaijanis], which are supported and financed by the state. The state tells us that yes, we support you, but no real action is taken. We also know that there is a Georgian language study program for ethnic minorities. We have learned the language so well and, in this regard, we are so well integrated that, unfortunately, we have forgotten the Kurdish language. Today, we also need support from the government in this regard", explains Zaza Kalashov.
Kamran Mammadli a researcher at the Social Justice Center, talks about the importance of engaging ethnic [as well as religious] minorities in the process of conflict transformation as an added value to the process. He provides arguments why the involvement of ethnic groups in peace processes is important.
"For the past 30 years, I think, we are now in the worst stalemate in terms of conflict resolution. In the framework of various discussions, experts also admit this and they find it difficult to talk about future prospects. Technically, the situation was worse in 2008, however, the situation is more uncertain now. In this light, for example, the involvement of ethnic and even religious minorities in the process of conflict transformation would be a novelty", says Kamran Mammadli.
Speaking about the possible unification in one political space, as he says, Abkhazians and Ossetians would naturally ask the question, "What is the actual situation in Georgia in terms of civil equality?"
"And in this regard, we know that we have serious problems. If nothing else, the number of kindergartens is three times less in regions inhabited by ethnic minorities. There is no political participation. There is a problem with employment in public services, etc.”
As the second [more theoretical] argument, Kamran Mammadli mentions "understanding civil nationalism in Georgia".
"It is important how the state looks at other groups within the country, which is essentially important and critical in the process of reconciliation with Abkhazians and Ossetians. When we talk that we are all equal before the Constitution of Georgia, we should think about how this is reflected in reality. Today we have many challenges and problems – translation resources in ethnic minority regions, access to services, etc. Therefore, Abkhazians and Ossetians may feel that this is an echo of narrow Georgian ethno-religious nationalism, which excludes all minorities who are not included in the formula called Orthodox Christian -ethnically Georgian. This narrow ethnic nationalism actually hinders both civic integration and the bigger picture of conflict resolution.”
Mammadli says that ethnic minorities almost do not participate in official [Geneva international negotiations] and also in unofficial meetings in different cities of the world.
"In various negotiations, we are trying to tell them, look, what a good country we are, and at the same time, ethnic minorities are not visible at all in this process. An ethnic Abkhazian can trust an ethnic Azerbaijani and an Armenian more than a Georgian, with whom they had a battle; To this day there is propaganda in their educational space and in the media of the image of the Georgia as an enemy.
The Minister of Reconciliation or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should also think through this prism in the Geneva format in order to show them that we are an integrated society and that Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Kurds or others are talking to Abkhazians and Ossetians. Unfortunately, even the non-governmental sector does not engage these groups. However, the road to Sukhumi runs from Dmanisi. If we cannot solve our internal challenges in terms of civil integration and if this exclusion, ethnic and religious, is not solved, talking about a peaceful solution is illusory".
When asked why, in his opinion, neither the state nor the non-governmental sector involves ethnic groups in the dialogue process, Kamran Mammadli talks about several possible reasons - either they don't know who to involve in the process, or they are afraid that during the discussions, ethnic groups might criticize Georgia on various matters.
"At one international format meeting, I started criticizing Georgia with ethnic Abkhazians. As a result, I experienced such an aggression from the representatives of our own group, as if I was an enemy of Georgia. However, this is exactly what a healthy process should look like. In addition, the possibility of criticism can be an example for Abkhazians that we can openly talk about problems in Georgia. In that particular case, it was perceived as if some "guy" accidentally got into the meeting and then the Georgians silenced him, or tried to silence him.
If we sincerely want to transform the conflict, and if we are not toying with peaceful reconciliation, then ethnic minorities are the important actors who can tell the Abkhazians and Ossetians that something has changed in this country; we can tell them - friends, we are still changing and let's change together. This is the transformation of the conflict".