Opinion

How will ethnic minorities vote in the parliamentary elections?

by | Aug 19, 2012

Will number 5 strike first again?

Today many citizens of Georgia ask themselves what will be their choice in the parliamentary elections, while politicians and analysts try to make prognoses about the electoral behavior of different groups in society, including ethnic minorities, writes Agit Mirzoev, Executive Director at the Analytical Center for Interethnic Cooperation and Consultations.

Georgia is the most multi-ethnic country in the South Caucasus and as such has had to face a more complex situation with regards to ethnic minorities living within its territory.  In Georgia, according to the 2002 census, minorities make up 16% of the population (as compared to one third in 1989). The main ethnic groups are: Azerbaijanis (284,000); Armenians (249,000); Russians (68,000); Yezidi-Kurds (20,000), Greeks (15,000), and Ukrainians (7,000).  Minorities reside compactly and disseminated. Places of the biggest compact settlement of minorities are the Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli and Kakheti regions, as well as the big cities.

This article will be dedicated to the analysis of the electoral behaviour of the ethnic minorities residing compactly, as far as they are less integrated into the mainstream society and more politicized being significant portion of the population of Georgia and points of interest for different political forces inside and outside Georgia.

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Georgia’s political culture and attitude towards its minorities formed since gaining of independence is largely characterized by a relatively high and lingering level of ethnic nationalism. The unresolved conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, recently reigniting into open conflict, have helped reinforce Georgian perceptions that minorities represent a potential threat. On the minority side, the perception of isolation and unfair treatment according to ethnic status (often irregular) is popular among regional minorities and breeds ethnic nationalism within their communities as a self-protection mechanism. The absence of frameworks which allow for minority participation in the legitimate political process to air their concerns and interests effectively pushes minorities into a corner, from which the only option appears to be dissent.

In the meantime, due to the historical trends in development of the ethnic minority, regions and communities, soviet aftermath, the turbulent years of Gamsakhurdia’s regime and stagnation of Shevarnadze’s era, along with years of economic hardship and dependence on the countries of historical origin with regard to educational and labour opportunities caused lack of the conceptualisation of state in perception of minorities. For them the state is its representatives at the local level in their isolated regions and communities. That is why even local authorities failing to fulfil their duties or inappropriate conduct of local government representative often creates a perception of being neglected or discriminated by the whole state of Georgia.

The feeling of sometimes being abandoned by the state results in particular from ethnic minorities’ under-involvement in public and political life. It is generally admitted, even in the absence of reliable figures, that the ethnic minorities are under-represented in administration, political institutions such as parliament and the government, and also local institutions, even in those regions where they are the majority community. The situation is of course closely linked to the language issue, low level of civil literacy and civil responsibility.

These circumstances are created by previous regimes and a marked lack of both political pluralism and civic education remains prevailing in the regions of the compact settlement of ethnic minorities. Significant improvements in this sphere occurred after year 2008, marked by the adoption of the National Concept on Tolerance and Civil Integration and corresponding National Action Plan, as well as activities of the all current administration and Central Electoral Commission prior to and during elections in 2008, 2010 and now, in 2012, particularly in regards to the distribution of election publications in minority languages and preparation of the electoral administration members representing ethnic minority communities, however the situation is far from resolved.

Minorities are at the same time highly politicised and apathetic. They vote, regularly meeting 100% (largely due to mechanical, clan and family voting) but their level of civil education is low and they have been more likely to be subjected to abuse of electoral processes than other demographic groups (evidenced from high numbers of complaints by domestic and international observer organisations in minority regions in 2008 and 2010).

This contradiction can be partly explained by their actual isolation from the political process, not just on the basis of language and the low attention of the different political parties to their needs and constraints. The Constitution of Georgia forbids that a political party be organised around an ethnic basis. This means that the significant minorities in Georgia cannot exercise their homogenous ethnic grievances in a formal political forum. As a result, the avenues of political influence or dissent are perceived to be limited to external support and internal protests.

Therefore rather than using voter turnout as an indicator of political participation we recommend turning attention to the reflection of minority needs in party programs, level of informing of voters and party lists. The low number of ethnic minority candidates reveals low levels of legal literacy and political culture but is also indicative of their general isolation from the political system. We consider that this not only derives from their isolation and from the power centers of Georgia but also vastly contributes to it.

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While as it was mentioned above residents of the regions with the compact settlement of ethnic minorities often do not distinguish between actions of local authorities and the state policies, the same is relevant to the ruling party. In this case perception is being formed among community members and often reinforced by the local representatives of the ruling party that all positive changes and benefits which are received by community in the social, economical and infrastructure sphere is tightened to the efforts of the ruling party and what is more of its concrete local representatives. There is still archaic clan system at place in the regions of the compact settlement of ethnic minorities. These clans as actors of local power and business gained there power in 90s and beginning of 2000s selling votes to anyone who was able to exchange it on money and power positions. That is why it is very hard to implement any policy oriented on ethnic minorities’ civil integration, promotion of their participation and enhancement of civil education. There are local groups at place who seek to keep their power. Th ruling party now is too busy with rapid reforms to get involved into the deconstruction of clans. Such a situation with balance of local power is convenient for the ruling party, because for the moment it does not support, but also does not prevent its reforming efforts. On the other hand opposition feels less confident in the given regions and does not want to invest resources, time and campaigning money in such deconstruction. Opposition also tries to use representatives of the clans during elections and pre-election periods to gain its relatively small portion of local votes.

All of what is mentioned above combined with the strong feeling of isolation, widely cultivated position of passive receivers of aid or benefits and second class citizens still widely spread among ethnic minority representatives in the areas of compact settlement creates a background on which all political forces are too busy to intervene and change the situation radically.

In general, political campaigning in Georgia is still a war of damaging information and mutual accusations. Political parties do not seek to convince voters with their programs and voters are not used to analyse political and economic platforms, following emotional messages of the party leaders. As far as the situation is more complicated in the areas of the compact settlement of minorities as described above, opposition parties often refuse to campaign in the minority regions at all, referring to the tougher conditions and electoral violations there. Oppositional parties for the moment do not demonstrate commitment to study and include real needs and concerns of ethnic minorities into their programs and to vigorously demand and promote deconstruction of the clan systems at the local level. This systematic work on deconstruction of clan system, change perceptions of minorities about state, political participation, elections and freedom of expression should become area of concern for both ruling party and opposition. Work on consulting minorities and including their perspective and representatives in the party work should be next step. All this will be cure for mechanical voting, apathy, electoral fraud, wrongful delegation of power, causing the appearance of the “numb” MPs who are in the parliament just to show that minorities are there and in the meantime are not able to work because they even do not know the state language and are never concerned about their own communities, but follow the position of the parties on which lists they luckily and randomly have appeared. Until this work gets done, the situation stays the same: team with the number 5 on their T-shirts will strike first. Even without moves. At all.

Agit Mirzoev
Executive Director
Analytical Center for Interethnic Cooperation and Consultations


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