The status of minority languages in Georgia and the relevance of models from other European States

Type Book
Title The status of minority languages in Georgia and the relevance of models from other European States
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2006
Publisher HeinOnline
The issue of language is a highly sensitive one in Georgia. The nineteenth century Georgian writer
Ilya Chavchavadze (1837-1907) expressed his conception of Georgian national identity by the
slogan Mamuli, Ena, Sartsmunoeba (Fatherland, Language, Faith), which gives clear priority to
language, the secular component of nationhood, over religion. This ideological framework was
further reinforced during the Soviet period when ethnicity was institutionalised and formed the
basis for the administrative-territorial division of the USSR. As the USSR became consolidated and
the boundaries of its constituent republics and territories became more or less fixed, native language
(rodnoi iazyk) often served as the main indicator both for the definition of the ethnicity of the
individual and for the identification of nationalities (natsional’nosti and narodnosti) with rights
over particular territories.1
Although this “institutionalisation of ethnicity” could not be discussed in
public, its occurrence meant that ethnic identity was unwittingly reinforced by the Soviet system
and language was often the principal component of this identity.
From the perestroika period of the late 1980s, nationalist discourse came to dominate political life
in Georgia. This discourse was championed by Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia,
whose rhetoric frequently characterised non-Georgians as (often ungrateful) guests. During the
early 1990s as secessionist wars engulfed South Ossetia and Abkhazia, resulting in the de facto loss
of these territories to the Georgian state, Georgian nationalist discourse sought to justify the
inalienable right of the Georgian people and the Georgian language to all of Georgia’s territory by
arguing that only Georgians were truly indigenous to this territory.2
This argument was backed up
by (often spurious) evidence that the Georgian language had been spoken in all parts of the country
from time immemorial. Although the most virulent form of this discourse reached its apogee in the
immediate aftermath of the collapse of the USSR and then began to decline, the Georgian language
remained a potent symbol of national consciousness. Even today as the new government under
Mikheil Saakashvili ostensibly seeks to promote a civic rather than an ethnic identity, arguments
over which groups were indigenous to Georgia still clouds the debate over the language issue. Thus,
leading government officials and parliamentarians frequently argue that while Abkhazian may be
recognized as a second state language on the territory of Abhkazia because it is an autochthonous language and is not used in any other “kin state”, Armenian, Azeri and Ossetian, fulfilling neither of
these criteria, cannot be given such status.3
According to the 2002 population census, ethnic Georgians make up 83.8% of the population of
Georgia, Azeris make up 6.5%, and Armenians 5.7%. Large concentrations of Azeris and
Armenians are located near the borders of their kin states in the southern provinces of Kvemo Kartli
and Samtskhe-Javakheti respectively. This has led to fears by the Georgian government that to
devolve power to regions where these minorities are compactly settled risks fuelling secessionism
and eventual unification of these regions with their kin states. These fears must be understood in the
context of the violent conflicts that occurred in the early 1990s and that resulted in the de facto
secession of the former autonomous territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
It is the task of this working paper to provide a feasibility study on the possibility of granting
languages other than Georgian and Abkhazian some kind of administrative status within the
Georgian legal framework. Already the Constitution of Georgia (Article 8) stipulates that “[t]he
state language of Georgia shall be Georgian, and in Abkhazia – also Abkhazian”, thus providing
official recognition to Abkhazian as well as Georgian. Moreover, in its Initiative with Respect to the
Peaceful Resolution of the Conflict in South Ossetia of March 2005, the Georgian government
proposed that the Ossetian language be granted official status alongside Georgian on the territory of
South Ossetia.4
The key question this paper seeks to address is whether other languages spoken on
the territory of Georgia, most notably Armenian and Azeri, could also be recognized in some way
or other, albeit without being granted full status as official state languages. This question is a
particularly pertinent one in the light of Georgia’s recent ratification of the Council of Europe’s
Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (on 22 December 2005) and the
ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority languages, which is planned to take
place in 2006.5

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