Author: Vladimir TSKHVEDIANI, political scientist, Tbilisi
One of the presidential candidates has recently made a scandalous and deliberately xenophobic statement in the run-up to the presidential elections in Georgia next week. In early October, during her meeting with Armenian voters living in the town of Ninotsminda (Samtskhe-Javakheti, Georgia), a presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili said: "Previously, only the president had the power to grant Georgian citizenship. One such president (Mikhail Saakashvili, Author) granted citizenship to many Turks but you."
I could surely have ignored this seemingly incorrect statement of a presidential candidate by acknowledging her trivial desire to please the Armenian voters, if Zurabishvili would not insisted tenaciously on opposing the Armenians to the Turks again. "There was a time when the president, I don’t even want to mention his name, granted citizenship to some Turks who used to visit Batumi but had had no connection with Georgia ever," Salome Zurabishvili said at the meeting with the Armenian population of Akhaltsikhe.
However, she "forgot" to clarify that the majority of the "Turks" with Georgian passports are in fact ethnic Georgians of Turkish nationality, while the Armenians, who were denied citizenship, abandoned Georgian citizenship en masse in the past in favour of getting Armenian or Russian citizenship.
Georgian public organisations, the opposition and a number of Georgian experts called Zurabishvili's statements provocative and xenophobic. Fifteen NGOs issued a special statement about unacceptability of such statements as they contribute to incitement of hostility and ethnic confrontation.
"The statement (of a presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili) also bears attributes of illegal campaigning. According to the Electoral Code, candidates have the right to present a program of future activities, which shall not promote war and violence. Nor shall it contain calls for a violent change or overthrow of the existing state and social order, provoke national hatred and hostility, religious and ethnic confrontation," representatives of Georgian NGOs said.
Carte blanche for separatists?
Apparently, Salome Zurabishvili forgot that Armenian separatists still recognise the Georgian lands, where their ancestors settled only in 1830 after expelling the indigenous Muslims population of the region, as "native Armenian Javakhk". It turns out that Zurabishvili's statement is nothing but aiding and abetting the separatists trying to disintegrate the Georgian state.
Not long before the collapse of the USSR, only a single vote prevented Armenian separatists from launching a large-scale aggression against Georgia as they did against Azerbaijan – a single vote enabled the Dashnak terrorists to initiate the Artsakh (Armenian name of the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan) campaign instead of the Javakhk one.
The recent events show that the Armenian nationalists still cherish the idea of disintegrating Georgia and seizing the native Georgian territories of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Just a year ago, not far from the place where Salome Zurabishvili made her infamous statement about the distribution of Georgian passports to Armenians, Armenian extremists attempted to seize a Georgian shrine, the Kumurdo Temple. The attackers stoned the Georgian police. If all Armenians, as promised by Zurabishvili, are distributed Georgian passports without due review and process, it will not take long until separatists, this time naturalised, start shooting at the Georgian military and security forces; especially those who had gained such experience in Abkhazia.
Incidentally, Armenian extremists have played an instrumental role in prompting separatist sentiments in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali. After initiating the separatist movement in Azerbaijani Karabakh, they needed more precedents for redrawing borders and ethnic cleansing in other regions of the Caucasus. Armenian militants from the Baghramian battalion and other formations played a key role in the genocide and expulsion of Georgian population from Abkhazia in 1992-1993. As a member of the UN General Assembly, Armenia regularly votes against the return of Georgian refugees to their homes, many of which in Sukhumi and Gagra are illegally occupied by ethnic Armenians. The Armenian authorities and lobby regularly exert pressure on Tbilisi demanding a transit through the occupied territories of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, which in fact implies forcing Georgia to renounce its native lands.
Furthermore, Armenian nationalists backed by separatist authorities of the Gali district of Abkhazia have recently managed to deprive ethnic Georgians of basic human rights - to have passports of the territory where they live. Besides, they demand Georgian passports for all the Armenians indiscriminately!
It is extremely dangerous that Salome Zurabishvili promises a distribution of Georgian passports to Armenians denying the citizenship of ethnic Georgians living in Turkey, Russia and other countries. Although the official statistical data shows that most of the Georgian passports were issued to citizens of Russia and Turkey, it does not mean that these naturalised individuals are ethnic Russians or Turks. In fact, most of them are ethnic Georgians including Muslim Georgians living in Turkey, and Georgians living for several generations in Russia.
It is clear that Armenian nationalists do not want the increase of Georgian population in Georgia. They do not hide their claims on Georgian lands meaning not only Samtskhe-Javakheti but also Tbilisi included in their maps as part of the "Great Armenia". But why does a politician, a Georgian presidential candidate present such aggressive plans?
To the detriment of the Georgian economy and good-neighbourly relations?
It is remarkable that the presidential candidate, and possibly the future president of Georgia, who is backed by the ruling Georgian Dream Party, has made her xenophobic statement in the region, which is of strategic importance for the country and international transit projects implemented with its participation. Beneficial relations of Georgia with its closest neighbours, Turkey and Azerbaijan, are strongly connected with these international projects.
Despite the fact that these transit projects created new jobs in Samtskhe-Javakheti primarily for the Armenian population of the region, Armenian separatists are extremely unfriendly to these projects. They openly admit that they can counteract transit projects vital for the economy of Georgia. "When we were fighting for victory in the local government elections, one of our slogans was No green light for the Akhalkalaki-Kars railway. We must remember this and go further. We need to think about what can be done now," one of the leaders of Armenian separatists, Vahagn Chakhalian, said immediately after the opening ceremony of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway in autumn 2017.
Alas, the separatists have already started acting. This time they are "fooling" presidential candidates forcing them to make irresponsible statements against the national interests of Georgia.
In this context, the concern that Zurabishvili’s Turkophobic statement has caused in Turkey and Azerbaijan is quite natural. Baku and Ankara unconditionally support the territorial integrity of Georgia and call for immediate de-occupation of Georgian lands and the return of Georgian refugees to their homes. On the other hand, cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan is vital for the Georgian economy.
According to the National Statistics Service of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey are the top two countries based on the volume of foreign direct investment in Georgian economy. As of early 2018, Azerbaijan and Turkey provide almost $0.5 billion and $0.3 billion of the $1.8b-worth direct foreign investment portfolio of Georgia, respectively.
In foreign trade, the main partner of Georgia is Turkey. In 2017, the trade turnover between the both countries reached $1.58 billion. Trade volume with Azerbaijan over the same period reached $0.9 billion.
In fact, Azerbaijan is the actual guarantor of Georgia’s energy security. If we add to this 10 thousand Georgian citizens, who earn their living on the tea plantations of Turkey, the scandalous statement of Madame Zurabishvili poses a serious threat to Tbilisi.
EDITORIAL NOTE: It is possible that, as a former official of the French Foreign Ministry, Salome Zurabishvili makes Turkophobic statements under the influence of the Armenian lobby, which traditionally has strong positions in France. Either way, playing the national card as a favourite of the presidential campaign should be a serious signal for Georgian authorities, who support Salome Zurabishvili’s candidacy.