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Georgia’s ethnic minorities left in the dark on NATO membership

By Shorena Labadze
Thursday, July 3
Ethnic minorities in Georgia are less likely to know about and support the country’s NATO membership bid than other Georgian citizens, a local organization which works with minorities said yesterday.

The group, Public Movement ‘Multinational Georgia,’ is launching a campaign in ethnic minority-populated regions to educate residents about the Western military alliance which, its leadership pledged this spring, Georgia will one day join.

“We do not want to see two separate political directions emerging in regards to NATO membership, with popular feeling among minorities and the [state] center becoming alienated from each other,” said Sian Davies, a volunteer for the youth union of Multinational Georgia.

NATO integration has been a foreign policy ambition for two successive Georgian governments, but in poorly-integrated ethnic minority areas, citizens remain skeptical and uncertain of how they will fare with Georgia as a member state.

The NGO ran focus groups last week in Samtskhe-Javakheti province’s Akhalkalaki district, which is overwhelmingly ethnic Armenian.

“Although everyone involved had heard of NATO, most knew only about its military activities, associated it with the coalition war in Iraq and were unaware of specific benefits NATO membership could bring for the Georgian armed forces,” said Davies.

NGO secretary general Ilona Kochoi said that in Akhalkalaki schools, teachers aren’t informed enough to answer questions about NATO, “even though the children are often curious.”

Residents of poverty-mired Akhalkalaki fear Georgian foreign policy could ultimately cost them work. In a sense, it already has.

A Russian military base was once a major employer and economic motor for the district. It closed last year, leaving the area bereft of jobs and increasingly dependent on remittances from relatives working abroad, particularly in Russia.

Interviewees were worried that NATO membership could make it more difficult for them to travel to Russia for work, or could weaken state ties with Armenia. Some also fear NATO integration would bring Turkish soldiers and military bases to their region, dredging up old memories of Turkish persecution.

Georgian military analyst Koba Liklikadze said ethnic minorities in Georgia see NATO as a “hostile organization.”

“They must understand that NATO guarantees not only military safety but also defends their interests,” he said.

NATO information centers in Georgia, which are tasked with promoting the alliance domestically, say they are making efforts to reach ethnic minority residents.

“We are aware about this problem and it really exists, especially in the areas populated with ethnic minorities. From time to time, we take NATO representatives and military experts there, hold seminars, distribute booklets and other printed materials among the residents,” a representative of a NATO information center in Tbilisi said.

The Saakashvili administration has made the bid to join NATO a centerpiece in its foreign policy platform, saying membership in the alliance will provide security against Russia and further integrate Georgia into the West.

In the January presidential election this year, Georgians voted on a plebiscite asking whether Tbilisi should continue pursuing NATO membership.

63 percent of voters in Akhalkalaki voted for NATO membership, according to the Central Election Commission, well below the national average of 77 percent.

Public Movement ‘Multinational Georgia’ is also planning to talk about NATO integration with ethnic Azeri residents in Kvemo Kartli.