Edited By Peter Rosenberg, Konstanze Jungbluth and Dagna Zinkhahn Rhobodes
Language and Ethnic Boundaries in Multiethnic Georgia
Abstract: Der Artikel untersucht die Frage der ethnischen Grenzen im multiethnischen Georgien. Ethnische Grenzen werden hier nicht als territoriale Grenzen verstanden, sondern als subjektiv konzipierte und wahrnehmbare Distanz, welche im Rahmen interethnischer Beziehungen untersucht wird. Sprache als Marker ethnischer Differenz spielt häufig eine wichtige Rolle in Grenzziehungsprozessen. Im Rahmen der georgischen Lebenswirklichkeiten argumentieren wir dafür, Sprache auf zweierlei Arten zu verstehen: einmal als ein Mittel in ethnischen Grenzziehungen und andererseits als ein Medium zwischen diesen Grenzen, welches die Differenzen zwischen ethnischen Gruppen überbrücken kann. Wir zeigen, wie Sprache als Marker ethnischer Differenz für den Erhalt ethnischer Grenzen eingesetzt werden kann.
Schlagworte: Sprache als Marker ethnischer Differenz, multiethnische Gesellschaft, ethnische Grenze
Key words: language, multiethnic society, ethnic boundary, boundary maintenance, ethnic marker issue
Georgia is famous for its multiethnic and multicultural composition. Since ancient times, representatives of various nationalities settled in the country. Azeri, Armenians, Greeks, Germans, Jews, Kurds, Ossetians, Russians, etc., lived in this area for centuries, mostly in densely populated enclaves, and sometimes in mixed settlements. In different historical times, the ethnic composition of Georgia changed permanently due to inflows and outflows of various ethnic groups. However, the non-Georgian population (nowadays regarded as ethnic minorities), residing in the area, preserved their ethnic identities, their group’s names and self-awareness, their native languages (in many cases), traditional cultures, religions, etc. Through the centuries, the Georgian people have worked out a strategy of peaceful coexistence with different ethnic groups, which implied development of interethnic contacts and interdependence, on the one hand, and maintenance of ethnic boundaries on the other.
“Their manners and customs are a mixture of those of the most of the nations that surround them. This I believe proceeds from the commerce they carry on with many different countries and from the liberty everyone enjoys in Georgia, of living according to his own religion and customs and of freely defending them. Here you see Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Persians, Indians, Tartars and Moscovites...” (Chardin 1815, p. 375).
This short passage outlines multiethnic Georgian society with its existing ethnic boundaries, which, in the words of Barth, “persist despite a flow of personnel across them” (Barth 1969, p. 10).
In this article, we focus on the problem of ethnic boundaries in multiethnic Georgia and the role of language in ethnic boundary-making; regarding the situation in Georgia, we demonstrate how language, as one of the markers of ethnic distinction, could act as a means of maintaining ethnic boundaries.
The issue of ethnic boundaries is a relevant and current problem in multiethnic societies. Ethnic boundaries are generally perceived not as a territorial border, but as a subjectively conceived and perceptible distance, which is considered in the context of interethnic relations. It is a mental product determined by an ethnic group. It serves as a special methodological category in the study of ethnicity and ethnic identity. As noted by Barth, boundaries maintain and generate ethnic diversity within larger, encompassing social systems (Barth 1969, p. 18). According to his assumption, “categorical ethnic distinctions do not depend on an absence of mobility, contact and information, and stable, persisting, and often vitally important social relations are maintained across such boundaries “ (op. cit, p. 10). Ethnic boundaries imply cultural and social distance. Cultural distance grows in accordance with social distance. Boundaries may change depending on political and economic conditions, various spheres of social interaction and relationships (Tishkov 1997, pp. 35–38). Markers, the most significant features of a group, operate as boundary-forming and boundary-maintenance concepts. However, not only specific cultural symbols can appear as markers, but also political orientations and values. Language as a marker of ethnic distinction often plays an important role in the process of boundary maintenance.
The problem of communication always occurs in multiethnic regions. It becomes especially problematic in those areas where virtual ethnic boundaries are reinforced by physical isolation of one ethnic group from another. Such situations promote the stability of cultural markers of ethnic identity. For example, in Georgia’s southern regions (Kvemo Kartli, Javakheti), ethnic minorities live mainly in compact isolated settlements, preserving their cultural identity and, even more significantly, their native language. Here, language acts as a representation of ethnic identity and ethnic self-awareness.
Generally, language as a social phenomenon could stipulate life without conflicts and peaceful cohabitation of the society. However, it has not always been so in Geor ← 84 | 85 → gia, especially during the post-Soviet period, when the language problem in relation to the issue of ethnic boundaries became especially acute.
During the Soviet period, communication between people from different cultural backgrounds generally took place in the Russian language. Russian was the lingua franca among the peoples of the Soviet Union, and that very status was supported by the educational system at that time. “Accordingly, during the Soviet period in Georgia in the areas populated by minorities, the Russian language was also used as a lingua franca.“ (Melikishvili 2011, pp. 201–203). In the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, knowledge of the Georgian language was not a priority for the national minorities, as Russian served as the unifying tongue in majority-minority relations. “General primary and secondary education was available in minority languages, and while higher education was available in Georgian, which was also the official state language in the republic at that time, numerous Russian-language sectors functioned at all higher education institutions of the Georgian SSR” (Mekhuzla/Roche 2009, pp. 5–6).
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia declared independence in 1991 and in 1995 Georgian as a state language (since 1995 by the Constitution of Georgia Abkhazian is a State language of Abkhazia besides Georgian). Restructuring the system on national rails caused serious problems vis-à-vis intercultural communication. By that time, a very small number of the non-Georgian population (residing mainly in compact settlements in the border regions) could speak Georgian; hence, Georgian was unable to function as a common language. Declaration of Georgian as an official language implied its mandatory knowledge primarily by those persons whose work was connected with governmental organizations, various official institutions and medical, educational or other services. Prior to that time, the knowledge of Russian gave additional opportunities for social success to representatives of non-dominant nations, but in post-Soviet times, a lack of command of the Georgian language hampered one’s career.
Ethnic minorities who lived isolated in compact settlements in border regions (generally Azeris, Armenians and Greeks) regarded speaking Georgian as coercion. They began to fear being discriminated based upon their ethnic languages, and generally feared oppression and assimilation by Georgians. The language barrier developed into a problem, which was related to the hardships of post-Soviet crisis regarding unemployment, lack of social inclusion, problems of education, etc. This caused common desinterest and frustration among the minorities, and triggered their desire to migrate. The situation resulted in social tensions among them. The Georgian reality has demonstrated that during national revival, a language can obtain the significance of a fundamental ethnic value, and become a means of manipulation of not only cultural, but also political interests. Ethnic clashes occurred here and there, and thou ← 85 | 86 → sands of non-Georgians emigrated from Georgia. According to statistical data, nearly half of the ethnic minority population migrated from Georgia in the 1990s. (From urban settlements, the flow of immigrants was directed mainly toward Western Europe and the United States, from the rural settlements mostly to the Russian Federation (Danelia et.al. 2011, p. 8). For example, from Kvemo Kartli region, Azeris migrated mostly to Azerbaijan, Armenians to Armenia and Greeks to Greece, migration flows were directed to other countries, but mainly to Russia (Jalabadze 2011, p. 178).
Those who remained became detached within their communicative space, within their ethnic boundaries; they were separated from the public life of the country, were less involved, and to a certain extent were excluded from the political and social life of the state. In the decades leading up to the “Rose Revolution”, the issue caused marginalization of ethnic minorities – they became isolated, relationships between the groups grew tense, and participation in public service were restricted.
As argued by Wheatley, given the weak infrastructural power of the state in the early years of independence (the period of Shevardnadze), it was not possible to promote knowledge of Georgian amongst members of national minorities. Hence, in compact isolated settlements of minorities, knowledge of Georgian remained very poor. As Russian began to lose its role as the language of inter-ethnic communication, the language barrier became increasingly worse between Georgian and minority groups, especially amongst young people. The youth could no longer speak Russian fluently enough to communicate, and programs to teach Georgian to ethnic minorities were half-hearted, mainly due to the state’s incapacity to implement its educational policy (Wheatley 2009, p. 14).
After Georgia’s Independence, especially since the “Rose Revolution”, Russian schools were gradually abolished and transformed into Georgian ones. Very few of them still function in Tbilisi and the State’s multiethnic regions. The Russian language teaching hours in secondary schools have been consistently decreasing, and are now minimized (http://saqinform.ge). Russian language media – TV channels and press based in Georgia have been actually decreased to minimum (Akerlund 2012).
For a long period, no program of the universal teaching of Georgian as a lingua franca was instituted. Therefore, until today, the majority of non-Georgians in multiethnic regions are unable to speak Georgian, which prevents successful cross-cultural communication between the Georgian and non-Georgian groups. Those of the elder generations do understand each other because they still use Russian for communication, but children of the younger generation are more alienated.
Due to the lack of command of the Georgian language, compactly settled ethnic minorities are in an informational vacuum. They cannot read the Georgian press and do not watch Georgian TV channels, they are unable to apply to the court or ← 86 | 87 → the police independently, and very rarely do they continue their studies in advanced Georgian schools, etc. Therefore, they do not understand current or national events. All of the above factors naturally lead to their increasing isolation. The population of mainly isolated monoethnic settlements are oriented towards the neighboring countries – Armenians to Armenia and Azeris to Azerbaijan. One obvious symbol of this outward orientation that immediately catches the eye of a visitor is the mounting of satellite dishes on houses, installed aiming directly toward the neighboring states. Apart from the fact that the ethnic minorities watch foreign TV channels (Azeri, Armenian, Turkish), they identify themselves with a neighboring country, which is linked with the perception of an ethnic, rather than a political border. Irredentist aspirations orient Azeri towards Azerbaijan, Armenians towards Armenia; they link their identity with another state rather than with Georgia. This orientation is not at all desirable for Georgia, and may lead to problems in future.
Under the conditions of independent Georgia following the “Rose Revolution” (2003), the situation has changed and the new strategy of universal teaching of the Georgian language in multiethnic regions has been emphasized. Soon after the revolution, the ministry of education and science of Georgia, in cooperation with international and local experts, issued a special document aiming to create a solid political and legislative basis for the implementation of special programs of Georgian language teaching to the minorities living in multi-ethnic regions. Recently, the State has focused on the problem of harmonization of the education system in order to facilitate verbal communication between different groups (Melikishvili et al. 2011, p. 444).
However, though some progress has been made regarding intercultural communication, the lack of Georgian speaking skills among the population remains a core problem. Among the region’s non-Georgian population, mainly minorities living in the capital and multiethnic settlements speak Georgian fluently, while knowledge of the official language is generally very poor in isolated mono-ethnic areas. Fieldwork revealed different situations in different regions regarding Georgian language skills. In the villages inhabited by the representatives of a single non-dominant ethnic group, the knowledge of Georgian is very poor, and in some cases there is no command of the language at all. However, men display better Georgian competence in comparison with women (Jalabadze 2011, p. 205). This applies to all minority groups – Azeris, Armenians, Greeks and others. The situation regarding Georgian language skills is slightly better among women working in regional centres and in the capital, mainly at the markets; this is primarily due to their everyday interactions with Georgians. Generally, they manage to communicate, though their vocabulary is very limited.
In some mono-ethnic settlements, there are Armenian or Azerbaijani schools. In Azerbaijanian and Armenian schools, the Georgian language is also taught. However, ← 87 | 88 → some places do not have a Georgian language teacher, and if they do, these teachers are often less qualified local staff (Field materials, Kvemo Kartli, 2009).
The language barrier in mono-ethnic settlements in Georgia exists not only because of the lack of Georgian language skills, but because minority groups do not know each other’s languages; that is to say, Azeris don’t understand Armenians and vice versa, Armenian – Greek, etc. However, in contrast to the isolated compact settlements, the situation is variable in ethnically mixed areas. In the latter, the population understands one another’s language and manages to communicate with one another, especially the younger generation, whose contacts are more intensive. For example, there are two villages of Bolnisi in the Bolnisi municipality (Kvemo Kartli region, southern Georgia) located side by side. One is populated by Azeris, and the other by Armenians. According to the information of the locals, the young generation of both villages can speak (though not actively) each other’s languages because they have contact in the fields of sports and entertainment. But such situations are comparatively rare.
Aside from the above, it is worth mentioning that the ethnic barriers in the aforementioned societies are strictly limited. It is apparent that, among other reasons, such limits prevent minority groups from integrating into society, which is one of the fundamental prerequisites for the establishment of a civil society. Despite this, from the interviews with our informants it becomes obvious that the Georgian population desires integration of ethnic minorities into the social and political life of the state, and encourages them to study Georgian. According to one of our Georgian respondents: “Azeri and Armenian should learn Georgian because they live here, and they should know the language of the state of which they are citizens. Otherwise, how could they live here?” (Field Materials, Tsalka, 2008) The Georgian population expresses discontent that ethnic minorities do not speak the official language and have no idea about current issues in the country. The following Georgian respondent remarks about their Azeri neighbors:
“They live in Georgia with the life of Azerbaijan. In our village, all Georgians could speak Azeri language but none of the Azeri knows our language. They do not understand the Georgian language and cannot respond. If we learned their language, why don’t they do the same? We think that ethnic minorities consider speaking Georgian as something imposed upon them” (Field materials, Dmanisi, 2009).
The fear among ethnic minorities of the violation of “their boundaries” through the imposition of the Georgian language has gradually declined. In the most recent period, ethnic minorities have realized that the lack of knowledge of the state language deprives their children of social and political well-being. Hence, they are more motivated to study Georgian. A young man from an Azeri village remarks: ← 88 | 89 →
“If our people want their children to have a successful future and do not run away from here, they should teach them Georgian. They need to put all the effort in that! Generally, Azeris here have very poor Georgian language skills, because they do not have contact with Georgians. Practice is needed! Only 3 % of the Azeri population could understand Georgian. Therefore, they are mainly engaged in agriculture. If they had a command of Georgian, then why would they go to another country? It makes sense to stay here when you know the State language. Then, we also could find a job as the Georgians do. Georgians work here and we run away either to Baku or to Russia. We have good income there, but we are far from our home. It is better to have 5 Rubles here than 20 in abroad. There you see a little boy– he does not know Georgian, therefore he is unable to get higher education here; he has to go to Azerbaijan. 2000 dollars are needed for his preparation for the exams, and then the exams…?! Those who study in Azerbaijan, will never come back to stay here. Hence, our villages, houses are deserted.
The Georgian Language is taught at non-Georgian schools here, but 5 hours a week is not enough. Everywhere in Europe, in America, everywhere one has to know the language of the country where one lives. Now, all Azeri in Bolnisi, all of us – the young and the adults want to learn the language of the country where we live” (Field materials, Kvemo Kartli, 2010).
Proceeding from the above, teaching the state language to the non-Georgian speaking population is the most important objective for the country’s development.
Ethnic boundaries that imply cultural and social distance sometimes do not coincide with political borders of a country; sometimes, ethnic groups with unified identity exist on either sides of a border between two states. This situation is typical for the post-Soviet countries, and especially for Georgia, where the peripheral territories are populated by non-dominant ethnic groups; due to historical conditions, most of these groups have similar ethnic identities to the neighboring states, though they did not come to Georgia from these countries. For example, Armenians of Javakheti resettled not from neighboring Armenia, but from Turkey, while the majority of Azeris migrated from Persia and not from Azerbaijan. The ethnic boundary in the perception of these groups does not coincide with the political one. In this case, the factor of common language and similar culture has played a significant role in triggering irredentist aspirations among these groups. However, such a situation becomes dangerous for the security of a state, especially when ethnic tension occurs.
The self-awereness of the Armenians – residing in Javakheti (South Georgia) near the Georgian-Armenian border – towards this problem is unique. They consider their motherland the region in Georgia, where Armenians live – all Armenian villages, including the regional centre Akhalkalaki. According to their opinion, this area belongs to Armenia. Although they apparently know that they live in Georgia and seem to acknowledge geographic borders, the perception of the motherland ← 89 | 90 → in their mentality is still entirely different. In interviews they state that the area of their homes is not Georgia, but Armenia. They used to say:
“You see, this is like that in your country – Georgia, but here in Armenia – it is like this.” For them, “Your country, Georgia” is the area where Georgians dwell – the territory beyond Akhalkalaki, or sometimes beyond Akhaltsikhe (also with a solid number of Armenians) – while “here in Armenia” is associated with the ethnic boundary and the territory populated by Armenians. This is correspondingly perceived to be the land of Armenia.
The attitude of the Armenian population towards this issue became clear during an interesting meeting with an Armenian woman. When visiting one of the Armenia villages, she almost blocked our way and insisted that we should visit her family – there was no option. We agreed, and she welcomed us with great hospitality. In the end, she finally explained the motives of her behavior. The woman told us:
“I was born and brought up in Georgia, Batumi and then I got married in Armenia. When I saw you, I guessed you were Georgians and I was so happy! My heart fluttered and I decided to invite you to my place by all means.”
When we asked her where exactly she was married in Armenia, her answer was– “here in this village”. We were confused and tried to find out whether she really considered the village to be in Armenia. The woman naively confirmed it without any pretext. The same disposition was present among almost all of our informants.
Myths and tales about the historical location of Armenia are purposefully communicated to the population. In some Armenian families, one will find books describing the origin of Armenia, its lands and owners. The idea of the motherland in the mentality of Armenians is enhanced by covert, and later (after Perestroika) overt anti-Georgian political processes in the region, including but not limited to the promotion of the idea of seceding from Georgia, establishing the region as an independent political unit through a referendum, and later becoming a part of Armenia. The terrorist act against the checkpoint at the Armenian-Georgian border was one outcome of this process. The checkpoint was exploded first in 1990 and then in 1991 due to the assumption that customs controls should not exist in that area at all.
The perception of Javakheti as “the motherland of Armenians” is linked with the fact that many Armenians from the region went to protect “their own land” during the Karabach armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.1 Those who returned proudly established themselves as patriots fighting for their homeland, and were pro ← 90 | 91 → moted to the best positions by local authorities. It is also interesting that many citizens of Armenia who are closely connected with Akhaltsikhe- Akhalkalaki or villages of Javakheti (blood relations, education, and trade) have the same perception – they simply claim that the territory belongs to Armenia.
The aforementioned facts promote the perception of Javakheti as the homeland of Armenians. In the mentality of Armenians living in Javakheti, the conception of the homeland consists of two grades. First, their homeland is the micro-territory where they reside (specifically Javakheti); and secondly, it is Armenia with its currently existing borders.
Despite the fact that attempts are made to promote the idea of “Great Armenia” via the distribution of false maps, an ordinary Armenian farmer still cannot comprehend it. For a local Armenian farmer, the border of his homeland reaches neither Tbilisi, nor Kutaisi, nor the historical region in modern Turkey (though many of them know that they were displaced from Turkey). In the Armenians’ mentality, the homeland is the territory where they act – more precisely, where they are entitled to act. The area of intensive activities for the Armenian population in Javakheti has always been, and remains the former Soviet Union (mostly Russia). However, the Armenians have never identified Russia as their homeland. The homeland for them is the place where they were born and where they act; the homeland is the territory settled by Armenians, where they speak Armenian, and it does not matter at all where the politically or historically delineated border lies. The ethnic boundary in their perception is their homeland, which for them is the same as Armenia, and where they speak the same language. In their perception, they thus identify themselves with the population of a different country.
The language as one of the markers of identity could be regarded as the most effective and influential factors in similar situations. However, if on the one hand language as we have shown above acts as a primary marker for ethnic boundary formation, on the other hand it does not operate as a marker of ethnic distinction. This can be observed in case of the Greek population in the Tsalka district (Kvemo Kartli region). Part of the Greek population in Georgia speaks Pontic Greek, and the other part Turkic, an Anatolian dialect of Turkish. The Turkic-speaking group (Urums) would never associate themselves with Turks, despite the similarity of their spoken languages. Both of these groups have Greek ethnic identity; the difference between their languages does not affect their ethnic affiliation. However, the position of out-groups is different. Some Georgians, for example, call them Tatars as their speech is Turkic. Apparently, the outgroup associates language with ethnicity – “if they speak Turkish, they are Turks”. ← 91 | 92 →
A similar situation can be observed with the Ajarians, who are Muslim Georgians who speak Georgian. Because of ecological catastrophes in Achara, the affected population migrated to Kvemo Kartli. Hence, they became part of the multiethnic society in the region. Due to their religious orientation, Ajarians are also regarded as Tatars by out-groups; language in this case does not matter at all. In the mental representation of the majority of Georgians, religious affiliation is closely linked to ethnic identity. The Christian faith was equated with Georgian, and Muslim with Tatar (or ethnic groups of Turkic identity). Often, Christian was used as a synonym to Georgian, and if someone was Muslim he was considered to be Tatar. In this society, where such representations are still vital, the notion of Muslim Georgian is difficult to accept. For that reason, Greeks in the Tsalka region do not recognize Adjarians as Georgians; they use to say: “They simply speak Georgian! They only know Georgian, but they are not Georgians” (Field Materials, Tsalka, 2008).
A similar opinion can be heard in an interview with a Greek woman from an ethnically mixed village in South Georgia:
“I tell Ajarians, I respect you because you speak Georgian, but why did you change your faith and convert to Islam? If you are Georgians, you should have nothing to do with Turkey – I said. And do you know, what they answered? If Turkey attacks us, they will kill you, and not us! Hum, they are real bastards! Then why do they live in our Georgia? Go and live in Turkey then!“ (Field materials, Tsalka, 2008).
Concerning the role of language in ethnic boundary maintenance, the situation among Georgian Jews is different. Jews have had a presence in Georgia as far back as the 6th century BC. For Georgian Jews, Georgia became their motherland and the Georgian language their native language. They even developed a Judeo-Georgian dialect – Qivruli, which includes a number of Hebrew words. Georgian is the family language for the Georgian Jews living in Azerbaijan today. It remains the same among emigrated Georgian Jews in Israel even up to now (Moskovich/Ben-Oren 1982, pp. 19–24, Bekker 2014). Obviously, this fact is a perfect example of integration. However, sharing language had no impact upon their boundary-making process. Among the factors that had crucial importance in preserving Jewish identity in Georgia is primarily their religion and traditions.
Another group with Georgian ethnic identity is the Tsova-Tushs, who – aside from Georgian – speak Tsova-Tush or the Batsbi language, which belongs to the so-called Nakh subfamily of the Northeast Caucasian stock, and exists only as a spoken language. Batsbi people use Georgian as their written language. Despite the historical narrative that ascribes the appearance of this group to the Veinakh tribes, part of which were resettled by King Saurmag in the 3rd cent. BC. in Georgia’s Eastern ← 92 | 93 → mountainous region, their ethnic identity is Georgian. Their choice of belonging to Georgia is not based on their spoken language.
The role of language in boundary-forming and boundary maintenance processes can be viewed in two ways: first, as a means of construction of ethnic boundaries, and second, as a medium between these boundaries that bridges the gaps between ethnic groups.
The above examples of the Georgian situation demonstrate these different roles of language in multiethnic societies. In its first function, language either operates as the primary marker of ethnic identity maintenance, such as in the case of Armenian and Azerbaijani groups, or it is absolutely irrelevant in this process, as in the cases of the Jews, Greeks and Batsbi. As a medium between ethnic boundaries, language acquires additional traits of one of the main actors in the processes of integration.
Today, integration of minorities into Georgian society is one of the core problems of the nation’s policy. It strives toward effective intercultural communication, which is achieved via verbal contact between the groups. Lack of Georgian language skills, which had previously caused disruption of communication between the groups, is gradually being reduced. Instrumental motivation for the study of the state language is observed among all ethnic groups in isolated compact settlements. This situation will promote movement of different groups across ethnic boundaries, and promote peaceful coexistence of various ethnic groups with their different cultures and religious faiths.
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Field material, Tsalka, 2008. ← 94 | 95 →
1 The conflict took place in the late 1980s to May 1994, in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in southwestern Azerbaijan. At present Armenians fully control most of the enclave and approximately 9 % of Azerbaijan‘s territory outside the enclave.