By SADDAM ALIYEV and EDITA BADASYAN*
Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)
Armenian and Azerbaijani voters are finally being wooed by politicians.
On the eve of Georgia´s October 8 parliamentary elections, political parties have been courting the rural minority vote more than ever before.
Although ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Georgia have traditionally cast their votes for the ruling party of the day, experts say this is likely to be different this time.
According to the 2014 census, 233,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis and 168,100 Armenians live in Georgia, around 14 per cent of the total population. Most live in the Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli and Kakheti regions in the south and east of the country.
While Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Tbilisi and other large cities tend to be fairly well integrated, this is not the case with the minorities in the countryside.
“Before… the majority voted for the party in power,” said Giorgi Sordia, director of the Tbilisi-based NGO Centre for Research of Ethnicity and Multiculturalism. “This was because of the undeveloped political culture. The party that was in power was associated by them with the state and this is how they expressed their loyalty to the state.”
This tradition began to change after the opposition won the 2012 parliamentary elections.
Sordia said he had noticed a greater sense of activity when recently visiting ethnic minority communities the regions of Kvemo Kartli, Adjara, Kakheti and Samtskhe-Javakheti.
“They have an interest in participating in the elections because there are expectations for change,” he said.
“Now, the authorities of the ruling party will no longer receive 90 per cent support of the ethnic minorities,” Sordia said.
Local teachers and officials have traditionally held enormous authority in village communities, particularly among Azerbaijanis. When they told people who to vote for, villagers listen and do as they are told.
Since 2014, the younger generation has become more aware of their rights and more assertive.
“We can say that we were forced to vote for the ruling party in the past, but after the last elections, everything has changed and the people have woken up,” said Senan Kurbano, a student from the village of Talavera in the Bolnisi district.
“Everything changed after the last elections thanks to the activity of the main parties – the United National Movement and the Georgian Dream coalition – as voters, officials and teachers started to have conflicts of interests and began to support different parties,” Kurbano explained.
“I will vote, but certainly not for the older candidates,” added Nina, 32, from Akhalkalaki. “Honestly, I am tired of seeing all the same faces in the same places. If we choose the old candidates, then nothing will change here.
“We are tired of the clan system, which also supports the Georgian authorities,” she continued. “We need an innovator, because we need change.”
There are 42 political parties taking part in the election. Of these, 25 will compete separately and the remaining 17 are distributed into six blocs.
Georgia has a unicameral parliament with 150 seats, of which 77 are filled by proportional representation. The other 73 are elected using a first-past-the-post system. Lawmakers serve a four-year term.
The country is divided into 73 districts, each of which elects a member of parliament by direct voting. A further 77 lawmakers are voted in via proportional party lists.
According to the Central Election Commission (CEC), ethnic minorities make up the majorities in 12 of the country´s 73 districts.
The population in these areas is either predominantly Armenian or Azeri or mixed with Georgian.
A CEC representative, Sophia Sichinava, told journalists and NGOs on September 19 that the CEC had prepared ethnic minority representatives as potential members of the precinct election commissions.
One of the most acute problems among ethnic minority voters is their lack of knowledge of Georgian, the state language.
Thus Armenian and Azeri-speakers have been employed In the CEC´s information centre so that voters can receive the material they need in their own language. Information and video materials appear translated into Armenian and Azeri on the CEC´s website.
According to the CEC, there are 207 Georgian-Azerbaijani precinct election commissions, 133 Georgian-Armenian precinct election commissions and four Georgian-Armenian-Azerbaijani precinct election commissions.
HOPES OF SUCCESS
Rima Gharibyan is a representative of the Open Borders NGO in the town of Akhalkalaki in Georgia’s southern region of Samtskhe-Javakheti.
She said that not only had candidates from various opposition parties come to the region and to fight for the ethnic minority vote, two local people had been nominated by local initiative groups as candidates. Such a move was unprecedented.
The opposition parties had hope of success in the regions, whereas four years ago when the last parliamentary polls were held they did not, Gharibyan continued.
“Today, in contrast to previous parliamentary elections, people are interested and they go and meet with opposition candidates. In the past, only journalists went to the [meetings with] opposition candidates,” she said.
The current parliament has three ethnic Armenian deputies – Ruslan Poghosyan and Henzel Mkoyan from Georgian Dream and Samvel Petrosyan, an independent. Another three deputies are ethnic Azerbaijanis – Mahir Darziev and Ali Mamedov of the Georgian Dream coalition and Azer Suleymanov of the United National Movement.
Some members of ethnic minorities are running on party lists in the upcoming election.
Of the more than 850 candidates competing for the 73 mandates, 12 are ethnic Armenians and 22 Azerbaijanis. Among the candidates in the proportional vote are six Armenians and six Azerbaijanis.
However, lawmakers from ethnic minorities have a reputation for being inactive and failing to promoting special community interests.
Many locals complain that the authorities pay no attention to those living in the countryside and where little ever changes. There are few opportunities for young people and a lack of cinemas, theatres and cultural centres.
People in these areas also worry about poor roads, problems with water and gas supply as well as healthcare.
Although the ethnic vote is likely to be mobilised, it will take time to overcome these perceptions.
Pavel lives in Ninotsminda, a district centre in the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti where many Armenians live.
The town is in full election mode, with party political posters hung in the streets and slogans daubed on walls.
Pavel said he will definitely vote although he is sceptical about the results.
“Since we are a small city and region, everyone knows each other. I have heard that those who want to be in the opposition or want to give them their voice have been warned that there will be problems later,” he said.
“But opposition parties are generally passive,” Pavel added. “The residents have no information about them, who they are, what their programme is. Honestly, we do not believe in fundamental and real changes.”
*Saddam Aliyev and Edita Badasyan are IWPR trained journalists in Georgia.