Georgians in Azerbaijan: between identity and alienation
Nika Musavi, Bashir Kitachaev, Baku
Alibeyli is one of the villages near the city of Qakh in the north-west of Azerbaijan where ethnic Georgians live.
Wikipedia calls the residents of Alibeyli Ingiloys, but locals themselves don’t much use the term, and call themselves Georgians.
Indeed – their holidays, feasts, language, church and even wine are made in qvevri jugs, according to all the rules of Georgian winemaking, would identify them as such.
They call their village Alibeglo.
How does the local population live in a village stuck between two countries, two culture?
It’s an autumn noon, hot and quiet. In Alibeyli, the hazelnut harvest is in full swing, and almost the entire adult population of the village has gone to the plantation. One can only hear the rattling of motorcycles and the barking of dogs running after them.
At the entrance to the village, in the courtyard of the House of Culture, chickens are looking for food in the grass at the foot of a ragged pedestal. This is a monument to Joseph Stalin. They say that in the 1950s, the government wanted to remove it, but the locals opposed it. And then everyone forgot about the monument, and now it is almost the main attraction of Alibeyli.
Who are the Ingoloy Georgians?
According to the last census of 2009, about 10,000 Georgians (with Azerbaijani citizenship) live in Azerbaijan.
This is approximately 0.1 percent of the total population of the country. The vast majority of Georgians live in the north-west of the country, in the Qakh and Zagatala regions.
“In Georgia, we are not considered real Georgians. But when people come to visit us, they see how we live, how we celebrate weddings, what dishes we cook, and they see that we are just like them”, says 63-year-old Vasily Tartarashvili, who lives in Qakh.
Russian on his mother’s side, Vasily Viktorovich studied at a Russian school, and all his friends were Russian or Azeri.
Vasily went to study in Baku, lived in the capital for a while, and then returned back to Qakh.
Feeling ‘not quite Georgian enough’, he consciously chose a Georgian woman as his wife in order to create a real Georgian family with her.
More than two decades have passed since then.
Vasily Viktorovich’s daughter married in Tbilisi, and his son Victor, having studied in Georgia, returned to his father’s house and married Nana, a girl from Alibeyli.
Victor and Nana met in 2011, “by mistake.” A man called the house one day and mixed up the number. Nana picked up the phone – now, they live in Qakh and are waiting for their firstborn.
As for the concept of ‘Ingiloy’ Georgians, the locals say that the term doesn’t apply to them, but that it rather applies to Georgians who converted from Christianity to Islam – now they live mainly in the Zagatala region of Azerbaijan, next to Qakh.
A Georgian way of life
Alibeyli / Alibeglo, located about 25 kilometers from Gakh, is a well-maintained and prosperous village: there is a school, a kindergarten, a hospital and even a theater.
The main business in the area is nuts. Each family accounts for a hectare of land – this is more than the average for Azerbaijan.
Nobody in Alibeglo complains about the authorities – there is gas in the village, there is electricity, the residents solve other problems on their own.
The locals are proud of their Georgian traditions – pork barbecue, washed down with homemade wine prepared in qvevri (clay jugs in the ground).
There are other traditions – everything related to religion, for example – baptism, the feast of St. George. Remembering the dead, burning incense on charcoal, preparing dishes that the deceased loved…
Time for university? All roads lead to Tbilisi
In the village of Alibeyli, there is one recently renovated state school where they teach in Georgian. The locals almost do not speak Azerbaijani at all – they most often do not need it.
The school is designed for 216 students, but now 161 children are studying in it. They are taught by 35 teachers – almost all locals
The school principal, Arno Sanashvili, says that the textbooks are either brought from Georgia or translated into Georgian from books used in Russian schools in Azerbaijan.
“There are problems only with history textbooks. Because history is still a political issue”, said Sanashvili.
The fact is that in the textbooks of Georgia and Azerbaijan the accounts of some historical events differ. It is impossible to use Azerbaijani textbooks here so as not to “go against one’s own interests”, and Georgian ones — so as not to go against the state.
Arno Sanashvili was born and lived his whole life in Alibeglo. His two daughters are married in Tbilisi, and his son remained in the village. The situation is almost the same in almost every family – young people leave the village immediately after graduation, and continue their studies in Tbilisi or elsewhere.
“But in their old age they will still be pulled back to their native village,” says Arno Sanashvili.
According to official figures, there are 2,000 inhabitants in Alibeyli. Locals say that in reality – less. Despite all the errors of statistics, one thing is obvious – the population of the village has not grown and has not decreased significantly over the past 10 years. It does not grow at the expense of those who have left for Georgia, it does not decrease – at the expense of those who have returned.
Preservation of Georgian minority identity – achievement or problem?
Human rights activists in Azerbaijan have traditionally considered the problem of national minorities through the prism of preserving national identity – do they allow people to maintain traditions and speak their own language?
The problem of assimilation has never been considered in principle, especially for the small Georgian minority.
The fact that several thousand Ingiloy Georgians in the north of the country were “cut off” from the country’s life and gradually moving to Georgia was never perceived in Azerbaijan as a problem.
On the contrary, Georgian officials are often brought to Alibeyli and other Georgian villages and shown that nothing threatens the language and culture there.
The head of the Human Rights Center of Azerbaijan, Eldar Zeynalov, believes that the problem of employment of Georgians in Azerbaijan is connected exclusively with the language barrier, and not ethnicity.
As an example, he cites Judge Rafael Gvaladze, who, fluent in the Azerbaijani language, until recently worked in the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial instance.
“Another thing is that teaching the Azerbaijani language in Georgian schools is weak (as, indeed, is the situation in Russian language schools).
“And all the straightforward attempts by the authorities to force them to learn Azerbaijani only lead to the fact that linguistic minorities leave for their language ghetto, turn themselves out of public life, and even emigrate to their language environment. For example, between the censuses of 1999 and 2009, the Georgian population decreased from 14,900 to 9,900, that is, one and a half times. I would venture to suggest that this is the result of the emigration of Georgian youth and the associated decline in fertility. Perhaps this suits someone: there is no person – there is no problem, but this approach is definitely not European.”
Eldar Zeynalov also recalls that the law on national minorities has not yet been adopted in Azerbaijan, although the country’s authorities promised the Council of Europe to do this back in 2001.
n the shelves of a rural store are sweets, pasta, crystal vases and inflatable elephants.
An elderly couple, who owns one of these shops, carefully avoids even giving their names, but they proudly say that one of their sons, having left for Tbilisi and learned to be a lawyer, was able to pass the bar and now works in the prosecutor’s office. The second son remained in the village – here his wife and children stand at the entrance to the shop.
The only person to agree to an interview is the four-year-old granddaughter of Elena, she speaks a little English:
“Elena, will you give an interview to journalists?”
The girl seriously and strictly examines uninvited guests and asks her grandmother in Georgian: “Where is their microphone?”.
A dark orange van drives past the store, from which a short, incomprehensible word is shouted into the loudspeaker.
– What is it?
– Tone are being sold – clay ovens in which Georgian bread is baked.
When we leave, Elena goes out under a grape-covered canopy at the entrance to the store, waves goodbye and smiles for the first time:
“They are cunning”
A young native of Alibeyli, David, whom we met quite by accident already in Georgia, also left the village after leaving school.
According to him, he did this because he understood that in Azerbaijan he doesn’t have much opportunity.
“While the Georgians in Qakh and Alibeyli said that they did not feel any discrimination towards themselves, then they are being cunning or cautious. In fact, there is discrimination, although it does not manifest itself explicitly, but in small things. Well, for example, you are standing in the hospital with a coupon in your hands, and you see that the Azerbaijanis are skipped out of turn and the Georgians have to wait. As for the language, I know Azerbaijani, but I still understood that it was unlikely that I would be able to make a career in Azerbaijan.”
Ingiloy Georgians in Georgia – leaving to come back
Khatia Gogoberidze, Tbilisi
Giorgi, 23 (name changed), arrived in Tbilisi from Azerbaijan in 2012. He does not want to publicly give his name, fearing for relatives in Saingilo [ed. name of the region used in Georgia and by local residents – JAMnews].
He is from Kakhi (the Georgian alternative spelling of Qakh) and graduated from a local school in Georgian.
The Georgian state provides free university education to Georgians from Azerbaijan who overcome the minimum barrier at the national exam. Giorgi entered Tbilisi State University, where he is currently studying for a master’s degree.
At the same time he is working as a waiter in a restaurant.
He says that in Tbilisi he was in a completely alien environment, which he found difficult to get used to.
“You might be surprised, but the strangest case for me was when I first heard the word sex in my first year at a lecture.”
According to him, it is not customary to discuss such topics publicly among the Ingiloy Georgians.
While studying at TSU, he came across other things that were previously unfamiliar to him. For example, before that he had no idea what AIDS or HIV was – when he heard these words at the university, he had to “google them” in order to understand what they were talking about.
“When (at school) you learn from books published in 1995, what kind of education can you talk about?” says Giorgi.
Despite having had a Georgian-language secondary education, he faced a language barrier in Georgia.
It turns out that he wrote better than he spoke, and sometimes he got into uncomfortable situations because of his dialect, occasionally incomprehensible to others.
The biggest problem for him is the lack of Georgian citizenship. He says that the state refuses to grant him citizenship until he renounces the citizenship of Azerbaijan. And he is sure that it is impossible to solve this issue in Azerbaijan without a large bribe.
We tried to find out why citizens of Azerbaijan of Georgian origin cannot obtain citizenship.
However, in the Agency for Public Services, after our repeated appeals, we were only informed that Azerbaijani citizens can apply for citizenship on a common basis – that is, they have legally lived in the country for 10 years and passed an examination for knowledge of language and history.
The Georgian Constitution allows dual citizenship only for Georgian citizens who subsequently received citizenship of other countries. However, there is also a procedure for granting a second Georgian citizenship as an exception – the president has this right. According to agency statistics, in the 10 years since 2009, only six Azerbaijani citizens have received a Georgian passport in this way.
George does not want to return to his homeland. He plans to continue his studies and work in Tbilisi. He does not consider moving to Baku as an alternative, as he is sure that he cannot make it there without “serious funds”.
However, sometimes even in Georgian society he feels uncomfortable. There were some unpleasant cases, for example, when he was asked: “How do you, Tatars (Azerbaijanis) study in Georgian?”
In response to such attacks, he tries to calmly explain how Georgians in Saingilo were able to preserve their language and faith.
Giorgi is worried that many Georgians today know almost nothing about Saingilo.
21-year-old Roman Nuroshvili is a future neurosurgeon who is a fifth year student at the Medical Faculty of Tbilisi State University. He is also from the Kakhi region, he studied at a local Georgian school. Most of his classmates also moved to Tbilisi.
Roman likes the university. He says that studying here is interesting and he feels comfortable here.
After graduation, he is also going to stay and work in Georgia.
“If I return to Saingilo, I will not be able to work as a neurosurgeon. I want to receive a training grant and continue my studies abroad, but I don’t know how possible it is because of my citizenship,” says Roma.
Unlike Giorgi, he has permanent residence permit in Georgia, which facilitates his studies and work, but does not allow him to participate in elections or travel without a visa to EU countries. In addition, banks refuse to give him loans.
Roma tells us that he has friends who have neither citizenship nor a residence permit, so they are forced to get a job where you do not need to conclude an official contract.
He talks about problems in Georgian schools in Saingilo. He himself studied from textbooks published before 2000 in Georgia.
In high school he had to go for textbooks in Tbilisi. But later, the Azerbaijani state imposed restrictions on the use of textbooks from Georgia, in particular, on historical and religious topics. The history and geography of Georgia was not taught at school at all.
Now the younger sister of Roman is studying at the school – already from textbooks translated from Azerbaijani into Georgian. In each textbook there is a portrait of the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and the state symbols of Azerbaijan.
His sister also plans to continue her studies in Tbilisi.
“Parents know that if the children study there (in Azerbaijan), they will have no prospects. Therefore, they prefer that their children study in Georgia. However, most parents want their children to return home after graduation. But they don’t know what to do there. Many of those who returned did not find work”, says Roma.
He tries to visit his family more often – especially on St. George’s Day, Easter, or New Year’s.
He says that even those Ingiloy Georgians who go to work and study in Georgia do not want to finally leave their homeland.
“It is very rare for someone to sell a house and move here … And many of those who work here return home in old age,” says Roma.