Increased Opportunities for Integration of the National and Religious Minorities
Comprehensive information on the benefits of EU and NATO membership rarely reach Georgia’s regional populations. Efforts of the national media and government have not been scalable enough when it comes to informing people outside the capital. Therefore, compared to Tbilisi, positive sentiments towards Western institutions wane in the regions. The trend is evidenced by recent nationwide opinion polls.
Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge proofs the trend. Predominately inhabited by ethnic minority Kists, as well as Chechen refugees from North Caucasus, Pankisi is a region that faces great levels of economic hardship and little integration with ethnic Georgians and wider Georgian society. Its local population is thus less acquiescent of Western institutions. The economic, social and religious marginalization, as Kist and Chechen are predominantly Muslim, has contributed to youth radicalization and disengagement from that of country’s Western aspirations. Over the recent years, dozens of Kist youth have left the region to join the so-called Islamic State in Syria. Bearing in mind the sensitivity of the region, its integration into larger Georgian society is a critical prerequisite for regional security and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic agenda.
To fill this gap and raise public awareness on the benefits of Georgia’s integration in the Euro-Atlantic institutions, the Tbilisi- based CSO – Georgian Center for Security and Development (GCSD), with financial support from EWMI ACCESS, carried out a 6-month awareness-raising project across Kakheti region (including Pankisi Gorge). As one of its project activities, GCSD organized a Tbilisi study tour for 10 selected youth from Pankisi giving them the possibility to meet with high-ranking public officials, including Georgia’s state ministers, and speak about their region’s key problems and priorities.
As a result, the Ministers of Defense and Euro-Atlantic Integration, together with other high-ranking officials visited the Pankisi Gorge in early January and held engaging discussions with local elderly councils and youth. In the conversation, locals expressed their willingness to serve in the Georgian Armed Forces, while also spoke about challenges for Kists when serving in the Army as they have little to no opportunity to practice their faith at military bases. The Minister of Defense promised to take upon on this issue and ensure protection of religious rights of each soldier at military bases of Georgia. She also promised to give the local youth the opportunity to learn more about the Georgian Armed Forces and the future prospects for the Georgian soldiers.
After this visit, quite a few proactive steps were undertaken to allow Pankisi residents to serve in the Georgian Army – the Ministry of Defense announced a 2-week extension for military registration for Pankisi residents. Representatives of the Armed Forces visited the Duisi Community Center and helped 33 interested applicants to register. Applicants who successfully completed the registration procedures were then enrolled in a 10-week training course for basic military skills, after which they will commence contractual military service and receive remuneration of up to 950 GEL per month.
As for protection of religious rights of the military personnel, the Defence Minister released a special decree in February of 2016 ensuring separate spaces in all military bases for Muslims and Jehovah’s witnesses to carry out their religious rituals. Soon after, a prayer room was opened for Muslim soldiers at the III Infantry Brigade headquarters. The Minster gave a speech at the Prayer Room opening ceremony stating that, “Georgia is a country where freedom of religion is guaranteed… Democratic government means that all people are equal and everyone has opportunity to serve his country, meanwhile enjoying the freedom of religion. We spoke about this during our visit in Pankisi and have already begun putting the promise into reality…”
Initiatives like these are strongest preconditions for social integration of Georgia’s marginalized groups wherever they may be. By cultivating sense of duty to the country as well as pro-western aspirations, Georgia becomes increasingly stable and secure. EWMI ACCESS is proud that its small-scale project has yielded such a high-profile impact.