MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 335: Georgia: Azeri minority and land reform

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Tue Apr 18 19:51:37 2006

Original sender: Institute for War & Peace Reporting <info@iwpr.net>




Some Azerbaijani villagers are unhappy at the way land reform has
worked, claiming they have yet to receive their fair share. 

By Ramila Alieva in Demia-Gorarkhi

Polad Suleimanov, a farmer in the village of Demia-Gorarkhi about an
hour's drive south of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, owns just a
quarter-hectare of land on which his house, stable and garage stand.

By contrast, his neighbour Isa Isayev owns 66.5 hectares of land and a
large sheep farm that employs 12 shepherds. 

Such huge discrepancies – a feature of an unusual form of land ownership
practiced for many years in Kvemo Kartli in southern Georgia - have
caused resentment and tension locally. 

Like both Suleimanov and Isayev, 70 per cent of Kvemo Kartli’s
population are Azerbaijanis, the country’s second largest ethnic group
after the Georgians themselves.  

In this region, large swathes of state-owned farmland is held by a small
number of de facto owners, who have obtained long leases at cut-price
rates from the local authorities. They in turn have divided the land
into smaller plots and rented it out to local residents, charging them
market prices.

"I have to pay Ziyadkhan [a local landowner] so as to be able to grow my
crop", said Suleimanov. "For some reason, he and a few others were
allowed to acquire the land while we got nothing.”

Reforms have long been promised to remedy this situation, and a land
ownership law passed by parliament last July gave rise to new hope.
Under the legislation, explains Dmitry Nakhatadze, a lawyer from the
Association for the Protection of Landowners' Rights in Tbilisi, every
adult resident has the right to buy up to three hectares of state
farmland at a fixed price set for the whole of Kvemo Kartli. Farmer have
the right to buy the plot of land they currently lease, or to buy land
at auction. 

The Azerbaijani farmers of Kvemo Kartli greeted the new law as an act of
liberation that would free them from dependence on rich landowners and
the local authorities. 

However, the law only started being put into practice in Kvemo Kartli
several weeks ago, after months of protests by local people, it has
already run into trouble. As the distribution process gets under way,
many farmers have complained that they are being discriminated against. 

"They are providing the population with land that’s useless", said
Alibala Askerov, a local community activist. Askerov said families in
his village had been given just 0.2 or 0.4 hectares of land, instead of
the prescribed three hectares – and that this malpractice was only
occurring in ethnic Azerbaijani villages. 

The head of Demia-Gorarkhi’s local government, Rasim Imanov, told IWPR
that these are no more than teething problems and that many villagers
have misinterpreted the new rules.

“In actual fact we haven’t yet been able to acquire plots of land
because there are a lot of disputes and quarrels among the population
about who has the right to what,” said Imanov. “They [the villagers]
think that this is still the Soviet Union and we ought simply to
confiscate the land from big landlords and parcel it out amongst
everybody else.

“Many people do not even understand that in order to acquire land, you
need documents. Some of them don’t even have identity documents.”

The Azerbaijani villages started negotiating with the local authorities
after the law came into force last year. Unsatisfied with the results,
they held large-scale protests both locally and in Tbilisi last
September, saying they had not been given the plots of land they were
entitled to. 

The situation came to a head on February 22 this year, after a police
squad used violence to break up a rally held by villagers who were
trying to block the main road. According to Askerov, the police used
rubber truncheons and arrested 16 protestors.

The incident attracted attention at national level, and lawyers from the
Tbilisi-based landowner’s rights association took up the cases of
several villagers. 

Jaba Ebonoidze, a representative of the association, told IWPR that
following its intervention in the region's largest village, Vakhtangisi,
the law was enforced properly and locals had the stipulated land plots
handed over to them by the end of March.

Not everyone agrees that the Azerbaijani minority experienced more
problems than Georgians elsewhere in the country. 

"I don't think the problems have anything to do with ethnic
discrimination", Koba Chopliani, coordinator for ethnic minorities with
the Public Defender’s Office in Tbilisi, told IWPR. "The problem of land
allotment applies to all of Georgia. There are a lot of disputes among
the population in all agricultural areas, as the law is being violated
there too – it’s not just in Kvemo Kartli."

Zardusht Alizade, a political analyst in Baku, agrees, arguing, “This is
a social problem that stems mainly from the fact that people are
ignorant about their rights and are unable to solve their problems in a
civilised way.” 

Land distribution has not yet started in Demia-Gorarkhi. Imanov, head of
the village administration, asserts there will be no further problems
with the process. 

"The organisers of the rallies sought to destabilise the situation, with
support from some opposition groups in Tbilisi,” he said. “It's good
that some of them are now in custody.”

Meanwhile, villagers who have seen a positive outcome in their own cases
are delighted with the way the new law has worked. 

"I'm happy to have land of my own, land that belongs to me alone," said
Ismail Safarov, a resident of Vakhtangisi. "I feel now that I am a
proper citizen of Georgia.”

Ramila Alieva is a reporter for Public Television of Georgia.


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