Kristina KALLAS and Arnold STEPANIAN discuss national minority policies in Estonia and Georgia

11.07.2021 (Caucasian Journal). Today at Caucasian Journal we talk about the national minorities policies in Georgia and Estonia. Our guests are Arnold STEPANIAN, Chairman of Public Movement “Multinational Georgia” (PMMG), and Kristina KALLAS, Research Fellow at Tartu University Narva College, leader of political party “Estonia 200”.
Our  interview can be watched or read in two languages. Below we present the full English text version of interview. 

▶ ქართულად: The Georgian text version is here
▶ For video version, click here.

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of CJ: Hello and welcome to Caucasian Journal’s video interviews! Our guests today are well-known experts in national minorities issues from Estonia and Georgia: Arnold STEPANIAN, Chairman of Public Movement “Multinational Georgia”, and Kristina KALLAS, Research Fellow at Tartu University Narva College, and leader of political party “Estonia 200”, who joins us online from Estonia. Dear Arnold, is it true that “Multinational Georgia” is one of the oldest NGOs in Georgia?

Arnold STEPANIAN: Hello first of all, yes we are one of the oldest NGOs - we were established in 1999. If I remember correctly, there were not more than 20-25 NGOs at that time.

AK: In one of the older interviews you said that the rights of national minorities were often violated, mentioning “cases when, due to non-Georgian origin, students were expelled from educational institutions”. How can you assess the progress achieved since then?

AS: It was many years ago in early 1990-s , when Georgia began to be independent. The president of Georgia was nationalistic – Zviad Gamsakhurdia. You know the conflicts in South Ossetia, when many ethnic Ossetians had to leave homes and emigrate to Russia or go to Tskhinvali. We had cases when people were rejected from the exams to states universities in the early 90-s. Of course now everything has changed. Now, first of all, we have law; we are a state with all democratic institutions. Of course still there is a lot of problems in minorities field, but we can't speak about such cases like it in early 90-s. We are a normal country, with normal problems.

AK: Looking back, which periods were the most favorable for your NGO, or the most challenging?

AS: During the Shevardnadze period, we had to fight for recognition - not only NGO but minority communities. It was period of fight with the nationalistic part of society, which was quite strong. During Saakashvili period, for our NGO it was very difficult to work because they were fighting with the critically-thinking NGOs - with all of them. But we survived.  Now, after Saakashvili period, doors are a little bit open.

AK: You are also an umbrella organization…

AS: Yes, we are uniting community-based NGOs in Georgia.

AK: How many are they?

AS: Now there are 56 – from 19 ethnic background communities.

AK: Now let’s talk about today. What are the main problems that Georgia and Estonia are facing in connection with its ethnic or religious minorities?

AS: One of the hardest directions in our organization’s work is to keep in priority both minority rights and security. It's a pity that sometimes neighbors are using minority for their interest, using minority to create a conflict, and it’s very hard to keep the balance. From what I can see in Estonia, they did not find this formula. Same in Georgia - we didn't find it as a country.

AK: I'm sure Kristina will now provide the Estonian viewpoint, which is quite important in this in this context.

Kristina KALLAS: Thank you for inviting me to this conversation. I'm very excited about the debate. Indeed, regarding the issue of security and minority rights in Central Eastern Europe, Georgia or Estonia are not unique here. Securitization of the minority issues is very common in most of the Central and Eastern European areas, especially in the areas where the empires lasted very long and the formation of the nation state was very late compared to the Western Europe. So in these areas we have the situation which Rogers Brubaker called the “Triadic Nexus”, where the minority belongs to the neighboring country and this neighboring country used to be in history the oppressor of this new nation state, so you have this triangular combination there, that is potentially geopolitically explosive.

So how to find this balance in building a liberal democracy, expanding the rights horizon, so that the minorities could enjoy the rights as well and, on the other side, to keep your state safe? Let's be honest, if the state collapses, or is weakened by the external aggressor or external force, then the minorities cannot be protected either. So, from the point of view of the minority rights, you need a good functioning state, that has a security that is guaranteed. So, these two things cannot exclude each other because they don't work without each other.

In case of Estonia, we have been seeking this balance between the minority rights and the state security issue for very long time. There have been ups and downs in this situation in last 30 years, and that's why the integration process between the Estonian state and the Russian-speaking minority goes what I call “two steps ahead and one step back again”, then “two steps ahead and one step back” again, and this one step back is usually influenced by the external geopolitical realities – not by what the Estonian government does or does not. So we are working towards the integration, we are making certain political decisions internally, and then comes the external factor, that actually sets us back a little bit into what we have achieved.

AK: Estonia is a full member of EU, while Georgia recently declared a plan to apply for full EU membership in 2023. Is this a realistic plan, from your viewpoint? Does it open a good opportunity to attract attention to any previously neglected problems? And, from an Estonian viewpoint, what are the advantages of EU membership regarding the national minorities policies?

AS: I see our future in Europe. We are part of Europe, we are the part of this family, and we are beginning to be closer and closer. There are some parts in minority – not only minority, but majority too – who are thinking that their future is Russia but not EU. Of course you can understand people when they're living in the information spaces of other countries, like Russia for example, Armenia, Azerbaijan, or Turkey. But I am very glad that's the choice of the majority of young people, because this is their future, they have to make their choice, and that’s what is really important now.

One thing which I’m really worried about that is that it's like with NATO – we're speaking about being a member of EU and NATO so much that we're creating expectations. Many people think that “okay tomorrow we will be already a member of EU or NATO”, we will not. And after it many people changes their minds towards EU and NATO, many people think that’s a lie, they don't want us, etc.  From our side it's very important to speak with all minority community representatives, to speak even with radicals, because you have to speak to explain something.

I’ll give very small example of our discussion with some radical members of communities, who were against of NATO or EU. One thing is speaking about values – we have often very different vision on the values with them – but when we're speaking about security, we're explaining about this dilemma: which is more important – minority rights or security? In such difficult geopolitical situation like we are in South Caucasus, there is some prevalence of security issues and minority rights. And we're saying, if we would be member of NATO or EU, we would be safe, the question of security will go better than it is now, and there would be no prevalence over minorities rights, so we'll have possibility to speak about minorities and to realize many things that we even can't imagine now.

So it's a very pragmatic approach, and we are speaking pragmatically with our counterparts. What's about Estonia? They are a member of NATO and EU and they have no question of security like we have. I think it’s a little bit other story - they have no experience of cohabitation of different ethnic groups - that's very new for Estonia. In Georgia we have this tradition.

KK: Coming to the question about the EU and the role of the EU, I can speak of Estonian experience. EU conditionality policy was quite heavily imposed and used on the new member states in early 2000-s in the association agreements, that meant that part of this conditionality policy was also the integration and minority rights package. This was the hardest package to work on, exactly because of the state security issue, but there was obviously the hope that once Estonia or the Baltic states join European Union, this “EU umbrella” would settle finally the state security issue.

Kristina Kallas:
Joining EU and NATO did not have this effect that it would desecuritize the minority issues.

Now, the lesson for the Georgia here is that it didn't. We had this Brubaker’s “Triadic nexus”, where we had Estonian new nation state, a Russian-speaking minority, and Russia as a historical homeland of that Russian-speaking minority. When we thought that EU, coming as a fourth player in the game, would rearrange this nexus and make it more stable and less geopolitically explosive, this did not happen.

Minority issues in the Baltic states are still entangled into geopolitical issues, and still the question of any expansion of the minority rights is automatically discussed from the prism of the state security. So joining EU and NATO did not have this effect that it would desecuritize the minority issues.

And of course what happened in 2014 in Crimea did not help to desecuritize the minority issue, because even the Western media started asking if Narva is going to be next, or Daugavpils is going to be next, and it securitized the minority question quite heavily again.

What did have an impact from joining the EU was the acceptance of the certain values, regarding the minority rights: that the minorities have the right to their mother tongue, the minorities have the right to politically mobilize in order to seek for their rights, and these rights are becoming more and more integrated into the society.

I don't claim that they are very fully accepted by the majority part of the population, however I can see that the younger generation is actually valuing these rights much more than the older one, and for the younger generation the security issue is also less pertinent because they have been living in a situation where the Estonian state security was taken for granted.

AK: Arnold, your organization’s representatives have served as election observers, including the recent parliamentary elections in Georgia. And Kristina, you have even direct political experience, as a party leader. How do you assess the current political situations in Estonia and Georgia?

AS: Georgia is always interesting, because always something is happening – before elections, during elections, and after elections. We have very small developments. For example, 20 years ago the ruling party took 105% of the votes in minority regions – more than 100% –now it's approximately 60%, and it's going down. If seriously, there no falsification like it was 10 or 15 years ago, and that means that the space is open for oppositional parties.

KK: Regarding the political situation in Estonia, it's very different from what it used to be maybe even 10 years ago. We have a new political actor on the political scene that's a populist nativist party called the Estonian National Conservative party. It's part of the bigger trend in all European countries – Western, Central, East European equally – it's a trend of increased anti-globalization, that results in some sort of nativism, meaning claiming more rights to people who used to live here “before” - meaning before the massive immigration, or before some other periods in history - so looking for certain rights distribution differently. And these claims are put very strongly in political arena, and they are gaining more and more support, because mainstream liberal democratic parties are actually failing to address the concerns of the majority of population.

What is interesting in Estonia is that this populist nativist political party is also gaining more support among the Russians in Estonia, which might sound strange: Putting down the nativist claims that this state is mostly for ethnic Estonians, and at the same time gaining support from the Russian population. But I would argue that populist political strategies are very successful because the claims that this populist party is putting forward towards the Russian minority is “we will protect you, we will protect your livelihood, we will protect your way of life, as long as you leave Estonians alone and you leave this country to be ruled by Estonians”.

At the same time, the liberal parties are pressing the Russian population towards integration, saying “No, you cannot continue the way you used to, you have to integrate as much as the majority has to accept this integration process”. And, since this integration process is uncomfortable to everybody – to majority and to minority equally – then of course people tend to prefer political parties who say “No-no-no, no need for the change, everybody remains as they are: Estonians remain controlling the state, and you remain here, and we will just protect and guarantee your certain livelihoods and protection”. That seems to be appealing nowadays to the Russian-speaking populations as well, and of course that’s one of the big concerns.

AK: If you were in power, what would be your first free decrees?

KK: Regarding the integration process in Estonia, I just have one degree, and that relates to the system of education. The structural inequalities that minorities in Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia face are the result of the Soviet time-built school system, where a Russian-speaking population is educated separately in what we nowadays call Russian-speaking minority schools. Yes, they have their own mother tongue education there; however, the integration process towards the Estonian society remains very weak in these schools.

As a solution to overcome the structural inequality that the Russians eventually face by graduating from Russian schools (and they're not being fully integrated into society at the moment when they need to enter higher education, or where they need to enter the labor market), the solution is to actually join the schools together, join the pupils and students to study in the same schools. It does not mean that the Russian language education will be cancelled. Russian mother tongue students will still receive a multilingual model of schooling, while Estonian mother tongue kids continue studying in Estonian language, and eventually these two different systems will merge together in the dominant Estonian language education. But from the first grade there will be multilingual teaching for the minority kids, and the Estonian language teaching for Estonian kids, and then in the upper secondary level which we call gymnasium - that's where the two different teaching strands are merging.

The main idea is that the children should study in the same school building, because there social and cultural integration actually takes place. So the first decree would be to initiate the school reform related to stopping the segregation of children of the same village or city into Estonian and Russian schools, but rather joining the schools together.

AS: Very unfortunately, but in our country we have a situation when minority can't be in power. But theoretically I can say that just I will push the discussion about the final product of integration – what kind of society we want to build.

Arnold Stepanian:
Abkhazians and South Ossetians are asking:
Does the majority still hate the minority?

We're meeting with the Abkhazians and South Ossetians, and they are always asking me: Is something changed in Georgia? Does the majority still hate the minority, or not? I think that they will not come back only because we are strong economically. We have to rebuild confidence between us. That's very important for our country. They're looking into what's happening in Tbilisi, they're looking into what's happening in minority regions, and we have to rebuild this trust.

So, the formula of the solution of these conflicts is not only in Moscow or Washington, or Brussels. The key to the hearts of Abkhazians and South Ossetians are in Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli now. We have to show our attitude, our tolerance and our good wishes towards minorities here, and in parallel speak with Abkhazians and South Ossetians that we are ready to accept them as equal brothers and sisters.

AK: Is this happening, what do you think?

AS: No, because for that we need to create understanding in society about us: Who we are? What is the final product of this integration? We don't know still what's the final product of this everything, what kind of society we are building, which kind of model is it – is that a Swiss model, French model, Turkish model, Kazakhstan model?

KK: The debate about the what the integration should be, or what is the final product of integration, how the Georgian or Estonian societies should eventually look like once the integration has succeeded? Well, this is very interesting debate theoretically in academic world, but from my practical experience in politics I dare to say, that there is no such thing as final product of integration.

Kristina Kallas:
I dare to say, that there is no such thing as final product of integration.

Integration is basically a social-political process that is going on constantly and without any end result or end date. I’m very skeptical when it comes to taking Western European integration processes as full fixed models that could be applied to the Eastern European circumstances. I don't believe in this. I think Switzerland has become a consociational democracy and cantonized federation for specific geopolitical realities that this country came into being, which exist neither in case of Georgia nor in case of Estonia.

What I do agree, and I think it is maybe missing in Georgia and, to some extent, also in Estonia, is the public debate about the integration.  I very much agree with the statement that the minority issues in Georgia even publicly are extremely securitized, and the only case when minorities are talked about is when the questions of the state security arise. Or, if minorities are talked about, then immediately this debate ends up in a state security debate.

All other issues related to minority questions in Georgia, including very pragmatic social issues like poverty or education questions, quality of life in general are excluded from the minority debate. And I think we need to bring them in, because otherwise minorities will remain only the security question.

It's very important in case of Estonia and Georgia to discuss the equal rights not from the perspective of a legal framework as such – because I think in this area at least in Estonia the issues are correct – but from the perspective of structural inequalities, where investments in education, investments in the regions where the minorities live are not sufficient compared to the investments into majority areas. And then you have these structural inequalities that end up in huge grievances from the minority side which are actually economic in nature but can be turned political very quickly.

So in my opinion there is an Estonian unique way and path of integration. It’s a constant negotiation between the different segments of the population of Estonian nation, at the same time influenced by the geopolitical realities.

AK: Dear Kristina, may I quote your famous paragraph: “It is necessary to remove the ethnic aspect from the state development programs or to reformulate it.. The state should not be an ethnic, but a political phenomenon”. I was surprised this paragraph has infuriated some government officials in Estonia, but that was three years ago. Has the situation changed?

KK:  Indeed, this is a pertinent problem for most of the Central European countries, for the new countries. And it's an understandable problem because building democracy also requires building a nation state. These two are very much together, and the question was from which you define the nation, what is the main kind of a common denomination that you use to define “We, the People”.

And in most of the Central and East European countries ethnicity or the language was used as the nominator, based on which the nation was defined. The same was in Georgia, the same was in Estonia. This helped to solidify democratic processes and build a democratic state. However, now the question is about the next step in terms of expanding the nation from the point of view of including also these parts of population that do not speak the same language, or do not come from the same religious background, or from the same cultural background.

And this was my argument that we need to be maybe stressing much less the ethnic component of what brings us together, because this is very hard to bring us together –  Russians will remain Russians, and Estonians will remain Estonians, and that's not what actually unifies us –  but what binds us together is an Estonian state, Estonia as a country. That binds us together and we should actually put more stress on that.

That's what I’ve defined as a political part of our nation. It is still maybe too early, and we are maybe not entirely ready to go that direction, and indeed because of the securitization of the minority issue, and the whole state’s security issue. De- ethnicization of politics and nationalism is much more complicated in Central and Eastern Europe than it was in the Western Europe, but I am a strong believer that in order to consolidate and sustain democratic systems we need to go towards the more integrated nationalism, and more towards politically-defined nation rather than ethnically-bounded nation.

So the smart way to do is to go towards integration and towards more politically defined nation, so that you could include those who are maybe today ethnically marginalized.

AK: Can you tell us about yourself, your professional background? Have you personally experienced any type of discrimination, special attitudes or other problems?

AS: Yes, I have graduated from two universities one was in Yerevan, second was in Tbilisi, so I am economist and lawyer. I worked in parliament in international relations department of the staff, I was in two political parties. I have a case of personal discrimination in early 1990-s when I went to study in Yerevan. In university I had a problem when I was told to change my surname, if I want to be a student. Of course I did not, and I went to Yerevan, and lived there five years.

AK: We know well from our parents’ and grandparents’ lives about the ancient and deeply rooted tradition of national and religious tolerance that Georgia has. In fact Georgia enjoyed multiculturalism long time before it became commonplace in Western Europe. What should be done to make Georgia an international “trendsetter” for minorities in future?

AS: First of all, I think we have to start from the educational system. The formula is to speak to each other, to understand each other. I think we have to push this process very actively, because unfortunately, as I told you, our political situation and our neighbors around are not giving us much time to solve these problems – we have to rush.

AK: Thank you very much.

AS: Thank you, I think it was a very interesting discussion, and thank you for such a possibility.

KK: Thank you for the invitation once again, it was my pleasure, and greetings to Georgia!
Read the Georgian language version hereView the video here

Caucasian Journal
 appreciates kind support of Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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