On the 4th of November an article by Guram Sharia, a news correspondent based in Tbilisi, Georgia, was published on the site of the Russian news agency Regnum and various other outlets. In his article Sharia argues that the threat of separatism in Georgia has increased since the 2008 August War, especially in areas populated by Mingrelians and Svans. Sharia calls the north western provinces of Samegrelo and Svaneti, where Mingrelians and Svans are compactly settled “charged springs of separatism in Georgia”, and places much of the blame for the increased danger of separatism on the alleged efforts of the government of Georgia to marginalise and assimilate Mingrelian and Svan language and culture. In Sharia’s opinion, the deteriorating condition of the Mingrelian and Svan languages and their eventual substitution for Georgian could eventually become a catalyst for separatist rebellion similar to those seen in the breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Having spent considerable time studying Mingrelian and Svan language issues, including conducting research among Mingrelian language activist and interacting with ordinary Mingrelians and Svans in both Western Georgia and Tbilisi, I can confirm most of the claims made by Sharia with regards to these issues. First off, it is a fact that that the influence of Mingrelian and Svan is continually declining in today’s Georgia. Although there are few reliable statistics on Mingrelian and Svan language usage, anecdotal evidence suggest that a large portion, perhaps a majority of Mingrelians and Svans maintain only partial retention of their respective languages at best, and prefer Georgian as their language for everyday use. The use of Mingrelian and Svan in everyday situations also appears to be rapidly declining. Research I have myself carried out in Samegrelo suggests that this is particularly true among young people, for whom Georgian is particularly important as a language for social and economic advancement in the current political climate.
It is also generally true that Mingrelian and Svan languages enjoy low status both socially and in an official sense in present day Georgia. By virtue of not being literary languages, Mingrelian and Svan are widely seen in Georgian society as provincial and somewhat vulgar vernaculars, not suitable for general use in public or in situations of high social importance. There is also a lack of special protection for these languages from the point of view of Georgian law, underpinned by the assertion among a majority of Georgian academics that Mingrelian and Svan are not languages in their own right, but merely occupy somewhat remote positions on the Georgian dialect continuum. Hence, the Georgian government has so far declined to extend any level of official status to either Svan or Mingrelian, including refusing to sign the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, one of the cornerstones of protection for language communities in Europe.
However, even if we suppose that there is a conscious policy to suppress Mingrelian and Svan language on the part of the Georgian government, or at least a policy of deliberate negligence; it is not likely that this will result in any greater chance for separatism in the affected areas of Georgia. I would argue that the chances of Mingrelian and Svan separatism are very low, and that this has to do with the following factors:
1. The weakness of Mingrelian and Svan nationalism:
If nationalism is defined as an ideology with the goal of creating an independent homeland for a particular ethnic group, it is quite clear that such a sentiment is virtually non-existent among Mingrelians and Svans today. This is primarily because the vast majority of Mingrelians and Svans in Georgia self-identify not only as Mingrelians and Svans, but also as Georgians, and consequently do not question the national cohesion or territorial integrity of Georgia. In the course of interviewing dozens of Mingrelian language activist both in Samegrelo and Tbilisi as part of my work, and also interacting with countless Mingrelians and Svans on an everyday basis in Georgia for many years, not even once have I heard them express any desire for political autonomy, much less an independent state.
Granted, there is still considerable concern among some Mingrelians and Svans regarding the status and the condition of their respective languages, often expressing the wish that Mingrelian and Svan would at least have the status of regional languages, and also enjoy equal value and respect compared to Georgian. In fact, an interesting duality presents itself among many Svans and Mingrelians especially who consider themselves to be “The most Georgian of Georgians”, while at the same see themselves as distinct ethnic entities within the Georgian nation as whole.
This duality is also evident regarding the individuals Zviad Gamsakhurdia and the Emzar Kvitsiani, which Sharia in his article tries to portray as Mingrelian and Svan separatists. Looking at the life and career of Gamsakhurdia, it is quite clear however that he never entertained any Mingrelian nationalist aspirations, but was actually the prototype of a Georgian ultranationalist whose politics, although ultimately contra-productive, were in large part directed at preserving the unity of Georgia. Not even when he established his “government in exile” in his regional power base of Samegrelo in 1993, following the coup d’état against him and prolonged civil war in Georgia, did Gamsakhurdia argue along Mingrelian nationalist lines or seek the separation of Samegrelo from the rest of Georgia. Regarding Kvitsiani, he no doubt considered himself more as an outlaw of traditional Svanetian extraction rather than a Svan nationalist and political leader. It is also uncertain if he ever harbored any political ambitions past protecting his criminal dealings from Georgian the government crackdown.
2. The weakness of institutions and internal structures in Samegrelo and Svaneti:
One factor often overlooked when discussing the potential for separatism is the factor of institutions. If we have a look at the various separatist movements that were successful in the aftermath of the breakup of the USSR it is becomes clear that all of them were federal autonomies with a relatively high administrative status. It appears that the existence of such state-like autonomous political structures provided the respective elites of these entities with sufficient experience and organisation to mount a serious separatist challenge to the state which they were then a part of. In Georgia this was particularly true for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which during Soviet times had the status of autonomous republic and autonomous oblast respectively. The same is not true for Samegrelo and Svaneti, which are both regions with no special status separating them from other Georgian provinces. Svaneti in particular also has the additional disadvantages of being a tiny and remote mountain enclave, with a population that is even smaller than that of South Ossetia, which is in a similar situation.
3. The absence of foreign support:
Again, if looking at the separatist movements in the former Soviet space it is clear that foreign support also played an important role in their success. In fact, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia received considerable foreign support, mainly from Russia, which arguably has proved decisive for their political existence and longevity. However, the same was also true in the Georgian autonomous republic of Adjara, which separatist bid ultimately proved unsuccessful. Even though Adjara enjoyed quasi-state institutions and considerable foreign support, unlike the ethno-nationalist conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, there was not the factor of Adjaran nationalism to contend with. Although the population of Adjara is nominally Muslim as opposed to Orthodox Christian like the rest of Georgia, this fact does not seem to have constituted a sufficient enough difference to stimulate nationalist feeling among Adjarans.
Rather, the situation regarding ethnic identity in Adjara resembles Samegrelo and Svaneti much closer than it does Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and this would explain why Adjaran separatism was ultimately defeated in 2004 by Georgian efforts to reintegrate the republic, and also why it has not been a factor in Georgian politics since then. What this further indicates is that even with substantial foreign support – which there is no strong evidence of being provided to either government critics or anti-state forces in Samegrelo and Svaneti at present – potential Mingrelian or Svan separatism, given the weak nature of institutions and lack of nationalist aspirations among these ethnic communities, would not be very likely to succeed.
To reiterate somewhat; the weakness or absence of Mingrelian and Svan nationalist aspirations, the absence of strong quasi-state institutions, as well as lack of foreign support makes both Mingrelian or Svan separatism very unlikely. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that Mingrelians and Svans today overwhelmingly support Georgian territorial integrity and are fundamentally loyal to the Georgian state. Mingrelians and Svans are mostly interested in addressing their grievances in a purely cultural and linguistic direction, rather than in the direction of political autonomy. This is good news for the government in Tbilisi, and Georgians more generally, whose fear of regional separatism should be assuaged somewhat. These facts might in turn convince some hardliners in the current government to eventually make more concessions towards minority rights, including support for Mingrelian and Svan culture and official status for these languages. On the other hand, this is bad news for any third parties who think they can use internal cultural and linguistic issues in Georgia to their advantage.