Sunday, September 24, 2006

Georgian nationalism and prejudices

Author: Irene Sulkhanishvili

Georgian Ethnocentrism

There is one notion in sociology, ethnocentrism that implies the following:
Generally, representatives of a given culture assess representatives of other nations according to the criteria and value system existing in their own culture. For example, certain dish can be popular in one cultural group and may cause disguise in another group; this can become a reason for labeling the neighbors with humiliating titles such as “froggies”, “spaghetti eaters”, thus putting one’s own nation above that of a neighbor.1 A few would want to claim that ethnic groups actually are all the same in all their qualities. Ethnic and cultural pride begins with the emphasis of differences and quickly progresses to claims of superiority in some respect or another. Superiority may be difficult to judge, but differences can have clear consequences for different kinds of enterprises or ways of life. 2
Naturally, gastronomic sphere is just one among the numerous spheres where one can find multiple inter-cultural differences. And each difference has a potential danger of creating ethnocentric stereotypes. In the long run, we can consider ethnocentrism a defensive mechanism that contributes to increasing one’s self-assessment via idealizing the particularities of the main identifier – one’s own nation.
Ethnocentrism is a feature characterizing all peoples, although the degree and forms of manifesting it vary. For some nations, it is popular to tirelessly proof the antiquity of the nation or its superiority over the rest; others look for fellow countrymen among the relatives of world celebrities; and for some, the feeling of one’s uniqueness and “superiority” eventually results in hatred towards other nations. 3

Ethnocentrism is quite obvious among Georgians. Moreover, Georgian ethnocentrism has a rather individual, although not a very unique form. A Georgian may calmly accept the fact that other nations (especially if they are big and strong) are richer, more hardworking and even smarter. However, a Georgian will always think that all these successful nations lack something very important, the so-called ‘zest’ or the essential understanding of life. This initially places foreigners on a lower level, thus explaining the non-violent, friendly and arrogant-ironic attitude Georgians demonstrate towards the representatives of other nations.
In this respect, Georgian ethnocentrism is similar to the British one, although there is an obvious difference between the two cultures. As the British people used to say about a foreigner they liked, “it is not his fault he was not born a Brit”.
One has to point out, that at some point in history, Georgian ethnocentrism played a positive role: from one hand, it contributed to preserving national identity; from the other side, it resulted in ambivalent but respectful attitude of the big nations such as the Turks, Iranians and Russians towards Georgians (Victor Turner calls this phenomena “the power of the weak”).
In order to explain the current situation in Georgia, I would underline the changes that took place in the psychology of Georgians over the past years:

National ‘Pride’ of Georgians: how it evolved and changed over time

During Soviet times, Georgian nation had many things to be proud of. Apart from the shadow economy that kept the lifestyle of Georgians on a relatively good level, Georgians were respected by both the Russians and Westerners for their arts, sports and relatively outspoken movies. The period covering 60th though 80th witnessed the growth of interest of other soviet republics and Western countries towards Georgia. This interest was mainly caused by the ‘not quite Soviet’ way of life as opposed to other republics. Indeed, the second half of the 20th century was probably the most carefree period in the history of Georgia. The arts and sports were in the bloom, money was made relatively easy, and visitors enjoyed cheap wine and expressed surprise at the “non-Soviet” atmosphere. The Soviet government was criticized without lowering one’s voice and nobody imagined that all this would ever come to an end. 4

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all the above-mentioned features vanished, leaving the nation lost and disoriented. Georgia became a poor and less interesting country. I would suggest that the nationalist movement in the early 90s was an attempt by the people to regain the psychological support though finding other options for self-identification such as the mythical history and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Eventually, this process resulted in the growing levels of xenophobia and religious intolerance.

Georgian nationalism and ethnic minorities

The Georgian superiority, however, is manifested not only towards bigger nations. Minor ethnic groups living on the territory of Georgia are often the victims of the Georgian nationalism. Here, one can see all the characteristics of Georgian nationalism more vividly. If such as attitude of Georgians is not dangerous for the self-perception of large ethnic groups, minor groups are affected quite heavily: demonstration of one’s dominance, even if it is a non-violent one, can directly affect the identity of the minor ethnic group. The reaction of a minority group towards such a pressure may first be mild, although it may eventually modify into hatred if the tendency continues. This does not necessarily mean that the relationship will escalate into conflict. There are cases of peaceful coexistence of Georgians and other ethnic groups such as Kurds.5 But this is quite an exception: over the past years, nationalism caused a number of serious problems and is still an issue today. Here, one has to recall the birth and rapid growth of religious and ethnic intolerance of 90-ies, with religious intolerance reaching its peak in the first years of the 21st century. Georgia, a nation that praised itself for the historically tolerant attitude towards different religions suddenly became a battleground for a radical priest in exile and his followers who announced holy war against the Protestant minorities, harassing and burning their literature and assaulting them verbally. This criminal activity was terminated once Mr. Mkalavishvili was detained, although the general attitude towards religious minorities remains quite unfriendly. Until today, the police is often demonstrating passiveness when it comes to defending the rights of religious minorities against the aggressive representatives of the majority. This problem is especially acute in the regions, where local priests have increasingly strong influence over the village population. Among the reasons of current intolerance demonstrated by Georgian towards “the other”, experts point to the tendency to divide individuals into ‘more’ and ‘less’ superior groups, with the majority group representatives placing the followers of other religions on a lower level.

Some experts believe that the current intolerance is a direct result of the Soviet tradition that derived from the Soviet-style colonialism. To be more precise, it was the hierarchical nature of the Soviet policy that divided nations and groups into categories. A good example would be the Akhaltskikhe area in Georgia that is populated by a few Catholics, Gregorian and Eastern Orthodox adherents. What one can see in the area is the division among the local population into superior and inferior groups. Moreover, the division is obvious on the levels of both majority – minority relations and minority-minority relations. In Bolnisi, the situation is even more complex as there is an increasingly negative attitude towards Lutherans on the part of both majority Georgians and minority Azeris. Here, the main factor triggering fear is the possibility of proselytism exercised by the Lutheran community. Often, such an attitude results in psychological problems in children. For example, local children are often afraid of the Lutheran community as they are told by their adults that “the Lutherans are dangerous, threatening, etc”.
When speaking about religious intolerance, one has to address the problem of self-identification once again. The fact is that the famous statement by Ilia Chavchavadze’s, the public figure of the 19th century Georgia, – “Language, Homeland, Belief” was very well adopted and manipulated by the nationalistic wave of early 90th. Since then, ethnicity has been closely linked with religious affiliation, thus questioning the true ethnic belonging and patriotic feelings of a person who did not share the majority religion. Today, the group of people that suffers most from such an attitude is minority children. Protestant and Catholic children are often harassed by their teachers on religious grounds, with teachers openly demonstrating their dissatisfaction with the “wrong” religion of a child. Here, one has to briefly address the overall situation in the secondary educational system of Georgia.

Georgia and the secondary educational system

As mentioned before, Georgia lost a number of advantages it had during Soviet Era, suddenly becoming a poor and disoriented society that attempted to rehabilitate its self-identification though turning to mythical history and religion. The school system, meanwhile, experienced significant changes as one ideology – Communism, replaced the other - Nationalism. This change was indeed dramatic, affecting the attitudes within the educational system and resulting in discrimination of individuals who did not fit into the “new wave”. Ethnic and religious minorities became the first victims of the new tendency as the nationalistic hysteria of early 90-s automatically marginalized groups that did not meet all the requirements of a ‘true Georgian’.
Until today, there are numerous state and officially secular schools in Georgia that promote public prayers in classrooms. For example, several public schools in Kutaisi perform public prayers in classrooms, with all the religious symbols such as the candles, icons and headscarves for females being fully observed. This is a clear violation of the rights of the minority children, as well as the disrespect of the key value of a secular state: the separation of church and state, i.e. the division of public and private spheres. Also, the quality of teaching subjects such as the history of religion is generally low as the majority of teachers lack professional skills. One can often hear a joke that “teachers who used to teach Scientific Communism during Soviet times suddenly shifted to teaching religion and national values”. Indeed, the most aggressive fighters for the cultural identity of Georgia are teachers who are in the late 40-ies – 60-ies, i.e. those who are used to living in a system with one and single ideology. Today, these individuals claim they “are the main defenders and protectors of Georgian identity and spirituality and will never let the educational system reform”. For the majority of this group, educational system should be inseparable from the religious one. Moreover, teachers are ready and willing to let the Church ‘guard’ the spiritual development of the children.

The very idea of the Georgian Orthodox Church as a savior of cultural and national identity emerged in late 80-s when Georgia was fighting for its independence. The Georgian society identified the Church in the context of the past, perceiving it as a kind of a bridge connecting the nation with its historic identity. During the period of the first president of Georgia, Georgian Orthodoxy became closely associated with pseudo-nationalism and was successfully manipulated by certain forces. This tendency was equally obvious in Serbia where the Church played a decisive role in the process of formation of nationalism. Indeed, in both cases, cultural tradition and identity were reduced to one single model. In Georgia, the idea of Georgian national identity gave the majority of Georgians the feeling of their exclusiveness and, in a way, superiority. Starting from 90-ies, religion started to penetrate the educational system. This is when the symbol of Communism – red pioneer scarf - was replaced by the national flag of Georgia and a cross. The recent comment of the group of university students on the essential qualities of a university rector clearly demonstrates that nationalism is still an issue. The group of students pointed out that in order for a university rector to be successful, he has to be “definitely Georgian and Orthodox”.

Due to the weaknesses of education, Georgian school children are generally unaware of the cultural role of ethnic and religious groups living in their country. The lack of awareness, in turn, paves the way to prejudices and stereotypic thinking. For example, only a few individuals are aware of the fact that the old mosques of Ajara are unique in the entire world as they are constructed of wood. And when one of the organizations initiated a sight-seeing school trip for young Georgians from Bolnisi to visit Ajara, the schoolchildren were asked to go inside the mosque to see the inner design. However, all of them refused to even come near the construction, explaining that they were Orthodox, thus having no right to enter the religious establishment belonging to a different faith. Naturally, such as attitude will eventually have negative results as the mainstream group is missing out the heritage of its country and ignoring the culture of its fellow citizens.

So, the problems of religious and ethnic prejudice are undividable. Identifying Gergianhood with ethnic and religious belonging – a tendency that is so popular in Georgia - is deadly for the successful development of a democratic society based on liberal values. And even though the radical priest-in exile V. Mkalavishvili was arrested, it did not solve the problem of Georgian prejudice towards ‘the other’, be he/she an ethnic, religious minority or both.

1. Nizharadze, George. “Political Behaviors in Georgia”, “Epoka”, 2, 2001, pp.6 – 17 (in Georgian)

2.Kelley L. Ross, “Ethnic Prejudice, Stereotypes, Discrimination, and the Free Market, Note 1”

3. Nizharadze, George. “Political Behaviors in Georgia”, “Epoka”, 2, 2001, pp.6 – 17 (in Georgian)

4. Nizharadze, George. “The End of the Age of Nomenklatura in Georgia”. “Enough!” The Rose Revolution in the Republic of Georgia 2003, Karumidze, Zurab, Wertsch, James V. Nova Science Publishers, Inc, New York.

5. Nizharadze, George. “Political Behaviors in Georgia”, “Epoka”, 2, 2001, pp.6 – 17 (in Georgian)


Writer'n said...

Hey, Levan! A very interesting text. Who is the author?

Levan said...

Irene my friend who works in ICCN (International Center on Conflict and Negotiation).

Writer'n said...

So..When you feel that you loose your identity you turn inwards to look for an answer, and find it in tradistion and church, excluding the perspective of the outside. Etnocentrism is maybe the national equivalent to the individual narcissism?

Anyway. I will be careful when I meet the next Georgian! He/she will only be nice because he/she is arrogant and despice me. Fortunately I have the priveledge as a forreigner to not understand all this subtle signs of ongoing passive-agressive harrasment.

Ok. It was a joke :-)

Levan said...

Georgians look not only at foreigners this way, but also at each other. In early 90's different parts of Tbilisi : vake, vera, saburtalo and other districts were kind of opposing each other and their were ,,wars,, between young people, which ended often with shootings and killings.

dato said...


can we say that this are the problems of colonnial mentality? It means, what Chavtchavadze said about religion, language and homeland. I have the impression that main idea behind this is how to protect ourselfs from someone. But the main problem we have now is how to build our own state, where we will have main responsibility to protect minorities in the society.

Also very interesting for me was the role of the former communist teachers. I can very well imagine their agressive nationalism.


Writer'n said...

Most agressive behavior is based on fear. It's a fact that fundamentalism is an answer to modernism. Iran is a very good example. It's the resistance based on fear for radical changes that fuels nationalism and traditionalism and strengthen the believe in religion as salvation.

Maybe you must bring in your friend, the author of this text, Levan and let her elaborate on this issue?

Irene said...

greetings to all and many thanks for your comments.

In terms of the religious factor, you are absolutely right - the main reason behind the growing nationalism was fear. But in case of Georgians, this fear was more about the uncertainty rather than the rejection of Western values as it is in case of Iran. In Georgia, it was more about the economic failure, inability to predict the future and the and the disappearance of all the state guarantees. Samuel Huntingtone did write that democracy ends where Easter Orthodoxy and Islam begins. Personally, I agree with this statement to a certain extend only. I would say democracy ends where authoritarianism is a wide-spread phenomenon. Given the Mongolian influence, this is unfortunately the case with Russia as well as some of its former republics.

Personally, I very much hope Georgia will manage to overcome this barrier, thus taking more rapid stepts towards democratization (I have this dream... )

Anonymous said...

I am a westerner of African descent and this is the first accurate portrayal of Georgian (male) arrogance I have seen. True, not all Georgians exhibit this obnoxiousness. In fact, the intelligentsia or the ones who have been abroad are quite respect worthy.

Georgian males have no shame in being presumptuous, know it all, and forward in their interactions. I can't help but wonder what is behind this behavior, but Irene cleared this up.

I have met one, maybe two, Georgian women who wore their Georgianness on their sleeves. I sense the show of Georgianness is more compensation for insecurity rather than pride. In fact, Georgian men very often are compelled to want to fight if I do not reciprocate the blind adulation for "the great country of Georgia."

Ethnocentric men in Georgia should realize that foreigners are interested in Georgians for who they are as individuals, not that they are Georgians.

Thank you for writing that piece.

Anonymous said...

Levan,privet, hallo to all.
Please share with me e-mail address of the autor (Irene), I studdy an issue of ethnocentrism and would like to talk more about it.
my data you can find under:

Levan said...

Hallo Anonymous,

could not find your data..

here is Irene's email: