Ethnic Azerbaijani candidates are better represented in this year’s , Georgian parliamentary elections than have been at any time in the past. Four regions of Georgia – Marneuli, Bolnisi, Dmanisi and Gardabani – have put forward 19 Azerbaijani candidates.
Currently, there are 3 ethnic Azerbaijanis in the Georgian Parliament. Two of them have put forward their candidacy again – Mahir Darziyev from the ruling “Georgian Dream” party and Azer Suleymanov, of the “United National Movement.”
Many of the candidates have promised to address problems of local agriculture, language barriers and social assistance.
However, several of the many candidates have built platforms on religious issues and used the Azerbaijani Muslim community to their advantage.
Religious groups hold wide influence amongst Azerbaijanis
The head of the “Renaissance Project”, which provides education services to Azerbaijanis in Georgia, Aydan Yusufova, says that religious groups hold great power within the community.
“Religion is capable of touching all realms of our lives. Azerbaijanis wishing to put their candidacy forward always make sure to pay special attention to religious groups and issues, because their influence and weight is very important.”
The web – project discusses problems of local Azerbaijanis in Georgia, and publishes articles of Azerbaijani youth writers. One year earlier, a caricature published on the site which made commentary on certain religious and educational issues caused widespread discontent amongst Azerbaijanis in Marneuli.
Yusufova says that whether you want it to or not, religion is always present in many aspects of daily life in the Azerbaijani community of Georgia. “And this influence is going to a play a large, and far – reaching role in the upcoming parliamentary elections.”
Elvin Bunturk, the coordinator of “Thinking Citizen” center, which prepares a number of lectures and activities for Azerbaijanis in the country, agrees on the influence of religion amongst Azerbaijanis in Georgia.
“Naturally, candidates try to use this force for their own gain. For example, The main support in villages for the United National Movement party candidate, Ahmed Imamquliyev, comes from religious voters. He himself is religious.”
“I don’t see anything bad in their support for me. . .”
Imamquliyev doesn’t see anything wrong with support from religious voters, and doesn’t deny the existence of his strong support base in their numbers. He does, however, say that these voters are not united by a single religious organization or group.
“Religious voters want to support me out of their own volition. Even though they might follow some religious institution or organization, they are still citizens, and they vote for me out of their own volition. I don’t see anything bad about their support for me. But you can’t connect their vote and the fact that they also belong to a religious organization. We don’t divide our voters between the religious and the secular.”
Imamquliyev, who says he has received no support from a specific religious institution, says that his party itself, Georgian Dream, has given support to religious organizations in the past.
“There are several Muslim organizations here. One of them is the “Georgian Muslim Board”, which is supported by the government. Party candidates have often given speeches in mosques, and they hold other meetings and activities there, as well.”
“Out of 10 mollahs, 9 work for the state.”
Israfil Bayramov, a “For the People” candidate running for Marneuli region, also believes that religion plays a large role in the life of Georgian political elections.
“They decided that they wouldn’t give support to any group in particular. But one can feel the support of the ruling party in a number of places. The Georgian Muslim Board was created. And naturally, they make use of it. There are many ‘government men’ in that organization – out of 10 mollahs working in the country, 9 work for the state.”
Israfil Bayramov notes that religious candidates are also more popular amongst religious voters.
“They are trying to tarnish our reputation.”
Head of the Georgian Muslim Board, Ramin Igidov, however, says that there is no evidence to any of these claims.
“During this time period, they are trying to tarnish our reputation. There is no foundation for any of these claims. They are just lies.”
Igidov further noted that the fact that a majority of the members of the GMB also happen to be members of the ruling party is sheer coincidence.
“The Prime Minister came to the mosque. At the same time, the candidate for Marneuli region came to the mosque as well. Now people are saying – why did you invite him? I didn’t invite him. When they found out that the Prime Minister was coming to the region, they invited him, and he participated. There were other similar events. In other villages party candidates were invited to religious functions. I told the mollah that if you invite one of them, you have to invite all of them.”
This year, Georgia’s Prime Minister, Giorgi Kvirikashili, attended mosque services for Qurban Bayram in Tbilisi’s Friday mosque. He met with members of the Georgian Muslim Board and other religious groups.
Last year, the former Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced at the same mosque in Tbilisi that 4 Muslim religious groups in Georgia would receive financial assistance and that more than 20 mosques would be restored.
“We called for the local population to be active in the elections and to defend their rights.”
Haji Hajiyev, the imam of one of Marneuli’s largest mosque, the Imam Ali Mosque, claims that there has never been a meeting or activity in the mosque which promoted a single political group or organization.
“We called for the local population to be active in the elections and to defend their rights. But we have never allowed for an activity that called for the support of a specific party.”
Ruslan Hajiyev, a Georgian Dream party candidate for Marneuli, also denies ties between the government and religious groups.
“Simply put, they invited me to different meetings and activities. Religious individuals were present there. It’s possible that I spoke of my own party platform at these events, but that doesn’t mean that I asked for their support there. Our opponents make more use of the religious issue than we do.”
“This could be assessed as pressure.”
Kvemo – Kartli education project coordinator Samira Bayramova disapproves of the presence of political activity in mosques and other religious institutions.
“There are several mosques that give help to specific parties. This could be assessed as a form of pressure. There must be no application of influence when it comes to elections and politics.”
Giorgi Bobgiashvili, the coordinator of the European Center for Minorities of the Caucausus, says that amongst Azerbaijanis, the influence of religious leaders is enormous.
“Our organization produced a report ont he role of religious leaders in the Armenian – populated region of Samtskhe – Javakheti. It turned out that the influence was negligible.”
In a separate report compiled by the same organiation, the influence of religious officials and representatives in political matter turned out to be wide – spread.
“The situation is the same when you look at the Georgian population. If we compare the two, the numbers are strikingly similar”, he added.