Council of Europe’s Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) published on October 12 its first report on Georgia, saying that protection of linguistic rights of national minorities “is a major challenge.”
The report is enclosed with the Georgian government’s comments, which contains 40 pages of the government’s responses to some of the opinions laid out in the report.
The report says that FCNM welcomes the fact that the ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities by Georgia in 2005 triggered “a debate on the introduction of a more comprehensive legal framework for protecting national minorities.”
The Advisory Committee “notes with satisfaction” that the Georgian government has stressed the need to promote tolerance and integration, and expresses hopes that Concept on Tolerance and Civil Integration will be “effectively implemented.”
“Protecting the linguistic rights of persons belonging to national minorities is a major challenge. Many of them have limited skills in Georgian – which is the official language - and the efforts of the authorities to offer them the possibility to learn it are far from adequate,” the report says.
It also said that additional measures were needed to promote equal access to education for persons belonging to national minorities, including higher education.
Georgian Education Minister, Nika Gvaramia, announced on October 9 about the plans to simplify entry exams to higher education for would-be-students belonging to national minority groups.
The report also says that participation of persons belonging to national minorities in the country's political, cultural, social and economic life “remains limited” and expresses concern about “increased religious tensions, which are particularly affecting persons belonging to national minorities.”
“The authorities should make every effort to combat this phenomenon and, in general, all forms of intolerance based on ethnic or religious affiliation,” the report reads.
According to the report one of the main concerns of national minorities in respect of religion is the legal status and registration of religious organisations. It says that while the Georgian Orthodox Church is recognised and protected as both a Church and a public entity, other religious groups can only register as nongovernmental organisations or non-profit-making private-law associations, “so they cannot enjoy the same conditions in respect of the exercise of their religious activities.”
“Furthermore, various sources reported an often hostile approach by the Georgian Orthodox Church hierarchy, which, it seems, seeks by various means to consolidate its dominant position to the detriment of the other denominations,” the report reads.
In the comments, enclosed to the report, the Georgian government says that public-private division between the status of the Georgian Orthodox Church and other registered religious groups is “largely symbolic.”
“[Other registered religious groups] receive the same legal protection and respect for their religious activities as the GOC [Georgian Orthodox Church]. The only slight difference concerns the tax breaks. This practice corresponds to the European experience exemplified by Great Britain, Spain and etc. The Government of Georgia considers that any attempt to grant specific status to religious groups will only result in unnecessary controversy over the definition and would make little practical difference,” the Georgian government says.