Last week the Georgian and the Greek-Armenian communities clashed in Tsalka, a multi-ethnic district in Georgia’s southern Kvemo Kartli region.
The confrontation broke out after a group of burglars assaulted the Kaloerovs, an ethnic Greek couple in Tsalka’s village of Avralo on March 16. The assailants severely beat the elderly couple and stole $800 and jewelry from them. Local Greeks and concerned Armenians from a neighboring village accused ethnic Georgians of the assault.
On March 17, about 30 Greeks and Armenians attacked local Georgians. The clash left at least 15 Georgian residents, including women, severely injured. The violence continued on March 18 when the Greeks and Armenians raided the local Georgian school. Merab Khutsishvili, a teacher at the school, said that the educational process has been disrupted now, because parents are afraid to let their children go to school.
Tsalka, population 22,000, is predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians and Greeks. Up to 2,000 Azerbaijanis also live there. In the early 1990s, the Georgian government moved a group of ethnic Georgians (about 2,500, mainly Ajarians and Svans), to Tsalka after a devastating landslide in their native mountainous villages. Tsalka is also close to the predominantly Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti locality, which is considered a “complex region” because of the presence of a Russian military base and increasing demands for political autonomy by some local Armenian groups.
Inhabitants of Avralo, which was a Greek village until the Georgian resettlements, gathered outside the police station and demanded that the authorities deal with the serious crime in the region. Armenians and Greeks claim that the Georgians systematically infringe on their rights. They demanded that the people who assaulted and robbed the Kaloerovs be punished. They even called for the suspect, who is in custody, to be lynched.
Meanwhile, Tsalka’s Georgian inhabitants complain about systematic violence from the Greeks and Armenians who, they argue, are against the resettlement of Georgians in the district.
Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, who traveled to the region and met the locals, claimed that the situation is currently under control, thanks to the mobilization of additional police units that will conduct 24-hour patrols.
In a televised interview on March 20, Merabishvili denied allegations that the incident in Tsalka was bolstered somehow either by some Armenian groups (the Dashnaktsutiun Party in Yerevan claims that Armenians rights are violated in Georgia) or the Georgian parliament’s resolution about the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia (see EDM, March 14). Merabishvili, however, admitted the presence of some ethnic frictions in the district. “This is a difficult region,” he stressed. Sozar Subari, Georgia’s human rights ombudsman, linked the incident in Tsalka with the extremely high crime rates caused largely by inaction of local government and law enforcement.
Clashes between ethnic Georgians and the Greek-Armenian community in Tsalka have been reported for several years. Prior to last week, the most recent incident occurred last May (EDM, May 19, 2004), although the government managed to stifle the conflict with a 200-strong police unit. Nevertheless, Georgian officials continuously argue that the conflicts in Tsalka have no ethnic context and represent mostly “communal violence.”
Knowledgeable sources say that the robbery of a Greek family in Avralo was only a symptom of a larger problem. The real reason for the outbreak of violence, according to these sources, was information that the central government planned to resettle more Georgians from the landslide-prone regions of Ajaria and conduct a new census of lands and abandoned houses in the district. Zurab Melikishvili, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s authorized envoy to Kvemo Kartli, admitted that previously the Georgians were lodged in abandoned houses that the government could not buy back from the owners, which embarrassed the local Greek community.
The reality of the matter is that most local Greeks have left for Greece with no plans to return, and the remaining Greek population considers itself in charge of their compatriots’ abandoned houses. They do not want to share this property with anyone. That is why they categorically oppose the resettlement of more Georgians as well as the anticipated repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks, an ethnic group deported from Georgia by the Soviet regime in 1944. Melikishvili said that the resettlement of Georgians from Ajaria to Tsalka and neighboring regions (predominantly populated by non-Georgian ethnic groups) would continue whatever the case. According to Melikishvili, “there are many instigators in Tsalka” manipulating the ethnic factor to stage unrest for their selfish ends.
Some Georgian politicians and analysts, however, argue that ethnic tension in Tsalka and some other multi-ethnic regions exists and represents a serious threat. The weakness of local state institutions, corruption, unsolved social problems, and poor involvement of ethnic minorities in the state life are frequently cited as the sources of the problem. In this environment, it becomes likely that special services from the countries that aim to keep Tsalka as “ethnic time-bomb” may increase their subversive activities.
(Khvalindeli Dge, March 19; Civil Georgia, March 17; Rustavi-2 TV, March 16–20, 24 Saati, March 21)