JAVAKHETI NEED NOT BE TURNED INTO ANOTHER “HOT SPOT”.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 35

Leaders of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF)-Dashnaksutiun and representatives of the Communist Party of Armenia are publicly demanding that Georgia confer a higher level of autonomy on the province of Javakheti. That Georgian province, bordering on Armenia, consists of four districts, two of which–Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda–have ethnic Armenian majorities. The Soviet authorities moved some of Javakheti’s Armenians there after the Meskhetian Turks had been deported. Akhalkalaki is the location of a large Russian military base which both Moscow and Yerevan value as a logistical link via Georgia between Russia and the Russian military bases in Armenia.

The ARF is both a worldwide diaspora organization and a component of Armenia’s governing coalition. ARF’s top leaders Hrant Margarian and Armen Rustamian began airing demands regarding Javakheti earlier this month, and were seconded publicly by the Dashnak-affiliated Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Levon Mkrtchian. Without seriously criticizing Tbilisi’s policy in Javakheti, they called on Georgia to amend the country’s constitution so as to create a Javakh-Armenian “national-territorial unit” along the lines of Georgia’s other “autonomies”–a reference to the present status of Ajaria and the past status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which have in the meantime seceded de facto.

The Dashnak leaders invoked the “right of national self-determination” for Javakheti’s Armenians and placed that issue in the wider context of the “Dashnaksutiun’s struggle as ideological champions of the unification of our Homeland.” Equating Javakheti symbolically with Karabakh as “another fragment of our Homeland, our heart and soul,” they insisted that it “must not fall victim to [interstate] relations between Armenia and Georgia, however important those relations may be.” Yet they took the position that the issue of Javakh-Armenian self-determination “must be raised not in Armenia, but in Javakh[eti] itself”–a call seemingly intended to be heard across the state border.

These and similar recent statements in Yerevan expressed concern over dismal economic and social conditions in Javakheti and the possibility of an exodus of Armenians from the area. They also criticized the Georgian authorities for refusing to register the Virk Party of Armenians in that province. The first of those complaints, however, would seem to ignore the massive population exodus from Armenia herself, and the second overlooks Georgia’s legislation which precludes legal registration of regional or ethnically based political parties.

On February 9, President Robert Kocharian’s spokesman, Vahe Gabrielian, disavowed those statements, which, he said, express only the position of certain parties and their representatives, not the government’s. That position can be made, Gabrielian said, only by the president and the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Decisions on Georgia’s administrative-territorial organization are a Georgian internal matter, although–he went on to say–the problems of Armenians in Georgia are a topic of interstate discussions during official meetings. Gabrielian failed to distance the presidency from the substance of ARF’s statements, however, or to disavow the deputy foreign affairs minister.

Gabrielian’s statement was described as inadequate in a declaration the Armenian Pan-National Movement made on February 16. That movement was the governing party from 1990 to 1998, long an adversary of the ARF and now opposes Kocharian. The declaration pointed out that the ARF is Kocharian’s close political ally and is generally seen as reflecting the president’s views. The APNM criticized both the president and the ARF for a policy of “freezing conflicts instead of solving them”–a reference to the conflict with Azerbaijan. By the same token, “lighting a spark” in Javakheti is fraught with the risk of “starting another conflict in the South Caucasus and gravely damaging Armenian-Georgian relations,” the APNM warned. But its stand will not make much difference because the party’s influence is at an all-time ebb while that of the diaspora-based Dashnaksutiun is in the ascendancy in Yerevan.

Tbilisi is responding cautiously and constructively. On February 17, Georgia’s Minister of State (equivalent to prime minister) Giorgi Arsenishvili headed a delegation to Yerevan for prescheduled discussions on bilateral economic cooperation, including crossborder projects reflecting the Javakheti population’s interests. The main project involves supplying Javakheti with electricity from Armenia through a new transmission link which is due to become operational next month. Meanwhile, Javakheti’s Armenian-language schools are being supplied with textbooks from the Education Ministry in Yerevan. The Georgian delegation included two ethnic Armenian deputies from the Georgian parliament and the ethnic Armenian heads of administration of the Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda districts.

Troublemaking in Javakheti is clearly subsumed to a far wider set of problems. First, the ARF’s move seems timed to the decisive Russian-Georgian negotiating rounds on the future of the Russian military base at Akhalkalaki, which Georgia wants closed down–along with the Batumi base–within the next few years. Russian hardliners, however, hope to cling on to those bases by fanning local Ajar and local Armenian opposition to the central government in Tbilisi.

Second, the ARF’s raising of a potential territorial claim on Georgia coincides with the international campaign to accredit the concept of a “genocide of Armenians” in the Ottoman Empire and the Caucasus in 1915-23. The ARF considers that international recognition of that view of history would pave the way to compensation and territorial claims on modern Turkey. ARF leader Rustamian (see above), while raising the Javakheti issue, added in an interview with the Yerevan daily Iravunk: “The first stage is recognition of the Armenian genocide, and the question of compensation is directly related to this. Of course the [next] important question is territorial claims.”

Third, attempts to open a “Javakheti issue” would severely hurt Armenia’s own interests by exacerbating her economic isolation. Javakheti and the rest of Georgia provides one of only two available overland routes–the other being Iran–between Armenia and the outside world. A sizeable portion of Armenia’s trade moves via Javakheti and the Georgian ports of Poti and Batumi. Mindful of that situation, Kocharian last year publicly urged Javakheti’s Armenians to support stability in Georgia and to vote for President Eduard Shevardnadze’s reelection. Considering Kocharian’s close relations with the Armenian branch of the ARF, the president should be well placed to restrain its intrusions into foreign policy making (Noyan-Tapan, February 5, 8, 10, 16, 19; Asbarez, February 9, 12; Snark, February 9, 17; Azg, February 10, 17; Iravunk, February 16; Kavkasia-Press, February 17).

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