In April Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian held talks in Tbilisi following unrest in Georgia’s predominately Armenian-populated southern region, Samtskhe-Javakheti. The disturbances, which calmed down soon, coincided with a parliamentary resolution about the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia, including one installation in Akhalkalaki, Javakheti. Residents of Javakheti argue that closing the Russian military base would leave about 10,000 locals without any means of subsistence.
Javakheti also dominated talks between Armenian Parliamentary Chair Artur Bagdasarian and his Georgian counterpart, Nino Burjanadze, during Bagdasarian’s visit to Tbilisi on April 29-30. Burjanadze tried to assure her Armenian visitor that Georgia is doing its utmost to improve the socio-economic conditions of the region and to improve Armenian participation in Georgia’s civic life (Civil Georgia, aravot.am, Aprili 30).
On May 2, Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili declared that the Georgian government would not allow separatism in Samtskhe-Javakheti and would neutralize the political groups that have been promoting anti-Georgian policies and agitating the locals by organizing protest rallies against the closure of the Russian base. Okruashvili — and later Saakashvili — vowed that the government would ensure jobs for the local Armenians after the base closes, but apparently few Javakheti Armenians trust these statements (Caucasus Press, May 2).
As the situation in Samtskhe-Javakheti continues to simmer, the local Armenian community is increasingly turning towards neighboring Armenia. Javakheti has strong ties to Armenia. More than 100,000 Javakheti natives live in Armenia. Some Armenian political parties, notably Dashnaktsutiun, make the occasional radical statement about the rights of Armenians in Javakheti in order to appeal to these voters. The party sharply reacted to what it called “anti-Armenian statements” made by Professor Giorgi Gachechiladze, a member of Saakashvili’s advisory board, in the Georgian tabloid Rao-Rao on March 14. Dashnaktsutiun issued a press release on March 18, warning that any Georgian policies that discriminate against the Javakheti Armenians would be fraught with negative consequences for Tbilisi. Saakashvili’s offices responded by downplaying Gachechiladze’s comments and underlining the importance of friendly relations with Armenia.
Javakheti natives now living in Armenia have established a political party, “Zor Airenik” (Mighty Homeland). On March 16, together with the Armenian Democratic-Liberal Union and the Ramkavar Azatakan Party, members called on the Georgian and Armenian governments to take urgent measures to solve the problems of the Armenian community in Javakheti. They argued that Javakheti’s Armenian community is justified in its appeal for security guarantees, including autonomy and self-governance (Info.ru, March 24; Prima News, April 24).
The Georgian-Armenian union “Nor Serund” (New Generation) also called on the Saakashvili regime to pay more attention to Javakheti, and it slammed the Georgian media for distorting information about the region. This March an estimated 6,000 Armenians rallied in Akhalkalaki demanding the Georgian government to stop plans to close the Russian base, acknowledge the Armenian genocide of 1915, remove a ban on teaching Armenian history in the Armenian-language schools, adopt a law on protecting minority rights, and develop self-governance and regional infrastructure (see EDM, March 23). The protestors blamed Georgian authorities for deliberately stalling the economic development of Javakheti in order to compel Armenians to leave the region. The anticipated repatriation of Meskhetian Turks to Javakheti by 2012, one of Georgia obligations before the Council of Europe, is another cause for concern within the Armenian community.
The Armenian press has criticized the recently publicized Georgian national security concept, which states that “pragmatic cooperation” should determine Georgian-Armenian relations. The fact that the concept did not name Armenia among the list of Georgia’s “strategic partners,” as were Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Turkey, and the United States, irritated some Armenian analysts. Van Baiburt, an ethnic Armenian member of the Georgian parliament, said the reaction of the Armenian press perhaps did not reflect the position of official Yerevan and would not poison Georgian-Armenian relations (Resonance, May 21).
According to some analysts, there is a growing desire among Javakheti’s Armenian community for unification with neighboring Armenia. This possibility is one of Tbilisi’s highest — if unspoken — concerns.
Two factors complicate a solution for Javakheti: the increasing dominance of an ethnic-oriented mentality over civic awareness in the Georgian political establishment and the fear of possible Russian support for separatism in Javakheti. Some local Armenian opinion leaders argue that a separation of powers between the “center” and “region” might provide a solution. Javakheti Armenians were highly dissatisfied with the Georgian authorities’ decision to prohibit the registration of the local political movement “Virk,” which advocates political autonomy for Javakheti.
The socially vulnerable Georgian minority in Javakheti, meanwhile, is seeking government support for increasing their standing in the region.
The Georgian government and international donors in Georgia hope that ongoing reforms, combined with socio-economic and humanitarian programs, will help turn the Javakheti Armenians back to the Georgian state. Whether these measures will be effective remains to be seen.