Tensions are running high in Tsalka and Akhalkalaki, two regions of Georgia that are predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians.
The latest problem began in Tsalka on March 9, when a trivial brawl at a restaurant between local Armenians and Georgians resulted in the death of Gevork Gevorkian, a 24-year-old Armenian, and injuries to four other Armenians. However, Maria Mikoyan of the Armenian Union in Georgia (Nor Serund) claimed that the fight began because the Georgian young men were irritated by the Armenian music playing in the restaurant.
Although police have arrested five Georgian suspects, about 500 Armenian protesters gathered outside the Tsalka administrative building on March 10, calling for prosecution of the suspects. On March 11, the upheaval spread to Akhalkalaki, a town in the predominately Armenian populated Samtskhe-Javakheti region in southern Georgia.
About 300 participants in the Akhalkalaki rally were Tsalka Armenians. They later took their appeal to the Georgian government and demanded that Tbilisi “stop the policy of pressure by fueling interethnic tensions” and “stop the settlement of other nationalities in Armenian-populated regions.” Later, the protesters voiced demands related to the right to conduct court proceedings and government business in the Armenian language. Specifically, they want the central government to make the Armenian language a state language equal to Georgian in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. Reiterating the alleged threat to the rights of Armenians in Georgia, the appeal also demanded political autonomy for the region.
The rally soon turned violent. The protesters, mostly youth, left the government building and raided a local court chamber, ousting a Georgian judge. They also attacked a building on Tbilisi State University’s Akhalkalaki campus and a local Georgian Orthodox Church. Later on Khachatur Stepanian, a representative of the council of Armenian civic groups in Samtskhe-Javakheti, which organized the rally, attempted to soften the anxiety and called the incident a “provocation” staged by “someone else.”
On March 11, leaders of the public movement Multiethnic Georgia and the Armenian Union in Georgia complained that police had brutally dispersed the rally in Tsalka where “ethnic confrontation is increasingly becoming a reason behind crimes.” They said that if tension in Tsalka and Samtskhe-Javakheti continues, then Tbilisi would be forced to establish direct presidential rule there.
Although Georgian Public Defender Sozar Subari investigated the Tsalka incident and ruled it to be a “communal crime,” the majority of the Armenian communities in these regions consider the incident to be a demonstration of ethnic hatred towards Armenians, which they believe is the result of the Georgian government’s misguided policies towards ethnic minorities. They further alleged that Georgian law-enforcement agents were working in tandem with those who committed the crime.
United Javakh, a radical Armenian organization in Samtskhe-Javakheti, issued a statement accusing Tbilisi of “discriminatory policies” against “the Armenian population of Javakh,” the Armenian nomenclature for the region. They described the recent dismissal of the region’s ethnic Armenian judges for ignorance of the Georgian language as “cynically trampling on the rights of the Armenian-populated region.” Georgian authorities insist the judges were dismissed for misconduct.
The United Javakh statement warned about “destructive trends in the Georgian government’s policy” aimed at artificially creating a “climate of ethnic intolerance” and “crushing the will of Javakh’s Armenian population to protect its right to live in its motherland.” Finally the statement demands that Tbilisi show “political prudence” and put an end to the “infringement” of the Armenian community’s rights.
The content and tone of this and previous statements by United Javakh and other radical Armenian organizations reportedly have strong backing from political forces in Armenia. In fact, the statements recall the language used by the Armenian community in Karabakh in its relations with the Azerbaijani government before war erupted. Vardan Akopian, chair of the Javakh Youth organization, argued, “The current situation in Javakheti is a cross between situations in Nakhichevan and Karabakh.” Several protestors explicitly cited the Karabakh precedent.
Symptomatically, on October 8, 2005, Garnik Isagulyan, the Armenian president’s national security advisor, bluntly warned Tbilisi to be “extremely cautious” with regard to Samtskhe-Javakheti “because any minor provocation can turn into a large-scale clash” (EDM, October 12, 2005). Various Armenian political parties, officials, and media have actively discussed the problems of the Armenian community in Samtskhe-Javakheti. Some Armenian members of the Georgian parliament linked this activity with the approaching parliamentary elections in Armenia.
Recently Armenian Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian released a paper on security issues in which he expressed concern over the situation in Samtskhe-Javakheti. The excessively critical tone of the Armenian minister towards Tbilisi’s policy in Samtskhe-Javakheti reportedly alarmed Georgian politicians and analysts, but they preferred to stay tight-lipped, perhaps to avoid upsetting the already-complex Georgian-Armenian relationship (EDM, August 3, June 7, May 24, March 23, 2005). Russia has tried to capitalize on the problem by fueling tensions in Akhalkalaki, location of a Russian military base slated for closure.
Although the Georgian government is continuously downplaying the ethnic aspects of the disturbances in Armenian-populated regions, this factor appears to lurk beneath the surface. Georgia remains Armenia’s sole transport route to Russia and Europe due to the ongoing blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan. Thus an unstable Samtskhe-Javakheti would hardly be a gain for Yerevan. However, the “Karabakh syndrome” should not be removed from the agenda.
(Resonance, March 9, 11; Akhali Taoba, Civil Georgia, Rustavi-2, Regnum, vesti.ru, March 11; Imedi-TV, March 10, 11)