Akhalkalaki, the main town in the predominantly Armenian-populated and Armenia-bordered Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia, was the site of an anti-government protest rally on October 5. The incident reaffirmed that this turbulent region remains unstable, despite the Georgian government’s efforts to normalize the situation there.
The unrest began after tax officials from Tbilisi, conducting a routine inspection of local retailers, closed 10 shops for financial irregularities. The shop owners, mostly ethnic Armenians, and about 300 supporters, evidently influenced by local provocateurs, gathered outside the Akhalkalaki district administration building to protest the alleged violation of the Armenians’ rights. The protestors’s complaints quickly moved from economic issues to political demands such as stopping the closure of Russian military bases and granting political autonomy for the region.
Local police dispersed the rally using rubber truncheons and firing shots in the air. The clash between the authorities and the protesters left several people injured. The police efforts to break up the rally instead prompted more residents of Akhalkalaki and nearby villages to join the protest, making the situation even tenser.
Civic groups based in Samtskhe-Javakheti, as well as some Russian sources, have alleged that the government deliberately planned the brutal end to the protest in order to intimidate the local Armenian population following local demands for political autonomy in the region. A council of local non-governmental organizations, meeting September 23-24, adopted a resolution calling on the Georgian government to grant autonomy to the region (see EDM, September 29).
Javakhk-Info, the local news agency, distributed a bellicose statement by regional Armenian non-governmental organizations saying that the aggressive behavior by the Georgian authorities towards the region’s ethnic Armenians leaves them “no other choice than the use of force to protect their interests and dignity” (Regnum, October 5). However, a source in Georgian law enforcement told Kavkas Press that the police shot into the air only after one of the protesters had taken a shot first (Kavkas Press October 5).
Giorgi Khachidze, the presidentially appointed governor of the region, managed to calm the angry crowd through negotiations. Khachidze criticized the police for excessive use of force and promised to hold some of them accountable. “In my opinion, they had no right to fire shots, even in the air,” he said (TV-Rustavi-2, October 6). Meanwhile, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili hailed the police actions, saying, “there is no serious problem” and emphasizing that law-enforcement officials were merely maintaining order in a region that had been poorly controlled in recent years (TV-Imedi, October 6).
Saakashvili and other Georgian officials have tried to downplay the latest events in Akhalkalaki, claming that the radical organizations advocating autonomy for the region do not enjoy serious popular support.
Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told the Armenian newspaper Aikakan Jamanak that Tbilisi welcomes autonomy for Javakheti so long as that means no more than ordinary self-governance. Merabishvili said he is not interested in the Javakheti civic groups expressing political ambitions. “We are going to listen to the elected deputies,” he said (Regnum, October 6-7).
A diplomatic warning from Yerevan snapped the Georgian authorities out of their complacency. On October 8, Garnik Isagulian, national security aide to Armenian President Robert Kocharian, warned Tbilisi to show restraint when dealing with the predominantly Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti. Of the October 5 clash, Isagulyan commented, “Georgian authorities should be extremely cautious and attentive in their actions, because any minor provocation could turn into a large-scale clash.” Isagulian also dismissed rumors about Russian intelligence playing a role in recent events in Samtskhe-Javakheti (Regnum, Civil Georgia, October 8). However, the Russian media’s wide and largely biased coverage of the October 5 unrest in Akhalkalaki, routinely voicing the Kremlin’s position, suggests that Russia is not a mere observer.
Georgian media have long speculated that Russia and several radical Armenian groups are behind the provocations in Javakheti. Van Baiburt, an Armenian member of the Georgian parliament, confirmed this in an interview with GazetaSNG.ru. Meanwhile, Levon Mkrtichyan, from the Armenian Dashnaktsutiun party, one of the alleged supporters of the Javakheti radical organizations, insisted that Javakheti Armenians advocate only for cultural autonomy.
The Armenian newspapers are increasingly linking the recent unrest in Samtskhe-Javakheti with the construction of the Kars-Akhalkalaki railway, which bypasses Armenia. They suggest that as Georgia increases its ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey, Armenia may be left isolated. Armenian papers also argue that if Georgia’s national interests conflict with those of Armenia, Tbilisi “should not be astonished at the eruption of a natural expression of self-preservation and self-defense among the Samtskhe-Javakheti population.”
As the problem becomes increasingly complicated, Tbilisi will be forced to act. When he visited Armenia on September 29-30, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli stated that Georgia would not implement any programs directed against Armenia. Meanwhile, Nogaideli publicly underlined that regional autonomy in Georgia is only available for Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Ajaria.
Nogaideli’s Armenian trip, coming on the heels of the demands for autonomy in Samstkhe-Javakheti, suggests that stability in Samtskhe-Javakheti greatly depends on Yerevan’s good will, as Tbilisi has always appealed to the Armenian government to mediate serious disturbances in the region. Saakashvili’s government, which inherited the unresolved problems of Samtskhe-Javakheti from former president Eduard Shevardnadze, follows the same pattern. Saakashvili, like Shevardnadze, strives to resolve the region’s problems with short-term decisions (see EDM, March 23, May 24, August 3). Meanwhile, Yerevan is gaining more leverage to manage the situation in Samtskhe-Javakheti and may be clandestinely urging Tbilisi to reconcile itself to this fact.