Presidents Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia and Robert Kocharian of Armenia met informally on April 1-2 in the Georgian mountain resort of Gudauri, without media coverage. Their agenda included the situation in Akhalkalaki, where two recent rallies by local Armenian residents aired political and economic demands, notably for the retention of Russia’s military base. Following the two presidents’ meeting, Kocharian was quoted as saying, “The issue of withdrawal of Russian bases is Georgia’s internal affair, for Georgia to resolve. Armenia will not voice an official position.” Georgia’s National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili confirmed, “Armenia’s president is not going to interfere” (Pan-Armenian Net, Civil Georgia, April 2).
A hitherto little-known organization, United Javakh, organized those rallies on March 13 and March 31 in Akhalkalaki, the location of a Russian military base, and seat of one of the two predominantly Armenian-populated districts (the other is Ninotsminda) in Samtskhe-Javakheti province. Several thousand attended the first rally; for the second, attendance estimates ranged from less than 1,000 to several thousand. Georgia’s authorities are considering most of the demands, though the first two demands appear designed as nonstarters, include:
Russian military base to remain in Akhalkalaki;
Georgian Parliament to “recognize the genocide of Armenians” by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War;
Armenian language to be conferred official status, on a par with the Georgian language, in the predominantly Armenian-populated Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda districts;
Armenian history classes to be included in the curriculum of Armenian-language schools, alongside the history of Georgia;
School excursions to Armenia to be sponsored by the authorities;
Javakh diocese to be created by the Armenian Church;
Law on the protection of national minority rights to be adopted by the Georgian parliament;
Direct elections to be held for local government;
Passport services and tax offices to be opened in Akhalkalaki;
Customs checkpoints on the border with Armenia to be set up near Akhalkalaki;
Reconstruction of the road along the Akhaltsikhe-Akhalkalaki-Ninotsminda-Armenian border to be made a priority by the Georgian government;
Georgian government to sign contracts for supplying Javakheti with electricity from Armenia.
The two rallies appealed to Armenians worldwide and to Armenia’s government to help relieve the economic situation of their kin in Javakheti. They promised to use only legal means to attain those goals. The question is whether those goals would escalate. The demand for official language status was not aired at the first rally, but made its appearance at the second.
Georgian authorities are handling the situation cautiously and sensitively. Accommodating socio-economic demands would help defuse the two potentially explosive political demands that top the list.
Between the two rallies, the Samtskhe-Javakheti governor (an ethnic Georgian), the head of the Akhalkalaki administration, and the parliamentary deputy for the Akhalkalaki district (both ethnic Armenians), met with rally organizers and other local Armenian activists, notably the youth and sports organization Jemi. It was agreed to recommend that the government in Tbilisi should set up an expert group that would draw up proposals to address most of those issues, with participation of local Armenian groups.
The authorities have promised to meet some of the social and cultural demands and seem inclined to meet most of them. Some of these issues could be addressed within the country’s pending legislation, e.g., on elections to local government, or on ratification of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities. Regarding road reconstruction, the Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki road is a government priority. While Javakheti is difficult to access because of its ruined infrastructure, its communications with Armenia function relatively better than with the rest of Georgia. There are very few Georgian-language schools in the areas compactly populated by Armenians in this region.
The demand for genocide recognition, however, cannot be accepted without launching Georgia on a collision course with Turkey and Azerbaijan. The demand for retention of the Russian military base is being encouraged by Moscow, which has in recent years orchestrated managed protests in Abkhazia and Transnistria against the withdrawal of Russian troops. Meanwhile, Russian media are stirring up among local Armenians the irrational fear that Turkish troops would come in, if Russian troops withdraw.
Georgian officials from Saakashvili on down have repeatedly assured local Armenian employees of the Russian base, as well as locally recruited military personnel at the Akhalkalaki base (many of whom are also Armenians), that the Georgian state would re-employ them, once the Russian garrison withdraws. They are also reassuring local Armenians that only Georgian troops would replace Russian troops, if these withdraw. Tbilisi is clearly aware of the need to be responsive regarding socio-economic and cultural issues in order to defuse the destabilizing, externally encouraged demand on retention of Russian troops.
(Interfax, March 17, 18; Imedi TV, March 20; Noyan Tapan, March 22, April 1; Arminfo, March 18, 23; Kavkasia-Press, March 23; NTV Mir, March 27; Azg, April 2)