By Igor Rotar
Georgia’s ethnic Armenian population compactly resides in the Meskhet-Javakhetia region, which borders Armenia, predominantly on the Javakhetian side. Armenians make up more than 90 percent of the population in Javakhetia (the Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda districts of Georgia). Georgian and Armenian historians have long argued over whom Javakhetia (or Javakhk in Armenian) belongs to. The very fact of this polemic is a rather dangerous phenomenon. It was arguments over whom Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia belonged to which led, in the final analysis, to open armed conflict.
The first tension in the Armenian districts of Georgia arose in 1989, as a reaction to a number of meetings of leaders of the Georgian nationalist movement (former Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his companion-in-arms, Meraba Kostava, in particular), at which the population was presented with a doctrine of “hosts and guests” in Georgia. In meetings which followed, in Akhalkalaki and Bogdanovka, Georgian Armenians demanded the creation of an Armenian autonomous district in Georgia and said that they would not tolerate the resettlement into their district of the Svans from the districts which suffered from mountain floods.
As Olga Vasilieva notes, (1) most of the leaders of the Georgian nationalist movement have a much more hostile attitude toward the republic’s Armenian population than they do toward Azeris living in Georgia. For example, the leader of the “Freedom” party, Rezo Shavishvili, said in 1990 that if Armenians had not raised the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, they would certainly have laid claim to the Armenian districts in Georgia adjoining Armenia.
Relations between Georgia’s ethnic Armenian population and ethnic Georgians were further complicated after the beginning of the war in Abkhazia. As Helen Krag and Lars Funch note, “During the war, not just the North Caucasus minorities, but local Russians and Armenians as well, supported the Abkhazians.” (2) In Georgia, the activity of the Marshal Bagramian Battalion (made up of Abkhazian Armenians), which fought on the side of the separatists, has been widely discussed.
After Georgia became independent, Akhalkalaki District (95 percent of whose population is ethnic Armenian) became virtually outside the jurisdiction of the central authorities. “While Zviad Gamsakhurdia was in power, they refused to accept a prefect there, and under Eduard Shevardnadze, the local leaders have expressed categorical distrust in his plenipotentiary representative in the Meskhet-Javakhetia region.” (3) Its Armenian residents refused to serve in the Georgian army from 1992-1995, but were recruited into a local paramilitary organization, which took part in the fighting for Nagorno-Karabakh. The local Armenians got their weapons, by fair means or by foul, from the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki. In essence, the people of Akhalkalaki have formed their own armed formations, and the Georgian authorities, afraid to create yet another hotbed of armed confrontation, have decided not to send troops there.
But the Armenians were not able to “hold onto” all of Meskhet-Javakhetia. In the district next to Akhalkalaki, Akhalitskhe District, (where, before perestroika, there were as many Armenians as Georgians), there were armed formations of “Mkhedrioni,” who were formally subordinated to Shevardnadze. Clearly, Tbilisi’s control did not suit the local Armenian community, and today, Prism’s correspondent is certain that the overwhelming majority of the population in Akhalistkhe is ethnic Georgian.
When you arrive in Akhalkalaki, it is hard at first to determine which country (Russia, Georgia, or Armenia) you are in. There are signs here in all three languages, and Russian and Armenian money is accepted in the bazaar along with Georgian currency. “For common people here, it doesn’t matter which country they live in, Georgia or Armenia. We are both Christian peoples, and we live like brothers. We don’t experience any discrimination here, and can work in both Armenian and Georgian. The standard of living is approximately the same in Armenia and in Georgia. The only advantage of living in Armenia is that they now get electricity without interruption, while we get it only a few hours a day. Now, in Georgia, the situation has basically normalized; nobody threatens us anymore. And we have no reason to take defensive measures,” Armen Khachaturian, a customs inspector from Akhalkalaki, told Prism. On the whole, Khachaturian’s point of view is shared by most residents of the region. Significantly, the organization “Javakhk,” which, several years ago, demanded an ethnic Armenian autonomous district, has now virtually ceased to function.
But at the same time, it would be an exaggeration to think that the situation in Akhalkalaki has normalized completely. According to local residents, the local chief of administration, Sergei Dorbinyan, who is subordinate to Tbilisi, has already been beaten five times by the crowd. The last time he was beaten was about two months ago, when there was a rumor in the region that he supported the withdrawal of the Russian military base from Akhalkalaki. The local population reacts more than painfully to the incessant debate between Moscow and Tbilisi over the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia.
The local Armenians’ interest in the presence of Russian troops in the region can be explained by at least two factors. The local Armenians are traditionally oriented toward Russia — here, they see Russians as potential defenders, if an armed conflict breaks out. No less important is the fact that today, the Russian military base, where several thousand local Armenians now work, is almost the only source support for the local population.
At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that the fact that local Armenians work at the Russian military base is, for Georgian politicians, an additional argument in favor of getting it withdrawn from Akhalkalaki. Prism’s correspondent heard on several occasions from ethnic Georgians that Armenians, under the cover of the Russian flag, have virtually created their own military unit on Georgian territory. The withdrawal of the Russian military base from Akhalkalaki could well provoke anti-Georgian sentiments, and taking into account the fact that today, there are arms in virtually every home in Akhalkalaki, this could lead to rather serious problems.
Another factor which is capable of destabilizing the situation in the region is the problem of the Meskhetian Turks. The Meskhetian Turks lived in Meskhet-Javakhetia (predominantly in Meskhetia) until 1944. By the Adrianople peace treaty of 1829 between Russia and Turkey, part of Meskhet-Javakhetia (now located in Georgia) was ceded from Turkey to Russia. Scholars differ on the issue of the Meskhetian Turks’ origins; some consider them to be “Turkicized” Georgians (most Georgian scholars and politicians hold this view), while others (including the Meskhetian Turks themselves) consider themselves an ethnic group of Turks, and still others — consider them to be an ethnic group of Azeris.
In 1944, Stalin, fearing that Turkey would conclude a military alliance with Germany, deported all of the Meskhetian Turks from the Soviet part of Meskhet-Javakhetia to Central Asia. The vacated lands were settled by Armenians and Georgians. The Meskhetian Turk mass movement, which set as its goal returning to its homeland, arose after the unrest in Fergana in 1989. But Tbilisi, saying that there was a shortage of land in Meskhetia, did not hurry to receive the Meskhetian Turks. Although the Georgian authorities created a special commission to study the possibility of the return of the Meskhetian Turks, in reality, repatriation has not begun. Today, as Yusuf Sarvarov, the head of the Meskhetian Turk society “Vatan,” told Prism, only 184 Meskhetian Turks live in Georgia, and not one of them has settled in Meskhetia.
According to “Vatan’s” estimates, 140,000 Meskhetian Turks are trying to return (according to census data, 207,500 Meskhetian Turks live in the former USSR). According to Sarvarov, Tbilisi’s arguments that Meskhet-Javakhetia is overpopulated are unpersuasive, since 20,000 fewer people live there today than in 1944, and the Meskhetian Turks’ homes are still vacant. Prism’s correspondent, who has been to the former Meskhetian Turk villages, is convinced that this is correct. The Armenians and Georgians preferred to build new houses from scratch, and use the Meskhetian Turks’ homes as auxiliary buildings.
In order to understand the true reason why the beginning of repatriation has been dragged out, it is enough to be in Meskhet-Javakhetia for just a couple of hours. “We will never agree to live with the Meskhetian Turks. We are Christians, and they are Muslims. If they return, we will take up arms,” the inhabitants of the villages abandoned by the Meskhetian Turks told Prism. Tbilisi knows full well that the return of the Meskhetian Turks would hardly go smoothly, without excesses, and therefore is trying, any way it can, to put off the repatriation process.
But today, the withdrawal of Russian troops and the repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks are only a potential threat to security in the region.
The “western variant” for the transportation of Azerbaijani oil goes through Georgia, and incidentally, not far from Meskhet-Javakhetia, and if the situation here gets out of control, this route will become unprofitable. As is well-known, both Moscow and Grozny are interested in the alternative to the “western variant,” the “northern variant,” from Baku through Grozny to Novorossiisk. The recent attempt on Eduard Shevardnadze’s life, and the resulting accusations of Moscow and Grozny are an indirect confirmation of the possibility of provocations from those who support rival methods of transit for Caspian oil.
The situation could also be complicated by the change of leadership in Armenia. Former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian did all he could to nip the separatist tendencies in Akhalkalaki in the bud. A court in Yerevan even closed the Armenian newspaper Lragir for three months for publishing a series of articles calling for the annexation of the regions of Georgia settled by Armenians.
This position is easily explained: due to Armenia’s blockade by Azerbaijan, friendly relations with Georgia are much more important to Yerevan (Georgia is the only corridor which links Armenia to the CIS countries) than acquiring a small mountain district. The fact that if there were a conflict in the Akhalkalaki district, the large Armenian community in Tbilisi (about 10 percent of the city’s population) would virtually be held hostage is also an important factor restraining Yerevan’s appetites.
But soon after the victory of Robert Kocharian, who has the reputation of being a supporter of a tough course in relations with Baku, in the presidential elections, the situation could change. Although it is unlikely, it is still possible that Yerevan, in order to put pressure on its rival, who is interested in the transportation of oil along the “western variant,” could deliberately try to destabilize the situation in the ethnic Armenian regions of Georgia.
1. Olga Vasilieva, Gruziia kak model’ postkommunisticheskoi transformatsii. (Moscow, 1993) 2. Helen Krag and Lars Funch. The North Caucasus: Minorities at a Crossroads. (Manchester, December 1994) 3. Etnicheskie i regional’nye konflikty v Evrazii: Kn. 1, Tsentral’naia Aziia i Kavkaz, edited by A. Malashenko, V. Koppiters, D. Trenin. (Moscow, 1997)
Igor Rotar is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.
Translated by Mark Eckert