The recent anti-terrorist operations in Georgia (see EDM July 25, 29) have overshadowed coverage of anti-Georgian developments flaring in Georgia’s turbulent Javakheti region, a southern area predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians.
On July 17, Armenian residents of Samsar blocked efforts by students and nuns from Tbilisi to help restore a local church dating to the 12th century. The Armenians accused the visitors of attempting to “Georgianize the Armenian church.” The verbal argument deteriorated into a brawl that left several of the Georgians severely injured. That same day, local Armenians raided a Georgian school in the nearby town of Akhalkalaki. The police managed to contain the incident, but the situation in the region remains tense.
The Georgian and Armenian governments have done their best to hush up the incident. In a July 21 joint statement, the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Georgian diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church expressed regret about the Samsar incident and ascribed it to “incorrect information circulating among the local population.” Vazgen Mirzakhanian, bishop of the Armenian Diocese of Georgia, apologized to the Georgian victims.
Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Margarian’s impromptu visit to Georgia on July 24-25 evidently sought to relieve the explosive situation in the region. During his trip to Javakheti Margarian received a list of demands from the local Armenian community to the Georgian government. They were presented by leaders of the local civic organizations Javakh, United Javakh-Democratic Alliance, and Virk. These groups want the Georgian government to stop the alleged discrimination of the Armenians, make the Armenian language the regional language in Javakheti, stop the “Georgianization” of the region’s Armenian cultural heritage, begin construction of a highway connecting Javakheti with Armenia (which the Armenian government is ready to finance), register Virk as a political party, and include Armenia’s history in the curriculum of Armenian schools in Georgia. These Armenian organizations insist on declaring the Armenian language as the second state language in Georgia (home of about 300,000 ethnic Armenians) or at least in Javakheti, and the adoption a special law on ethnic minorities.
Margarian said that this year the Armenian government has allocated $350,000 to support the Armenian schools in Javakheti and is ready to increase funding if Tbilisi agrees. He also asked the Georgian government to jointly determine the provenance of the churches in the region, which are claimed by both religious groups.
Georgian Parliamentary Chair Nino Burjanadze told Margarian that the provocateurs fueling enmity between Georgians and Armenians play into the hands of the common enemy, evidently alluding to Russia. However, there are reports that some radical Armenian organizations support anti-Tbilisi activities in Javakheti.
Many analysts in Georgia believe that Tbilisi should handle the region more carefully to avert new incidents. Soon after the collapse of the USSR, some local Armenian leaders proposed political autonomy for the region. But despite assistance from international donors to improve the region’s socio-economic situation, the Georgian government has not been able to find a workable solution to the problem of “Javakheti Armenians.” That local Armenians distrust the central government’s policies complicates the situation (see EDM, March 23, May 24).
For example, the Russian military base in the region purchased large quantities of local produce. But local leaders doubt Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s proposal to feed the Georgian army with local foodstuffs after the Russian base closes. The Armenian-populated Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda regions boast an agricultural yield that exceeds the dietary needs of the 20,000-strong Georgian army by 15-20 times.
Another irritation came one day after the Samsar incident, when the Georgian armed forces completed the large-scale “Armor 2005” exercises at the Orfolo range near Javakheti. Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili hinted that the fictional enemy “Blue Country,” which according to the scenario had temporarily seized a Georgian region, was not fictional at all. “It exists for Georgia indeed,” he said.
The Georgian media accuses the Javakh, United Javakh-Democratic Alliance, and Virk civic movements of being behind the regions’ anti-Tbilisi mood. However, Virk leader David Rstakian claimed that these organizations have actually prevented protests by the Armenian community from escalating to the separatism seen in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Vahan Chakhalian, leader of the United Javakh- Democratic Alliance, which unites eight youth organizations, said that the Russian military pullout leaves local Armenians defenseless. Chakhalian and other local leaders have openly stated that they would retaliate if Georgian units replace the Russian troops. They also object to a government-sponsored plan to accommodate Georgian families in the region, which they claim would artificially “Georgianize” Javakheti. “We have yet to see whether the Georgian army enters here,” Chakhalian warned.
Leaders of the local Armenian organizations argue that the local authorities in Javakheti misinform Tbilisi about the real situation in the region and the preferences of the local establishment. The information vacuum and poor knowledge of Georgian laws by the locals, caused by a lack of knowledge of Georgian language, is likely the root of many problems. Giorgi Khachidze, the Tbilisi-appointed governor of Javakheti, says that the methodology of teaching the Georgian language needs to be improved. “The Georgian books in the Armenian schools are getting dusty, because they don’t need them,” he said.
Meanwhile, the socio-economic problems in Javakheti are similar to those in other Georgian regions. However, some local groups, guided by external forces in Russia and Armenia, may be trying to politicize these problems and prepare the ground for the region’s eventual separation from Georgia.
(Regnum, July 18, 25, 28, 29; Akhali Versia, July 21; Resonance, July 20, TV-Rustavi-2, July 17, Vremya novostei, July 19)