STORY: FRIENDS AT DINNER, FOES AT POLITICS? Print this page  |  Email this page   
By Theresa Freese

In Samtskhe-Javakheti, an isolated, predominantly ethnic Armenian region in the country’s south, the Saakashvili administration faces a critical test of its assertions that it can build a unified Georgia without shortchanging ethnic diversity.

Georgian demands that Russia withdraw from its 62nd military base in Akhalkalaki, a key Javakheti town, have dominated the headlines on this issue, but tensions between local Armenians and the central government have been long in building. Language rights, self-government, and development of the local economy and infrastructure are just a few of the many requests Samtskhe-Javakheti’s Armenian population, Georgia’s largest ethnic minority, has made to Tbilisi.

Locals argue that if the government overlooks their complaints, it could risk seeing another ethnic conflict develop on Georgian territory. For its part, the government claims that its treatment of the so-called Javakheti Armenians, who are concentrated in the region’s Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki districts, marks a noticeable departure from the Shevardnadze administration, which, some officials say, did not have a policy for Samtskhe-Javakheti at all.

The fate of the Armenians employed at Akhalkalaki’s Russian base – according to President Mikheil Saakashvili, numbering no more than 340 -- headlines policy for the region. Saakashvili has said that the government will help all local base employees find new jobs, not deprive them of existing housing and subsidize trips to Tbilisi. To heighten the community’s sense of inclusion, the government has also promised reforms on self-government and Georgian language instruction.

For economic development, the government looks to a highway, to be financed by the US Millennium Challenge Account, that would link the region with the rest of Georgia and, in theory, boost trade opportunities. Once construction is completed, a trip to Tbilisi that now takes six hours would be slashed to two and a half. A new railway line that will run from nearby Kars, Turkey through Akhalkalaki en route to Azerbaijan is expected to expand those opportunities still further.

Meanwhile, government officials are regular visitors. Saakashvili himself traveled to Akhalkalaki in December 2004 and proclaimed that the government and local Armenians could solve the region’s problems “if we stand together.”

But, so far, these promises have failed to convince much of the local population. “On paper, everything is fine,” commented Arthur Pogosyan, a leader of the Armenian rights movement United Javakh that made its first appearance at a March 2005 protest rally against closure of the Russian base in Akhalkalaki. “But we want results.”

Though few observers support Pogosyan’s contention that the situation in Javakheti is “pre-conflict,” the head of one international organization argues that the region warrants careful watching.

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“Unlike other regions in Georgia, there is a risk in Javakheti that socio-economic problems may turn into ethnic problems,” said Tom Trier, head of the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI), the only international organization with a permanent representation in Javakheti. “There is a fear that the government is not interested in them. This makes the region a potential conflict region.”

Not only Georgia and Russia have interests here. Armenia provides funding for schools and, on May 13, 2005, announced plans to finance road repairs in the area as well. The border with Armenia in Samtskhe-Javakheti is largely open.

Nonetheless, Trier expressed confidence that Georgia’s government is showing “good will” in the region, is taking Javakheti’s problems “seriously” and pointed to its recent decision to move passport services from the regional seat of Akhaltsikhe to Akhalkalaki as one example of how “policy dialogue results in something concrete.”

Tamara Tsikhistavi, head of the political and international relations department at the Office of the State Minister on Conflict Resolution Issues, which oversees policy on Samtskhe-Javakheti's Armenian population, argued, though, that minority groups’ rights should not differ from those of the majority Georgian population. “The whole country is in a socio-economic crisis and all of the regions face the same problems,” Tsikhistavi said. “It is not just a problem in Samtskhe-Javakheti. But the socio-economic problems become more tense when they become politicized by minority groups.” Pogosyan stressed that United Javakh’s concerns for now are primarily socio-economic, but suggested that politics could play a greater role if the government is not seen as meeting local Armenians’ concerns. “We are all brothers together at the table,” he said of Georgia’s various ethnic minorities, “but not politically.” If so, United Javakh, and more radically minded groups, too, could have plenty of grumblings to draw upon.

Only three days after the Georgian parliament passed its March 10, 2005 parliamentary resolution calling for the immediate and scheduled withdrawal of Russia’s two military bases from Georgia, Armenians in Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki districts launched a series of demonstrations that drew a crowd of some 4,000 persons. In interviews with EurasiaNet, Governor Goga Khajidze, and President Saakashvili charged that the Russians had told local Armenians that they would not grant the visas necessary for their summer work in Russia unless they attended a demonstration against the base withdrawal.

The announcement of 2008 as the deadline for Russia’s withdrawal from its bases in Akhalkalaki and Batumi promises to feed local worries. For Javakheti’s 90,000 Armenians, most of whom do not speak Georgian, the 62nd base is an economic lifeline. Base employees can opt for Russian citizenship and receive regular trips to Moscow. Locals choose between sending their children to Moscow or Yerevan – rather than Tbilisi – for a university education.

One ethnic Armenian soldier who has served three years at the 62nd military base commented that when the base closes, he would have to decide whether or not to move to Russia and leave his family behind. “Many people ask me how to join the Russian army—nobody asks me how to join the Georgian army,” the man continued. “If the Georgian army improves, people will go. But there is a big difference between the Russian and the Georgian armies.”

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Stability is seen as another plus. As much as half of Javakheti’s population regularly travels to Russia for work, said Akhalkalaki Mayor Nair Iritsyan, and the money they send home to relatives “is in the bank.” Commented one young man: “If there were no help from Russia, we would have nothing.

The base also provides some form of psychological reassurance. Many locals believe that, if not for the Russians, Turkey, Armenia’s traditional enemy and a former suzerain of Samtskhe-Javakheti, would be likely to invade. As one shopkeeper’s wife explained, “As long as the Georgian government does not recognize the [1915] genocide [of Armenians by Ottoman Turkey] how can they defend us?”

Decentralizing decision-making is United Javakh’s solution to local residents’ demands. “Give us the same things you promise to the Abkhazians and Ossetians,” said Pogosyan. “To choose your government directly.” Currently, the president appoints Samtskhe-Javakheti’s governor, as for other regions in Georgia. An elected government in Samtskhe-Javakheti, Pogosyan argued, “will minimize problems with minorities for the center.”

In an April 18 interview with EurasiaNet, President Saakashvili appeared to support that notion. “I don’t believe in artificial decentralization. I believe in self-government . . .We should have local democracy and fully elected local administrators,” Saakashvili said.

The president downplayed chances for conflict in the region – or with Armenia – and argued that ethnic Armenians’ seasonal shuttle jobs in Russia should be viewed positively. “Because of regional cooperation, minorities can benefit more than others,” Saakashvili said. “Societies are tied together. They have business contacts. This is an asset.”

Nonetheless, the president touted “affirmative action” as an option “to bring more of the population into public service.” Failure to secure state-paid jobs because of their ignorance of Georgian is a frequently cited complaint for ethnic Armenians. In response to the criticism, the president said that Georgia would take “a soft approach” on language, and adopt internationally accepted standards on the issue. The country faces a September 2005 deadline for ratification of the Council of Europe’s Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, a document that stipulates that ethnic minorities be given “adequate opportunities” for instruction in their own language – at government expense.

For now, local Armenians have opted to wait and see. “For 14 years we have been loyal to this government, since independence in 1991,” said Pogosyan. “We want the government to speak to us like people.”

Editor’s Note: Theresa Freese, a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, is a freelance journalist and political analyst who has been conducting research on unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus since 2003.

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