Article published in 21/12/2005 Issue
By Albertine GIAN in Akhalkalaki
Translated by Ellie FORSHAW and Victoria BRYAN
They request the intervention of the European Union and international human rights bodies as mediators in their conflict with the central Georgian government. In Javakhetia, where the majority of the population is Armenian, the identity crisis is at the heart of the problem.
Vahag Tchakhalian, aged 23, is the president of the ‘Armenian Youth Sports and Culture Union'. In March 2005, he founded the alliance of village and town representatives and various organisation leaders from the Samtskhe-Javakhetia region, in a movement called ‘United Javakhk'.
The main aims of this organisation are the preservation of the Armenian community through the safeguard of its secular culture, its unique language and the apostolic Church, as well as the defence of the rights of Javakhetian Armenians and the socio-economic development of the region.
Following the example of the Samtskhe-Javakhetia administrative organisation, “United Javakhk” seeks regional autonomy. It is the only judicial solution to be backed by most, and has the aim of defending the Armenian community against Georgian assimilatory nationalism and against the danger of increased Turkish presence in Javakhetia.
Javakhetia's economic slump also needs to be urgently addressed in order to stop the emigration of its people to Russia. The stakes are high, on demographic, cultural, economic and social agendas. It is a battle on all fronts that the Javakhetia Armenians must wage alone. The future looks bleak. Here's why.
What kind of difficulties do the Armenians in Javakhetia have to face?
In 1995, the Georgian authorities artificially divided areas with a majority of Armenian people into various administrative entities. Thus, the district of Tsalka, with a high population of Armenians, belongs to the Kvemo-Kartli province. On the other hand, the district of Borjomi, with a high population of Georgians and with no relation whatsoever with the Javakhk, was made part of Samtskhe-Javakhetia province, whose other districts are Adigeni, Akhalkalaki, Akhaltsikhe, Aspindza and Ninotsminda. As a consequence, the percentage of Armenian and Georgian population in the region is 60% and 40% respectively.
In public bodies, the percentage of Armenian personnel is infinitely lower and does not correspond to the higher percentage of the Armenian population. Thus, within the administration of the province, only two in every twenty employees are Armenian. Moreover, in comparison with other regions of Georgia, Javakhetia is in a very difficult socio-economic situation. In this part of the country, natural obstacles (e.g. difficult climate, low temperatures, mountainous terrain, etc.) do not play a role as major as other more subjective factors, such as the calculated “negligence” of Georgian authorities with regard to the problems in the region (e.g. the appalling state of the roads, customs barriers, etc.) and the smothering of a certain number of Armenian entrepreneurial initiatives.
Up until recently, when electricity generated in Armenia was not yet up and running, power cuts in the Javakhetia region were commonplace. The power line coming from Armenia that supplies the region's electricity has still not been legalised by the Georgian government. Unemployment rates in that region reach 100%, pushing unemployed men to emigrate to Russia. This happened in the past with the dissolution of the USSR, when around 25% of the region's population emigrated. The Georgian authorities have cut government help for the creation of new local jobs to a minimum.
Ever since the Soviet period and especially since independence, the many governments that succeeded each other in Georgia have pursued this political direction, with the slogan “Georgia belongs to Georgians”. In Samtskhe-Javakhetia, it is obvious that the government wishes to totally dislodge the Armenians in the region and to destroy their culture. To this end, they use all possible means, backed by the police forces. More violent and methodical approaches have been adopted ever since the ‘Rose Revolution' and the accession to power of Mikhael Saakashvili.
Four recent events are evidence of this. In June 2005, the director of the only Armenian school in Akhaltsikhe, Liouba Matevossian, was fired. Robert Mouradian, who is not fluent in Armenian and who has a bad reputation, was named in her stead. Following the orders of Youri Pogossov, the current leader of home affairs in the Akhalkalaki district, the police of Akhaltsikhe resorted to violence when school children and their parents demonstrated against the authorities' arbitrary decision in this matter.
Another event happened in June 2005. Members of the special intervention group of the Georgian Interior Ministry in the Tsalka district stopped the car of 26-year-old Vladimir Nazaretian. When he protested, the special forces opened fire. Vladimir was hit in the chest and in the leg.
On August 13th, a group of Georgian ecclesiasts and students, escorted by the police forces of the region, went to the Armenian village of Samsar. They announced that a political decision had been taken in the highest circles regarding the construction of a Georgian monastery near the village, which already boasts an 11th century Armenian church. On August 16th, after three days of unsuccessful negotiation, the villagers were forced to throw out the disruptors.
The last events happened when members of the Interior Ministry, acting on the orders of the Ministry, opened fire on the unarmed inhabitants of Akhalkalaki who were demonstrating against the unfounded closure of several shops in their town.
Are you satisfied with the representatives of the Javakhetia region in the Georgian parliament?
No. The representatives of the Javakhetia region are extremely passive with regard to the defence of the rights of the Armenian community. Following the lead of the Armenian authorities, they do not see any political problems within Javakhetia. During debates in the Georgian parliament regarding the more serious problems faced by the regions and national minorities, the position of the Armenian delegates is contrary to the interests of the Armenian community.
For example, when the parliament debated the question of the suppression of property tax, an essential part of the regional budget which is not put into the state's coffers, not one of the Armenian delegates spoke out against that decision. Similarly, when the Georgian parliament forcefully ratified the convention for the protection of national minorities, without having adopted the 10th and 11th articles which state that national minorities may rightfully use their native tongue, not a single one of the five delegates spoke out against the exclusion of these essential articles.
What do you think of the construction of a railway line linking the towns of Kars, Akhalkalaki and Baku?
The people in Javakhetia disapprove of this project. In the first place, if it did happen, the number of Turks in the region would rise dramatically. With this in mind, I would like to state the following fact, which is not widely known. Between 1918 and 1920, during the Turkish invasion following the genocide of Armenians in western Armenia, the Turkish army massacred more than half of the Armenian population in Samtskhe-Javakhetia, i.e. nearly 40,000 people. The authorities in the independent republic of Georgia, not only failed to defend the Armenian community in the region, but actually helped to kill the Armenians by giving the order to shut the doors and preventing refugees from entering the safety zones in the centre of Georgia. This is why an increased presence in the region of Turks, the country which carried out the genocide and which still refuses to recognise it, would be unacceptable for the Armenians of Javakhetia.
Secondly, carrying out this project could increase the immigration of Meskhet Turks to Javakhetia. Turkey desires this, in spite of the fact that Meskhet Turks were expelled from the Aspindza district, where mainly Georgians live at present. Therefore, this project would directly threaten the safety of the Armenian people. Bearing in mind what I said previously, the Armenian community in Javakhetia would not allow the project to go ahead.
Did you take part in the forum held on 23 and 24 September in Akhalkalaki, following which a resolution demanding autonomy for Javakhetia was adopted by the majority of the organisations present?
Of course, but I was not able to sign the resolution. I took part, albeit passively, in the forum during which the essential interests of the Armenian community in Javakhetia were debated. Creating an autonomous Armenian region, encompassing the areas of Akhaltsikhe, Aspindza, Akhalkalaki, Ninotsminda and Tsalka, seems to be the only way of ensuring the physical, demographic and cultural security of the Armenian majority in the region.
Demanding the autonomy is not only supported by the Council of Organisations of Samtskhe-Javakhetia, as the Georgian authorities would have you believe, but also by the whole of the Armenian community in the region. Within a multi-national Georgia, constructing a stable state is only possible on the basis on a democratic federal model where all citizens, no matter their nationality, would have equal opportunities to preserve their national identity. But today, the Georgian political elite are on a path of imperialistic chauvinism with Russo-Byzantine tendencies, leaving national minorities with only the choice of emigration or assimilation.
What do you think of the offer made to both the secessionist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Adjaria of a statute of autonomy within Georgia?
If widespread autonomy can be given to 20,000 Ossetians under the pressure of force, why should the same not be true for the 150,000 Armenians living in Javakhetia alone? The Georgian authorities do not have the moral right to refuse the request of the Javakhetian Armenians. Mainly because following the collapse of the USSR, during the last 14 years, when other national minorities took up arms against the Georgian authorities, we were patient, in spite of the fact that we were the most powerful community, the best organised and with the greatest number of people. Even today, when we are faced with events such as those seen in the Armenian community of Nakhitchevan, we are patient. But no one knows how long our patience will last…
Apart from Javakhetia, are there are other major Armenian communities in Georgia?
Armenian populations can be found in Adjaria (before the collapse of the USSR, there were 25,000 Armenians, now there are just 15,000). There is a major community in Tbilisi, although their numbers have been halved since 1991. In addition, Armenians live in just about every district in Georgia and they are either partially or completely assimilated. For example, catholic Armenians used to live in the district of Adigueni, in the Oude village; now you will find ‘catholic Georgians', a denomination which was unknown until the 20th century.
Following the retreat of Russian bases from Akhalkalaki, what role do you think the Russians will play in Javakhetia in the future?
I would like to extend this question and not only touch on the influence of Russia, but also that of other major powers. If, in Javakhetia, political issues can begin to be solved with the support of the European Union, if living conditions for the Armenian community in the region can be gradually improved, if Armenians in Javakhetia feel that they have the same rights and sense of dignity as Georgian citizens, then in these circumstances, not a single government could fail to exert constructive external pressure on the regional situation. But if all of these issues continue as they are today, then exterior pressure could become worse.
Which solutions can you foresee for Javakhetia to overcome the socio-political crisis that it is facing today?
When the Georgian and Armenian prime ministers met, Zourab Nogaideli, the Georgian PM, declared that he did not need any help and that socio-economic problems were being resolved. However, in the course of the last six months, not a single job has been created at a local level. In our opinion, the Georgian authorities are not the only ones who are in a position to solve the socio-economic problems in the region. In order to find solutions, it is necessary to encourage investment from the Javakhetian Armenians currently living in Russia and Armenia and also to attract resources from the Armenian diaspora.
Are the people in the region satisfied with the stance of the Armenian government on Javakhetia?
Armenian leaders believe that the tense atmosphere in Samtskhe-Javakhetia can be explained by the socio-economic problems in the region and cannot see any political issues.
I am convinced that the Armenian authorities have not been informed of the widespread abuse of rights in the Armenian minority in Georgia. However, in order to maintain stable relations with Georgia, they prefer not to challenge it and therefore state there are no political problems in Javakhetia. I believe that the Armenian authorities will be forced to change their position very soon by pressure from those living in Armenia, from the thousands of Javakhetians and from patriotic Armenian supporters and those in the diaspora. It would be more sensible and efficient to recognise the existence of the issues I have mentioned and to suggest that the Georgian authorities accept the mediation of international bodies skilled in defending human rights in order to solve the numerous problems in Javakhetia.
(1) Region with a high population of Muslims (Azeri).
(2) Current president of Georgia, elected in January 2004 following the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze.
Interview published in France Arménie , edition dating from 1-15 December 2005.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.