LARGE DEMONSTRATION IN JAVAKHETI
MARKS INCREASED TENSIONS

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Grigor Hakobyan
Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst,BI-WEEKLY BRIEFING VOL. 6 NO. 7 6 APRIL 2005

An increase in the level of tensions has recently been reported in the Armenian-populated province of Javakheti (known as Javakhk in Armenian) in southwestern Georgia . The leaders of United Javakhk (an Armenian public organization in the region) have rallied thousands of people to protest the socioeconomic hardships experienced by the Armenian community of the region. The estimates for the number of participants vary. An article in April 1, 2005 issue of the Armenian Aravot newspaper cited 3, 000 participants, while an article in the April 2, 2005 issue of the daily Azg cited 6, 0000-9,000 participants. Despite unsuccessful attempts by the Georgian police to prevent the gathering, the rally went ahead as planned. Among the many demands presented by the protesters was to stop the withdrawal of Russian military base no. 62 stationed in Akhalkalaki; the recognition by the Georgian Parliament of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923; and the ratification of a law protecting the rights of national minorities in Georgia . Protestors also underscored the damage to the local economy that would follow from closing the Russian Military Base, home to Russia 's 147th Motorized Rifle Division, and first established in 1828. The Akhalkalaki base provides the main source of employment in the region and provides the livelihood for thousands of local Armenians. Given their proximity to Turkey , for the Armenians of Javakhk, the presence of a Russian military base is perceived as a guarantee of their security, based on their fears of a potential new Turkish invasion, similar to the one that occurred following the First World War. During the meeting, the rally organizers recounted some accomplishments from a prior rally held in the same location on March 13, 2005 . Specifically, they mentioned the return of passport and tax services to the town of Akhalkalaki and the agreement by Georgian authorities to include Armenian history classes in the curriculum of Armenian language schools in Georgia . Furthermore, the rally organizers demanded that the Georgian authorities recognize the Armenian language as an official language, next to Georgian, in the region surrounding Javakheti and Ninotsminda, which is heavily populated by Armenians. One of the demands raised at the rally was specifically directed to the father of the religious establishment of Apostolic Church in Armenia , Catholicos Garegin II. According to Azg's report, “United Javakhk called upon the All Armenian Catholicos Garegin-II to give Javakhk the status of a separate Diocese. The participants furthermore called upon Armenians worldwide not to forget about their kin in Javakhk and to pay attention to the problems in Javakhk.” Armenia 's President Robert Kocharyan's unexpected April 1 visit to Georgia has been characterized as a consequence of these rallies. Although the details of the meeting that took place at the Gudauri ski resort, not far from Javakheti, have not been reported yet, the Secretary of the Georgian National Security Council, Gela Bezhuashvili has said that the presidents of both countries discussed the prospects of importing energy from Armenia to Georgia . He further stated that Robert Kocharyan has expressed a position of non-interference in the domestic affairs of Georgia . According to Aravot, those who were behind the Armenian rallies in Javakheti can be found among President Vladimir Putin's entourage in Moscow . These forces are trying to create every possible hurdle to the implementation of the 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreement, signed during the organization's Istanbul Summit, in which the Russian government pledged to withdraw its military bases from Georgia . Some circles in Moscow could be interested in jeopardizing the political stability in Javakheti to the point of igniting a confrontation similar to the ones that occurred between the central authorities of Georgia and its respective minority regions (e.g. South Ossetia , Abkhazia, and though in a different manner, in Ajaria). This would potentially create an argument for maintaining Russia 's military presence in the province, perhaps in a redefined form such as a CIS peacekeeping battalion of the type found in Abkhazia. However, it is yet to be seen whether the two neighboring nations, who stand the most to loose from any armed confrontation, will be able to mitigate this developing crisis.