FOR JAVAKHETI ARMENIANS, HOME IS WHERE THE BASE IS

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A EurasiaNet Photo Essay by Molly Corso: 9/27/02

Sparking fears about Georgia's stability, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in mid-September that he could send his soldiers into Georgia in order to fight Chechen rebels in the Pankisi Gorge. Putin and his diplomats promised they would honor Georgia's territorial integrity. But to the ethnic Armenians of the Javakheti region, the Russian army may inspire firmer allegiance than Georgia's borders.

Georgia, always a small country, divided into four pieces following two bloody, ethnically driven wars in the last decade. Breakaway regions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain intent on seceding, and the largely lawless Pankisi Gorge contains Georgian and Chechen elements. So when Tbilisi newspapers reported in March that Javakheti's Armenians wanted to secede, Georgian Parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze visited the region. She found that people's despair stemmed more from social concerns than political ones. As these pictures show, the Russian army base in Akhalkalakhi serves as a center for the region. Javakheti dwellers would rather hold on to their jobs at the base than join Armenia, most observers say. But while Burjanadze's visit soothed tensions, it only highlighted the gulf separating the policies of the Georgian government from the wishes of the Javakheti Armenians.

Georgia and Russia agreed that Akhalkalakhi and other Russian bases in Georgia would become Georgian property according to an official schedule. Russia has delayed that schedule, at times saying it would need years to complete the transfer. A plan exists for developing jobs and services in the affected region in Javakheti, Armenian news agency Arminfo reported on September 25, but it remains sketchy. With Russia threatening to enter the Pankisi Gorge to root out terrorists, this issue has become more sensitive. Georgian politicians in Tbilisi fiercely want to quell any threat of Russian strong-arming or even invasion. People near the base, though, see the Russian outpost as a benign provider of jobs and security in a region where national labels have not meant much for at least a decade.

Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, sits 300 kilometers down a twisting road from Akhalkalakhi. The road passes between mountain ranges and rivers, reinforcing the sense of distance most Javakheti residents feel from official Georgia. Historically, people in the region have associated more with the Turkish and Armenian citizens just across the nearby borders and less with Georgians. After centuries of war and other geopolitical forces, Armenians and Meskheti Turks have lived in the region in greater numbers than Georgians. Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markaryan told the Ayots Ashkhar newspaper on September 26 that he had proposed opening a consulate in the region.

Certainly, Armenia's government has an interest in what happens in Javakheti. Agasi Karabekan, the local dentist and an Armenian by nationality, says his family has lived near Akhalkalakhi for five generations. Most ethnic Georgians in the region migrate to Tbilisi, he said, estimating that there are probably nine Armenians for every Georgian in the town. Students learn Georgian in schools but usually speak Armenian at home. This has, notably, survived as a mostly peaceful arrangement. Pero Zaspanidze, a 70-year-old Armenian, has lived in Georgia her whole life. "There are no problems with the Georgians. They are good friends and neighbors." Sveta, who withheld her last name, agreed. "We peacefully live with the Georgians. We don't have any problems with them," she said. "We are like brothers...we don't want to join Armenia." But people in the region need to work, and that complicates loyalties.

"When you speak about the base, it is imperative that you understand what it means for us," says the dentist. "The base provides a lot of jobs. More that 3,000 people from the region work there, and there is no work other than that. The second thing is the base is a guarantee of safety for the region. We are 21 kilometers from Turkey. While life is different today, [in the past] we had continual problems with the Turkish." Meskheti Turks, a group Stalin deported to Central Asia in 1944 and whose members fled to Russia after 1989, remain subject to prejudice. According to an agreement with the Council of Europe, Georgia obliged itself to draft a law providing for the Meskhetis' return in 2001 and implement it by 2012. However, a Georgian official said September 25 that Tbilisi could not afford to repatriate the group. Though nobody has announced official plans to return the Meskhetis to Javakheti, people like Sveta take pains to express how unwelcome they would be. "How are they going to live with us?" asked Sveta. " They are our old enemies....This is our land and we are going to live here."

The main concern remains the social condition of the town. Residents like Zaspanidze scrape by selling fruit and nuts on the roadside to supplement sparse (and frequently unpaid) pensions, making the idea of losing the Russian base to a somewhat alien and demonstrably imperfect Georgian government unthinkable to many. "The Russians help us," said Sveta. "We are peace-loving people...Why did the Russians become 'bad?' We don't see anything bad about them."

Dr. Karabekan may speak for many Javakheti Armenians with his philosophical take on transnational issues. He says citizens cannot interfere with "the government's business" and that "there is no work anywhere, so complaining is senseless." But for a community that has been content to leave the government alone for years, the notion of losing an economic base may be too hard to swallow. "There are problems throughout the world," said Sveta, "but we want the base to stay."

Posted September 27, 2002 © Eurasianet