CALL FOR AUTONOMY SPARKS CONCERN

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The Messenger, Georgia
Sept 29 2005

Calls this month by the Akhalkalaki-based Armenian organizations
Javakhk and Virk demanding that Javakheti region be granted autonomy
and its own parliament have revived Georgia's deep-seated paranoia
over separatism.

The organizations are trying to give their entreaty a peaceful and
constructive character and have argued simply that if Tbilisi is
offering similar perks to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, why not to
other regions. But as Georgia's history shows, the idea of autonomy
has involved at best simmering rivalry toward the central government
(as in the case of Aslan Abashidze's Adjara) and at worse bloody
conflict. The forum that was held in Akhalkalaki irritated the Georgian
media and was regarded by many as an event staged by Moscow.

Reactionary print media, in turn, has called on the government to
pay serious attention to statements.

Russians did not believe for a long time that they would ever have to
withdraw their military bases from Georgian territory, assuming that
the local Armenian population would never stand for the withdrawal of
the Russian military bases from Akhalkalaki as the base represented
a security guarantee and an important source of income.

But now it is clear that the Russian military base is to finally leave
Akhalkalaki by 2008. In the meantime, the Georgian government tries
to diffuse any unrest among the local population. Some time ago the
Russian newspaper Nezavisimaia Gazeta wrote that: "There are fears
in Tbilisi that separatist sentiment among the Armenians living in
Javakheti can be strengthened and in response, the government tries
to increase financial support for the region's development."

The argument that the withdrawal of the Russian bases from Akhalkalaki
will deprive the local population of their main source of income has
already been rebutted. President Mikheil Saakashvili has announced
a program whereby the Ministry of Defense will purchase foodstuffs
from Javakheti farmers in order to provide larder for the Georgian
army. What is more, USD 102 million of the sum to be received from the
U.S. Millennium Challenge program will be spent for the development
of the Javakheti transport infrastructure. It is also planned to put
investments in the region for the purpose of creating new jobs. It
can be safely said that at this point, no other region of Georgia is
receiving so much long-term economic attention.

But all of this is of little meaning for those forces in the region
for whom socioeconomic problems only provided rhetorical fodder for
their demands for separatism. On September 24 Javakhk and Virk held
their third forum in Akhalkalaki. The forum representatives were
dissatisfied with the increased number of Georgian-language schools
in the region and the possibility of Javakheti's Georgian population
increasing. They stated that in order to overcome these tendencies,
Javakheti should be separated from the other parts of Georgia.

The authors of the resolution adopted in Akhalkalaki state that the
Georgian government makes representatives of ethnic minorities live
in unequal conditions. Moreover the authorities have proposed models
for autonomy to minorities in conflict zones that they do not offer
to other ethnicities who constitute a majority in other regions.

Representatives of Javakhk and Virk have not decided yet what to
demand - autonomy for the region, or to pin their hopes on the
establishment of a Georgian federation and becoming a constituent
entity of said federation.

"This can be autonomy, but if there is no autonomy then there can be
a region with the rights of autonomy with its own constitution. It
should be distinguished just what rights the region will have. I
propose that this region should have its own parliament, government
and laws," stated representative of Javakhk Manvel Saltenian, as
quoted by Kronika, whereas Virk member Khachatur Stepanian demanded
that Javakheti be given the status of "federation subject."

In Georgia many suspect that Russia stood behind the Akhalkalaki
forum. This "Third Power," Kronika writes, "is not going to accept the
loss of Georgia and after Samachablo and Abkhazia now seeks to create
the next hot spot, now in the South." The heads of the Akhalkalaki
forum themselves deny the existence of any "Russian trail." They also
claim not to be separatists and state that they are acting entirely
within the frames of Georgian legislation. Khachatur Stepanian, who
also chairs the Council of Armenian Organizations, stated that the
decisions of the form are in complete compliance with the European
Convention of Defending the Rights of Ethnic Minorities, reports the
newspaper Kviris Palitra.

Such demonstrations however have been labeled in the Georgian media as
"acts against Georgia." "Regardless of whether Russia is controlling
these actions in Georgia or not, it has recently become clear that
some representatives of the ethnic minorities that are sheltered in
our territory are not hiding their cynical attitude towards Georgian
state interests," writes the newspaper Kviris Palitra. "Stepanian
and Saltenian should not hold their breath for Georgian society to
agree to the establishment of Armenian autonomy," writes the newspaper
Akhali Taoba.

Representatives of the Georgian government have stated that there
is no cause for alarm yet. They are supported by the fact that
only a small group of people signed the resolution adopted at the
Akhalkalaki forum. But far more people in Javakheti, and throughout
Georgian regions, would agree that more must be done to develop the
country outside of the capital.