By Albertine Gian In Akhalkalaki Translated By Victoria Bryan

In 2005, Javakhetia, the region in the south of Georgia which borders Armenia and is mainly inhabited by Armenians, was the stage for a series of incidents which resulted in Armenian organisations in the region calling for autonomy. These calls came in response to attempts to reintegrate Abkhazia and South Ossetia within a federal structure. In an extremely strained socio-political context, 2005 was a year marked by the partial destruction of the customs office on the Armeno-Georgian frontier and by the public row between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church on the origins of part of Georgia's religious heritage. The third conference in the 'Integration, but not assimilation' cycle took place in Akhalkalaki on 23 and 24 September on the topic on 'The status of Javakhetia within the Georgian state system'. Following the meeting, a resolution was adopted on 26 September which sets out the demand of the group of the regional political organisations to the central Georgian authorities to award autonomous status to the province of Samtskhe-Javakhetia within the framework of a federal Georgian state. As the resolution indicates, "[the Council of Armenian organisations in Samtskhe-Javakhetia] proposes according to Javakhetia, within the framework of the Georgian state system, a status similar to that proposed by the Georgian authorities for South Ossetia. Furthermore, the Council adds that if the Georgian authorities are prepared to accord maximum autonomy to 40,000 Ossetians living in South Ossetia, then the 150-200,000 Armenians settled [in Javakhetia] equally deserve self-government [an administrative system in which citizens decide on the issues that concern them in particular], particularly as they are respectable citizens who have not taken up arms against the government." In response to this resolution, the Georgian prime minister, Zourab Nogaideli, in the presence of his Armenian counterpart, Andranik Margarian, at a joint conference organised as part of the fourth meeting of the Armeno-Georgian intergovernmental commission for economic cooperation, declared to Yerevan that, "there are three autonomies in Georgia - Adjarian, Abkhazian and Tshkinvali" (quoted by the Russian press agency Regum on 29 September 22005). Nogaideli explained the position of the Georgian government by saying that the group of Armenian organisations calling for autonomy is not representative of the Javakhetian population. Rising tensions Following its calls for autonomy, Javakhetia was the scene of several events, which, if they reoccur, could destabilise the region and take it down the path of separatism. On 11 December, the move to fire all staff of Armenian origin from the customs office on the Armeno-Georgian border and replace them with officers of Georgia origin from other areas of the country caused a protest movement amongst the local population and the partial destruction of border posts following an altercation with Georgian officers - this was reported by press agency Regum on 12 December. Vahagn Tchakhalian, leader of Javakh uni (Union of Armenian organisations in Javakhetia), described this incident as a reaction against Georgia's discriminatory policy against a local population under constant pressure from Tbilisi which he accuses of trying to cause a "new wave of widespread demoralisation" amongst the Armenian minority in Georgia. Two months earlier, on the night of 12 October 2005, thousands of leaflets printed in Russian were placed on walls in the town of Akhalkhalaki. Signed by an organisation that was unknown until that night, the 'Brigade of Akhaltsikhe Liberators', the leaflets also carried a star and a crescent moon, symbols of the Turkish flag. Addressed to the Armenian population, the message read "evacuate the region and leave for Armenia, Russia, America". Should this not happen, the leaflets threatened to "massacre Armenians, like [their] ancestors in 1915". Before these events, around a dozen shops in Akhalkalaki were closed by the Georgian authorities on 5 October. 300 people therefore congregated in front of the region's prefecture to protest against the decision of the Georgian authorities. The local authorities took harsh measures against the gathering, leading to the hospitalisation of several people. Church row Another chapter in the book of Armeno-Georgian tensions concerns the row pitting the Georgian Orthodox Church against the Armenian Apostolic Church. At the end of 2005, their conflicting views on the origin of part of Georgia's religious heritage were made known in the press. During the conference on Christianity that was held in Tbilisi in November 2005 on the initiative of the Georgian patriarchate, the diocese of the Armenian Church in Georgia presented a report on the history and the contemporaneousness of the diocese, according to which it had erected more than 600 churches in Georgia over the last few centuries. The diocese also publicly repeated its demands concerning the creation of the legal status that it has lacked since Georgian independence in 1991. It also called for the return of the churches that have belonged to the Armenian Apostolic Church for several centuries. Many reactions were published in the press. Finally, at the end of December, the Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church asked the Armenian Apostolic Church not to worsen relations and declared that "the statements of certain representatives of the Armenian people on the existence of a large number of Armenian churches in Georgia are without historical and scientific basis". The spokesperson of the Holy See in Etchmiadzine immediately countered that they had already asked the Georgian authorities to return six Armenian churches, including Saint Nissani in Akhaltsihke. As the press highlighted, this row is nothing new - since 1994, the Norachen church in Tbilisi has been the subject of many quarrels. In this climate of rising tensions, the future of Javakhetia depends on the interaction of specific, and sometimes contradictory, interests of the actors in the region. The aim of western communities is to ensure the safety of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. The destabilisation of the border areas of Javakhetia, through which the BTC runs, is therefore to be avoided at all costs. Furthermore, the determination of Russia to retain a role in the South Caucasus, despite the ongoing withdrawal of Russian bases from Georgia, continues to influence internal policies in the country. Finally, the socio-economic situation in Javakhetia is a further factor in destabilisation: in particular, the respect of the rights of the Armenian minority is the key point in regional instability. Although promising to do so when joining the Council of Europe in 1999, Georgia has yet to ratify the European Charter on Regional or Minority Languages, and religious discrimination, particularly concerning the Armenian Apostolic Church, regularly denounced by Georgian ombudsman Sozar Subari, is still occurring in 2006.