March 30 2006
Discontent is rising within Georgia's Armenian community, the
country's largest ethnic minority, driven by complaints concerning
the central government's language policy, as well as perceptions
of discrimination. The building tension between ethnic Armenians
and Georgian government officials has been linked to recent rioting
A March 9 altercation between ethnic Armenians and Svans in the Kvemo
Kartli village of Tsalka led to the death of 24-year-old Gevork
Gevorkian, an ethnic Armenian, and incited a mob to raid a local
administrative building. Two days later, in response to Gevorkian's
death, several hundred protestors in Akhalkalaki, a predominantly
ethnic Armenian town in the neighboring region of Samtskhe-Javakheti,
stormed the local branch of Tbilisi State University, a court building
and the office of a Georgian Orthodox Church archbishop.
Responding to the violence, Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze on March
13 placed the blame on "serious forces, who [are] try[ing] to trigger
destabilization in this region," the Civil Georgia web site reported.
Some ethnic minorities in the region have a different interpretation.
"The murder of the Armenian [Gevork Gevorkian] wasn't a political act,
it was criminal," suggested Makhare Matsukov, an Akhalkalaki business
leader and ethnic Greek. "But politics created the situation that
exists in Tsalka and the situation here in Akhalkalaki."
Local leaders say that protests are the only way they can get the
central government to listen to their complaints. There is talk
of boycotting local elections in October if no progress is made in
opening a dialogue with the central authorities in Tbilisi.
Frustration with what is perceived as the central government's
disregard for Georgia's Armenian minority prevails in both Tsalka
and Akhalkalaki, but the roots of the particular issues differ.
Once numbering 30,000, Tsalka's Greek population is now about 1,500
and shrinking. A mass exodus occurred during the 1990s when thousands
of families relocated to Greece for work. As Greeks left, natural
disaster victims from the northern Georgian region of Svaneti and
the western Black Sea region of Achara began to move into vacant homes.
Squatters took over many abandoned houses; pillagers ransacked
others. As economic conditions in Tsalka worsened, and the town's
crime rate increased, remaining villagers (12,000 Armenians, 1,500
Azeris and 1,500 Greeks) started to view their "guests" as a threat.
"Before the Svans arrived, there was never any trouble in Tsalka. Why
doesn't the government do something to help? Is it because we aren't
Georgian?" fumed Armen Darbinyan, an ethnic Armenian and chairman
of the Javakheti Citizens Forum, a non-governmental organization
sponsored by the European Center for Minority Issues.
Meanwhile, in Akhalkalaki, many say that the strained relationship
with Tbilisi (which locals call "Georgia") began after the 2003 Rose
Revolution. After coming to power, President Mikheil Saakahsvili's
administration overhauled the local political machinery, replacing
local officials with appointees from Tbilisi. First Deputy Governor
Armen Amirkhanyan said many local residents in this poverty-stricken
area believed the changes were driven by prejudice. Ethnic Armenians
make up 60 percent of the region, and "their rights must be defended,"
The need to have a working knowledge of Georgian lies at the heart
of most complaints.
Georgian government statistics on election registration estimate
the number of ethnic Armenians in Akhalkalaki at 95.8 percent of the
town's population of 10,000. (Local Armenians put the number at 98
percent.) Since the entire region of Samtskhe-Javakheti functions
primarily in Armenian, few Akhalkalaki residents speak Georgian. At
the same time, Russian is frequently spoken thanks to the presence
of a former Russian military base.
"We can't get good jobs unless we speak Georgian, but how can you learn
Georgian so well when you're 30 or 40 years old?" said a resident of
Ninotsminda, a nearby village not far from the Armenian border. "If
we can't get work here, we will continue to move to Russia for work,
if we can get visas." Unofficial estimates put the number of Javakheti
men who work seasonally in Russia at 80 percent.
Incentives offered by the Saakashvili government to promote Georgian
language instruction, as well as to promote the integration of
Armenians into the Georgian mainstream, have fallen flat, according
to Javakheti residents. "In 2004, Saakashvili came to Akhalkalaki
and promised to integrate 100 students into the university system in
Tbilisi and Kutaisi with stipends," said Akhalkalaki Mayor Iricya
Nairi. "That's great, we thought." But Nairi claims local students
couldn't pass the Georgian language university entry exams, which
were a result of the government's education reforms.
Darbinyan says that he doesn't understand how people are expected to
learn Georgian well enough to pass exams, when they have few chances to
learn it. Out of Akhalkalaki's five secondary schools, only one teaches
courses in Georgian. Three teach in Armenian and one in Russian.
Mayor Nairi cites the recent influx of Georgian students to the
Akhalkalaki branch of Tbilisi State University as further evidence
that the government does not want to treat ethnic Armenians equally.
After Georgian students were brought to Akhalkalaki to study for
free, Nairi charged, the number of Armenians studying at the local
university dropped to four. By contrast, he said, under former
president Eduard Shevardnadze 60 percent of the university's 650
students were Armenian. "Why would they open a university here and
bring Georgians if they didn't plan to change the demographics of
our region?" he wondered.
Deputy Education and Science Minister Bela Tsipuria, however,
rejects the contention. "The only reason Georgian students are
studying in Akhalkalaki is because the competition to study there is
lower than in Tbilisi or Kutaisi," Tsipuria stated. Complaints about
the difficulty of Georgia's new university entrance exams were not
limited to Javakheti, she added. "Young people today have to work
hard to compete in modern Georgia. This is an entirely new concept."
Tsipuria argues that Javakheti's problems have more to do with a lack
of educational opportunities than language - a problem not unique to
Samtskhe-Javakheti. President Saakashvili, she stressed, has promised
that hundreds of Armenian students will have the opportunity to
receive sufficient education to find work within the civil service.
The government is currently training teachers and introducing new
methodology, Tsipuria continued. "But people don't understand these
things take time."
First Deputy Governor Amirkhanyan believes that education reform must
be accomplished while taking the interests of national minorities
into account. "We must learn Georgian if we want to get ahead. It
would be easier on all levels, from civic positions to farmers who
commute to Tbilisi to sell their goods."
The issue seems to spill over easily into other areas, as well. The
February dismissal of three ethnic Armenian judges for allegedly having
an insufficient knowledge of Georgian has generated considerable
resentment. "If you don't know the state language, then you must
go!" commented Nairi.
Similarly, the archbishop's office was targeted by locals who assume
that the Georgian Orthodox Church is attempting to exercise excessive
influence in the region. The office was rumored to contain a cache
of weapons. The cache never materialized.
Calls have gone out recently for Samtskhe-Javakheti to be made an
autonomous region, with broader self-governance rights, and for
Armenian to be named the region's official language. Local leaders
and most activists, however, maintain that protests against perceived
cultural assimilation should not be interpreted as a separatist
drive. Said Javakheti Citizens Forum Chairman Darbinyan: "They call
us separatists because we're asking for cultural autonomy, but we
want democracy and decentralization."
Editor's Note: Paul Rimple is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.