Georgia's Contagious Separatism

Transitions Online, Czech Republic
Georgia's Contagious Separatism by David Young

12 May 2006
Georgian leaders promise new roads and development in a bid to subdue demands for greater autonomy by Armenians in the country's south.

TBILISI, Georgia |
It seems only natural for minorities in the former Soviet Union to feel a constant pull toward separatism. Their national borders were drawn almost arbitrarily - often to encourage conflicts - and a nascent sense of self-determination that followed the end of Soviet communism certainly plays a role in the region's separatism, even today. Georgians, in particular, have witnessed their share of nationalist struggles, together leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. In Georgia's region of Javakheti, however, the potential for conflict has always rested just beneath the surface, requiring a greater and untapped impetus to inspire rebellion. As Georgia's southernmost region, Javakheti shares a border with Armenia, but not just a border: More than 90 percent of its people have language or cultural ties to the neighboring state. Despite being born in Georgia, few of these people, many of them descendants of Armenian families moved to Georgia in the early Soviet period, feel any allegiance to Georgia at all. Culturally, linguistically, and politically, most Georgian nationals in Javakheti are Armenian. And while any unrest in Javakheti pales in comparison to the tension in Abkhazia and South Ossetia - Georgia's authentic separatist regions, which enjoy de facto autonomy under Russian patronage - Javakheti has all the makings of a civil ethnic conflict. Not only is Armenian the most common language, but Javakheti has a better relationship with Yerevan, Armenia's capital, than it does with the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The central government provides little financial assistance to Javakheti, citing economic difficulties and limited resources, which inevitably leave the underdeveloped region's infrastructure in pieces and the people alienated. Unlike in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, calls for secession or reunion with the "home country" have never been quite as loud in Javakheti. Yet the signs can be read of unrest tethered to economic and cultural concerns - both typical catalysts for heating up conflicts. Armenian political groups on both sides of the border continuously push Tbilisi to give the Armenian language equal official status to the Georgian tongue in the Javakheti region. Armenian is already spoken in the schools, despite a law that requires public schools in Georgia to teach the Georgian language and Georgian history above all others. Javakheti's Armenians neither speak the Georgian language nor know the history of Georgians. When fewer than one in 10 people in the region speak Georgian and when the local bureaucracies and infrastructure are entirely sustained by Armenians, such a law could hardly be enforced. Javakh Armenians' demands go beyond language rights. They call for mandatory teaching of Armenian history in local schools, an end to the general `Georgianization' of Armenian culture and heritage, a Georgian minority rights law, the construction of a highway linking Javakheti to Yerevan (which Armenia will finance), and the recognition of Javakheti political movements pushing for the region's political autonomy.

Perhaps the most important immediate concern for Armenians living in Javakheti is the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki, the region's capital. After years of negotiations, Russia has agreed to withdraw by the end of 2007 from the base that has been a crutch to Javakheti's economy since its opening in the mid-1990s when Georgia agreed to the Russian military presence in order to stabilize the recently independent country. Upwards of 10,000 locals are dependent on the income of the thousand or so, mostly Armenian, workers at the base. Moreover, the Russian troops consume a big slice of Javakheti's farm products - the region's primary source of income. President Mikheil Saakashvili has promised that the Georgian government will fill the void left by the Russian military, whose departure is a great cause for celebration in Tbilisi, despite years of protest by Armenians living both in Armenia and Javakheti. Specifically, Saakashvili proposed to use the produce consumed by Russian troops to feed Georgian troops instead, but many analysts have suggested that the region produces far more potatoes and milk than the Georgian army can consume. Besides, inviting Georgian soldiers to Akhalkalaki would likely add kindling to the tension. Recognizing this, Saakashvili altered his remedy on a visit to Javakheti in late April, saying "We're not planning to set up a new military unit" there and offering social programs and business training for people affected by the Russian pullout. "These people must not feel they will lose out on the deal. On the contrary, they must benefit from the fact that Georgia is developing," Saakashvili said, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported. Another solution put forward recently by Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burjanadze is to establish `food processing enterprises' in Akhalkalaki to create new jobs. The ethnic Armenians in Javakheti are understandably skeptical. For its part, Russia has its own ambitions in a Caucasus that has looked increasingly to the West to provide its necessary political and economic support. Armenia happily gives Moscow its desired influence in the southern Caucasus, in exchange for Russian protection from Armenia's neighbors Turkey and Azerbaijan, both of which maintain strict blockades at their borders with Armenia. The dispute over Turkish responsibility for the mass killing and abuse of Armenians during and after World War I has long frozen Armenian-Turkish relations. And Azerbaijan is no friendlier, having been humiliated by Russian-backed Armenia in the early 1990s in the Nagorno-Karabakh war and forced to tolerate an island of Armenian-dominated land in the middle of its territory. Yet regardless of any real or exaggerated threat to Armenia, Russia has always been eager to manipulate the region's conflicts - much to Tbilisi's fury - in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. And for years some in Tbilisi have accused Russia of colluding and inciting conflict in Javakheti, most recently in March after Armenians stormed a courtroom and a university building in Akhalkalaki, two days after an ethnic Armenian was killed in a fight in a neighboring region. As Georgian politicians often do, Parliament Speaker Burjanadze hinted that outsiders were fomenting separatism among the Armenian minority. The protests and general unrest in Javakheti, she suggested, could be attributed to `external forces ... serious forces, who try to trigger destabilization in this region," the website Civil Georgia reported. This was seen as a coded punch at Russia for its military presence in Akhalkalaki. Some Tbilisi officials alleged that weapons belonging to Parvents, a Javakh paramilitary group, could be traced to the Akhalkalaki base and were used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Naturally, Russia continues to deny this, and as recently as 26 April, Georgia's own interior minister, Vano Merabishvili, said Moscow has had nothing to do with the recent unrest in Javakheti, despite Russia's regional interests.

Much of the public outcry over Tbilisi's poor treatment of its Armenian citizens actually comes from political parties in the Armenian ruling coalition, which have a greater capacity for political mudslinging than their relatively disorganized and inexperienced Javakh counterparts. One party, Zor Airenik (Mighty Homeland) was even formed by natives of Javakheti who now live in Armenia (there are more than 100,000 such emigrants, most of whom left for economic reasons). And other parties, such as Nor Serund (New Generation), the Armenian Democratic-Liberal Union, and Ramkavar Azatakan all have similar agendas for the security the Armenians in Javakheti who, they say, live in fear of ethnically motivated harassment and violence. Nearly all these parties argue that increased political autonomy and self-governance in Javakheti are warranted given Javakheti's ostracized culture and its security concerns. These moderate parties often call on the Saakashvili administration to pay more attention to the needs of Javakheti and its residents, while seldom encouraging the outright secession of Javakheti. Merely calling for `political autonomy' was deemed separatist enough for Tbilisi to prohibit Virk, a local political movement in Javakheti, from registering as a political party in July 2002. No wonder then that most ethnic Armenians who run for Georgia's parliament do so under the auspices of a mainstream party - like Saakashvili's National Movement Party - while openly defending the interests of Georgia's ethnic Armenians. The Armenian lobby in the Georgian parliament is far from united, though. A handful of parliamentarians, among them Van Baiburt, a native of Javakheti, often hear voices saying they aren't hard enough for Javakh interests. On 16 March, Baiburt caused grumbling in Javakheti when he said, `The Georgian authorities are not imposing any restrictions on Georgia's Armenian population,' and went on, `The government has agreed to allow official business to be conducted in Armenian in the area' because Tbilisi understands that it is `unreasonable' to expect and demand that Armenians suddenly speak Georgian. And in any case, he noted, it is unrealistic for Javakheti's civil society to demand a heightened status for the Armenian language in Javakheti. In an October 2005 interview, Baiburt even indicated that he believed Russia and Armenian radicals were to blame for Javakheti's dangerous separatist leanings. Unsurprisingly, then, Javakheti's moderate politicians - and certainly the radical ones - feel abandoned by politicians like Baiburt. As a result, Javakh Armenians feel they must look for help from Armenia and, to a lesser extent, Javakheti's local government and civil society. In response, the Georgian government and media often paint Javakheti's Armenian advocacy groups as instigators of separatist and anti-Tbilisi sentiment in the region, and the authorities cite such concerns as a basis for keeping civil-society groups from becoming recognized political parties. While Virk's political ambition has received the most attention, other local civic organizations, such as the United Javakh-Democratic Alliance (a union of eight youth organizations) and Javakh, another group also pushing for political autonomy, are encountering equal resistance for allegedly instigating violence. Virk leader David Rstakian, however, attributes the relative calm in Javakheti (compared to South Ossetia and Abkhazia) to the restraint of these demonized groups, which he says actually prevent Armenian protests from escalating into outright separatism. In the past, Rstakian has also insisted that outright secession or reunion with Armenia is not necessary to ensure the safety and prosperity of the Javakh people.

The United Javakh-Democratic Alliance leader takes a less measured tone. Vahan Chakhalian has said that the Russian withdrawal will leave local Armenians defenseless and that his organization would be forced to retaliate if Georgian troops tried to use the base - regardless of whether they, too, would purchase much of the locally grown produce. Such declarations are eerily similar to those put forward by Abkhazian and South Ossetian separatists in the early 1990s, immediately preceding two very bloody and still unresolved conflicts. On the other side of the border, Dashnaktsutiun, a radical century-old political party in Armenia and a member, although not an influential one, in the ruling parliamentary coalition, often reacts heatedly to Tbilisi's policies in Javakheti, even warning that discriminatory policies in Javakheti give the people `no other choice than the use of force to protect their interests and dignity.' So far, the bulk of the political parties and movements in Javakheti are not pushing for violent resistance, but they are pushing for cultural and political autonomy, if not outright secession and reunification with Armenia. But Javakh Armenians may not need much saber rattling to push them over the edge, as events in the last year illustrate.

APPROACHING THE THRESHOLD The past year has seen local Armenians take to the streets on several occasions, flying several metaphorical banners of resistance. In March 2005, 6,000 Javakh Armenians rallied in Akhalkalaki to protest a resolution in the Georgian parliament that called for the withdrawal of the Russian base. They also aired many other grievances. In July, Armenians from the city of Samsar refused to allow a group of students and nuns from Tbilisi to restore a nearby medieval church, accusing them of intent to `Georgianize' the Armenian church and culture. The dispute quickly turned physical and left a number of people seriously injured. The same day, in Akhalkalaki, a number of Javakh Armenians and Greeks decried "Georgianization" in a protest at a Georgian school. In October, Tbilisi tax officials closed 10 small Armenian-owned shops in Akhalkalaki for financial irregularities, setting off protests by hundreds in front of the district's state administration building. Local police tried to disband the demonstrators with rubber truncheons and by firing gunshots into the air, injuring many of them.

And this year on 9 March, an ethnic Armenian was killed in a bar fight in Tsalka, a city in Javakheti's neighboring Kvemo-Kartli region; soon afterward, hundreds of ethnic Armenians marched in memory of the man they called a victim of the climate of ethnic intolerance. The jail holding the suspected killers was soon surrounded by protesters calling for swift justice. Only two days later, Armenians gathered in Akhalkalaki to protest the dismissal of an ethnic Armenian judge, the latest of several fired (the protestors said) for not knowing and using the Georgian language in court. To reinforce the now-frequent demand that the Armenian tongue be given equal status with Georgian, the protesters raided a local courtroom, ousted a Georgian judge, and then stormed a Georgian Orthodox church and the local branch of Tbilisi State University. United Javakh issued a statement condemning the judges' dismissals as `cynically trampling on the rights of the Armenian-populated region.' More broadly, the statement warned that the "destructive trends in the Georgian government's policy" illustrated Tbilisi's desire to `crush the will of Javakh's Armenian population to protect its right to live in its motherland." A Georgian ombudsman quickly tried to cut the tension with a finding that the Tsalka bar fight was merely a `communal crime' with no ethnic basis, and other Georgian officials continue to maintain that the judges were fired for misconduct alone. Nevertheless, in the past Tbilisi has appointed a number of judges in Javakheti who speak no Armenian and must use translators to conduct judicial proceedings, much to the frustration of local Armenians, who charge Tbilisi with cultural imperialism. In the last two months, Javakhetians have held a number of organized and spontaneous protest rallies and physically blockaded the Russian military withdrawal. Eager to facilitate the departure of the Russian troops, Saakashvili on 28 April asked his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, to help ease the tension in Javakheti.

MEETING HALFWAY? While visiting Akhalkalaki on 19 April, Saakashvili pledged to put an end to Javakheti's isolation in Georgia, beginning with the construction of a road from Akhalkalaki to the capital of the neighboring Samtskhe region, Akhaltsikhe, and another connecting Akhalkalaki to Tbilisi. Funded by the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account, these infrastructure developments would boost local agriculture and attract new business to the area. "Roads and development: These are what Javakheti needs now," he said. With policies like these, it seems that Tbilisi is hoping to recruit friendly Javakh Armenians by encouraging interaction between Georgia's diverse ethnicities. Georgian decision makers may reckon that better transport will lead to better cooperation and perhaps enough assimilation to quell separatist rhetoric and ambitions. In fact, if national policies like these actually come to fruition, they could help integrate and intertwine the Georgian and Armenian communities through significant economic and humanitarian gains. But these are not the gains that the Armenians insist they need most: For instance, Javakheti will get an important highway, but it traverses the 300 kilometers to Tbilisi, not Yerevan. Tbilisi refuses to give Javakheti a broader self-governance or autonomy package because such policies are seen as just as likely to isolate Javakheti even further. Worse still, loosening the leash might set a dangerous precedent for successful separatism. So it seems, then, that the politicians have no choice but to return to the scales and reset the balance for another day of gambling, perhaps hoping simply to break even. David Young works for the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi.