by Vahan Ishkhanyan
Today, 100,000 Armenians live in about 100 settlements in Javakhk, Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda, an area of 2,600 square kilometers about 50 kilometers north of Armenia and 30 kilometers east of Turkey.
In terms of its relative homogeneity, Javakhk—95 percent Armenian—is regarded as the world’s “third” Armenian land after Karabakh and Armenia.
To reach Javakhk, you cross the northern border at Ashotsk, Armenia’s “Siberia” and enter the regions of Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki, the Georgian “Siberia”
“There’s been no summer here. Every year they’re saying it will come but it won’t,” says Mels Bdoyan, a Ninotsminda farmer. Locals claim there is only winter and spring here, some 2,000 meters above sea level. The average annual temperature is only 4 degrees Celsius and in winter the mercury on the thermometer dives to minus 25°C.
The dividing line between the sky and the mountains is invisible in the blue of the horizon beyond the Alpine meadows or in spring, in the intermingled darkness of the clouds and the snow-capped mountain heights. Nature has become a source of inspiration here, thanks to which Javakhk has begotten many Armenian writers.
In the village of Gandza, Ninotsminda, was born the symbolist poet Vahan Terian whose poems are soaked in images of rain, mist, pallid fields and shapeless shadows deriving from the nature of Javakhk, the home of his childhood and the treasury of his reminiscences. These images became symbols of sadness, hopelessness and peace in the realm of his poetry.
The climate is milder in the neighboring low-lying regions, such as Akhaltskha, Aspindza and Tsalka where there is also a minority Armenian population. Fifteen of 45 villages in Akhaltskha are Armenian, for example.
Akhalkalaki, Ninotsminda, Akhaltskha, Aspindza and another region populated with Georgians were unified in the 1990s to form a single administrative unit—Samtskhe-Javakheti. According to Armenian social figures, the intention behind this move on the part of the Georgian authorities was to create an administrative union where Armenians would be in a minority. This is a Georgian region with the largest Armenian population, amounting to around 160,000.
Javakhk was part of Great Armenia until 387 AD. In 428 it was annexed to Georgia, then under Persian control, and from the 16th to 18th centuries it was part of the Ottoman Empire. After the 1828-29 Russian-Turkish war, Javakhk came under Russian control.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tens of thousands of Armenians left (present day) Turkey and settled in Javakhk. They were welcomed by the Russians, who saw the Christian Armenians as a safeguard against migration into Georgia by the Ottoman Turks.
The majority of today’s population trace their origins to the emigration from Turkey, mainly from the district of Erzrum. Armenians set up 60 villages and built 50 churches in the regions of Akhaltskha, Akhalkalaki and the adjoining Tsalka.
The passport checkpoint is not the only spot marking the beginning of Javakhk. The Georgian side of the asphalt road from Armenia is in a wretched state, full of deep holes all the way to the town of Ninotsminda. The state of the roads is the first sign of the region’s desolation.
“Neither Georgia nor Armenia forecasts our weather,” says Ruzan Tepoyan, a teacher of the Tumanian school in Akhalkalaki town. “This is a forgotten land.”
Akhalkalaki means “new town” in Georgian but the only new construction in recent years has been a couple of gas stations. One rarely hears Georgian or Russian spoken in the muddy and broken streets of this town of 10,000 people (it was 15,000 in Soviet times).
The street signs are in Russian, Armenian and Georgian. Business is conducted in four currencies – the Georgian lari, Russian ruble, Armenian dram, and U.S. dollar. Sales people at any store can instantly convert one currency into another and tell you the price of their goods.
“If somebody cares a bit, it will become a normal town,” says Artashes Palanjian, president of Akhalkalaki Socio-Economic Development Organization. “Now it’s neglected and he who comes here once never makes it twice.”
Before the Soviet era, Akhalkalaki was known as a town of 19 trades. Now only one or two remain: a smith and a tinman at the market. The tinman’s workshop is where 43-year-old Zhora Grigorian remembers spending his whole life. He complains that recently there has not been much demand for his services: a year ago, tin hearths were his main source of income, but now there is little interest.
In Soviet years, there were three large factories in the town, making cheese, cement and cables. Now all three stand idle, victims of the Soviet collapse and asset-stripping after the mills were privatized. The people of Akhalkalaki survive in three ways now: by commerce, through working at the Russian military base in the town, and periodically by leaving for Russia to seek work.
The most frequent advertisement on the billboards of Akhalkalaki is “Visa” but it has nothing to do with the credit card. Georgian citizens must have a visa to enter Russia and the notices advertise services that take the Akhalkalaki residents’ passports to Tbilisi to obtain the document.
“Many people become citizens of Armenia so as not to have visa problems. Those working in Russia or in the local Russian bases obtain Russian citizenship and thus the number of Georgian citizens keeps reducing. There are people who have three passports in their pockets,” says Babken Salbiyan, Eparchial Vicar of Javakhk.
Thousands from the region go to Russia for seasonal work. Many of the men build new families in Russia and never return. Sussanna Muradian, president of Motherhood charity organization, said she knew of 108 children whose fathers never came back from Russia.
“The main sources of finance for our community are in Russia. Some come back and some don’t. The fathers of many children were murdered in Russia and the families are in an awful predicament. Children start begging,” she says.
Sussanna works as a guardianship administrator at the educational department. She established the charity to provide medical and other assistance when she became frustrated at her inability to help children through the official state budget. “I walk around knocking on doors here and there to collect money,” she said. “My relatives from Yerevan help me, they gather clothes which I fetch for the kids and their mothers twice a year.”
Twelve-year-old Artur has never seen his father. His mother, Lyusya Serobian lost contact after returning from Russia in 1992 while her husband stayed behind to work.
“He may have gotten married, I don’t know, I have absolutely no information. When I have enough money, I will go and find him,” said Lyusya, 45, who works at the Russian military base.
The father of 14-year-old Gevorg and 16-year-old Volodya died during construction work in Russia. Their mother, Agulya, gathers potatoes to keep the family. “It’s torture all day long but it’s a way to escape starvation,” she said.
The Russian base is the main source of work and around 1,000 people from the town are employed there. Georgian authorities constantly demand the closure of Russian bases on their territory, particularly in Akhalkalaki. Not surprisingly, the local population opposes, and has staged demonstrations in support of the base.
“People working there get $200-300 per month and this money is spent here,” says Davit Rstakian, former acting prefect of the region. “If Russia does withdraw the base, we can’t do anything but if our opinion is important then we’ll do our best to keep it. That base is also a factor in our security.”
Rstakian says the Georgian leadership has often tried to ensure that Armenians do not remain a majority in Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda. “If Georgians grow in number naturally that will be understandable but when they are deliberately trying to change the demographic situation, it’s intolerable,” he said.
In the 1980s, the populations of several Ajarian villages, in the west of Georgia, were relocated to Akhalkalaki. In 1991, the nationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia three times appointed governors to the region who were of Georgian nationality but the local population refused to accept them. “We were literally standing in their way, not letting them in, throwing eggs at them,” recalls Rstakian.
Before and after those events only Armenians were in charge of the local administration of the two regions.
There are 70 Armenian schools in the region. But the local Armenian population is unhappy that the history of the Armenian people is not a compulsory subject in school. Instead, it is studied as a supplemental subject, using textbooks from Armenia.
Ethnic tensions do arise, often on religious grounds. Local Armenians regard a new Georgian church built in a former kindergarten in Akhalkalaki and the establishment of a branch of a Tbilisi educational institution for Georgians from neighboring regions as attempts to insert a stronger Georgian identity into an Armenian environment.
Salbiyan, who has served for two years as vicar of the diocese of Samtskhe-Javakheti region, says the Armenian Church faces accusations that it is working for Javakhk independence. “We constantly have to give statements that we bring no war, we bring peace and involve our people in spiritual life, there’s nothing bad about it,” he said.
There are three functioning Armenian churches in Samtskhe-Javakheti: in Akhaltskha, Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda. Eight other churches have opened in villages but they receive visits from the three priests only on special feast days. The Akhalkalaki church hosts a children’s choir, a puppet theater, a Sunday school and a youth union.
Before the Soviet Union, the church used to own a large area of land with buildings, but today dozens of families live in them. Now it owns only half of an old building where Hamo Ohanjanian, Prime Minister of the first Armenian Republic, was born.
The fear of demographic change and the neglected condition of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda have aroused political concerns, including demands by some groups for the regions to become autonomous. The Virk party wants Georgia to become a federal state in which Javakhk will be a constituent part.
“When Armenians leave for Russia to work they find themselves treated as inferiors,” said Rstakian. “Here, we are the hosts on our land, however there is apprehension. How long will it continue this way, that is to say, will Javakhk remain Armenian? So, this raises the issue of autonomy.”
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) in Yerevan kindles the issue of Javakhk’s autonomy too. The party raised the issue in its assembly this year.
“Every other day they are making statements on behalf of Javakhk, unaware of the problems of Akhalkalaki and where it is,” says Artur Yeremian, the 38-year-old governor of Akhalkalaki. “The new authorities are already amending the law, and the position I occupy will be elected. People will elect whoever they want and this will greatly increase our autonomy.
“Secondly, our region produces a budget of 700,000 lari ($350,000) from its own resources and we have problems even ensuring that sum. Would it be possible to maintain this huge region with that much money? This region gets 3 million lari ($1.5 million) of subsidy from the center each year. How can there be autonomy in such circumstances?”
He insists that the roads will be repaired this year. Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili discussed the issue in March with President Robert Kocharian on his official visit to Armenia.
Ninotsminda and Zhdanovka
The village of Zhdanovka in the Ninotsminda region is 2,200 meters above the sea. The climate is harsh—it can snow here until June—and its 380 villagers can’t understand why their ancestors chose to settle here.
“They are dead already, who’s going to ask them,” says Venik Gomtsian, a resident. “They’ve bequeathed this mistake to us so that we can correct it taking inhuman pains.”
And he does. Ninotsminda is a cattle-breeding region in which the cheese industry is developing. Gomtsian set up the region’s first cheese mill in 1995 and now produces about three tons annually. He sells the cheese to Georgians who come from Tbilisi.
“Georgians pay in advance or later, but they never cheat. Last year, I took 800 kg to Yerevan and they still owe me 200 bucks,” he said.
Half of the milk Venik purchases from his fellow villagers, while his own herd of 55 cows produces the rest. They are milked by his mother Haykanush, wife Darejan and tenth-grade daughter Varduhi, who dreams of finishing school and dashing away to study in Yerevan, where it is warm.
Fifteen families produce cheese in the village while others sell their cattle’s milk to cheese-makers to earn some money. The main source of income for villagers comes from Russia, where almost every family has at least one member who is working. Gomtsian’s son is in the Russian city of Tyumen, working as a trader.
Having made a decent fortune in Russia, one of the villagers of Zhdanovka built the Saint Sargis Church in 1998. The people of Zhdanovka are Catholics, or Franks as the locals say and it is one of 21 Catholic villages in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
My son finished school and went to Russia,” says 66-year-old Mari Antonian. Her son Khnkanos, 31, has worked on construction in various Russian cities for 12 years now, departing in spring and returning in autumn. But he has not returned for the last two years and has said that he is not doing well. Last time, he made $800.
He talks to his three children, aged from 6 to 11, on the phone once a month to quench his yearning for home. Until he sends money, the family survives by selling milk from their four cows to Gomtsian, the cheese-maker.
Antonian’s 29-year-old wife Nina said: “It is difficult without Khnkanos, I wish he had stayed by my side. But how could we live if he did?”