by Irina Suleymanyan
It costs five lari (about $2.50) for an Armenian to become a "Georgian". For that amount a Vardanian, for example, can become "Vardanishvili".
It is not an unusual practice, since many Armenians find it easier to get along in Georgian society with a Georgian name. In fact, many say it is a practical necessity if an Armenian wants to obtain a position or a job of significance.
Throughout the Republic of Georgia can be found "five-lari Armenians".
The Georgian Armenian community likes to tell the story from the 1970s of a man, Beglarian, who became a "five-lari Armenian" and changed his name to Beglarishvili. Soon after, he married an Armenian girl from a prosperous family. The girl's father invited the couple to move to Yerevan and inherit the family wealth.
Beglarishvili immediately went to the passport bureau and paid to have his "ian" put back. The Georgians obliged. But when he looked at his passport Beglarishvili, nee Beglarian, had become "Beglarishvilian".
Keeping an Armenian identity may be harder than getting a Georgian one in a society still suffering under the influence of its first independent president's "Georgia for Georgians" mandate.
Historian Yenok Tadevosian traces Georgia's Armenian population to the 12th Century, when two brothers, Zakharians, were Prime Minister and Treasury Minister under the reign of King David "The Builder".
Some of Tadevosian's colleagues in Georgia dispute the claim, saying that the Zakharians were Kurds.
"As an argument I want to refer to one and only one fact," Tadevosian says. "There is an ancient Armenian village called Khozhorni in the Marneuli Region. The gravestone of those brothers' father has survived until now at the old cemetery of that village. I doubt that a Kurd could have been buried in an Armenian village."
Historical archives show that at the time when Eastern Georgia joined the Russian Empire (1801) a census was ordered. It found that, in Tbilisi, only 17 of 1,500 houses belonged to Georgians; the rest were Armenian.
By the middle of the 19th century, 75 percent of Tbilisi—then called Tiflis—was Armenian; it was still 50 percent by the time the Soviets took over in the early 20th Century. Forty-six of Tbilisi's first 48 mayors were Armenian.
There is a just argument that Tbilisi was in fact the cultural center of Armenia. Even today, many Armenians continue to call it Tiflis in recognition of its historic importance to Armenian culture.
Tadevosian says it is uniquely Armenian that the nation's ethnic center (Tiflis) was in a foreign country. And the historian adds with pride that Armenian schools, kindergartens, newspapers and other aspects of cultural life blossomed and grew in Tiflis while Yerevan was still a village.
"Classics of Armenian literature—Raffi, Nar-Dos, Tumanian, Muratsan, Proshian and even political parties first appeared here," Tadevosian says. "In Georgia, up to 400 Armenian periodicals were published."
Over the decades of the 20th Century, and into the 21st, the influence of the Armenians of Georgia has dramatically declined. But their mark remains on the cultural face of the country.
In 1937, on the site of an old cemetery in Tbilisi, 28 bodies of famous Armenians were reburied and the site became known as "The Pantheon". Among the graves can be found writers, artists and members of the intelligentsia whose homes were in Georgia, but whose influence through their works became part of Armenian cultural history.
The erosion of historic structures that became a legacy of the Soviet Union's collapse had its effect on the Pantheon. In 1990, the administration charged with upkeep of the park was terminated and the Pantheon fell into disrepair.
For a decade, the Georgian Armenian community's repeated demands for attention to the park went unheeded. Then in 2001, an act of vandalism brought attention that 10 years of lobbying could not.
In an attempt to scavenge a bronze lyre from the statue of the writer Raffi, vandals completely destroyed his monument. The Armenian community successfully petitioned Georgia's Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania (whose mother is Armenian) to visit the Pantheon and witness the destruction.
"As the saying goes, 'every cloud has a silver lining'," Tadevosian says. "Only after the vandalism, the question of (the Pantheon's) reconstruction came up."
The need to renovate the Pantheon was placed on the agenda of the Embassy of Armenia in Georgia and an agreement was reached that the costs would be split between the municipalities of Tbilisi and Yerevan. The renovation was completed in 2002.
Armenian literature in Georgia
In 1996, the Union of Writers of Georgia renamed its organization the National Amalgamated Union, a change that drew criticism of "nationalism" from non-Georgians.
The response of the Armenian community was to create "Vernatun", the Union of Armenian Writers, in 1997 (named for the first union, begun by Hovhaness Tumanian in 1898).
"Within the last 15 to 20 years no new Armenian writers were let into the Union of Writers of Georgia," says Georgi Snkhchian, the head of the Union of Armenian Writers of Georgia. "There was only Benik Seyranian in that Union, who died last year. It was obvious that one day the (Armenian) section itself would have been closed."
Since "Vernatun" was founded, more than 15 books by Armenian writers have been published in Georgia.
"There is only one Armenian literature," says writer Rafael Grigorian. "We are the stream that makes this river deep. Even though we live very close to Armenia we cannot establish close relationships. The biggest problem is that Armenian readers have no opportunity to read our works."
Once offered several Armenian language newspapers, Georgian Armenians now have only one choice, Vrastan, published weekly in Tbilisi.
"One weekly newspaper is not enough for almost 10 percent of the Georgian population," says Van Baibourtian editor-in-chief of Vrastan (and a Member of Parliament).
The Armenian community can't afford a media outlet, Baibourtian says. At only 25 tetri (about 11 cents) and a circulation of 3,000, the paper can hardly finance itself. It receives some subsidy from the Georgian government, but last year, when the government could not meet its commitment, Baibourtian got financing from the Government of Armenia.
The editor says his paper is the only source of news for the predominantly-Armenian region of Javakhk (160,000 Armenians), but that most in the regions cannot afford to spend 11 cents a week for it.
Otherwise, general news is available in Javakhk via a translated version of Georgian broadcasts through a special program of Internews, a USAID-sponsored media project.
Valik Katoyan, head of Akhalkalaki TV, says viewers frequently complain about the quality of the translation, but: "When we say: 'Okay, then it's better to stop broadcasting' they just shout 'No, no, leave it please; we'll bear the quality'."
The identity of dance
The tradition of Armenian dance is maintained at Armenian School No. 9 in Tbilisi, where the Vank dance ensemble has been stepping since 1995. About 25 to 30 children make up the ensemble, and include Greeks and Russians. Rehearsals are held to live music by concertmaster Araik Khachatrian and clarinetist Hamlet Nazaretian.
"Georgian rhythms greatly differ from Armenian," says ensemble founder Liana Kashavanidze. "When children attend Georgian dance groups and then they move to Armenian groups it becomes very hard for them. But when they attend an Armenian dance group and then Georgian in that case it isn't difficult for them at all. We count when we move, while Georgians need only to hear the sound of drums. Genetically they are more flexible and physically trained."
Two students, Yelena Nersisian and Tamara Simonian, say they dream of visiting Yerevan in order to study Armenian dance professionally and then return to continue the work started with Vank.
State theater in a foreign state
The Petros Adamian Theater is the only Armenian state theater functioning outside Armenia.
The 146-year-old theater was the starting ground for its namesake and for actors Gevorg Chmshkian and Vaghram Papazian. Gabriel Sundukian, for whom there is a theater named in Yerevan, was a director at Adamian. This year, for the first time in many, the Adamian will be opened year-round, thanks to repair works paid for from the state budget of Armenia that put a heating system in the theater.
"The role of the Armenian theater is great in Georgia," says theater art director Armen Bayandurian. "We work in a city which has theaters of international standards, such as the Rustaveli and the Marjanishvili."
Four in-house actors form the basis of the Admanian cast. Four years ago an Armenian department was added to the Tbilisi Theater Institute and this year its first graduates are expected to join the Adamian. Additionally, about 30 to 35 students study in the theater's acting studio.
The monthly budget for the entire theater staff is about $1,500. Actors make about $20 a month.
Making room for God
Georgia's capital is a center of multinational religions. It includes Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Georgian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic.
Banned during communism, all faiths suffered under the 70 years of Soviet rule. For Georgian Armenians of faith, expression of their religion since then has not been easily accommodated. Churches that used to be Armenian have been converted to Georgian Orthodox. The Armenians charge Georgian chauvinism, while the natives counter that the Armenians simply couldn't afford to take back their houses of worship once they were allowed to open again.
Bishop Vazgen Mirzakhanian says that before 1917 there were some 640 Armenian religious monuments in Georgia and that with their destruction or disappearance so, too, went religious tradition.
"European and American Diaspora preserved more Armenian traditions and customs than Armenians of the post-Soviet times," the bishop says. "By giving up religion, Armenians separated from the history of their nation."
With regret, Bishop Mirzakhanian tells that only a few years ago Armenians would come to him requesting wedding parties on April 24, ignorant of the date's solemn significance in Armenia's history.
The Union of Armenian Youth of Georgia was formed to fill the cultural information gap for young Georgian Armenians.
"This year the Church organized a pilgrimage," says Mikhail Avakian, head of the Union. "We visited Khor-Virap and Holy Etchmiadzin. Many children visited Holy Etchhmiadzin for the first time. After that, interest in their ancient home and history has increased. Many of them began learning the Armenian language and studying the Bible. Can you imagine that the majority of them didn't know even our 'Lord's Prayer'?"
The historian says the Georgian Armenian community is obliged to make sure that future generations have outlets to turn to as a way to maintain their ethnicity against increasing homogenization of culture.
"We must work and live in such a way that people respect us," Yenok Tadevosian says. "If we close our Church, Pantheon, theater, schools and newspapers we will melt and that's it.
"Georgia is a country through which a road of vital importance for Armenia passes. We must be here so that we can support Armenia with the simple fact of our presence."
(Information was also reported by Arevhat Grigoryan.)