Armenians in Georgia
Armenians in Georgia


by Aghavni Harutyunyan

The Rose Revolution that swept through Georgia last November has transformed that country's international image and prospects. The ripple effects are being felt throughout the Caucasus as international organizations and domestic audiences compare other regional governments with the young Western-educated democrats now in power in the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

The opposition campaign in Armenia, rooted in similar complaints to those in Georgia about the veracity of election results, gained fresh impetus for a period from the events in its neighboring country. It faced a much better organized state than that which existed in Tbilisi, while lacking opposition leaders of the quality of the triumvirate now in power in Georgia: President Mikhail Saakashvili, Speaker of Parliament Nino Burjanadze, and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania.

In Eduard Shevardnadze's final years as president, Georgia had sunk into the worst condition of any country in South Caucasus. Corruption flourished and there was a widespread perception that Shevardnadze's supporters and relatives were among the worst culprits, running the most profitable areas of Georgia's state and economy. The breakaway ethnic regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia festered as unresolved issues, while strongman Aslan Abashidze ruled Ajaria as a personal fiefdom in open defiance of the central authorities.

A lawyer by profession, 39-year-old Burjanadze describes herself as straightforward, which is not always helpful in the political sphere. She told one interviewer: "I can work and protect my country's interests. But I am bad at backstage and corridor games and, especially, at intrigues."

Saakashvili, just 36, speaks fluent English and has studied in Kiev, Strasbourg and Florence. He graduated from the law school at Columbia University and worked for a period at a New York law firm.

His political career was launched when Zhvania, leader of the Democratic Party in Georgia, came scouting for talent to enter public life at home, apparently at the behest of Shevardnadze. Saakashvili returned, was elected Member of Parliament (MP) in 1995 and became Minister of Justice in 2000.

He launched an anti-corruption drive against Georgian officials. On one memorable occasion, he held up photographs of mansions belonging to several fellow ministers and demanded to know how they could have afforded them on their meager state salaries. Making little headway, however, he resigned in 2002, calling Shevardnadze's rule a "nightmare".

He went on to found the National Movement party and was elected head of the city administration in Tbilisi, where around one third of Georgia's five million inhabitants live. He won immense popularity by improving pensions and repairing roofs and elevators in the city.

Independent pollsters all rated Saakashvili's party as the winner of national parliamentary elections in November 2003, but official results gave the verdict to parties supporting Shevardnadze. Alleging widespread electoral fraud, Saakashvili and thousands of his supporters took to the streets and the Rose Revolution was born.

Arnold Stepanian, leader of the Multinational Georgia political party, represents the Tbilisi community in the Union of Georgian Armenians. He says he is waiting with cautious optimism to see how the Rose Revolution will impact on relations between the state and the Armenian community.

"If we take into account our main problems, the weak participation of the Armenian community in the social life of Georgia and the poor social and economic state of Javakhk, we can't say any changes have taken place here so far in the post-revolution period," Stepanian said. "But I think that it will not be worse than before the revolution.

"The population of Javakhk certainly stood up for the revolution and supported it. Over 80 percent of the population voted for Saakashvili in the 2004 presidential elections."

There have been some notable changes of attitude with the change of authority, such as the permission granted to erect a khachkar (cross-stone) in memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide. Stepanian said: "I doubt strongly that it would have been possible before to erect a big khachkar in the heart of city, especially, in memory of the Genocide victims."

During the revolutionary period, Stepanian said that the Armenian community was divided over the best way forward. Part of the community backed Saakashvili and others favored Shevardnadze. He is relieved that such disputes have not affected other areas of the community's activities now that the political upheaval is over.

"Like the rest of the population, Armenians were tired of political figures," said Stepanian. According to him, Armenians were also fed up with a subject that was discussed constantly in society before the revolution - the alleged Armenian ancestral origins of Zurab Zhvania and Mikhail Saakashvili.

"That subject was discussed everywhere instead of analyzing their political programs," he said. Since the revolution, it has ceased to be a matter of controversy and the Armenian community is no longer the focus of the negative attention that took place at that time.

Henrikh Muradian, president of the Union of Georgian Armenians, used to be a deputy minister of economy but says he refused to work with the former authorities. "According to the authorities, I was to praise the government and say that Armenians support them. I told them I wanted nothing to do with populism," said Muradian, explaining his resignation.

"In recent years, the budget plans would always fail and allocations for Armenian regions would always be cut to eliminate the government deficit."

Then Muradian started to back the opposition. "Armenians had their impact because we were working in the Armenian regions and supported the opposition even in the November elections. In Akhalkalaki, for instance, 50 per cent of the votes were for the opposition."

Georgi Khelashvili, political analyst in Tbilisi, said the new regime's first goal is economic development and the unification of Georgia. As for the Armenian community, the new authorities consider themselves to be liberals and are eager to create the necessary conditions for the community to integrate more fully into Georgian society.

Ordinary Armenians have their fingers crossed for better times. Ludvig Sahakian, a cheese trader, said: "I hope that Saakashvili will improve our life. The situation was bad for Armenians before the revolution. There are still cases when Georgians play up the ethnic origin of particular politicians, but now most Georgians would say that this is not important."

Parandzem Vardanian, a jobless mother of two, whose family moved to Tbilisi from Javakhk said: "It does not matter who has a high position. For me, it would be better if they would just work for us."

Jean Khach, an Armenian artist considers himself a Tbilisian through and through. He hopes that the city's reputation during Soviet times as a cosmopolitan and easy going place can be restored if "people like Saakashvili will take responsibility for each person that lives in Georgia". He said that the divisive "them" and "us" approach to ethnic minorities emerged only with the rise of Georgia's first president, the nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was ousted in a civil war a dozen years ago.

"Before that no one divided Armenians from Georgians. Tbilisi is a great city, but it would not be the same if only Georgians lived here," he said.

Saakashvili has made clear his aspirations, based on his experiences of life in the U.S. In an interview with the New York Times, he said: "America taught that one can go somewhere from nowhere. I had many problems at first but within a short time period I got a good job and an apartment in Central Park West. It showed that the society is open and encourages work and quality. If we manage to replant those values here, our place in the history of this country will be secured."

Originally published in the November 2004 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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