by Vahan Ishkhanyan
The seaside café is one of the favorite gathering places for residents of Batumi. The sea washes pleasantly against the walls of the café as they sip coffee and allow the panoramic view across the port to ease away any concerns.
First and foremost, however, the café is famous because the coffee, prepared by Haykanush Okhikian, is considered the best in the city.
“Even when I make bad coffee, they will still say it’s good. They’ve gotten used to me,” says 70-year-old Haykanush, digging the coffee pot into the sand.
She’s been making coffee in the same place since 1956. Her clients were the Batumi elite such as the former Ajaria leader Aslan Abashidze and his father Ibrahim, as well as plain workmen and visitors passing through. She claims to remember the preferences of every customer.
“If somebody once ordered coffee two years ago, I remember what kind of coffee he drinks – sweet, medium or bitter. He may spare his words,” she says.
Haykanush is the most famous living representative of the Armenian community in Batumi.
She buys her coffee pots from craftsmen living across the street, most of whom are also Armenian.
According to Father Hakob, priest at the Holy Cross Church, around 5,000 Armenians live in the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria situated to the west of Georgia. Others in the community put the number closer to 9,000.
A Russian protectorate since 1783, Ajaria was annexed by Georgia in 1920 following the secession from Russia by the Georgian Social Democratic Republic after World War One. The following year, the Bolsheviks seized power and established the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic within the USSR. In 1921 the Soviet government decreed the Autonomous Republic of Ajaria, a status that came closer to independence following the end of the USSR. Ajaria exploited its autonomy under Georgia’s first two presidents after independence. New president Mikhail Saakashvili, however, has pledged to re-establish Georgia as a single unified country and has begun his campaign by tightening controls over Ajaria.
Ajaria’s population of 382,000 inhabits a strategically important land of around 3,000 square kilometers, washed on one side by the Black Sea and bordering Turkey on another. Some 325,000 are Georgian, with Russians and then Armenians as the next biggest communities.
Batumi, the capital, has 137,000 inhabitants and only around 1,300 are Armenian, although to many residents they appear more numerous. Perhaps the reason is you can find Armenians working industriously in many of Batumi’s workshops, photographic studios, and cafés.
As in Abkhazia, the Armenians here poke fun at other locals as lazybones. “Come on, Georgians cannot work, just give him the car key and he’ll turn it at best,” says one craftsman, playing dominoes in his workshop with an Ajarian friend.
Ajarians are Muslim Georgians. However, their religious sensibilities are weak and, contrary to Muslim tradition, they enjoy drinking and feasting. “We are the same Georgians but Muslim,” said Izet Brunjadze, as he drank with an Armenian friend.
“Does Islam really ban alcohol? No it doesn’t, a Muslim can drink but not as much as to get dead drunk,” he said, reforming Islam at a stroke.
The Armenian population of Batumi has lived here for well over a century and the first Armenian church was built in 1873. Following the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, when the Russians conquered Ajaria and Batumi became a large port city, people of different national origins were drawn to the city in search of work. Some of the Armenians who fled the 1915 Genocide also arrived here.
According to “Friendship Paths”, a book by Teymuraz Kamikhadze, Armenians ran 325 out of 1,062 enterprises in the city in 1902. One of Batumi’s richest entrepreneurs was the oil magnate Alexander Mantashev: the buildings he constructed still exist in the city. There was an Armenian theater and a house of cultural workers, and an Armenian newspaper was published in Ajaria until the second half of the last century. Around 18,000 Armenians lived in Batumi during Soviet times.
An estimated 80 national and religious communities coexisted in Batumi during Soviet times and before. After the collapse of the Soviet Union many Armenians left Ajaria in response to deteriorating social conditions, mostly for Russia.
Aslan Abashidze’s authoritarian regime then established itself in Ajaria. It had an internationalist outlook, however, in contrast to the strong nationalist sentiment then dominating elsewhere in Georgia, and residents were protected from the ethnic clashes and criminal looting that ravaged many other regions.
Abashidze returned the building of the Armenian church in Batumi, built in 1895, to the Armenian community. Hovhannes Ayvazovski planted the magnolia tree that grows in the churchyard. The Holy Cross Church has functioned since 1995 and is always full for Mass.
Abashidze also decreed in 2003 that Ajarian TV should broadcast a 10-minute news report in Armenian, made available worldwide by satellite. Artur Hovhannisian, a 32-year-old Russian language graduate from Yerevan State University, prepares and anchors the newscast. He used to work for the Russian newscast, saying: “I was bad at Armenian. I was ashamed to hear my words and had no idea what they meant. I studied Armenian for 3-4 hours every day, and now I both write and read Armenian.”
The editorial staff receives letters from Armenians all over the world. Next to Artur sits Emil Makhmudov, the editor of an Azerbaijani newscast. “Ajaria is an example for the whole Caucasus of how amicably various nations can coexist,” he says.
Abashidze’s father, Ibrahim, was nurtured as a baby by 70-year-old Zhora Tabakian’s grandmother. Armenians love to tell this story, which was published in newspapers, introducing Armenians and Ajarians as foster-brothers. “Aslan Ibrahimovich asked for my grandmother Mariam’s photo. I enlarged it and presented it to him,” says Tabakian with pride.
Nevertheless, prior to Abashidze’s ouster in May by supporters of President Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution, representatives of other nationalities had no access to the top layers of power; it was difficult even for non-Ajarian Georgians to attain any high-ranking office. The highest-ranking Armenian was Abashidze’s photographer, Seyran Baroyan, head of the Ajarian Photo Agency.
Abashidze’s circle controlled all of the country’s main sources of income, including the customs house and the vitally important port facilities that provide the largest shipping and transportation hub in the region and through which much of Armenia’s trade is conducted. His departure and the re-establishment of central Georgian authority over the region brings both a sense of hope but also some nervousness about the loss of protection that Armenians enjoyed.
There were other forms of discrimination in the daily routine of life. One Batumi Armenian, who spoke on condition of not being identified, said: “Say, a Georgian calls you names, what the hell are you going to do then? You will have to hang your head and wander away. If you answer back, he’ll bring 40 other guys against you, and who will you bring?”
Such attitudes have arrived with the new inhabitants of Batumi, people who have moved to the city from villages. Armenians say Batumi’s traditional population has never displayed intolerance towards them. “The city has swarmed with these peasants over recent years and they really get on our nerves,” another Batumi Armenian says. “One day somebody asked me what I am doing here and said that I should go to my Armenia. I answered ‘where the heck were you when I was living in Batumi all this time’.”
But generally Armenians consider Ajarians more tolerant than other Georgians. People in Batumi remember only one example of an Armenian changing his surname to a Georgian one to improve his career prospects, something that many Armenians in Tbilisi feel compelled to do.
Mushegh Hapetian, 58, works as a photographer in a photo studio. He tried to get ownership of the studio when it was privatized but it went to somebody else and now he has to rent it. “It is not our world, we are Armenians,” he shrugs in explanation.
Photography is a family tradition, with first Mushegh’s father and uncle and now him and his brothers working behind the lens. A big old camera fastened to a 100-year-old tripod is used to take black & white photos for Russian passports, which are developed by hand. There’s a more up-to-date printing device in the next room, where you can also find a digital camera used to make photos for U.S. visas.
The photo studio is in a typical Batumi yard entered from the street through an arch. The two-floored building is constructed in the spirit of the colonial architecture of the Russian empire, the apartments so close together that they seem to be separated by only the width of a hand. The smells from different dishes wander between apartments, while laundry hanging from one home covers the window of another. Different nationalities have been living and making friends in such yards for decades.
“We have always had good neighborly relations here, occasionally visiting each other,” says photographer Andranik Durgarian, Hapetian’s colleague. There used to be 25 families in this yard, now only 6 are left. They include former sailor Zia Dolidze, who married an Armenian girl, Knarik, two years ago. The couple has only political disagreements. Like many Georgians, Zia was discontented with the authorities because Ajaria was being run by a corrupt clan, while Knarik supported Abashidze because he treated Armenians well.
They are quite friendly in other matters: Knarik prepares Armenian and Georgian food for her husband, and they both watch the Armenian H1 TV channel broadcast all over Batumi.
“I want one thing from Armenians, they are born and live in Batumi but they don’t learn Georgian. If you communicate with someone you have to speak that language,” says Zia who can speak Armenian. Knarik, who speaks Georgian, agrees. Though Batumi’s School Number 6 has an Armenian department where all the subjects are taught in Armenian, most Armenians prefer to send their children to Russian schools.
The department has 60 pupils and 11 teachers, compared to 200 Armenian children who study at the newly established Russian lyceum. Seyran Baroyan, the photographer, said: “I completed Armenian school but I sent my kids to the lyceum as it uses contemporary methods. We must think of introducing Armenian lessons in the lyceum, there were such lessons there for a time but they didn’t last long.”
There used to be two Armenian schools in the city but they were merged in 1972. Then the single Armenian school became a department within a Georgian one due to declining pupil rolls. The first Armenian school of Batumi was established in this building in 1898 and the heroine of Yesenin’s famous poem, Shahane, taught here.
“Abashidze said that even if there was only one pupil left I had to preserve the Armenian school,” says Donara Varosian, the head of the department, who faced great difficulties assembling eight children for the first grade of this year.
Many first-graders only begin to learn Armenian at the school. Six-year-old Siran Avetisian said: “All I could say in Armenian was water and bread, now I already speak the language. My mother said that I should attend Armenian school so that I can read and write Armenian.”