• An Armenian church survives on Old Tbilisi, where a new district is being constructed.

  • The largely Armenian 'Javakhk' region of Georgia was a target of early 'Georgia for Georgians' policy

  • A 'pantheon' of prominent Armenian literary and cultural figures bears evidence of Armenia's historic influence in Georgia.

November 1, 2008 | Magazine Archive

THE ‘ARMENIAN PROBLEM’: HAYASTANSIS IN GEORGIA FACE CHALLENGES OVER ETHNICITY

by Aris Ghazinyan

As the world’s attention has been drawn to Georgia and the tension that fighting there has created between the US and Russia, the Armenian community of Georgia is reminded of its awkward place in a republic that has reason to shun any friends of Russia, including neighboring Armenia.

An estimated 270,000 Armenians (six percent of the country’s population) live in Georgia, including the disputed territory of Abkhazia. (It is believed there may be as many as 400,000 Armenians in Georgia. Calculation is hampered by the fact that many Armenians have “Georgianized” their names—Sahakian becomes Saakashvili, for example—and some simply drop their Armenian names upon getting married or for other government registration purposes.)

To speak about the Armenian population of Georgia means to speak about the situation of at least three totally different hubs of Armenian life that are practically not connected with each other.

In Georgia, Armenians have compact concentrations in Tbilisi, in Samtskhe-Javakhketi (with adjacent areas of the Kvemo-Kartli province—Tsalka region) and in Abkhazia. Tens of thousands of Armenians live in each of these hubs. However, by force of different historical events, they do not have a common strategy on defending their ethnic interests, as their very “Armenian-ness” has caused a periodic flare-up of tensions.

For 17 years of Georgian independence, each Armenian community has carried out a policy of its own—the Armenians in Javakhk (Samtskhe-Javakhketi) tried to solve their problems within their administrative borders; the Armenians of Tbilisi, within the Georgian capital; and Abkhazian Armenians, on the Black Sea coast.

In each area, the outlook for the Armenians has been shaped by relations between those regions and the government of Georgia at large.

In Abkhazia, Armenians were forced to war against Georgian paramilitary criminal groups engaged in looting and robbery—with the Armenians battling not for national interests, but for self-protection. In Tbilisi, Armenians were forced to hold conformist positions, aligning with the demands of a government that has often been chauvinistic. The situation of Armenians in Javakhk has been sort of a middle ground between rebellious Abkhazia and the federal center, Tbilisi.

Georgian authorities have exploited this detached situation of Armenians in Georgia as they carried out a common policy without discrimination. It has been a policy aimed at ousting the Armenian ethno-cultural element from Georgia. At times the matter reached incredible manipulations when official Tbilisi left the “Armenian problem” to be resolved by means of Armenians themselves. In particular, Tbilisi’s Armenians repeatedly urged their Abkhazian compatriots to take sides with official Tbilisi.

The events of only two years ago can be remembered as a relatively fresh example when representatives of several Armenian organizations of Tbilisi addressed a letter to Abkhazian Armenians, essentially saying that “Georgia will save Armenians from Abkhazian violence and arbitrariness.” Such letters usually followed press publications intended to pit Armenians and Abkhazians against each other. For instance, Tbilisi-based Sakartvelos Respublika newspaper wrote: “Abkhazia is gradually turning into an Armenian land, whose number already makes 100,000, while the number of Abkhazians proper has shrunk by 25,000. Armenians have always sought to have a gateway to the Black Sea and today they are close to it, and it is exactly at the expense of Abkhazia.”

Numerous similar examples can be cited.

While most Abkhazian Armenians adopted Russian citizenship and are residents of a state recognized (and protected) by Russia, things appear more difficult for the Armenian population of Javakhk.

A Community Divided

Situated in the extreme southwest of Georgia, the province of Samtskhe-Javakhketi (known simply as Javakhk) is one of the largest provinces of the country and it includes six administrative regions—Adigeni, Aspindza, Borzhomi, Akhaltsikhe, Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda. Five of the six regions of Javakhk (except Borzhomi) border on Turkey, and Ninotsminda borders on Armenia. Thus, geopolitically Javakhk is a key province for Georgia.

It is via this territory that major regional projects run, such as the oil pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, the gas pipeline Baku-Tbilisi-Erzrum and the railroad, Baku-Tbilisi-Akhalkalaki-Kars. Such a peculiarity of the region, coupled with the general tension in relations between the local Armenian population and Georgians, aggravates the unstable situation in the area.

The southern border of the province, Ninotsminda, is adjacent to Armenia, where the 205-kilometer Armenian-Georgian border has for nearly a century been a matter of dispute over where lines are drawn.

Javakhk’s geopolitical location has long grown into a large-scale regional factor. No serious research on prospects of the Georgian state’s development and related problems bypasses the “Javakhketi question.” This is conditioned by another peculiarity of the area—demographics.

Javakhk has a predominantly Armenian population, and in the south in Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda, the number of Armenians only recently was 30 times as high as the number of native Georgians there (96,500 vs.3,500, or 90.7 percent and 3.3 percent).

Administrative reform carried out in Georgia in the mid-1990s was aimed at achieving a merger of small areas into large provincial units and it had a clearly demographic implication. The unification of the regions of Samtskhe and Javakhketi into a strictly administrative unit was aimed at liquidating separate Armenian-populated areas and forming an officially acceptable ethnic balance in the new province.

The ethnic conflicts that by that time had broken out in Abkhazia and South Ossetia were in autonomies, and the Armenian population of Javakhk demanded autonomy. Thus, the administrative reform fit well into the context of the policy proclaimed by independent Georgia’s first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia—”Georgia for Georgians” was aimed at preventing or minimizing separatist manifestations.

Combining Samtskhe and Javakhk created a new to-Georgian population was no longer one-sided. Still, Armenians held a slight predominance, with 52.5 percent.

With the realigning of administrative districts, discrimination reached large scale. For example, the gubernatorial board sitting in Akhaltsikhe that includes 30 to 35 officials practically has no Armenians or they are represented only formally (one or two engaged bureaucrats at best).

The authorized representatives of Georgia’s president in the province are solely Georgians, although 128,000 Armenians were among the total of 238,000 living there. An outflow of the Armenian population from the area began in subsequent years—some to Armenia, many into other regions of Georgia and some to Russia— and currently the population of ethnic Armenians left in Javakhk is less than 100,000.

The mass outflow of the Armenian population has been a reaction to several conditions. Among them, Georgian became the official language of public education, meaning that Armenian children could no longer get a general education in their native language.

Also contributing to the migration was the fact that Armenian churches were converted into Georgian Orthodox—a move that signaled official Tbilisi’s nationalist intentions.

Finally, though, it was the contentious relationship between Georgia and Russia that had the greatest impact when, in 2005, the Russian military base that provided jobs for many Armenian families was forced to close.

“The Armenian population of the region will never reconcile with the withdrawal of Russian troops,” chairman of the Akhalkalaki regional government Artur Yeremian said back in 2004. “The functioning of the base has an inestimable psychological, strategic and economic significance. In the mind of the population it is a guarantor of our security. Besides, our children serve on the base and Armenians work in civil positions. The Russian base in Akhalkalaki simply has no alternative.”

Samtskhe-Javakhketi has strategic importance not only for Georgia, but also for Armenia. The customs house in Bavra is, in fact, Armenia’s only gateway to the outside world that is not through an Islamic country. Armenian statehood in the South Caucasus is a sort of enclave in the middle of potentially hostile Azeri-Turkish surroundings. The north of Iran, just like the south of Georgia adjacent to Armenia, is populated predominantly with Azeris who objectively pose a potential threat.

No one can precisely predict how these groups might behave depending on circumstances, especially since there is already precedent. In the early 1990s, Azeris in the Marneuli region of Georgia blew up the only gas pipeline leading to Armenia while Armenia was locked in blockade and at war, contributing to the infamous energy crisis of the early independence years.

Unholy Relations

Sour relations between the Armenian population of Georgia and Georgian leadership are seen in the history of Armenian churches. According to the Armenian diocese of Georgia, while in the late 19th century in Tbilisi alone there were 29 Armenian churches, today there are only two. It is illustrative that during the last 17 years eight Armenian churches were “converted” into Georgian, and high altars, manuscripts, frescos, khachkars and other evidences of Armenian cultural architecture were being destroyed simultaneously.

The ownership of five churches, including Norashen, is being disputed by the Georgian patriarchy today. “This picture depicts the situation existing only in Tbilisi. At the same time, the process of destruction and misappropriation of Armenian Church legacy is continuing throughout Georgia. Many already speak about the genocide of Armenian cultural heritage in Georgia,” the
Diocese says.

A draft law is under development now, according to which the status of religious organizations will be settled as entities of common law. But the Armenian Apostolic Church, which has a centuries-long history in Georgia, declares that it is not going to be registered as a subject of private law and that the essence of a church is to be a public entity.

Meanwhile, construction of a wall near the Armenian church of Norashen has already begun under the management of Georgian priest Fr. Tariel Sikinchelashvili, who in 1994 personally destroyed khachkars and Armenian frescoes of the 19th century. And all this is happenning several hundred meters from the administrative building of the Patriarchy of the Georgian Church.

A few years ago, a Georgian cathedral was constructed at Khojivank Hill in Tbilisi. Located just behind Avlabar Square, Khojivank Hill is a magnet. Besides its landmark prominence, it is the location of the pantheon of outstanding figures of Armenian culture represented by a constellation of names of classics of national literature of the 19th century. Originally, Khojivank was an Armenian cemetery where, along with renowned literary figures, their ordinary contemporaries were also buried. The new residence of the Patriarch of All Georgia, erected in 2004, is built over those graves.

By now, loads of human ashes have been transferred to the city dump as common construction garbage. According to eyewitnesses, human bones were among debris hauled away in dump trucks and gravestones were scattered and left lying wherever they fell.

The Armenian organizations in Tbilisi were ineffective against such violations, seemingly preoccupied with clearing up relations among each other or writing letters to kinsmen in Abkhazia.

The Armenian village of Poga in the Ninotsminda region is known for its traditions. Saint Nune (Nino in Georgian transcription) preached Christianity there (and the region itself is named after her). It is a place of many tombstones and other cultural constructions. In recent years, a Georgian church was built in Poga—and again on the site of an Armenian cemetery.

In the opinion of at least one scholar, there is another factor that explains the position of Georgian authorities towards the Armenian population. Academic head of the “Russian Project” at the University of Jerusalem Dan Shapir writes: “Christian Georgians have always felt a threat from Armenians. From time immemorial Armenians lived in Georgia—even the Georgian capital of Tbilisi (until the early 20th century) was a major Armenian cultural center east of Istanbul. Thus, Jews have never been taken in Georgia as a problem or threat—Armenians ccupied the traditional place of the ‘Jew’.”

The Jewish scholar thinks that anti-Semitism in Georgia was traditionally presented in the form of Armenophobia.

Nationalist Movement

The development of the nationalist ideology in Georgia is closely connected with the activities of public figures Ilia Chavchavadze and Akakiy Tsereteli in the late 19th century. It was then that a tradition developed that remains evident today. Factors consolidating the nation were based not on defending values of the splintered Georgian world but on searching out an “extra-Georgian” enemy image. In particular, in the works of Chavchavadze the “enemy image” is reflected in Armenians. He wrote: “Armenian scholars all the same are persistent in their views trying to get their homes where they never had them… trying to convince everyone that they have an historical right to settle down in these places.”

Remarkably, Chavchavadze himself, like President Mikheil Saakashvili, and together with them Josef Stalin’s favorite hero, commander Giorgi Saakadze, have Armenian genes.

In the context of the constantly discussed subject about an “Armenian-Russian” conspiracy against Georgia and building a hostile image about Russia on this basis, researchers do not bypass the fact that “the resolution on the liquidation of the Georgian throne was read out in 1801 in Tiflis (former Tbilisi) by Armenian Iosif Argutinsky, and Armenian General Lazarev was appointed the first governor-general.”

Since the first half of the 19th century, relations of the Georgian elite with Armenians became markedly negative; Armenians were taken exclusively as protégés of Russia. It is a trend reflected in Georgia’s current president’s comments on September 1, 2006, speaking in Sagarejo when Saakashvili stated: “Russia, together with Armenia, is up to something against Georgia.”

The same year, Georgian authorities prevented another “Armenian-Russian conspiracy” as representatives of Russian armed forces were arrested for spying, revealing that a “conspiracy operation” itself had been allegedly coordinated from Armenia. According to Georgian Interior Minister Vano Meravishvili: “State Intelligence Agency Colonel Anatoly Sinitsyn had coordinated the activities of the neutralized group from Yerevan.”

The search for the external enemy remains an important mechanism of “national consolidation” in Georgia. It is widely believed by Armenian analysts that if official Yerevan openly supported the position of Moscow on the recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence, the Georgian special services would have accused Armenia of being involved in plotting the recent Russian invasion.

The tradition of conspiracies has deep roots in Georgia, and Armenian authors wrote about it back in the Middle Ages. It is apparent that Stalin, feared KGB chief Lavrentiy Beria, former president Eduard Shevardnadze and now Saakashvili himself, have represented official Georgian paranoia.

On occasion, the Armenians have done little to dispel suspicion, most recently on May 10, 2005, when President George W. Bush visited Georgia. During a speech by Bush in Freedom Square in Tbilisi, a hand grenade was thrown from the crowd towards the stage holding Bush and Saakashvili. It did not explode. But it was explosive for Armenian-Georgian relations, as the would-be terrorist himself was Armenian Vladimir Harutiunian (now serving a life sentence) and the grenade was made in Armenia…

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