eorgian Armenians Call for Autonomy
The region of Javakheti, which is mainly populated by ethnic Armenians, has long been a world unto itself, but calls for outright autonomy erupted on 15 February, when rumors spread that the authorities in Tbilisi wanted to order out a garrison of Russian troops and replace them with units of the Turkish army. The rumors were denied by Tbilisi. In recent months, Georgia has developed a regional anti-terrorist policy together with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and Georgia's expressed desire to join NATO has raised Armenians' fears of closer Georgian ties with Turkey, a NATO member.
While the Armenians' historical fear of the Turks may have sparked the demonstrations, poverty and concerns that Russian troops may be asked to leave their base in the region's capital, Akhalkalaki, provide fuel for their discontent.
Ervand Shiranian, head of the local government, argues that "we want to control funds ourselves, as the central government is not able to support the region." His view is echoed by the protestors, who ask, "Why not give us autonomy within the Georgian state so that we can deal with our problems ourselves?"
While its residents do not say precisely how they would benefit from autonomy, Javakheti is already economically isolated from Georgia. This mountain region on the border with Armenia has virtually no infrastructure and is connected to other parts of Georgia by only two roads, both of which are virtually destroyed. The region's electricity supply comes directly from neighboring Armenia, and trade, either with Georgia or with Turkey, which lies just 30 kilometers south of Akhalkalaki, is limited. While officials in Tbilisi repeatedly say long-term socioeconomic plans for Javakheti are in the pipeline, none have ever been completed or acted on. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The Russian base, therefore, is of major economic importance. The base employs 1,500 local residents, and its expenditures help keep the economy afloat. The local currencies are the Russian ruble and the Armenian dram; the Georgian lari is very rarely seen.
Above all, there are no Georgian troops in the region. For security, the local Armenians instead look to the Russians, whom they perceive as their only bulwark against Turkey. The last time Georgian troops tried to enter the region, to hold exercises in the summer of 1998, they were turned back by a crowd blocking the road. Georgia's defense minister, Davit Tevzadze, immediately ordered his troops to withdraw, to "avoid armed conflict with local Armenians."
The Georgian administration of President Eduard Shevardnadze has long pressed for the Russians to withdraw. Russia is now pushing Georgia to grant it a 15-year lease on the base, in return for reducing Georgia's gas debt to Russia, which currently stands at more than $1.5 million. The Georgians have offered a three-year lease, which was refused by the Russians. The issue still has not been resolved. Russia currently has two other bases in Georgia, in Batumi and Gudauta.
While the demonstrations have been discussed in the Georgian parliament, little consideration is being given to the calls for autonomy. Security Minister Valeri Khaburdzania described the situation as "not very serious," while the head of the nongovernmental Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development, Gia Nodia, said the demands were economic in character rather than political. In Nodia's view, autonomy is not a priority, but the "main issues are socioeconomic problems, which they look at from an ethnic angle. ... They simply don't know that there are the same tough problems in Imereti or Samegrelo" in western Georgia.
However, Guram Sharadze, a member of parliament known for his nationalistic views, said that the tension in the region is the result of a "wrong national policy. If we had made Georgian a state language, there would be no problems now."
Certainly, on the streets and in homes, there is little indication that Javakheti is part of Georgia. Georgian is rarely heard and is hardly taught in the schools. Most people watch Russian or Armenian television. However, some of the demonstrators argue that autonomy would strengthen, not weaken, Georgia. "We want the authorities to give national minorities back their identity, so they can defend Georgia's integrity alongside [ethnic] Georgians," said one protestor.
For the time being, no politician in Tbilisi supports granting Javakheti autonomy. Meanwhile, the region will continue to enjoy de facto autonomy, and until the fate of the Russian base is decided, the local population will remain ready to come out onto the streets.