For many in Georgia, Russia’s annexation Crimea is reigniting fears about separatism rooted in ethnic conflict and Kremlin meddling. But now Georgians aren’t just worrying about the breakaway entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they also are concerned about the loyalty of the predominantly ethnic-Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti.
While locals dismiss separatism concerns as nonsense, some say the speculation on the issue is indicative of a failure on the Georgian central government’s part to address complaints of the country’s Armenian-speaking minority in Samtskhe-Javakheti, which is roughly a three-hour drive south of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Officials contend progress has been made, but concede more can be done on the inclusivity issue.
A mountainous, ragtag region bordering both Turkey and Armenia, Samtskhe‐Javakheti contains roughly 250,000 ethnic Armenians; 55 percent of the region’s total population, according to Georgia’s latest census, compiled in 2002. Knowledge of the Georgian language here can run thin. At the same time, in the view of some outsiders, sympathy for Russia, which, until 2007, operated a 15,000-man base in the regional town of Akhalkalaki, can run strong.
Over the past few weeks, suspicions among Georgians about the country’s Armenian minority have risen, fueled by memories of Tbilisi’s 2008 conflict with Russia, as well as the Kremlin’s recent land-grab in Crimea. Underscoring those suspicions was the appearance of unconfirmed media reports about ethnic Armenians from Samtskhe-Javakheti allegedly applying, en masse, to receive Russian passports.
Senior Georgian government officials have denied categorically these reports, but, as Russia-Ukraine tension threatens to boil over, such media coverage, condemned as sensationalism by three local watchdog groups, could well continue. “Somebody is interested in stirring up the water,” commented Seda Melkumian, the Samtskhe‐Javakheti representative for the Ombudsman’s Office. “So far, I haven't seen large quantities of Russian passports.”
Interethnic suspicion stems from a long-time tug-of-war over greater language rights for the region’s Armenian speakers; for some Georgians, it’s a campaign reminiscent of ethnic Russians’ complaints in Crimea.
But residents adamantly deny that such a struggle could encourage them to break with Tbilisi. “We aren’t separatists,” asserted Melik Raisian, a former member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition from Akhalkalaki. “We are Georgian citizens. Why do we always have to prove we’re not separatists for wanting our rights?”
The separatist perception is generally connected to the United Javakh Democratic Alliance (“Javakh”), a nationalist movement that has called for political autonomy in the past. Many of the movements’ key members, including leader Vahag Chakhalian, were arrested in 2008 following a fatal bombing near the home of a police chief in the town of Akhalkalaki. Chakhalian was released in 2013 as part of Georgia’s mass amnesty of prisoners.
Javakh has little influence today, although many can identify with its grievances. The 2007 closure of Akhalkalaki’s Russian army base left many locals unemployed; as of 2012, the official unemployment rate stood at 7.5 percent. Many had hoped to find work on the Kars–Tbilisi–Baku railway, which goes through Javakheti, yet few have been employed.
The lack of economic opportunities drives many residents to Russia for work. Melkumian estimates that about half of Javakheti’s families have some family member in Russia. “In the villages, every family has somebody there,” she said.
That situation, though, is no different from elsewhere in Georgia, noted Ewa Chylinski, director of the European Center for Minority Issues in Tbilisi. As of this January, the Russian Federation ranked as the largest source of Georgia’s remittances, roughly $46.6 million in 2013, according to the National Bank of Georgia.
Nonetheless, the money trail does not mean a desire for independence. Chylinski rejected the notion of a separatist threat in Javakheti as “groundless.” The main problem is not autonomy, but language, she said. People cannot participate in Georgian society if they do not speak Georgian.
But for many in Samtskhe-Javakheti, that does not affect their identification with Georgia. “I’m Armenian, but I was born in Georgia. My father was born in Georgia. His father was born in Georgia and I will live in Georgia,” declared octogenarian Artush Artkopian, speaking via a teenage translator in Armenian since his knowledge of Georgian and Russian is limited.
Last year, Akhalkalaki's local council announced plans to petition the Georgian parliament to ratify the European Charter for Regional of Minority Languages, a Council of Europe convention that would make Armenian an official local language for Samtskhe-Javakheti. Getting no support in Tbilisi, where opposition from the Georgian Orthodox Church and politicians runs strong, the matter was soon dropped.
The central government, though, has taken some concrete steps to increase knowledge of Georgian. In 2010, the Ministry of Education established a program, called the “4 + 1” system,” which established a 5-percent quota for ethnic minorities in Georgian universities. Minority applicants to four-year higher educational facilities take an entrance exam in their own language, as well as an intensive one-year Georgian-language course.
Shorena Tetvadze, director of the Akhalkalaki branch of the Zurab Zhvania School of Public Administration, deems the program a success. After six years of 4 + 1, 130 ethnic Armenians graduated from Georgian universities in 2013, compared with only two in 2006, she said.
Akhalkalaki’s five grammar schools all teach Georgian, a policy the State Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality calls a relative success. Three are Armenian-language schools, one is Russian and the other a Georgian school, with an enrollment of 120. Tetvadze thinks more parents would enroll their children in the Georgian school if they did not fear assimilation. But 45 kilometers north of Akhalkalaki, in the ethnically mixed regional seat of Akhaltsikhe, 68-year-old barber Ambarcum Arakian dismissed that concern.
“Here, we’re all natives. The Georgians know Armenian and the Armenians know Georgian,” Arakian emphasized. He added that his grandson is attending university via the 4+1 program, and his granddaughter is going to a Georgian-language kindergarten “so she will know Georgian better.”
“I’m not afraid of assimilation,” he said. “We won’t lose our culture.”
Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.