As separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia threaten to rupture Georgia and as Armenia seeks more international trade partners, roughly 150,000 ethnic Armenians in Georgia's Samtskhe-Javakheti province are sounding restive enough to prompt worries about a new breakaway movement in this mountainous region. A third of Georgia's ethnic Armenians live in the area, comprising 60 percent of its population. Now, in light of weak links to state institutions, its residents may be fulfilling Georgian suspicions of a desire to break from the country. While both Georgian and Armenian officials say they want to discourage a separatist movement, history may require stricter action to prevent one. If Georgian governance fails separatists in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, it borders on the alien for ethnic Armenians in Javakheti. For most residents, links to Georgia are more remote than they are to Armenia or Russia.
The area suffered isolation under the Soviet Union and still maintains few road or communications links to Tbilisi. Electricity comes from Armenia, and 40 percent of families still have at least one member working in Russia. Armenians make up nearly all of the residents of a third of the area's districts and some two-thirds of the area's total population. Few of them speak Georgian, and fewer ethnic Georgians speak Armenian.
Russian serves as a lingua franca, even though law still requires judges to issue rulings only in Georgian and only citizens fluent in Georgian can hold high government posts. Residents have to travel up to 60 kilometers for official documents, or pay inflated prices for these documents in rural areas. These conditions might be easy for a confident government to fix. But some say that official Tbilisi has held back from authorizing more local self-governance for fears that a local Armenian government on Georgian soil could cause undue trouble.
But the current system seems to promote widespread dissatisfaction and corruption. Officials acting on orders from Tbilisi frequently overrule whatever decisions small local councils can make. Under such circumstances customary corruption among officials becomes more of an affront to citizens. [For more information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The previous governor, who worked from a heavily guarded compound, supposedly engaged in substantial illegal logging. Teimuraz Mosiashvili, the newly appointed governor, gets a better rating from Armenian officials who have met him. The state institution locals have most contact with is the police, whose numbers dramatically increased last year.
Tbilisi's fears of unrest have some cause. "The population feels they are not able in any way to be involved in the governance of their area," argues Stephan Markarian, an advisor to Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian on this region. "People are beginning to think that they are going to have to solve the issues themselves." The advisor laments that efforts to alert the Georgian government to social or economic problems fall flat, as officials tend to react to any noise as if it were the sound of separatist thunder.
This could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with harsh consequences for Georgia and Armenia, according to some observers. David Rstakyan, co-chairman of the local organization Virk, recently told Georgian radio that he favored autonomy because "we do not see any practical moves taken by the authorities in....the past 10-12 years."
For their part, Armenian officials emphasize Javakheti as essentially an internal Georgian matter. "We do not want to see this exacerbated in any way and we have always stated that this is something that should be decided by the internal processes of Georgia," says Dziunik Aghajanian, a spokesperson for Armenia's Foreign Ministry. "We have even received a lot of criticism [domestically] for this position."
Markarian and other Armenian officials try to downplay the rhetoric from this area, insisting that nobody from the region has formally declared themselves part of a separate republic. The countries have also tried stepping up bilateral cooperation of late.
Armenia has reason to support such bridge-building efforts. With two of its four borders subject to embargoes, Armenia must maintain good relations with Georgia in order to preserve and expand international trade routes. Armenia also seeks international support in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and perhaps cannot afford to look as if it is fostering ethnic unrest in Georgia. "It's a relationship [with Georgia] they work very hard on," says a Western Yerevan-based diplomat.
Russian maneuvers could soon put Armenia and Georgia in more delicate positions. Russia plans to close a military base in Akhalkalaki at some future date. [For more information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The base supports thousands of families in the area, directly or indirectly; Georgia, which wants to signal its friendship to the West and NATO, wants to renew the base's lease for a much shorter term than the Russians seek.
Armenians take small comfort from Georgian officials' recent promises of an economic development plan to replace jobs lost at the base. Greater Armenian involvement will have to contend with the predictable static from Georgian politicians - and Armenian acquiescence will probably stir fears of Russia ceding military influence in the region to Turkey, which remains Armenia's arch-rival.
Ken Stier is a freelance journalist who has worked in several countries.