With Opening of Turkish Border, Georgia's Armenians Grow Uneasy
A few weeks ago, residents of the village of Dadash, on Georgia's border with Turkey, blocked the main highway connecting the two countries. Their aim, they said, was to call attention to rampant lawlessness in the area since the opening of the border post with Turkey in 2015.
In particular, they assert that their livestock is being stolen, blaming Turks in neighboring towns.
A member of Georgia's parliament, Enzel Mkoyan, visited the village the day after the protest to hear out their grievances. A large majority of area residents is ethnic Armenian.
Residents told him that cameras on the Turkish side showed that the stolen animals had indeed been taken over the border. They also maintained that local authorities have been of little help.
“We live on the border and are very worried,” one of the villagers, Tsolak Martirosyan said at the meeting, according to an account by local news website JNews.ge. “Why is the Turkish side equipped with video cameras, and our side isn’t? What century do we live in?”
The problem is not new, residents complained. A village nearby, Kartsakhi, staged a similar protest in 2015, threatening to obstruct the construction of a new international railway through the area unless the authorities took action to find stolen property.
Mkoyan promised help. “I called all ministries – the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Foreign Ministry, and also the border police,” he told the crowd. “They are all worried about what happened and they promised to help. The state is behind you.”
But residents across the area say they want more than government assurances. “It used to be much safer here, but now the police are doing very little,” said Rima Gharibyan, the director of JNews. “Robberies have increased dramatically in recent years but no one will help us.”
The municipality of Akhalkalaki, which contains Dadash and Kartsakhi, is highly dependent on remittances from Russia and has been badly affected by the ruble’s decline. This has resulted in a rising crime rate. “Ever since the border with Turkey opened we’ve had nothing but trouble,” said Kristina Marabyan, a reporter for JNews. “Corruption is growing here – it’s like a return to the Soviet era.”
The nearby border crossing, between Çıldır in Turkey and Kartsakhi, was reopened in 2015, after being closed for 10 years, amid growing ties between Tbilisi and Ankara. Georgia’s leadership has been cultivating its relationship with Ankara in recent years, in a bid to attract foreign direct investment and further its own NATO ambitions.
The situation around Akhalkalaki is particularly sensitive due to the high density of Armenians living there. After the Russian Empire conquered the area in 1828, many Muslims fled to the Ottoman Empire and the tsarist government resettled the area with Armenians, “seeing them as more reliable than the local Muslims,” according to Timothy Blauvelt, a historian of Georgia at Ilia State University in Tbilisi.
Amid the genocide against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, the south of Georgia took in many people who were fleeing the massacres. “Most of us have family from Kars and Erzerum” in Turkey, Marabyan said. “We became a region of refugees.”
Fear of Turkey has only heightened in recent years. Shortly after the border opened, someone using red paint wrote “we will return” in Turkish on the old Ottoman fortress silently watching over Akhalkalaki, local media reported.
“The problem is that [the Turks] have no respect for our local traditions,” Marabyan said. “I don’t want my country to be somebody’s playground.”
Many in the region saw the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki, which closed in 2007, as an important bulwark against Turkey. An old Soviet military base stands in ruins in Kartsakhki, overlooking the border. “Communism begins here!” is inscribed on its wall, for the benefit of the NATO soldiers who used to be based on the other side. Now, the town is in decline.
Despite the town’s new asphalt road, designed to help speed cargo across the border into Turkey, the village has experienced little economic benefit from the border’s opening. Locals complain that the growing number of heavily loaded trucks passing through the town are actually causing damage to the surrounding houses.
Others complain the open border is accelerating Akhalkalaki’s economic malaise. Turkish citizens regularly visit to buy food, cigarettes and gasoline, all of which are cheaper than in Turkey. Prices are reportedly rising as a result.
There’s also the issue of brothels and prostitution. Several brothels have opened in Akhalkalaki and neighboring Akhaltsikhe, which – locals say – was unheard of before the Turkish border opened.
In November, residents of Akhaltsikhe held a protest against the Turkish-oriented sex trade. But it was only ethnic Georgians who participated, Gharibyan said. “Armenians didn’t take part,” she said. “Every time we are involved in protests such as these local officials dismiss it as national hostility toward Turks, so it’s better for us to leave it to the Georgians.”
One of the most controversial symbols of Turkey’s growing presence in the region is the new Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway, which passes through the area and was built with largely Turkish and Azerbaijani labor.
“On the one hand, people in Akhalkalaki are afraid of the BTK strengthening Turkish influence in the region,” said Ghia Nodia, a political scientist at Ilia State University. “But on the other hand they are hoping it will lead to economic opportunities.”
But many have felt left out by the project. In 2016, a local Armenian activist Vahagan Chakhalyan released a public statement attacking the Georgian government’s “Turkification” policies. In Chakhalyan's words, “Turkish-Azeri capital is taking over the business market, and not hiring Christians.”
Chakhalyan and his party, the United Javakh Democratic Alliance, have long had a tense relationship with Georgian authorities, who accuse them of harboring separatist tendencies. Several party activists, including Chakhalyan, were even arrested in 2008 following a fatal bombing at the home of Akhalkalaki’s chief of police.
Locals say that Tbilisi exaggerates the separatist threat. “If we are separatists then where do we go?” Marabyan asked. “Would we join Armenia? They’re in an even worse position than we are.”
Bradley Jardine is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus.