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Autonomy vs. Identity: Georgian-Armenians Make a Play for Power Amid Diminishing Clout

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AUTONOMY VS. IDENTITY?: GEORGIAN-ARMENIANS MAKE A PLAY FOR POWER AMID DIMINISHING CLOUT
By Aris Ghazinyan
ArmeniaNow reporter

A meeting by the presidents of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey in Tbilisi next Tuesday (October 12) is expected to draw pointed attention from the Armenian- dominated region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, on Georgia's border with Turkey. The subject of trilateral discussions will focus on projects passing through the territory; projects that benefit the three nations, but cut Armenia out and, potentially, cut Armenia off. Specifically, at issue is construction of the Kars - Akhalkalaki - Tbilisi - Baku railway and the Georgian section of the Baku - Tbilisi - Ceyhan oil pipeline.

Located in the extreme southwest of Georgia, the province of Samtskhe- Javakhetia is one of the key strategic regions in the South Caucasus. Here, the interests of neighbors Turkey, Russia, Georgia and Armenia collide.

Here, too, long-term communication projects such as the building of the Kars (Turkey) - Akhalkalaki - Tbilisi - Baku railroad and the Baku - Tbilisi - Ceyhan oil pipeline are localized. The 62nd Russian military base is also stationed in the town of Akhalkalaki, in this province.

Nearly half of Samtskhe-Javakhetia's 240,000 population are Armenian. Almost from the beginning of Georgia's independence (in 1991), the Armenian population of `Javakhk' (as it is known in Armenian) has repeatedly appealed to Tbilisi for autonomy.

In common terms, the Armenians have asked for the right to govern themselves in issues of local concern.

Applications have landed on the desks of three Georgian presidents - from Zviad Gamsakhurdia to Mikhail Saakashvili - asking that Javakhk be granted this sort of quasi-secession.

And, while the personalities and politics of the sitting presidents vary widely, their response has been the same: Denied.

The result has been a deepening of resentment between Georgians and Armenians, and the increasing of tensions, as the movement to `Georgianize' ethnic minorities in the republic has been met with considerable rancor by the Armenians, the largest (representing ?? percent of the population) of Georgia's minorities.

It was in this climate that Georgian-Armenians held their third conference in less than a year in late September to debate `Integration, but not Assimilation'. Organized by the Council of the Public-Political Organizations of the Samtskhe-Javakhetia province of Georgia, the conference concluded with the adoption of the latest proposal on the issue of autonomy.

In part, the resolution calls upon Georgia to recognize a status that `supposes the formation in the territory of Georgia of a new federal entity whose population is given broad powers on self-government, including the right of electing all institutions of local government and giving the status of the second official language in the region to the Armenian language.'

Tbilisi's official response came in Yerevan last week when Georgia's Prime Minister Zurab Nogadieli told a press conference: `There will be (and are) three autonomies in Georgia - Ajaria, Abkhazia and Tskhinvail. The part of the public organizations that put forward demands for the status of an autonomy for Javakhetia is only a small part of the population and cannot represent the opinion of the whole area.'

For his part, Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan probably made no friends among his Georgian compatriots when he supported Nogaideli, saying: `I think that there is no such question. Such a question is raised every time when someone needs it.'

Georgian Armenians expecting support from Yerevan cry of betrayal, while Nogadieli's concession to three autonomies was regarded by many as Georgia's return to the socialist past.

(During the Soviet period, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia comprised two autonomous republics (Abkhazia, Ajaria) and one autonomous region (South- Ossetia -- Tskhinvali). The total area of Georgia's autonomous entities made 15,500 square kilometers and equaled 22 percent of its territory. Azerbaijan - with Nakichevan and Nagorno Karabakh - held the only other autonomies.)

While Azeri political analysts accuse Russia (in compliance with the `Dashnaks') of instigating the Armenians' resolution, Armenian counterparts say Georgia's refusal to grant the right is an indication of Tbilisi's favoritism to Ankara and the Georgians' desire to see an inflow of Turks and an exodus of Armenians. Since joining the European Council in 1999, Georgia has been engaged in a program that would resettle Georgian-Turks into Javakhk, thus diluting the Armenian predominance of the region.

`Modern Armenia is surrounded by a Turkic ring,' says demographics and emigration analyst at Yerevan State University Hrachya Khachatryan. `The road through the Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakhetia remains Armenia's only gateway lying not on Turkic soil. A plan on the resettlement of Meskhet-Turks to this area and outflow of the Armenian population from the province is being implemented today for the purpose of closing `the Turkic ring' around of the Armenian statehood.'

The region of Samtshe-Javakheti was formed in the mid-90s and consists of two historical areas - Samtskhe and Javakheti. In Government emigration and refugee analyst Viktor Solakhyan's opinion, the merger of two geographically and ethno-culturally very different territories was aimed at `correcting" the demographic panorama of the region where Armenians had always constituted an overwhelming majority of the population.

`Thus, administrative reform was carried out as a result of which a new provincial unit of Georgia was formed on the basis of the merger of two completely Armenian (Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki), three mixed (Aspindza, Akhaltsikh, Adigen) and one predominantly Georgian (Borzhom) areas,' the demographer says.

The demographic picture of the new province (according to the data of 1997) showed Armenians making up 52.5 percent of the population of the province. And in the Akhalkalaki area, Armenians made 91.3 percent (62,814) of the population against 4.4 percent (3,027) of Georgians, in Ninotsminda - 89.6 percent (34,697) against 1.2 percent (451), in Akhaltsikh - 42.8 percent (23,644) against 46.8 percent (25,688).

`Despite all this, there are no Armenians on the provincial board sitting in Akhaltsikh, which in different years had 30-35 officials on the average, at best there are only one or two symbolic representatives,' says Ludwig Petrosyan, head of Armenian National Social Organization in Akhaltsikh. `The authorized representatives of the president of Georgia to the province are exclusively Georgians as well. The Armenian population of the area is not capable of solving its problems - to support the activities of schools, or protect monuments of Armenian architecture that are intensively falling into decay.'




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