Keeping a home in Georgia and a heart in Armenia

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The Armenian Question: Keeping a home in Georgia and a heart in Armenia
Special to AGBU News

Julia Hakobyan

In many ways Georgia’s capital has the look of a modern metropolis, but it is Tbilisi’s culture as an old city that leaves the most lasting impression.

Compared to the architecture of Armenia’s capital, it is clear that Tbilisi rose before Soviet-styled construction could rob the city of an aesthetic. The city, split by the Kura River, is sheltered by picturesque hills topped with churches, castles and monuments.

Tbilisi’s charm is its original layout, a web of narrow cobblestone streets and alleyways. Houses from the 19th century with cozy wooden balconies and verandas enjoy cool yards where a favorable climate allows exotic bushes and trees.

High over the city on Mtatsminda hill (like “Mother Armenia” atop Victory Park in Yerevan) the giant white statue “Mother Georgia” watches the city, welcoming friends with a cup of wine in one hand and warning enemies with a sword in the other.

A legend of the founding of Tbilisi goes back to Georgian King Vakhtang Gorgasalu (446-502) who while hunting shot a bird which fell into a stream. When the king found the bird it was boiled and ready for eating. Amazed by the discovery the king announced that he would found a city to be called Tbilisi (tbili means warm in Georgian). The hot stream turned out to be the source of sulfur baths that can be seen (and smelled) on a walk in the older part of Tbilisi.

Like Mother Georgia, but from a much closer vantage point, 70 year-old Tbilisi resident Marina Zakharovna also watches the city. Early in the morning she comes to her post and leaves it at night time, when there are few cars in the city. Marina is a beggar and for many years she has panhandled in the same place on Daniani Street in front of the District Prosecutor’s office. She sticks out a crutch to stop cars, letting them pass only after drivers give money.

“No one refuses to give money. People like me and say I give color to the city,” Marina remarks. “The police do not disturb me as I am old and feeble. They do their work and I do mine.” But since February, and the election of Mikhail Saakashvili as President of Georgia, the work has changed—maybe not so much for beggars like Marina, but for police who were themselves little more than glorified extortionists.

As a first step in his crackdown on government corruption Saakashvili limited the activity of road police; in other words, curbing the wide-spread Soviet practice of police stopping cars for bribes.

Rustaveli Avenue is the city’s business, entertainment and commercial center, on which can be found the city’s three largest theaters, MacDonald’s restaurant, two Marriott hotels and café “Lazidze Waters” which offers the famous Georgian lemonade.

In the evenings downtown becomes crowded with young families and youth. And with veterans of Georgia’s tumultuous political past still speculating on where its most recent turn will take the country.

Tbilisi residents say that as recently as last year the city looked different than today.

Many say that it was not safe in the city, especially at night, and describe the recent years as “chaos and anarchy”. Some recall street clashes, when using guns was a usual phenomenon, and when mobile phones and women’s purses were targets for attack.

In 1999, police registered 4,165 major crimes in the country. By 2003, the number had reached 10,326.

Taxi driver Gia Mamaladze, 66, tells that several months ago the streets at night were unsafe not only for young women but also for old men.

“I was robbed two times during the last year,” he said. “Both times I was in the car waiting for passengers, when young men threatening with a knife took my daily receipts.”

The night attacks and burglary take place now too, but Tbilisi’s residents say the number has at least been reduced. However the first tip tourists get in Tbilisi is to watch their bags, pockets, mobile phones and not to walk alone at night downtown and avoid dark alleys at any time.

President Eduard Shevardnadze (1993-2003) was blamed for conditions that gave Tbilisi a regional reputation as a city to be avoided.

But with the peaceful overthrow of the Shevardnadze regime, Georgians now believe that the remaining problems are a matter of time and feel sure that next year Tbilisi will be as law-abiding and secure as the best Western cities.

Hopes for a safer, more stable and progressive Georgia are pinned on Saakashvili, the 36-year-old former Minister of Justice who led the “rose revolution” in November last year.

In a dramatic beginning of power change, Saakashvili led a throng of officials and regular civilians into Parliament, interrupted a speech by Shevardnadze, aimed a rose at the 76-year-old former USSR Minister of Foreign Affairs and announced the National Democratic Movement’s intentions to take over.

Shevardnadze eventually resigned, and in January, Georgians elected Saakashvili, a Columbia University (USA) Law School graduate whose perfect English and Westerly-inclined attitude made him an embraceable ally of Europe and the United States. (And it was also those very characteristics that fueled regional speculation that Saakashvili’s rise to power was in fact backed by Western interests, especially the U.S., which only months earlier established a military presence in Georgia.)

By whatever means, with the inglorious dethronement of Shevardnadze and the virile ascent of Saakashvili, Georgians got a Western-oriented, determined reformist, a new flag and a lot of optimism for their future.

Saakashvili declared that Georgia’s future lies in membership in the European Union and integration in European and Atlantic structures and promised to recover the damage suffered at the hands of the Shevardnadze regime.

The new president is pushing a policy that will unite the various factions in Georgia. Within four months of his presidency, Saakashvili forced the rebel dictator of Ajaria out of that troubled autonomous region. He has since turned his attention to other conflict areas, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (The political situation of these two territories is comparable to Nagorno Karabakh’s relation to Azerbaijan. In fact, as Karabakh was handed over to Azerbaijan, these regions were annexed to Georgia during the reign of Joseph Stalin, himself a Georgian.)

Posters of the new president are still prominent in the capital, and roses, the symbol of forceful but positive and peaceful change, are best sellers.

Georgia for Armenians?

The word “multinational” is often applied to Georgia, where the number of different nationalities reaches 120 and makes up 18 percent of Georgia’s 5,450,000 population. But trends show that it is becoming more homogeneous; in 1989, 32 percent of the population was non-Georgian.

Although their numbers are in decline, Armenians are Georgia’s largest minority, at 8.1 percent. (Russians make 6.3 percent; Azeris, 5.7. Other groups include Jews and Greeks. Source: World Fact Book.)

Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s mother is Armenian and many Armenians claim that the Georgian president is in fact Armenian, from a family that had been “Sahakian”, but adopted the “shvili” suffix like many other immigrants. (Saakashvili has not publicly commented on the claim.)

According to official data there are 248,929 Armenians in Georgia. Armenians, however, say that the number reaches 400,000 and that 160,000 live in Javakhk with 120,000 Armenians in Tbilisi. About 50-60,000 are said to live in Abkhazia.

Once strong and influential, today Armenians feel unsure about their future in Georgia.

In 1991 Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first president of independent Georgia, sparked separatism toward national minorities in the republic with his “hosts and guests” doctrine. Posters in the country hailed “Georgia for Georgians.” Gamsakhurdia, whose policy mainly concentrated on cleansing the country from “non-Georgians”, was ousted in 1993.

Gamsakhurdia’s presidential term, though short, was significant for the Armenian community. Many left during the period, when they felt the sting of ethnic prejudice and its effect on chances to thrive in a society predisposed against outsiders.

More than a decade later, the legacy of discrimination still influences Armenian life in Georgia.

The biggest concern Armenians have in Georgia is assimilation. They say the best chance to have success in Georgia is to change the Armenian surname suffix to “shvili” or “dze.”

An Armenian student of the State University in Tbilisi says she was told she should change her name before applying for her PhD diploma.

“The truth is that even after succeeding in getting a PhD, there is no chance to get a well-paying job with an Armenian name,” the student says.

If Armenians now feel like second-class citizens, it has not always been so.

According to an 1821 census, Armenians far outnumbered Georgians in the capital at that time. In Tbilisi, Armenians will show many architectural pearls constructed by prominent Armenian architects of the last centuries. Mansions built by influential Armenians of long ago are among the most attractive buildings in Tbilisi.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, rich Armenian merchants, jewelers and oil industrialists invested heavily in business and helped build cultural centers and schools.

Today in “Old Tbilisi”, the Caravanserais, the popular trade centers of the 18th and 19th centuries owned by Armenians are being renovated – turned into modern salons, boutiques, restaurants. And the gentrification is also removing traces of the district’s Armenian past, as signs that once said “Bari Galust” (welcome) are being covered over by new, non-ethnic, facades.

A fading presence

Few Armenians hold positions of authority in 21st century Georgia. Six members of Parliament (from a total of 218) are Armenian, but come from regions where the constituency is predominantly Armenian.

In the capital, most Armenians are involved in small and medium-sized business, and Armenian can be heard spoken in any open-air market.

Ada Virabian, 66, picks up goods from the Sadakhlo trading post on the border of Georgia and Azerbaijan and sells them in a Tbilisi market.

“I cannot say that Armenians live worse than other national minorities. All in Georgia experience social hardships now,” she says. “I believe that President Saakashvili will not repeat the mistakes of his predecessor, otherwise, he will be ousted like him.”

Virabian’s daughter is married to a Georgian. Marriages between Armenians and Georgians were not popular, but not unique either. Now, however, the number of ethnically-mixed families (across all ethnicities) has dropped.

While Georgia is a republic of ethnic diversity, it is also one of segregated communities. But on Leselidze Street in Tbilisi, there is room for a variety of faiths. Within sight of each other is a Georgian Orthodox church, a mosque, a synagogue, a Catholic church, a (Protestant) Lutheran church and an Armenian Apostolic church. Only the Armenian church is closed.

Domes of Armenian Churches are seen in all parts of the city; however their bells have been silent for many years. In the beginning of the 20th century there were 30 Armenian churches in Tbilisi. Now there are only 15 Armenian churches throughout Georgia with two in Tbilisi.

Norashen Church, a splendid construction from 1701 is going to ruins. The walls of Norashen, which means “new construction”, had been decorated by the frescoes of Hovnatan Hovnatanian, the court painter of Georgian King Iraklii II, but are now being lost to decay.

Another non-active Church in Tbilisi is Sourp Nshan, located in Sololaki, the old Armenian district of the city. Several khachkars that were erected in the courtyard of the church have been stolen. Several years ago a fire destroyed a huge library housed in the church. The walls of the church are cracking and its courtyard is abandoned and full of garbage. The 300-year old house of worship is protected only by a sign: “Architectural memorial. Built in 1701. Protected by the Government. Damage of the Church is punishable by law.”

The Armenian community identifies the current state of churches with its own status in Georgia. The reconstruction of churches requires huge investments and so far neither the Armenian Government, nor the Holy See Etchmiadzin or the Armenian Community of Tbilisi can afford it.

Several Armenian churches in Georgia were redecorated to remove any characteristically Armenian architectural features and belong now to Georgian Orthodox or other faiths. Georgian authorities denied charges that the churches were being appropriated, saying that the Armenians were unable to secure the return of the churches, banned during Soviet times.

While accusing the Georgian authorities of discrimination, the Armenian Georgians also admit that the present Armenian community of Georgia is not well organized and the Armenian Church does not play as significant a role as it once did.

Identity and the need to assimilate

Several Armenian non-governmental organizations (NGO), with mostly young leaders, are actively trying to consolidate the community and promote Armenian issues.

Arnold Stepanian, the head of “Armenian Community of Tbilisi”, established in 2002, says one of the purposes of his organization is to restore a radio program in the Armenian language. Stepanian says ex-president Shevardnadze supported creating a television program which broadcasts in Armenian for the Armenian populated Javakhk region in Georgia.

The NGO is also lobbying the Georgian Parliament for recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Last year, when an Armenian deputy asked the Parliament to stand in memory of Armenia’s genocide victims, Azeri deputies left the session and accused Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze of pro-Armenian rhetoric.

This year, like others, the Armenian community marked April 24 with a liturgy and a procession to the Pantheon, the burial site of prominent Armenians of Georgia, including writers Raffi, and Hovannes Tumanian.

“We understand that genocide recognition could inflame ethnic relations in the country. That is why we do not ask for immediate recognition,” Stepanian said. “All that we expect from Georgian deputies is to at least launch discussion on this issue.”

For Michael Avakian, the leader of “Youth of Armenians of Georgia” the main task is attracting young people into community activity. Avakian says that young people have no place to meet, to get acquainted with Armenia’s culture and history. The organization initiates Armenian concerts, competitions and exhibitions of young artists. Avakian, 24, a graduate of a Russian school says he learned Armenian only last year due to courses organized by the Armenian Diocese.

“The courses were attended by many Armenians; the oldest was a woman of 62 and the youngest was a 10-year-old girl. It is very encouraging that the Church takes an active part in consolidating Armenians,” Avakian said.

The status of Armenian schools in Georgia is another painful issue for the community. Three of Tbilisi’s 105 schools are Armenian. There are also five Armenian-Russian and Armenian-Georgian schools. However the students in Armenian schools learn Georgian history.

“We do not have such a subject as Armenian history,” says Amalya Gevorgian, the Armenian literature teacher of Armenian school No. 104. “That’s why I try to tell about the history of Armenian people as much as possible in the literature lessons.”

Gevorgian says that each year the number of Armenian students is decreasing. Many do not want their children to be educated in Armenian schools because after graduation their chances for continued education and finding jobs are very limited. Officials from the Georgian Ministry of Education regularly visit schools and according to non-official information Georgian authorities intend to close Armenian and other national minority schools to make them all Georgian.

The usefulness of Armenian schools is a matter of debate among Georgian Armenians. Some believe that students have to study the official language of the country where they live to have a chance for getting jobs, and that there is no need for ethnic schools. Others say that Armenians should study Armenian language, because they learn Georgian language in the schools anyway.

Yuri Mkrtumyants is one who believes that Armenians have to study in Armenian schools. Mkrtumyants’ four children are studying at Armenian School 104.

“This is how we survived in Georgia, by fighting for our language and traditions. If our children go to Georgian schools and we ignore the Armenian schools what can we expect from the authorities? Only further assimilation,” he said.

The Armenian Government annually sends about 45,000 textbooks to Georgia. Still, the schools have a deficit of books, furniture, and all need urgent renovation.

Vazgen Khublarian, the first secretary of the Armenian Embassy in Georgia (now back in Yerevan) says annually some 50 to 60 Armenian students from Georgia enter Armenian universities.

“The Armenian Government sponsors their education in Yerevan,” he says. “The idea is that after university graduation they have to return to Georgia. But some students never go back to Georgia and many girls marry and stay in Armenia.”

Gayane Bostanjan, is one of those who returned to Georgia after getting a diploma in Armenia. Gayane says it was her intention while studying in Yerevan to not return to Georgia.

“In Armenia everything was so native and close to my heart,” she says. “But I thought how can the Armenian community in Georgia expect positive changes if young people like me just escape at the first chance? I am happy I came back.”

Now Gayane is a reporter for the Armenian newspaper Vrastan published in Tbilisi in Armenian. She is also a member of the newly established NGO “Armenian Cooperation Center of Georgia”.

Karen Elchian, the head of the organization said that one of the serious shortcomings of the Georgian Armenian community is its weak ties with Armenia as well as with other communities in the world. The organization set up a website about Georgian Armenians, ( the first Armenian site of its kind in Georgia.

Elchian says other ethnic minorities have stronger connections with their homelands and “first of all we need to establish better ties with Armenia.”

Yuri Mechitov, a well known photographer in Tbilisi, says that the recent years of hardships made people angry and indifferent. An Armenian with a non-Armenian name, he says he feels sorry that Armenians and other ethnic groups are treated today as aliens and Georgians are labeled as chauvinists.

“Georgians were always known for their hospitality, and Georgia became a strong country due to its mixed population,” says the 54-year-old photographer.

Mechitov has shot many photos of Saakashvili for posters and the Presidential Archives. “Saakashvili is a person who knows how much a good photo is important for a country’s president,” he says. “It is something that showed him as a smart and far-sighted leader.”

When Saakashvili became president he appealed to Georgia’s national minorities, saying that there is no place in the country for discrimination and humiliation. “You have to stand together with your Georgian sisters and brothers to achieve prosperity in our multinational and prosperous Georgia,” the president said.

Emboldened by the promises of the country’s leader, Armenians hope that Saakashvili will lead the country towards stability and economic growth. And they hope they will have rights and a place in that new and prosperous country.

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