Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 31 13:53:43 UTC 2006


Paul Rimple: 3/30/06

Discontent is rising within Georgia's Armenian community, the country's
largest ethnic minority, driven by complaints concerning the central
government's language policy, as well as perceptions of discrimination.
The building tension between ethnic Armenians and Georgian government
officials has been linked to recent rioting and violence. A March 9
altercation between ethnic Armenians and Svans in the Kvemo Kartli village
of Tsalka led to the death of 24-year-old Gevork Gevorkian, an ethnic
Armenian, and incited a mob to raid a local administrative building. Two
days later, in response to Gevorkians death, several hundred protestors in
Akhalkalaki, a predominantly ethnic Armenian town in the neighboring
region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, stormed the local branch of Tbilisi State
University, a court building and the office of a Georgian Orthodox Church

Responding to the violence, Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze on March 13
placed the blame on serious forces, who [are] try[ing] to trigger
destabilization in this region, the Civil Georgia web site reported. Some
ethnic minorities in the region have a different interpretation. The
murder of the Armenian [Gevork Gevorkian] wasnt a political act, it was
criminal, suggested Makhare Matsukov, an Akhalkalaki business leader and
ethnic Greek. But politics created the situation that exists in Tsalka and
the situation here in Akhalkalaki. Local leaders say that protests are the
only way they can get the central government to listen to their
complaints. There is talk of boycotting local elections in October if no
progress is made in opening a dialogue with the central authorities in

Frustration with what is perceived as the central governments disregard
for Georgias Armenian minority prevails in both Tsalka and Akhalkalaki,
but the roots of the particular issues differ. Once numbering 30,000,
Tsalkas Greek population is now about 1,500 and shrinking. A mass exodus
occurred during the 1990s when thousands of families relocated to Greece
for work. As Greeks left, natural disaster victims from the northern
Georgian region of Svaneti and the western Black Sea region of Achara
began to move into vacant homes. Squatters took over many abandoned
houses; pillagers ransacked others. As economic conditions in Tsalka
worsened, and the towns crime rate increased, remaining villagers (12,000
Armenians, 1,500 Azeris and 1,500 Greeks) started to view their guests as
a threat. Before the Svans arrived, there was never any trouble in Tsalka.
Why doesnt the government do something to help? Is it because we arent
Georgian? fumed Armen Darbinyan, an ethnic Armenian and chairman of the
Javakheti Citizens Forum, a non-governmental organization sponsored by the
European Center for Minority Issues.

Meanwhile, in Akhalkalaki, many say that the strained relationship with
Tbilisi (which locals call Georgia) began after the 2003 Rose Revolution.
After coming to power, President Mikheil Saakahsvilis administration
overhauled the local political machinery, replacing local officials with
appointees from Tbilisi. First Deputy Governor Armen Amirkhanyan said many
local residents in this poverty-stricken area believed the changes were
driven by prejudice. Ethnic Armenians make up 60 percent of the region,
and their rights must be defended, Amirkhanyan added. The need to have a
working knowledge of Georgian lies at the heart of most complaints.
Georgian government statistics on election registration estimate the
number of ethnic Armenians in Akhalkalaki at 95.8 percent of the towns
population of 10,000. (Local Armenians put the number at 98 percent.)
Since the entire region of Samtskhe-Javakheti functions primarily in
Armenian, few Akhalkalaki residents speak Georgian. At the same time,
Russian is frequently spoken thanks to the presence of a former Russian
military base.

We can't get good jobs unless we speak Georgian, but how can you learn
Georgian so well when youre 30 or 40 years old? said a resident of
Ninotsminda, a nearby village not far from the Armenian border. If we cant
get work here, we will continue to move to Russia for work, if we can get
visas. Unofficial estimates put the number of Javakheti men who work
seasonally in Russia at 80 percent.  Incentives offered by the Saakashvili
government to promote Georgian language instruction, as well as to promote
the integration of Armenians into the Georgian mainstream, have fallen
flat, according to Javakheti residents. In 2004, Saakashvili came to
Akhalkalaki and promised to integrate 100 students into the university
system in Tbilisi and Kutaisi with stipends, said Akhalkalaki Mayor Iricya
Nairi. Thats great, we thought. But Nairi claims local students couldnt
pass the Georgian language university entry exams, which were a result of
the governments education reforms.

Darbinyan says that he doesnt understand how people are expected to learn
Georgian well enough to pass exams, when they have few chances to learn
it. Out of Akhalkalakis five secondary schools, only one teaches courses
in Georgian. Three teach in Armenian and one in Russian. Mayor Nairi cites
the recent influx of Georgian students to the Akhalkalaki branch of
Tbilisi State University as further evidence that the government does not
want to treat ethnic Armenians equally. After Georgian students were
brought to Akhalkalaki to study for free, Nairi charged, the number of
Armenians studying at the local university dropped to four. By contrast,
he said, under former president Eduard Shevardnadze 60 percent of the
universitys 650 students were Armenian. Why would they open a university
here and bring Georgians if they didnt plan to change the demographics of
our region? he wondered.

Deputy Education and Science Minister Bela Tsipuria, however, rejects the
contention. The only reason Georgian students are studying in Akhalkalaki
is because the competition to study there is lower than in Tbilisi or
Kutaisi, Tsipuria stated. Complaints about the difficulty of Georgias new
university entrance exams were not limited to Javakheti, she added. Young
people today have to work hard to compete in modern Georgia. This is an
entirely new concept. Tsipuria argues that Javakhetis problems have more
to do with a lack of educational opportunities than language a problem not
unique to Samtskhe-Javakheti. President Saakashvili, she stressed, has
promised that hundreds of Armenian students will have the opportunity to
receive sufficient education to find work within the civil service.

The government is currently training teachers and introducing new
methodology, Tsipuria continued. But people dont understand these things
take time. First Deputy Governor Amirkhanyan believes that education
reform must be accomplished while taking the interests of national
minorities into account. We must learn Georgian if we want to get ahead.
It would be easier on all levels, from civic positions to farmers who
commute to Tbilisi to sell their goods. The issue seems to spill over
easily into other areas, as well. The February dismissal of three ethnic
Armenian judges for allegedly having an insufficient knowledge of Georgian
has generated considerable resentment.  If you dont know the state
language, then you must go! commented Nairi.

Similarly, the archbishops office was targeted by locals who assume that
the Georgian Orthodox Church is attempting to exercise excessive influence
in the region. The office was rumored to contain a cache of weapons. The
cache never materialized. Calls have gone out recently for
Samtskhe-Javakheti to be made an autonomous region, with broader
self-governance rights, and for Armenian to be named the regions official
language. Local leaders and most activists, however, maintain that
protests against perceived cultural assimilation should not be interpreted
as a separatist drive. Said Javakheti Citizens Forum Chairman Darbinyan:
They call us separatists because were asking for cultural autonomy, but we
want democracy and decentralization.

Editors Note: Paul Rimple is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.

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