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 Gevorkian's 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 archbishop.
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] wasn't 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 Tbilisi.
Frustration with what is perceived as the central government's disregard for Georgia's Armenian minority prevails in both Tsalka and Akhalkalaki, but the roots of the particular issues differ.
Once numbering 30,000, Tsalka's 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 town's 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 doesn't the government do something to help? Is it because we aren't 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 Saakahsvili's 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 town's 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 you're 30 or 40 years old?" said a resident of Ninotsminda, a nearby village not far from the Armenian border. "If we can't 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. "That's great, we thought." But Nairi claims local students couldn't pass the Georgian language university entry exams, which were a result of the government's education reforms.
Darbinyan says that he doesn't understand how people are expected to learn Georgian well enough to pass exams, when they have few chances to learn it. Out of Akhalkalaki's 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 university's 650 students were Armenian. "Why would they open a university here and bring Georgians if they didn't 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 Georgia's 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 Javakheti's 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 don't 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 don't know the state language, then you must go!" commented Nairi.
Similarly, the archbishop's 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 region's 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 we're asking for cultural autonomy, but we want democracy and decentralization."
Paul Rimple is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.