For nearly 200 years, Greeks, Georgians, Russians and Armenians in Tsalka shared the same churches, cemeteries and family ties. Tsalka's ethnic Greeks are descendants of refugees from eastern Turkey who came to Georgia, then part of the Russian Empire, after Greece's War of Independence (1821-1831) against the Ottoman Empire.
Thirteen years ago, Greeks made up 70 percent of Tsalka's population, or some 30,000 people. Then, in the early 1990s, ethnic Greeks, like many Georgians, left Georgia to look for better lives and work, mostly heading to Greece, where citizenship laws facilitated their return.
Today, just 1,500 Greeks remain in Tsalka. These Greeks are mostly elderly, although a few young families are struggling to stay, too. Along Aristotle Street in the town of Tsalka, the regional center, signs for the Dioskuria grocery or the Café Ponti attest to Tsalka's Greek past. A sculpture of Aristotle stands in front of one derelict school. Greek music sometimes wafts its way from a passing car. At Easter, traditional toasts are made with glasses of metaxa, a Greek brandy.
Most of those Greeks who stayed behind in Tsalka say that they live in an increasing state of fear. As local crime rates have risen, blame has fallen on the most recent arrivals -- migrants from Georgia's remote mountain region of Svaneti and the Black Sea autonomous republic of Achara.. (By contrast, complaints are not heard about refugees from the breakaway region of Abkhazia, who arrived in the early 1990s.) Many of these individuals, local Greeks charge, have taken residence in homes owned by emigrant Greeks, often stealing property left behind, or refusing to leave the house when owners ask.
Consequently, locals say, the numbers of Greeks returning to Tsalka for Easter each year is decreasing. "Greeks want to come, but are afraid," said one elderly woman who returns each year to visit her sons' graves. "My daughters in Greece didn't want me to come. I stay with a neighbor because I'm afraid to go to my own house. Everything was stolen from it, even a broom I bought last year. When she [the neighbor] leaves, I probably won't come back anymore."
When Viktor Samurganov returned this year to Tsalka for the first time since 1993, he discovered that everything had been stolen from his house. "The only thing left was a thin mattress," he recounted. ªI slept on that and woke up to the cold."
Neither the local authorities nor the central government in Tbilisi have been able to regulate the clash over housing as newcomers arrive from other parts of Georgia and ethnic Greeks depart. No established system exists to supply migrants or refugees with housing in accordance with the law.
Former President Eduard Shevardnadze's administration had begun to address the housing problem by buying houses, but inefficiency and corruption hindered any real progress. In 2004, President Mikheil Saakashvili's government made the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation responsible for handling the relocation process. To provide housing for displaced persons from Abkhazia, Achara and Svaneti, the new administration is offering emigrants between $2,000 and $3,000 for their homes. In 2006, the Georgian state budget allocated 1,000, 600 lari (about $549,000) to purchase homes throughout Georgia for the resettlement of refugees and displaced persons.
Most Greeks, however, are unwilling to sell their homes for such a small sum and few have been sold. But raising the cash to buy a residence at market rates remains a challenge for local residents as well. Jobs are scare in this region, and though the nearby Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and a new highway to Tbilisi are expected to stir economic activity eventually, the material benefits have not hit yet. With empty houses not selling, residents hard-pressed for cash and in need of a place to stay simply move in.
Hamlet, an ethnic Greek police officer, has been trying for six years to reclaim his aunt's property in the village of Bediani. "When my aunt left, she asked a Georgian woman to look after her house. Then we discovered the woman was seeking ways to seize the house," he said. "That's when I applied to the court to evict her."
Despite having all the documents necessary to prove legal ownership, Hamlet still has been unable to get his family property back. "I'm a policeman living here and look what I'm up against," he said. "Imagine how much harder it is for somebody not working in a government structure or, even worse, [who is] not physically here."
But some observers report that the litigation process, though time-consuming, is beginning to pick up speed. "The first phase of a civil case must [now] conclude within two months, "said Giorgi Arakashvili, a project consultant for the European Centre for Minority Issues in Tbilisi. Earlier limits stood at nine months, he added. "Further changes will require all court cases to be closed within two years."
Nonetheless, many of Tsalka's Greeks say that they feel powerless to stop the takeover of homes and property, and believe the lack of support is part of a deliberate policy by the Georgian government to force them to leave the region. Some add that they do not speak out for fear of reprisals. Georgian officials, however, have denied that any attempt is being made in the region to uproot minorities in favor of ethnic Georgians.
Still, confrontations occur often and are rarely reported. When a EurasiaNet correspondent visited Tsalka in May, conversation among local Greeks focused on the robbery of a Greek house in the village of Kerek, and a fight between an expatriate Greek, who wanted to enter his house in the village of Jedikilize, and its Acharan inhabitants. Once again, Interior Ministry troops were called in to restore order.
A far more brutal clash occurred in February 2005 when a group of ethnic Svans allegedly broke into the house of a 60-year-old ethnic Greek, beating him to death, and severely pummeling his wife. The group was later apprehended and sentenced to prison. The following month, however, several people were injured during clashes between Georgians and local Greeks and Armenians after an ethnic Greek family was assaulted in a burglary attempt in the Tsalka village of Avralo.
After visiting the region, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili set up a police unit of 30 officers to maintain the peace, but stated that ethnic conflict was not the cause of the dispute.
"If there wasn't the banditry here, this would be a great place to live," commented Leonid Nikolov, a middle-aged Greek who is one of the few from the "younger" generation who have returned to live in Tsalka. "I had a good job and friends in Cyprus . . . But I missed Tsalka and felt terrible nostalgia. Yet if I had really known how bad it was here --- no roads, infrastructure, the crime -- I'm not sure if I would have decided to come back."
With these living conditions, simple criminal acts can be interpreted as ethnic disputes, Nikolov continued, adding that it is up to the government to show that it is able to handle the problem. "When ethnic Georgians in Tbilisi begin to efficiently regulate the relocation of fellow Georgians into the region and uphold the law, they will be able to prevent the escalation of inter-ethnic disputes," he said.
In the meantime, many local Greeks say that they are placing their hopes on Andrew Athens, a Greek American who is president of the World Council of Hellenes Abroad foundation. Athens first came to Tsalka in 1998 to open a modern health clinic. The clinic now employs four doctors and two nurses. In addition, Athens has renovated a few first aid stations in villages around Tsalka, purchased 10 jeeps for the local police on condition that an ethnic Greek would head the police force -- and backed various other issues important to the local Greek community.
"We hope he can help us resolve the property issue, even take our case to the European Court, if necessary," commented one local resident. "After all many local Greeks have EU [European Union] citizenship and Georgia has big aspirations for the EU."
Other Greeks prefer to just take what memories from their Georgian homes that they can from what remains. Among the requests for Greeks returning to Tsalka this Easter: one tkhemali [Georgian plum] tree and one pear tree sapling.
Sophia Mizante is a freelance photographer, based in Tbilisi, who focuses on the Caucasus and Eastern Europe.