Recent protests by ethnic Armenians, Georgia's largest ethnic minority, against the closure of a Russian military base in the predominantly Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti have helped underscore the difficulties faced by the Saakashvili administration as it promotes inter-ethnic accord in the country. In a recent interview, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili outlined the government's economic development plans for Samtskhe-Javakheti, and stressed that "diversity is our strength."
Armenians constitute almost 8 percent of Georgia's 4.5 million population a statistic that has spurred demands by some Armenian community leaders for attention equal to that given Georgia's smaller Ossetian and Abkhaz minority populations. Most ethnic Armenians are concentrated in two areas in and around Tbilisi and in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. The over 113,000 in Samtskhe-Javakheti most of them living in two districts, Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki -- comprise a majority of the remote and impoverished region's overall population. Some analysts suggest discontent among the so-called Javakheti Armenians could pose a potential threat to Georgia's goal of territorial integration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Disputes over Russia's 62nd military base at Akhalkalaki, one of two Russsian military installations remaining on Georgian territory, drive much of the concerns. The base is located at the heart of the Javakheti-Armenian community and serves as the region's driving economic force. In March, Javakheti Armenians held demonstrations in Akhalkalaki to protest Georgia's demand that the base be closed, arguing that the Russian military presence provides them with both economic security and defense against Turkey, a traditional Armenian enemy. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Armenian community in Tbilisi is not playing as large a role in opposing a quick Russian withdrawal.
Talks held on April 14-15 with Russian diplomats in Tbilisi failed to reach an agreement on a mutually acceptable withdrawal timeline. Each side has blamed the other for the failure of the negotiations. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Saakashvili spoke to a EurasiaNet correspondent during a helicopter ride from Samtskhe-Javakheti to Tbilisi. He had traveled to Borjomi, one of the six districts that comprise Samtskhe-Javakheti, where he had opened a new park. During the interview, Saakashvili said Georgia is promoting a "phased withdrawal" for the base with no concrete completion dateas long as the withdrawal starts immediately. He added, however, that the Russians are looking for a set timeframe around 2009, the date of Georgia's next presidential election. "Basically, they are waiting for the next Georgian election," Saakashvili said. "We say
Theresa Freese is a freelance journalist and political analyst who has been conducting research on unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus since September 2003.