|Provocation from Tbilisi 18/04/2006|
Provocation from Tbilisi
by Edmond Y. Azadian
Armenian-Georgian relations can at best be defined in love-hate terms. During the Soviet period inter-ethnic tensions were muted down and even the people living in the Caucasuses were forced to claim to be brothers. But deep down animosities simmered and with the collapse of the Soviet Union they became full-blown hatred.
Even under the Soviet rule the Azeris carried a purely chauvinistic policy by depopulating Nakhichevan and oppressing Armenians in Karabagh. The Georgians, co-religionists of the Armenians, did not fare any better than their Azeri counterparts in their treatment of Armenians. That is why today the Javakhk region, predominantly Armenian populated area of Georgia, remains economically most depressed province.
During the last two centuries there was no love lost between the two neighbors, who also fought a territorial dispute during first independence and Soviet take over of the two republics.
The capital city of Georgia, Tbilisi, which was the most sophisticated and cultured metropolis before the Soviet era, was built by Armenians, who constituted the majority of its population. Even the mayor of the capital city was at one time Alexander Khadissian, an Armenian.
Predominance of Armenian presence in Tbilisi had always fueled the jealousy of the local Georgians who had been looking for an opportunity to get rid of the Armenians.
Professor Ronald Suny proposes a very interesting theory about Georgian-Armenian relations in his book entitled "The Making of the Georgian Nation". Throughout the Caucasus the triumph of the Soviet regime was hailed as the victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie. But in Georgia that class warfare was but a fig leaf for Georgian nationalists disguised as Communists to fight Armenians. Over the years they gradually destroyed the infrastructure of the Armenian community in that country by taking over churches, closing down schools, theaters and newspapers.
The desperate situation in the Javakhk region is endemic to the relationship of the two ethnic groups.
Since the fall of the Soviet empire Georgia fought three ethnic wars, if we discount the clashes between nationalists and ultra-nationalists. The root cause of those conflicts was the jingoistic treatment of minorities, which fragmented the country. Edward Shevardnadze continued the Soviet legacy during independence, only to be replaced by Gamsakhourdia, a zealot who further destroyed the ethnic fabric of his country to be ousted eventually by Shevardnadze forces. It was most ironic that he would take refuge in Armenia before his subsequent exile and assassination.
Since Georgia's independence Ajaria, a Moslem region, enjoyed semi-independent status, under Aslan Abashidze, who always defied the central government in Tbilisi, with impunity until he was escorted out by the Russians, who expected to gain favors from Mikhail Saakashvilli, who took over the government through his "revolution of roses".
The two other flash points still remain unresolved: Abkhazia, another Moslem region, has declared its independence. During the Abkhaz-Georgian war, Armenians were caught in the crossfire, and suffered from both sides, since the two conflicting sides blamed Armenians for siding with the enemy camp. Before the conflict Armenians presented the largest minority, with a number even larger than Abkhazians. But since the war their number and influence have dwindled considerably.
Another factor that complicates further the issue is that the majority of the Abkhazian population has taken Russian citizenship in recent years to give Moscow an excuse to defend "its citizens" any time in danger.
In Georgia's North, the region of Southern Ossetia has declared independence and the skirmishes and saber rattling continue across the border.
Saakashvilli came to power on the crutches of U.S. policy in the region and the removal of Abashidze in Ajaria had whetted his appetite for the resolution of the two other raging conflicts. The U.S. support has emboldened Saakashvilli to the point of defying his neighbor in the North, namely Russia.
Georgia's problems are created by the xenophobia of its leaders and, unfortunately, also its people.
Armenian presence in Georgia needs to be viewed within the context of this very complicated political landscape.
Javakhk, unlike Karabagh in the Soviet era, borders Armenia. Through all the succeeding regimes, a deliberate policy of the central government has kept the area underdeveloped. No roads have been built or repaired for a long time, no public services provided, no jobs, no economic projects. The only way Armenians have survived is through the existence of Russian military base, which provides jobs and above all, physical security in a hostile region, where conflicts and unresolved crimes are many.
The Russian military base is a bone of contention between Russia and Georgia. The government in Tbilisi wants the Russian base out, and in return promises economic aid, jobs and security to the Armenians. Promises, which have not been fulfilled and looks like they will never be fulfilled any time soon. Only Russian military base would have guaranteed security and economic viability for the Armenians.
On the other hand a country that claims to have achieved democracy, uses ethnic tensions and threat of ethnic cleansing as a tool for its political ends. Indeed, Tbilisi appoints Georgian satraps by the central government to rule this predominantly Armenia region. Armenians are denied jobs and government positions for their lack of proficiency in the Georgian language, whereas it seems to be perfectly normal to have an unelected Georgian to govern Armenians without bothering to learn the local language.
In addition to these pressures, the central government hangs over the head of the Armenians, the return of Moslem Metskhets of Turkic origin, who were deported by Stalin to Central Asia and other regions of the Soviet Union, during World War II.
This policy of relocating indigenous people has the resonance of human rights to the international community, but in fact it is no different than the fig leaf of class warfare Georgians waged earlier against the Armenians. For all intents and purposes this policy aims at depopulating Javakhk of its Armenian population.
In recent months the interior minister and foreign minister of Georgia visited Armenia, and after all the sweet talk of brotherly love and refusal to enter into political deals, which would compromise Armenia's interests, the official and unofficial harassment of the Armenians in Georgia continues.
Georgia helped Turkey and Azerbaijan to bypass Armenia in building the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. There is talk that they intend to resume railroad service again isolating Armenia.
Saakashvilli government is well aware that Armenia is in a bind and it faces the same historic dilemma it faced during the first republic; that is it cannot afford a second front while the Karabagh conflict remains unresolved.
Armenia is expected to calm down the tensions in Javakhk while Georgians continue failing in their end of the deal.
Georgian leaders are convinced that the only way to restore the territorial integrity of the country is to adopt a federal system to lure back breakaway Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia to their fold. And this process provides a golden opportunity for Javakhk Armenians to claim the same level of autonomy as the other regions. They have been agitating and demanding that autonomy, which the official Yerevan cannot publicly support to avoid aggravating Georgian-Armenian relations, which superficially remain calm.
U.S. policy with regards to these issues remains singularly myopic and one-dimensional. There is one thrust to that policy: to drive Russian military bases out of Georgia regardless of the consequences to the local groups. Rather than analyzing and solving the local problems equitably, the U.S. administration, very much in a Cold War mind set, has been pursuing a blanket global policy of containing Russia.
As if all these problems were not enough, Georgian Orthodox Church has launched a new provocation, certainly not without the knowledge and blessing of the Tbilisi government, adding a new and alarming twist to the relation of the two neighboring nations.
Georgian Orthodox Church has been confiscating Armenian churches on the Georgian territory. Calls, appeals and protests by the Armenian Church and government authorities have thus far been to no avail. Pushing the envelope further, the Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church has appointed a special commission to claim six churches in the Northern region of Armenia, in Tavoush and Lori, as their own, not withstanding the fact that no Georgians live in the area.
This new initiative seems to be designed to raise tensions between the two nations, knowing full well that Armenia can ill afford to handle another crisis at this time.
The announcement of the "Special Commission" was preceded by another provocation: The Supreme Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church decided to establish an eparchy (Diocese) of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Armenia, without bothering to inform either the leadership of the Armenian Church or the government. The Georgian Church leaders claim that their decision intends "to restore historical existence of the eparchy of Agarak-Tashir, Dmanisi See"
There is certainly a hidden agenda, which the Georgian authorities are pursuing by this decision, because:
a) There are no Georgians to attend the presumed churches, nor are there any religious structures.
b) The second issue is more suspicious than the first one, since that region was included in the map of 1918, which the Georgian Mensheviks claimed as their own.
Georgians living in Yerevan enjoy having their own church, courtesy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, whereas the Armenian Church dies not have a defined status in Georgia, because there is separation of church and state in Georgia, which becomes very handy to the Georgians to keep Armenians in limbo and allow the opportunity to the Georgian Orthodox Church to confiscate Armenian churches.
Georgian hidden agenda seems to counter the Armenian claims in Javakhk and also the protest of Armenian Church leaders in the other parts of Georgia.
The Dashnag party has been organizing and agitating Armenians in Javakhk. Some people criticize this policy, which will raise tensions in the area.
It is time for Armenia to resort to very delicate diplomacy. Any retaliation in kind may rock the boat and trigger another crisis, which may render life unbearable in Javakhk and overtax the resources in Armenia. But on the other hand, Armenia cannot allow Georgia to pursue its arrogant policy.
It looks like the wise course would be to carry a carrot and stick until stability is restored in the region.
April 18, 2006