Situation in Meskheti region

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Subject: Situation in Meskheti region

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Situation in Meskheti region

(Re-posted from

May 15, 1998       No.10       Part 3
By Igor Rotar

Georgia's ethnic Armenian population compactly resides in the
Meskhet-Javakhetia region, which borders Armenia, predominantly on the
Javakhetian side. Armenians make up more than 90 percent of the
population in Javakhetia (the Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda districts of
Georgia). Georgian and Armenian historians have long argued over whom
Javakhetia (or Javakhk in Armenian) belongs to. The very fact of this
polemic is a rather dangerous phenomenon. It was arguments over whom
Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia belonged to which led, in
the final analysis, to open armed conflict.

The first tension in the Armenian districts of Georgia arose in 1989,
as a reaction to a number of meetings of leaders of the Georgian
nationalist movement (former Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia and
his companion-in-arms, Meraba Kostava, in particular), at which the
population was presented with a doctrine of "hosts and guests" in
Georgia. In meetings which followed, in Akhalkalaki and Bogdanovka,
Georgian Armenians demanded the creation of an Armenian autonomous
district in Georgia and said that they would not tolerate the
resettlement into their district of the Svans from the districts which
suffered from mountain floods.

As Olga Vasilieva notes, (1) most of the leaders of the Georgian
nationalist movement have a much more hostile attitude toward the
republic's Armenian population than they do toward Azeris living in
Georgia. For example, the leader of the "Freedom" party, Rezo
Shavishvili, said in 1990 that if Armenians had not raised the issue
of Nagorno-Karabakh, they would certainly have laid claim to the
Armenian districts in Georgia adjoining Armenia. 

Relations between Georgia's ethnic Armenian population and ethnic
Georgians were further complicated after the beginning of the war in
Abkhazia. As Helen Krag and Lars Funch note, "During the war, not just
the North Caucasus minorities, but local Russians and Armenians as
well, supported the Abkhazians." (2) In Georgia, the activity of the
Marshal Bagramian Battalion (made up of Abkhazian Armenians), which
fought on the side of the separatists, has been widely discussed.

After Georgia became independent, Akhalkalaki District (95 percent of
whose population is ethnic Armenian) became virtually outside the
jurisdiction of the central authorities. "While Zviad Gamsakhurdia was
in power, they refused to accept a prefect there, and under Eduard
Shevardnadze, the local leaders have expressed categorical distrust in
his plenipotentiary representative in the Meskhet-Javakhetia region."
(3) Its Armenian residents refused to serve in the Georgian army from
1992-1995, but were recruited into a local paramilitary organization,
which took part in the fighting for Nagorno-Karabakh. The local
Armenians got their weapons, by fair means or by foul, from the
Russian military base in Akhalkalaki. In essence, the people of
Akhalkalaki have formed their own armed formations, and the Georgian
authorities, afraid to create yet another hotbed of armed
confrontation, have decided not to send troops there.

But the Armenians were not able to "hold onto" all of
Meskhet-Javakhetia.  In the district next to Akhalkalaki, Akhalitskhe
District, (where, before perestroika, there were as many Armenians as
Georgians), there were armed formations of "Mkhedrioni," who were
formally subordinated to Shevardnadze.  Clearly, Tbilisi's control did
not suit the local Armenian community, and today, Prism's
correspondent is certain that the overwhelming majority of the
population in Akhalistkhe is ethnic Georgian.

When you arrive in Akhalkalaki, it is hard at first to determine which
country (Russia, Georgia, or Armenia) you are in. There are signs here
in all three languages, and Russian and Armenian money is accepted in
the bazaar along with Georgian currency. "For common people here, it
doesn't matter which country they live in, Georgia or Armenia. We are
both Christian peoples, and we live like brothers. We don't experience
any discrimination here, and can work in both Armenian and Georgian.
The standard of living is approximately the same in Armenia and in
Georgia. The only advantage of living in Armenia is that they now get
electricity without interruption, while we get it only a few hours a
day. Now, in Georgia, the situation has basically normalized; nobody
threatens us anymore. And we have no reason to take defensive
measures," Armen Khachaturian, a customs inspector from Akhalkalaki,
told Prism. On the whole, Khachaturian's point of view is shared by
most residents of the region. Significantly, the organization
"Javakhk," which, several years ago, demanded an ethnic Armenian
autonomous district, has now virtually ceased to function.

But at the same time, it would be an exaggeration to think that the
situation in Akhalkalaki has normalized completely. According to local
residents, the local chief of administration, Sergei Dorbinyan, who is
subordinate to Tbilisi, has already been beaten five times by the
crowd. The last time he was beaten was about two months ago, when
there was a rumor in the region that he supported the withdrawal of
the Russian military base from Akhalkalaki. The local population
reacts more than painfully to the incessant debate between Moscow and
Tbilisi over the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia.

The local Armenians' interest in the presence of Russian troops in the
region can be explained by at least two factors. The local Armenians
are traditionally oriented toward Russia - here, they see Russians as
potential defenders, if an armed conflict breaks out. No less
important is the fact that today, the Russian military base, where
several thousand local Armenians now work, is almost the only source
support for the local population.

At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that the fact that local
Armenians work at the Russian military base is, for Georgian
politicians, an additional argument in favor of getting it withdrawn
from Akhalkalaki. Prism's correspondent heard on several occasions
from ethnic Georgians that Armenians, under the cover of the Russian
flag, have virtually created their own military unit on Georgian
territory. The withdrawal of the Russian military base from
Akhalkalaki could well provoke anti-Georgian sentiments, and taking
into account the fact that today, there are arms in virtually every
home in Akhalkalaki, this could lead to rather serious problems.

Another factor which is capable of destabilizing the situation in the
region is the problem of the Meskhetian Turks. The Meskhetian Turks
lived in Meskhet-Javakhetia (predominantly in Meskhetia) until 1944.
By the Adrianople peace treaty of 1829 between Russia and Turkey, part
of Meskhet-Javakhetia (now located in Georgia) was ceded from Turkey
to Russia.  Scholars differ on the issue of the Meskhetian Turks'
origins; some consider them to be "Turkicized" Georgians (most
Georgian scholars and politicians hold this view), while others
(including the Meskhetian Turks themselves)  consider themselves an
ethnic group of Turks, and still others - consider them to be an
ethnic group of Azeris.

In 1944, Stalin, fearing that Turkey would conclude a military
alliance with Germany, deported all of the Meskhetian Turks from the
Soviet part of Meskhet-Javakhetia to Central Asia. The vacated lands
were settled by Armenians and Georgians. The Meskhetian Turk mass
movement, which set as its goal returning to its homeland, arose after
the unrest in Fergana in 1989.  But Tbilisi, saying that there was a
shortage of land in Meskhetia, did not hurry to receive the Meskhetian
Turks. Although the Georgian authorities created a special commission
to study the possibility of the return of the Meskhetian Turks, in
reality, repatriation has not begun. Today, as Yusuf Sarvarov, the
head of the Meskhetian Turk society "Vatan," told Prism, only 184
Meskhetian Turks live in Georgia, and not one of them has settled in

According to "Vatan's" estimates, 140,000 Meskhetian Turks are trying
to return (according to census data, 207,500 Meskhetian Turks live in
the former USSR). According to Sarvarov, Tbilisi's arguments that
Meskhet-Javakhetia is overpopulated are unpersuasive, since 20,000
fewer people live there today than in 1944, and the Meskhetian Turks'
homes are still vacant. Prism's correspondent, who has been to the
former Meskhetian Turk villages, is convinced that this is correct.
The Armenians and Georgians preferred to build new houses from
scratch, and use the Meskhetian Turks' homes as auxiliary buildings.

In order to understand the true reason why the beginning of
repatriation has been dragged out, it is enough to be in
Meskhet-Javakhetia for just a couple of hours. "We will never agree to
live with the Meskhetian Turks. We are Christians, and they are
Muslims. If they return, we will take up arms,"  the inhabitants of
the villages abandoned by the Meskhetian Turks told Prism. Tbilisi
knows full well that the return of the Meskhetian Turks would hardly
go smoothly, without excesses, and therefore is trying, any way it
can, to put off the repatriation process.

But today, the withdrawal of Russian troops and the repatriation of
the Meskhetian Turks are only a potential threat to security in the

The "western variant" for the transportation of Azerbaijani oil goes
through Georgia, and incidentally, not far from Meskhet-Javakhetia,
and if the situation here gets out of control, this route will become
unprofitable.  As is well-known, both Moscow and Grozny are interested
in the alternative to the "western variant," the "northern variant,"
from Baku through Grozny to Novorossiisk. The recent attempt on Eduard
Shevardnadze's life, and the resulting accusations of Moscow and
Grozny are an indirect confirmation of the possibility of provocations
from those who support rival methods of transit for Caspian oil.

The situation could also be complicated by the change of leadership in
Armenia. Former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian did all he
could to nip the separatist tendencies in Akhalkalaki in the bud. A
court in Yerevan even closed the Armenian newspaper Lragir for three
months for publishing a series of articles calling for the annexation
of the regions of Georgia settled by Armenians.

This position is easily explained: due to Armenia's blockade by
Azerbaijan, friendly relations with Georgia are much more important to
Yerevan (Georgia is the only corridor which links Armenia to the CIS
countries) than acquiring a small mountain district. The fact that if
there were a conflict in the Akhalkalaki district, the large Armenian
community in Tbilisi (about 10 percent of the city's population) would
virtually be held hostage is also an important factor restraining
Yerevan's appetites.

But soon after the victory of Robert Kocharian, who has the reputation
of being a supporter of a tough course in relations with Baku, in the
presidential elections, the situation could change. Although it is
unlikely, it is still possible that Yerevan, in order to put pressure
on its rival, who is interested in the transportation of oil along the
"western variant,"  could deliberately try to destabilize the
situation in the ethnic Armenian regions of Georgia.
1. Olga Vasilieva, Gruziia kak model' postkommunisticheskoi
transformatsii. (Moscow, 1993)
2. Helen Krag and Lars Funch. The North Caucasus: Minorities at a
Crossroads. (Manchester, December 1994)
3. Etnicheskie i regional'nye konflikty v Evrazii: Kn. 1,
Tsentral'naia Aziia i Kavkaz, edited by A. Malashenko, V. Koppiters,
D. Trenin. (Moscow, 1997)
Igor Rotar is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.
Translated by Mark Eckert

Prism is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is edited by
Stephen Foye and Mark Eckert.
Copyright 1998 The Jamestown Foundation.

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