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Georgia: Tbilisi's Pro-Integrationist Armenians Uneasy As Javakheti Pushes For Autonomy (Part 2)

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Armenians have always lived on the territory of contemporary Georgia. In the 19th and early 20th century, Armenian writers, artists, bankers and entrepreneurs significantly contributed to the cultural and industrial development of Tiflis, as the Georgia capital Tbilisi was then called. Today, Georgia's Armenian diaspora has seen its size and influence dwindle. But it remains the largest ethnic minority in the country, and is largely pro-integrationist. Now, leaders of Tbilisi's Armenian community say they are concerned by growing calls for autonomy by activists in the predominantly Armenian region of Javakheti, in southern Georgia. In the second of a two-part series on Georgia's Armenians, RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports from Tbilisi.

Tbilisi, 26 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- On 9 November, Yerevan Mayor Robert Nazarian and other high-ranking Armenian officials attended the inauguration of a renovated mausoleum in Tbilisi that holds the remains of many of the Armenian writers, composers, and scientists who contributed to the Georgian capital's cultural blossoming in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Erected in 1937, the burial site has come to symbolize the golden age of Tbilisi's Armenian community.

The first significant influx of Armenian migrants to the territory of contemporary Georgia is said to date back to the 13th century, although many believe the Armenian presence can be traced back even further. In the mid-19th century, Armenians accounted for nearly half of the population of Tbilisi -- then called Tiflis -- and far outnumbered both Georgians and Russians.

Industrialization eventually brought large numbers of Georgian peasants to the capital and dramatically altered the city's ethnic composition. The next demographic shift took place in the early 1990s, when the late Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a staunch nationalist, forced thousands of non-ethnic Georgians to emigrate. It is unknown how many Armenians fled Georgia at that time.

Today, Armenians make up some 8 percent of Tbilisi's population, with an estimated 120,000 people. Nationwide, Armenians represent Georgia's largest ethnic minority, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the country's 4 million people. But despite their still-significant numbers, Georgia's Armenians have lost most of the political and economic influence they once enjoyed.

In Tbilisi, many Armenians work as street peddlers, shopkeepers, and taxi drivers, with virtually no representation in the ranks of political officials or business executives. One of the few exceptions is Deputy Economy Minister Genrikh Muradian, who also chairs the Union of Georgia's Armenians, Georgia's largest Armenian organization.

Many Armenians in Tbilisi complain that they face discrimination from Georgians, and that they are denied jobs even in the private sector because of their ethnic origin.

Our correspondent asked Arnold Stepanian, the head of union's Tbilisi branch and the chairman of the nongovernmental Multiethnic Georgia organization, whether such claims were founded. "The biggest problem of the Armenians today is that they perceive themselves as inferior citizens. Many of them do not consider themselves to be full-fledged citizens. Georgia's Constitution naturally reads that Armenians have the same rights as representatives of other ethnic groups [in the country, including Georgians]. It is difficult to say that Armenians are being discriminated against. I would describe it instead as self-discrimination. People belittle themselves. They don't believe in their rights."

Stepanian said this kind of self-inflicted "stereotype" has far outlasted Gamsakhurdia's short-lived rule, even though Armenians no longer have reason to fear for their lives or safety.

One explanation for the persistence of this inferiority complex, he argued, is Georgia's clan-like social structure, under which company directors will give hiring preference to relatives and friends rather than potentially better-qualified applicants from outside their circle of acquaintances. Stepanian said many Armenians who find themselves losing out jobs to Georgians take it as a mark of ethnic discrimination rather than a reflection of Georgia's favor-bank traditions. "[The unsuccessful applicant] claims that he has been turned down because he is Armenian. He tells that to his relatives and friends who stop looking for jobs because they believe they will be turned down anyway, precisely because they are Armenians. The stereotype is then in place, and people begin to discredit themselves. They do not even try to fight for their rights."

Other leaders of Tbilisi's Armenian community also tend to downplay reports of racial harassment, saying representatives of other ethnic groups -- including Georgians themselves -- sometimes fall victim to various abuses and discrimination. Many Armenians say that despite certain shortcomings, they feel relatively integrated into Georgian society.

Tbilisi has two Armenian churches and eight Armenian schools. Two newspapers -- the Armenian-language "Vrastan" (Georgia) weekly and the Russian-language "Nor Serund" (New Generation) monthly -- serve as links with Armenian communities throughout the country.

Tbilisi also has an Armenian theater, which organizes some 50 shows a year. Although the theater is funded by the Georgian state, it is also getting substantial help from Armenia. Theater director Enok Tatevosian said he has always had good relations with both the Georgian government and the Tbilisi city administration. "Our theater is in good standing with government. We are a state-funded organization. I quite often turn to the city authorities, and I don't remember a single occurrence when they have not listened attentively to my demands. They always try to help us to the best of their capabilities. Naturally, we in turn always try to make realistic demands. But I can assure you that they have always listened to us with particular interest. It would be a shame to complain."

Such statements notwithstanding, a certain frustration can sometimes be detected in conversations with Tbilisi Armenians. Stepanian, for example, looks back to local elections held last June in the capital, and recalls that despite putting forward several candidates, not a single member of the Armenian community was elected to Tbilisi's "sakrebulo," or city council. "The Georgian Constitution forbids the existence of political parties based on ethnic or regional criteria. Therefore our community was unable to present [ethnic Armenian] candidates as such. But it had arranged for the inclusion of candidates in the lists of some political parties. However, because the political situation in Georgia is currently very difficult and lacks stability, the names of these candidates were placed well behind the chief candidates. Therefore, they were not elected to the sakrebulo. One cannot talk about discrimination, but, unfortunately, one might be led to believe that there is a certain tendency here, because in the previous sakrebulo there was only one Armenian. The Armenian community is not sufficiently represented and has no opportunity to actively participate in the life of the city. Unfortunately, this is the reality."

Some regional experts argue that a major obstacle that prevents Georgia's Armenian community from better integrating is its ignorance of the Georgian language. Textbooks used in Georgia's Armenian schools are imported from Armenia, and the teachers are all ethnic Armenians. Prospective university students generally go to Armenia, where they are allowed to enter Yerevan State University and other higher-education establishments without having to pass admission exams. Only a few of them return to Georgia after graduation.

Stepanian himself admitted that Georgia's Armenian schools "basically manufacture potential Armenian citizens or would-be emigrants." This problem, he explained, is particularly acute in the predominantly Armenian Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda districts in the southern Georgian region that Armenians refer to as Javakheti. "To give you an example, there is a village in the Ninotsminda region where Georgian-language courses are being taught by a shepherd who cannot even speak Georgian correctly. In Javakheti, [people] are generally being taught by Armenians who have learned a few Georgian words while serving in the army. It is a very delicate issue. We are lacking cadres and, in addition, those we can find are not well-qualified. The situation is catastrophic in Javakheti, where Georgian is practically not being taught at school at all."

Stepanian says his association has approached the Georgian government with a project to open an experimental school where all subjects would be taught in Georgian, but with a particular focus on Armenian language and literature. Hopefully, he said, this school will help train future Georgian-language teachers and help further integrate the Armenian communities of Javakheti.

In the capital, Tbilisi's better-integrated Armenians look with suspicion at recent developments at these Armenian communities to the south, where tension, fueled by growing calls for autonomy, is steadily rising. There seems to be a large gap between Tbilisi's Armenians and their ethnic kin in Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda. One possible explanation is that fears of Turkish hostilities, which are particularly acute in Georgia's southern border areas, are out of place in the relatively distant and more multicultural capital.

Another explanation could be that the Armenian communities in the south are more tightly knit than those in Tbilisi, where eight or nine organizations regularly vie for influence among the capital's Armenian population. As a result, Armenians in Tbilisi and other large cities may be more open to dialogue and cooperation with other ethnic communities.

Nana Sumbadze is the co-director of the Tbilisi-based Institute for Policy Studies, a nongovernmental organization that specializes in social and interethnic issues. Asked about the apparent dichotomy between Armenians in Tbilisi and those further south, she said: "First, it is due to the fact that [the southern Armenians] remain isolated, while here [in Tbilisi] they aren't. Another factor is that here, the degree of education and integration [among Armenians] is higher. Finally, one has to take into account the fact that [in Javakheti] they live along the border with Turkey. Their fear [of Turkey] certainly has an influence on their desire to isolate themselves from Georgia's mainland and have closer contacts with [neighboring] Armenia."

Although Armenian community leaders in Tbilisi admit that poor living standards in Javakheti provide a breeding ground for discontent, they believe the tension in the area is being artificially sustained.

Stepanian said there is no reason for claiming that the economic situation in southern Georgia is much worse that in other regions. He said the region's "rise of hysteria," as he calls it, is mainly rooted in external factors -- including Russia, which has had thorny relations with Georgia for most of the past decade.

Armenian theater director Tatevosian agreed. He said Moscow, which maintains a military base in Akhalkalaki, may be looking to use its traditionally warmer ties with Armenia to stir trouble in the region: "Not long ago, I heard that there was a demonstration in Akhalkalaki [near Javakheti and Ninotsminda]. Who organized it? Why? Why, in an ethnic Armenian region, organize a demonstration with portraits of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin when relations between Georgia and Russia are so tense? A mob is always a mob; to stir it and direct it against the interests of Georgia and its government, I think, is a gross and ugly provocation."

Community leaders are aware that troubles in Javakheti might provoke a backlash that would affect, first and foremost, Armenians living in Tbilisi and other predominantly Georgian cities. As Tatevosian said: "The important thing is to preserve what we have. This is our main task."

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