On April 7, a court in the Akhaltsikhe district of southern Georgia sentenced Vahagn Chakhalian, a local activist who for several years has campaigned on behalf of the region's predominantly Armenian population, to 10 years' imprisonment on charges of illegal possession of weapons, participating in mass disorders, resisting arrest, and "hooliganism."
Chakhalian's father Ruben and his younger brother Armen were fined 5,000 laris ($3,000) and 2,000 laris ($1,200) respectively. Armenian civil rights organizations consider the charges to be unsubstantiated.
The three men were taken into custody in July 2008, days after an explosion near the home of the police chief in the neighboring district of Akhalkalaki, in an operation carried out by Georgian special-service personnel, in the course of which an Armenian police officer reportedly died in circumstances that remain unclear.
Chakhalian's father and brother were later released, but Chakhalian went on trial in Akhaltsikhe in November, initially only on charges of illegal possession of weapons, according to noravank.am on December 18. Concerned at reports of flagrant human rights violations in the course of the trial, Armenian human rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunian appealed to his Georgian counterpart Sozar Subari to monitor the court proceedings, Noyan Tapan reported on December 25.
The Armenians of the south Georgian region of Javakheti (Armenian Javakhk) are regarded with suspicion and mistrust both by the Georgian authorities, which routinely downplay or dismiss claims of discrimination or neglect expressed by ethnic minorities, and by successive Armenian governments anxious not to offend Tbilisi by intervening too aggressively in defense of their co-ethnics. Isolated from the rest of Georgia by mountainous terrain and appallingly inadequate highways, their social mobility circumscribed by the Georgian government's failure over many decades to provide adequate Georgian-language teaching in local schools, that Armenian community has dwindled in size from almost 249,000 at the time of the 2002 Georgian census to an estimated 160,000 today.
Following the Rose Revolution of November 2003, the new Georgian leadership under President Mikheil Saakashvili instigated token gestures, such as the introduction of radio and television broadcasting in Armenian and Azeri, intended to bridge the gulf between the central government and those minorities.
The prime ministers of Armenia and Georgia, Andranik Markarian and Zurab Noghaideli, toured Javakhk in July 2005 and promised investment in repairs to schools and roads, but the new Georgian government did not undertake any serious efforts either to alleviate widespread poverty and isolation, or to create new jobs for the estimated 1,600 local Armenians employed at the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki (the region's largest single employer) following the signing in May 2005 of an agreement between Tbilisi and Moscow to close the base by the fall of 2007. Armenian parliamentary deputy Shirak Torosian (Hzor Hayrenik, Mighty Fatherland) told a conference in Yerevan in March 2006 -- even before the closure of the military base -- that up to 30,000 young Armenians in Javakhk were unemployed, and some 9,000 local Armenians travelled every year to Russia in search of seasonal work.
During the 1990s, two political organizations were established to protect and promote the interests of the Armenian population of Samtskhe-Javakheti: Javakhk, described as "a movement of village intellectuals intermixed with disaffected townsfolk," and Virk, which campaigned for the separation of Javakheti from Samtskhe and for autonomy for Javakheti within the unitary Georgian state. The two regions, Javakheti and Samtskhe, which borders it to the west, were combined into a single province in 1995.
In March 2005, Vahagn Chakhalian established a new forum, the Democratic Alliance United Javakhk, that over the next few months convened several mass meetings in Akhalkalaki attended by thousands of local Armenians protesting perceived discrimination.
In late September 2005, United Javakhk and Virk, together with other local NGOs, convened a national forum at which participants demanded that the Georgian authorities grant the region formal autonomy. Georgia's "Messenger" suggested on September 29, 2005 that the Armenians were inspired to do so at least in part by Saakashvili's successive offers in January and July 2005 of broad autonomy to the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In an interview with the Russian news agency Regnum on December 26, 2005, Chakhalian stressed that the Armenians of Javakhk seek above all to promote universal democratic values and political stability, and wish to acknowledged and treated as law-abiding citizens entitled to the same rights as the rest of the Georgian population.
Whether or not in a direct response to the Armenian demand for autonomy, the Georgian authorities in 2006 set about splitting the Armenian community and succeeded in co-opting Virk, which agreed to team up with Saakashvili's United National Movement in the elections to local councils that took place on October 5. The Armenian opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak" on October 19 claimed that the Armenian government played a key role in subverting Virk and was prepared to cooperate with its Georgian counterpart in neutralizing other organizations campaigning on behalf of Javakhk's Armenian population.
United Javakhk for its part formed an election alliance with the opposition party Industry Will Save Georgia, and staged a protest in Akhalkalaki on October 9 against the perceived falsification of the vote. Police intervened and used force to disperse the protesters.
Chakhalian was arrested on October 10, 2005, on his arrival in Yerevan by car with his parents, brother, and a second United Javakhk activist, Gurgen Shirinian, and charged with entering the Republic of Armenia illegally. His arrest triggered protests in both Akhalkalaki and Yerevan, and 16 Armenian opposition lawmakers signed a statement accusing the Armenian authorities of targeting Chakhalian in a "shameful" attempt to appease Tbilisi.
Chakhalian was subsequently tried, given a one-year suspended sentence, and deported to Georgia.
Despite his arrest in July 2008, the Council of Armenian NGOs of Samtskhe-Javakheti issued a renewed appeal to the Georgian authorities on August 19, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian-Georgian conflict over South Ossetia. They argued that the only way to restore Georgia's territorial integrity and to allay ethnic tensions is to transform Georgia into a federal state. Doing so would, however, necessitate amending the Georgian Constitution, which designates Georgia a unitary state.
The NGOs proposed that Samtskhe-Javakheti be granted "broad self-government" within that federal framework, including the right to free elections for all local government bodies and jurisdiction over culture, education, crime prevention, and environmental and socioeconomic issues. The region would also be represented within the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government at the national level. And, crucially, Armenian would be designated a regional official language, alongside Georgian. Such measures to protect the rights of national minorities are, the NGOs pointed out, one of the necessary preconditions for Georgia's successful integration into Euro-Atlantic structures.
There was no formal Georgian response to that appeal. But the problems of the Javakheti Armenians figured on the agenda of Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian's visit to Tbilisi on September 30. Saakashvili was quoted as saying at a joint press conference with his Armenian counterpart that "ethnic Armenians represent a very important segment of the Georgian society. We do not distinguish our citizens according to their ethnic descent. But, of course, we do respect their culture and origins. These [elements] are part of their identity and part of Georgia's identity. We are closely cooperating, also, in these matters, making sure the dialogue between peoples and cultures is made very easy."
Chakhalian addressed an open letter to Saakashvili in late March, criticizing his failure to create equal conditions for all Georgian citizens regardless of their ethnicity and the ongoing reprisals against those local Armenians who seek to defend their rights. He challenged Saakashvili to "take practical steps to restore" the rapidly dwindling trust the Armenians of Javakhk have in the Georgian leadership, affirming that "the Javakheti Armenians are ready for dialogue. We still want to hope that we shall not be forced to invoke European and international bodies in our search for a solution to the problems that exist" between the Armenian and Georgian peoples.