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Georgia: Samtskhe-Javakheti Armenians Step Up Demands Amid Base Talks

Russian soldiers in Georgia Political groupings in Georgia's predominantly Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti have in recent weeks staged a series of rallies to protest against the possible withdrawal of Russian troops stationed there. Although the timing suggests Moscow may have inspired the demonstrations as it faces renewed pressure to vacate a military base in the region, experts note that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's failure to address social and economic concerns has many residents worried.

Prague, 5 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Visiting Tbilisi last week, Armenia's Parliament Speaker Artur Baghdasarian commented on reports that tensions were once again brewing in Georgia's southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region.

"We believe all citizens of the unified Georgian state -- be they Armenians, Russians, or Georgians -- must abide by the laws of this country. But at the same time we must admit that in every society there are various moods and we [must] accept this calmly," Baghdasarian said.

Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Samtskhe-Javakheti has been a thorn in Tbilisi's side.

Successive invasions and population transfers have turned this center of Georgian history and culture into a melting pot of nationalities.

Once Samtskhe-Javakheti's dominant ethnic group, Georgians now represent a minority there. Armenians, who account for more than one-half of the population, largely outnumber them.

The region's ethnic composition is not Tbilisi's sole concern. Considering this area a highly sensitive zone, Soviet authorities set up one of their main military outposts in the Southern Caucasus there.

Located in Akhalkalaki, just 30 kilometers from Turkey, the base is now the property of Russia -- and a major bone of contention between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Georgia has long suspected Russia of covertly stirring unrest among local residents.

Following the change of leadership that took place in Tbilisi in late 2003, calls for the region's autonomy somehow subsided. Political groupings such as Virk, or Javakh -- which were extremely vocal in the final years of former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's rule -- hoped his successor would pay greater attention to Samtskhe-Javakheti's demands.

But despite President Mikheil Saakashvili's repeated pledges to tackle the region's socioeconomic problems, the past 17 months have brought little improvement -- if any -- to local residents.

Arnold Stepanian chairs a Tbilisi nongovernmental organization known as Multinational Georgia. He tells RFE/RL that, for Georgia's ethnic minority groups, the regime change went largely unnoticed.

"It's difficult to say that we're dissatisfied with the national integration policy conducted by the government because, unfortunately, there is no such policy. We can't even say there is a bad policy. To be honest, there's never been a national integration policy in Georgia. There've been attempts to get the nongovernmental sector involved in these issues. Some of these attempts have succeeded. But the government has yet to elaborate a national integration policy," Stepanian said.

On 28 April, Multinational Georgia and other nongovernmental groups sent Saakashvili an open letter, in which they criticize his national policy.

This letter cautions against purported government plans to revise Georgia's administrative borders without taking into account the delicate ethnic balance of its regions. It also demands that minority groups enjoy better access to education in their native language, and that non-ethnic Georgians be fairly represented in national parliament and self-government bodies.

These calls follow reports of ethnic unrest in the predominantly ethnic Armenian Tsalka district, an area of the Kvemo-Kartli region that borders Samtskhe-Javakheti to the east. They also coincide with renewed activity on the part of Samtskhe-Javakheti's political organizations.

On 29 April, Saakashvili went to Ninotsminda, an ethnic Armenian city located a few kilometers southeast of Akhalkalaki. The Georgian leader promised residents he would personally see that a new Armenian school is built by the beginning of the next school year.

"My wife was here a few weeks ago and she told me about the current condition of the school. We've therefore decided that new foundations should be built and that construction should be completed by 1 September so that all children get a new school. I promise I'll come for the inauguration with books, satchels, and many other gifts for you," Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili also called upon residents, most of whom depend on agriculture for a living, to show patience until a new road linking Ninotsminda to the rest of Georgia is built.

"You must understand that we subsidize everything here. We're building a road for you and we will help you with transportation until this road is finished. Transportation is expensive [but] you will have no problem reaching our [Tbilisi] markets. Not only will I give you a school this year, but, most importantly, I will take you to our markets," Saakashvili said.

Stepanian fears that, as Saakashvili's earlier pledges, these promises may have no effect.

Last month, a newly created youth group known as United Javakh organized a rally in Akhalkalaki that attracted several hundred protestors.

This first demonstration, which was followed by others, was held to protest against Georgia's calls for the Russian military base to be vacated as quickly as possible.

Whether the timing of these rallies -- which took place in the midst of uneasy Georgian-Russian talks -- was purely coincidental, or inspired by Moscow, remains unclear.

Stepanian says he has no answer to this question.

"It's always difficult to talk about things you don't know for sure and in the present case I don't know whether there is a link here. But the timing, the fact that these rallies took place during the [Russian-Georgian] negotiation process, is interesting," Stepanian said.

Russia's Akhalkalaki base is mainly manned by local Armenian soldiers and employs roughly one-sixth of the town's 13,000 residents. In all, more than half of the local population is said to depend, directly or indirectly, on the base for its livelihood.

Although the base's true economic value for the town remains to be quantified, residents claim the departure of the Russian troops would deprive them of their main source of income.

Georgian authorities say these concerns are unfounded. But they're sending contradictory signals on how they envisage the town's economic future.

A month ago, Saakashvili said on television that Georgian troops will move into the base after the Russians leave. But, last week, he appeared to have changed his mind.

"We're not planning to set up a new military unit [there]. But we will offer those who serve on this base to join the Georgian armed forces in return for a higher pay. To those who turn down this proposal, we will offer a separate social-rehabilitation program, business [training]. These people must not feel they will lose out on the deal. On the contrary, they must benefit from the fact that Georgia is developing," Saakashvili said.

Meanwhile, Georgia's Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili on 2 May warned that the government would soon take action against what those who "are pursuing anti-Georgian activities in Samtskhe-Javakheti."

But Stepanian says any further delay in addressing the demands of Georgia's minorities is fraught with risk, as recent Armenian-Georgian clashes in Tsalka district show.

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