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Georgia: Armenian-Populated Region In Limbo

The Caucasus is famous for its mix of cultures, sometimes changing even from valley to valley within the same country. RFE/RL correspondent Emil Danielyan visits a pocket of ethnic Armenians living in Georgia where ethnic tension and cooperation rules daily life.

Akhalkalaki, Georgia; 25 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the heart of Javakhetia, a region of southwestern Georgia where ethnic Armenians are the majority, there is no language but Armenian heard on the streets.

There are few signs that this is a Georgian territory and, to the eyes of a casual visitor, the place looks depressing and deceptively dormant.

But Javakhetia's position on Georgia's border with Turkey and Armenia gives the region strategic importance. And that makes it a tempting target in what many analysts believe is a new "Big Game" between Russia and the West in which both sides are competing for influence in the post-Soviet South Caucasus.

The area known as Javakhetia includes four raions. Ethnic Armenians are concentrated in two of them, Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda, where they make up over 95 percent of the population. The Tbilisi government's influence on the state of affairs there is fairly limited.

Akhalkalaki still hosts a Russian military base, one of the two remaining in Georgia. In a town with a virtually non-existent economy, it is the main employer. The locals are strongly opposed to a possible withdrawal of the Russian troops, something which runs counter to Tbilisi's policy of seeking close ties with NATO and the West.

But some of the troops did pull out last year, raising the question of who would occupy their empty barracks. The Georgian government has agreed to turn the barracks into a hospital under pressure from local Armenians unwilling to see Georgian army units stationed in Akhalkalaki.

Local government officials now say that Tbilisi has assured them that it will not deploy Georgian troops in the area in the foreseeable future. Soothing Javakhetian Armenians, they say, was a key purpose of a recent meeting between Armenia's and Georgia's defense ministers. Georgian military presence is now confined to patrolling the Javakhetia section of the Turkish border.

In terms of culture and education, the region's ethnic Armenian population is strongly linked to Armenia. Few of those living in the Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda raions speak Georgian, and schooling is in Armenian. Even the textbooks are exactly the ones used in Armenia. Local youths entering university normally choose Yerevan rather than Tbilisi. That's where Javakhetian Armenians have made careers for decades. They constitute a considerable part of Armenia's military elite and are also known for their strong mathematical skills. Perhaps this is the reason why any street trader in Akhalkalaki easily re-calculates prices in all four currencies circulating there: the U.S. dollar, Russian ruble, Georgian lari, and Armenian dram.

"People are out of work here." This remark by an elderly man selling soft drinks at a bus station sums up the economic situation in the region. Apart from the Russian base and trade, the locals live off farming and money transfers from relatives working in Russia. Three hours of electricity a day is not an incentive to launch a business. Meager pensions and public salaries have not been paid for over six months.

Except for Chevron gasoline stations, little suggests that Akhalkalaki has seen a transition to a market economy. Streets have hardly been paved since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The misery and absence of prospects makes many people feel forsaken by the central government. As Levon Gabrielian, head of the Akhalkalaki district assembly representing President Eduard Shevardnadze's party puts it, Tibilisi does not have an "objective approach" to the region.

More radical local leaders speak about covert discrimination. Nationalists, who until now have operated under an umbrella group called Javakhk, have recently formed a more radical party called Virk (the medieval Armenian name for Georgia.)

The Georgian Justice Ministry refuses to register the party citing its "regional" character." But one of Virk's leaders, David Restakian, says Tbilisi wants to bar the party from participating in parliamentary elections next October.

Restakian says that "we are more dangerous for them than Javakhk because we want to obey their rules of the game." He adds that one in ten Georgian citizens is an [ethnic] Armenian and "yet we have no senior officials in Tbilisi."

Virk's stated aim is a "federal" Georgia in which Javakhetia would be a separate entity. The nationalists, who are pro-Russian and anti-Turkish, are against possible passage through the region of a pipeline carrying Azerbaijani oil to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. They are clearly the force upon which Russia will rely to keep its presence in the region.

As the legislative polls near, Georgian parties will increasingly compete to win the sympathy of Javakhetian Armenians who previously voted for Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia. Pictures of Aslan Abashidze, the autocratic ruler of the Adjar Autonomous Republic, can already be seen in Akhalkalaki. The accompanying posters of his newly formed electoral bloc urge the ouster of the Shevardnadze administration "which has no future."

The Adjar strongman has not been subordinate to Tbilisi in the last several years and relies on Russian troops to preserve Adjaria's quasi-independence. He recently proposed to include Javakhetia in his Black Sea republic which reportedly enjoys the highest living standards in the country.

However, both the Armenian moderates and nationalists are highly mistrustful of Abashidze and pointing to his alleged ties to Turkey. But whether their warnings will outweigh his economic track record in the eyes of Javakhetia's impoverished population only will be clear in October.