Since the early 1990s, the former Soviet republic of Georgia has lost two of its provinces -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- while barely maintaining control over the Black Sea autonomous republic of Adjaria. Similar separatist rumbles can now be heard in a fourth region, Javakheti, where the predominantly ethnic Armenian population is demanding greater cultural and political autonomy. The calls have raised widespread concern that the area may become a hotbed of interethnic strife. In the first of a two-part series on Georgia's Armenians, RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch files this report.
Akhalkalaki, Georgia; 25 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It is only a 350-kilometer drive from Tbilisi. Yet, the town of Akhalkalaki rarely welcomes high-ranking visitors from the Georgian capital.
There are good reasons for that.
First, there is the nightmarish "road" -- a serpentine 70-kilometer strip of earth furrowed by use and bad weather -- linking Akhalkalaki and Akhaltsikhe, the administrative center of the Samtskhe-Javakheti province. It is a trip that requires the utmost patience and skill of the drivers who undertake it.
Then, there is the dampness. It seeps into the walls of the earthen huts that make up most of the homes in Akhalkalaki. Even on the warmest days, the temperature inside the homes chills to the bone.
Finally, there is the local population, which is less than welcoming toward the Georgian leadership.
Akhalkalaki is 50 kilometers from the Armenian border and only 30 kilometers from Turkey. The name of this remote outpost, which means "new town" in Georgian, has little resemblance to reality. There are virtually no paved roads in Akhalkalaki, and the only new buildings -- a handful of gas stations -- look out of place amid the breathtaking mountain landscape.
Some 96 percent of Akhalkalaki's 13,000 residents are ethnic Armenians. The remaining 4 percent are Russian soldiers and noncommissioned officers manning the Soviet-era military base that now houses Russia's 128th motorized rifle division. A few ethnic Georgians live scattered in remote villages throughout the area.
In the early 19th century, Islamicized Georgians were the dominant ethnic group in Akhaltsikhe and neighboring areas that had been under Ottoman rule for nearly 200 years. But after Russia annexed Georgia, it used the area to settle tens of thousands of Christian Armenian migrants from eastern Anatolia to establish a security belt against the Ottoman Empire.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the ethnic composition of Samtskhe-Javakheti province has been a source of concern for Tbilisi, which worries the area is home to secessionist groups seeking to unite with neighboring Armenia.
In particular, Georgian officials are keeping a wary eye on two organizations, Javakh and Virk, which they see as potential troublemakers. Although Javakh's influence is thought to be dwindling in Samtskhe-Javakheti, four-year-old Virk -- "Georgia" in ancient Armenian -- is believed to be the driving political force in the region.
Virk co-Chairman David Rstakian refutes accusations that his group is pursuing a separatist agenda. He told RFE/RL that Virk is simply fighting for greater cultural and political rights for the province's sizeable Armenian community. "When the Soviet republics gained independence and when [Georgia's nationalist leader] Zviad Gamsakhurdia acceded to power [in the early 1990s], people started calling us 'newcomers' or 'guests.' But even then, we never had any intentions of seceding [from Georgia]. We've never talked about that. For the past 12 years, no organization, no one has ever called upon the region to secede."
Regional experts believe Virk and the 15,000 members it claims to have are promoting a nationalist agenda. But Rstakian said his movement -- which he insists on calling a party despite a constitutional ban on political parties based on ethnic, religious, or territorial principles -- is merely fighting for better parliamentary representation of Samtskhe-Javakheti's Armenians and greater rights for local governing bodies.
Rstakian has also demanded that Armenian be raised to the status of "regional state language" and that central authorities pay greater attention to his native region's economic and social needs.
Virk activists would like to see the mainly ethnic Armenian regions of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda -- a combined area they call Javakheti or Javakh -- be granted an autonomous status like the southern republic of Adjaria, which enjoys considerable economic and political freedom from Tbilisi. Such a move would help distinguish Javakh from the province's four other regions, which have large Georgian communities.
Adjaria and Javakheti have more in common than their autonomous leanings. Both play host to Russian military bases. Moscow has already closed its Gudauta, Marneuli, and Vaziani military installations in Georgia, but despite ongoing pressure from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Kremlin has steadfastly refused to set a date for closing its final two bases.
Georgia would like to see Russia pull out within the next three years, but Moscow, citing financial difficulties, says it will need at least 10 years to vacate its bases in Akhalkalaki and Adjaria's capital of Batumi.
The Akhalkalaki base reportedly employs up to 2,000 local residents, including civilians and -- more importantly -- contract soldiers who represent some 70 percent of personnel for the 128th Motorized Rifle Division. An estimated 7,000 residents depend directly or indirectly on the base for their livelihood. Moreover, Moscow four years ago illegally granted Russian citizenship to all Akhalkalaki residents serving at the base.
Local residents say closing the base would strike a blow to the town's economy and force many residents to emigrate. But some experts say such arguments may overstate the base's true value.
Ararat Esoian chairs the Akhalkalaki-based nongovernmental Center for Promotion of Reforms and Democratic Development. He says the $1.2 million Moscow claims it spends each year to pay local residents working at the base in fact makes up only a small part of the region's economy, which is also supported by farming and smuggling to and from Armenia.
Esoian tells RFE/RL that Akhalkalaki relies first and foremost not on the base, but on wages earned by the nearly 50 percent of its residents employed as migrant workers in Russia.
"[The base] is not a factor. In fact, it is not an economic factor. But if you ask me about the money that comes from [migrant workers in] Russia, I would tell you that it accounts for between 75 and 80 percent of the region's GDP. The remaining 20-25 percent are covered by the local budget and the Russian base."
Virk's Rstakian, who firmly opposes closing the base, himself barely cites economic concerns. Instead, he emphasizes security issues, arguing a Russian withdrawal would leave residents at the mercy of neighboring Turks, whom Armenians hold responsible for the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million of their ethnic kin.
Local activists also cite ancestral mistrust toward Ankara to justify their opposition to a U.S.-sponsored oil pipeline linking Azerbaijan's capital Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
The conduit will pass through Tbilisi and the Borzhomi Gorge, located a few dozen kilometers north of Akhalkalaki. Construction started earlier this year and should be completed in 2004.
"One has to take our specific conditions, and first of all our collective memory, into account. Who will provide us with a security system [if the Russians leave]? When the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline is completed, what will happen in the region? Turkey's secret services will come and maintain order in the region. That does not mean that they will exterminate us. There are different methods. They can use [American] dollars, for example. We are poor and we will have to work for them. They will be the masters and we will be turned into slaves in our own homeland. Because of all these factors, the local population has to demand that the Russian base be maintained."
Rstakian says his concerns are supported by the ongoing military cooperation between Tbilisi and Ankara -- in particular, the recent renovation of the Marneuli airfield and the Vaziani base by Turkish experts following the Russian withdrawal.
Akhalkalaki leaders also claim Tbilisi is considering resettling tens of thousands of Meskhetians -- whom they generally refer to as "Turks" -- in Samtskhe-Javakheti. Meskhetians are Islamicized Georgians who were deported from southern Georgia in 1944 by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Only a few dozen Meskhetians have returned to their home country in recent years, and the Georgian parliament still has to examine a draft bill that would pave the way for an organized repatriation from various former Soviet republics.
Tbilisi has always said that, should Meskhetians return en masse, they would be resettled in areas where their presence would not risk stirring social or interethnic strife.
Nana Sumbadze is the co-director of the Tbilisi-based Institute for Policy Studies, a nongovernmental organization that specializes in social and interethnic issues. She says most arguments she hears in Akhalkalaki against the closure of the base are "based on emotions rather than reason."
Although she blames central authorities for failing to integrate Akhalkalaki and many other regions into Georgia's social and economic fabric, Sumbadze believes the responsibility does not lie entirely with the central authorities.
"Unlike Armenians who live in Tbilisi, [Akhalkalaki residents] remain very isolated from the rest of Georgia. Of course, there are both objective and subjective reasons for that. But the main thing is that they do not want to be integrated. They perceive every single step taken by the [Georgian] state as a threat to their national identity. They have the choice between integration into Georgia or Armenia, and they chose Armenia. And Armenia -- like Russia, by the way -- supports [the mood of the local residents]. As for Georgia, it does practically nothing to either address their concerns or offer them the opportunity to integrate themselves, or [allow them] to have an active cultural and civic life."
As further evidence of Akhalkalaki's isolation, experts cite a fundamental lack of central information. Georgian newspapers rarely reach the town, which has its own print media and relies heavily on Armenian television and Russian publications.
Even "Vrastan" ("Georgia"), the Armenian-language weekly published in Tbilisi, is viewed with suspicion by Akhalkalaki residents, who condescendingly refer to Tbilisi Armenians as an "assimilated" group.
Furthermore, most Akhalkalaki residents do not speak Georgian, having boycotted the town's only Georgian school in favor of Armenian and Russian alternatives. It is perhaps the final drop in a sea of social and political isolation that has turned the area into a potential time bomb.
"On the surface, nothing is going on yet," says Sumbadze of the Institute for Policy Studies. "But everything could be activated as soon as it is deemed necessary."