The 200 participants (of an estimated regional Armenian population of around 160,000) adopted a statement reiterating long-standing grievances that they attribute to the allegedly discriminatory policies of the Georgian central government. They include harassment; restrictions on the use of the Armenian language; and disputes over historic church buildings to which both the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church lay claim.
The participants explicitly appealed to the Georgian authorities not to create obstacles to candidates representing the region's Armenian NGOs who seek to register as candidates in the upcoming local elections, and also to guarantee that the vote will be free and fair.
The appeal was by no means the first address to the Georgian leadership in recent years. Shortly after the August 2008 Georgian-Russian war, the Council of Armenian NGOs of Samtskhe-Javakheti released a statement arguing that the only ay to restore Georgia's territorial integrity and allay ethnic tensions is to transform the country into a federal state.
The council 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.
The Georgian authorities have until very recently made little effort to redress the Javakheti Armenians' grievances, possibly counting on the fact that the Republic of Armenia leadership is so dependent on maintaining cordial relations with Georgia for overland communication with the outside world that it cannot risk campaigning too aggressively on behalf of its hapless co-ethnics.
And some initiatives intended to resolve problems have served only to compound them. An example is Georgia's point-blank rejection of an Armenian government offer to provide Armenian-language textbooks for schools in Javakheti. Georgian Ambassador to Yerevan Grigol Tabatadze told journalists earlier this month that only Georgian textbooks approved by the Georgian Ministry of Education can be translated into Armenian, published in Armenia, and then transported to Javakheti for use in the region's 144 Armenian schools, Caucasus Press reported on March 11.