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Eurasia Insight: R. Cutler: Focus on Ethnic Armenians in Georgia

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By Dr. Robert M. Cutler

For over a decade the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, the enclave of ethnic Armenians within Azerbaijan, has played a large role in the political, economic and social development of Armenia in particular, and the South Caucasus in general. Now, as regional governments and oil moguls ponder new pipeline routes, attention is turning to another ethnic Armenian enclave within a neighboring state. The territory in question is Javakhetia in southern Georgia (Javakheti in Georgian, Javakhk in Armenian).

In recent years, some observers have mentioned Javakhetia as a potential obstacle to the construction of pipelines that would carry Caspian oil to the West. Others have portrayed the Armenians of Javakhetia as posing yet another separatist threat to Georgia's territorial integrity.

Is Javakhetia indeed, as some would have it, "the next Karabakh?" Is it "another Abkhazia" waiting to happen, a flashpoint that could ruin grand designs for oil and gas export? The answers to these questions are a resolute no. To understand why, it is necessary to examine the history and present-day situation in the region.

Javakhetia is divided into two districts called Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda. Together the two districts cover about 850 square miles with a population slightly over 100,000, of which over 90 percent is Armenian. Originally, Armenians settled in southern Georgia after 1828, when a treaty ceded the region from Turkey to Russia. There is also a significant Armenian population in the Meskhetia region. However, Armenians make up only about one-third of the population in Meskhetia, and thus constitute about 40 percent of the population of the whole administrative region called Samtskhe-Javakhetia.

At present, separatist sentiment among Armenians in Javakhetia is negligible. In the late 1980s, tensions grew due to former Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia's "Georgianization" policies, and radical Armenian nationalist organizations, in particular the "Javakhk" group, gained influence. From the late '80s through 1991, Javakhetia functioned effectively outside Tbilisi's control. But when President Eduard Shevardnadze came to power, he named a prefect acceptable to the local population, and the self-constituted political-administrative apparatus of the region voluntarily dissolved itself. Ultimately the region has come to accept Tbilisi's authority, and Javakhk lost a tremendous amount of influence over the Armenian community. Armenians have, during Shevardnadze's tenure, sought only cultural autonomy. The Georgian government has responded to accommodate these cultural aspirations, as a majority of students in the region are taught in Armenian.

Currently, neither ethnic Armenians in Javakhetia nor those in Armenia seek to detach Javakhetia from Georgia. At the same time, the Armenian community would welcome strengthened ties with Armenia. Leaders of the former Javakhk mainstream feel that deeper ties with Armenia may help to resolve lingering tensions arising out of socio-economic troubles. Earlier this year, Armenian President Robert Kocharian said his country could play a role in relieving socio-economic pressure by providing electricity, road-building and even school teachers. Kocharian's administration does not support the demands of some in Javakhetia for the region to obtain a separate administrative status within Georgia.

Although goodwill appears to exist among leaders on all sides, the Georgian government has few means at its disposal to address the economic sources of discontent within the Armenian community. It does not help matters that the Armenian community is concentrated in one of the poorest regions of Georgia.

Indeed, a primary source of employment in Javakhetia is the Russian military. Several Russian military bases are scattered around Akhalkalaki. At the same time, these bases are a source of tension between Georgia and Russia. The Armenian community tends to regard relations with Russia and Russians as an integral part of the existing social order, effectively a guarantor of the status quo. Some even claim that the Russians are a deterrent against Turkey.

Aside from the historically good relations between Armenia and Georgia, there are pragmatic considerations that support the continuation of the existing order. Armenia, for instance, wants to maintain regional stability in large part because one of Yerevan's primary outlets for international trade is via the port of Batumi in Ajaria, an autonomous region that borders Samtskhe-Javakhetia. Any attempts to alter Javakhetia's status could upset this trade link.

However, two potential dangers could shatter the existing equilibrium. First, the economic situation for many Armenians could take a drastic turn for the worse if the Russian military departed from the region. Georgian authorities, as already mentioned, would be ill-equipped to fill the economic void created by the departure of Russian troops.

Second, there is the matter of Meskhetian Turk repatriation. Meskhetian Turks are a formerly deported people, who were collectively exiled during World War II by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Since the war, they have lived in scattered communities, mostly across Central Asia. Earlier this year, Georgia's membership of the Council of Europe was conditioned upon its adoption of a repatriation framework for Meskhetian Turks within two years, and the completion of the process within a decade. The return of tens of thousands of Meskhetian Turks could place tremendous stress on the socio-economic infrastructure, potentially stirring inter-ethnic tension.

The issues connected with the Russian military presence and Meskhetian Turk return are manageable. Nevertheless, geopolitical developments are unpredictable in the turbulent Transcaucasus. Although the relative tranquility in Javakhetia cannot be taken for granted, the prospects for continued stability in the region are much more favorable than in other ethnic enclaves in the region.

Editor's Note: Robert M. Cutler was educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in Political Science. He has held research and teaching positions at major universities in the United States, Canada, France, Switzerland, and Russia. He has extensive practical experience in Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals and the former Soviet area, particularly the Caucasus and Central Asia, specializing in ethnic conflict, transnational democracy, civil society, international cooperation, and economic development. He has published widely in world-class journals in his professional field as well as in the mass media and policy reviews, in three languages; and consulted with international organizations, governments, non-profits, and the private sector. Culter can be reached at <rmc@alum.mit.edu>. His website address is: <http://www.robertcutler.org>.

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