By Nicolas Landru In Tbilisi
Translated By Simone Koshimizu

Caucaz, Georgia
April 2 2006

Mountainous and isolated, over 92% of the population of Javakhetia
is composed of Armenians. According to Georgian historiography, this
region, located in the south-west of Georgia, is above all the cradle
of national Christianity. The Georgian government remains categorical
in view of the forum of local Armenian associations that called for
an autonomous status last September. Against a backdrop of economic
isolation and rows between the Armenian and Georgian Churches on
religious heritage, does this strained context show the difficulties
of building a nation-state in Georgia?

Questioned about the position adopted by the Georgian diocese of
the Armenian Apostolic Church in relation to this tension, Levon
Isakhanyan, directorate assistant of the diocese, replies first of
all that "no one knows what kind of country Georgia has become today.

According to article 2 of the Georgian Constitution, the territorial
organisation of the Georgian state is undefined". Is the lack of
territorial organisation the source of the tensions that rose in
the region?

Javakhetia resulted from the crossing of Georgian, Turkish and
Armenian lands. It was part of the XII century great Georgian kingdom,
submitted to the Turkish control at the end of the Middle Ages,
and then inhabited mainly by Muslims of controversial origins -
Turkish or Georgian. The Russian conquest caused great upheavals:
the Muslim population was exchanged for Armenian Christians by the
Ottoman Empire. The arrival of Armenians fleeing the genocide in Turkey
between 1915 and 1921 strengthened the Armenian nature of the region.

Its isolation results from the expansion of the Russian empire against
the Ottomans. In this process, Javakhetia was strongly militarised
and its access was controlled. The USSR ended this process by turning
the region into a no man's land. Being on the border of the NATO,
access was forbidden, isolating the local inhabitants from the rest
of Georgia. The development of ethnical affinities established in
the USSR after Stalinisation, which soon weakened the republics,
caused the region to be more attached to Yerevan than to Tbilisi.

Legacy of the past, the Russian military base of Akhalkalaki is among
those things that concentrated the grievances of the Georgian national
movement against the Empire. Today it has become a symbolic issue
of the independence that might be achieved, with the withdrawal of
the army planned for the end of 2007. But the Armenian population in
Akhalkalaki has not forgetton the Armenian genocide and the military
base, an almost unique economic resource, protects them from Turkey as
local people fear that Ankara could invade the region through the NATO.

Lack of interest of the central government

"In the Post-Soviet period, from Gamsakhurdia to Shevardnadze, nobody
thought seriously about the integration of the region into Georgia",
explains Levon Isakhanyan. "We have normal roads and they don't",
he adds, explaining the different problems faced by the Armenians in
Tbilisi and by those of Javakhetia.

During Gamsakhurdia's government, a national construction with ethnical
characteristics was designed in Georgia. Overwhelmed by the war in
South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Tbilisi abandoned the region in 1991
fearing separatism. A conception of ethnical minorities "invited"
by the Georgian "host" did not allow the Armenians of Javakhetia to
give their Georgian citizenship an identity dimension.

In this context, the Armenian national and regional movement of
Javakhk ran the country within an autarchy.

The clientelism established by Shevardnadze allowed the country to
be governed by alternate local clans without establishing a regional
integration policy. The reattachment to the administrative entity
of Samtskhe-Javakhetia in 1994 changed the regional demographic
balance in favour of Georgians, which was interpreted by political
organisations of Javakhetia as an attempt of "Georginisation".

A politically alienated region

Levon Isakhanyan confirms the legalistic position adopted by the
diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church. "Only state structures
have the right to define the forms of territorial organisation and
the status of different regions in the heart of a unified Georgia",
he says.

But, based on examples of European democracies, he adds that "if
Georgia wants to become a democratic country where all citizens feel
equal and protected, it should think about a definitive form".

The legal vacuum and the present status quo give rise to a severe
lack of political legitimacy in Javakhetia. The gathering of the
United Javakhk political forces claims that the representatives of
the region do not defend the population's interests.

Georgian authorities deny legitimacy to local political organisations,
such as Virk, as they are not elected. Georgia does not recognise
regional political parties; Virk says they could not be registered;
but according to some, these leaders would not wish to be registered
in order to keep a popular legitimacy of contestation.

As far as the United Javakhk is concerned, it is mainly seen as a
rising force - the JEM (Cultural and Sportive Youth Union of Javakhk)
could soon become well-known based on the example of the decisive
rally on 11 March when its members closed the Georgian church, the
university and the court of Akhalkalaki to protest against the murder
of an Armenian in Tsalka in the neighbouring region of Kvemo-Kartli.

Local government is composed by elected people (Sakrebulo) who have
little power compared to the Gamgebeli, the Georgian president's
local representative, and have no more than 850,000 laris for the
yearly budget of Akhalkalaki, which is not enough to introduce
effective reforms.

National parties only appear in the region in pre-electoral period.

This explains the evident popularity of Virk and the United Javakhk
among the population. Igor Giorgadze's party, which is opposed to
the present government, has an office in Akhalkalaki.

"Representatives of the Javakheti population are deputies chosen in
major parliamentary elections", Levon Isakhanyan insists. But he also
brings up the legal pre-conditions that exist in order to acquire a
complex of rights and completely fulfil their status.

If the Forum of Armenian associations of Javakhetia does not have the
legal means of their claims yet, a deep unrest remains in Javakhetia
within the Georgian state, almost completely separated from Tbilisi
by the road system, language, media and ethno-cultural identity. The
conflict of legitimacy shows the political alienation of a region
that does not have a legal political force able to offer an adequate
identification to its inhabitants. However, in order to forbid the
closing of the Russian base in the end of 2007, local political
organisations might deploy the necessary means to make the coming
year tumultuous.

New initiatives in Tbilisi

"We have to do all we can for the development of Javakhetia", Guiorgui
Kutsichvili declares. He is director of the International Centre
for Conflict Negotiation of Tbilisi and is now launching a programme
aiding the development of potato farming. "Georgian politicians should
finally understand the necessity of changing the landlocked status
of Javakhetia", he adds. Other NGOs and international organisations
also try to promote the development of the region.

The desire to establish programmes of integration also seems to point
to the central government. "This year, the government will build new
roads in Javakhetia within the framework of the Millennium Challenge
Program; approximately 100,000 dollars will be spent. I think this
government thinks more seriously about the integration of Armenians
of Javakhetia into the common political space of Georgia than the
previous one", Levon Isakhanyan suggests. He also mentions the teaching
programme for Georgians in Javakhetia, launched under the aegis of
the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). "The
government finally thinks about the teaching of the Georgian language
and that is really a good sign. We, Armenians of Georgia, need air
to breathe and we need Georgian to express ourselves", he says.

Isakhanyan considers it a diplomatic move on the part of the government
to recognise Armenian as a regional language in Javakhetia and to
seriously examine what the population claims, if they express it as
a majority.

But there's a long way from raising awareness to the introduction of
effective reforms and the local population's reluctance to political
and linguistic integration for fear of assimilating and losing their
identity is still a reality. But without definitely adopting a model
of construction of a nation-state in Georgia, can problems be solved?