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Transcript: Georgia May Face Breakaway by Armenians

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  • Transcript: Georgia May Face Breakaway by Armenians

    National Public Radio (NPR)
    SHOW: All Things Considered 9:00 PM EST
    April 28, 2006 Friday

    Georgia May Face Breakaway by Armenians


    MELISSA BLOCK, host:

    Relations between Russia and the small former Soviet Republic of
    Georgia have been getting steadily worse. A revolution swept a
    pro-Western government to power in Georgia two years ago. Recently,
    Moscow agreed to withdraw a military base from a community in
    southern Georgia. The U.S. has stepped in with aid money to prevent
    ethnic passions from flaring in the area. NPR's Ivan Watson traveled
    to the mountains of southern Georgia and filed this report.

    IVAN WATSON reporting:

    When the snow melts in Alkhankalaki, it turns the road running
    through the town's main market into one long, muddy puddle. Russian
    soldiers in green uniforms wander through the market alongside locals
    who almost all speak Armenian. The street signs are written in
    Armenian, too, along with Russian and Georgian, and Armenian dance
    tunes blare from bootleg music shops.

    (Soundbite of music)

    WATSON: For a moment, it's hard to tell what country you're in.
    That's because most of the residents are ethnic Armenians who can't
    even speak the Republic's official language, Georgian. Some of them,
    like this schoolteacher named Ofelia Ambartonmien(ph), say they're
    suffering from an identity crisis.

    Ms. OFELIA AMBARTONMIEN (Resident, Georgia): (Foreign language

    WATSON: Who are we, she asks. We were educated in Russian schools. We
    are also ethnic Armenians. But we live in Georgia. It's very
    difficult, she adds, to understand what our identity is. To
    complicate matters, the locals here often appear to have stronger
    ties to Russia than to the Georgian government in Tbilisi. That's
    partly because the Russian military base on the edge of town is the
    single largest employer in an otherwise impoverished region. And now
    it's due to be closed. Nearly everyone you talk to in Alkhankalaki
    opposes that decision.

    (Soundbite of men speaking foreign language)

    WATSON: There's no other work here aside from the Russian base,
    complain these young, unemployed Armenian men, who spend their days
    hanging out in a local gambling hall.

    Mr. ARMEN POGASIEN(ph) (Resident, Georgia): (Foreign language spoken)

    WATSON: The Russian soldiers are like peacekeepers. They protect us,
    says 29- year-old Armen Pogasien. We don't want a conflict with the
    Georgians, he adds. Some here complain that the Georgian government
    in Tbilisi discriminates against the Armenians here. Nonsense, says
    Alexander Rundeli(ph), a Georgian political scientist.

    Mr. ALEXANDER RUNDELI (Georgian political scientist): Armenian
    minority is brainwashed quite seriously by, you know, Russians
    standing there, you know, staying there as military base.

    WATSON: But high unemployment and the presence of a disaffected
    ethnic minority are dangerous ingredients in the Caucasus, which has
    already had its share of separatist ethnic conflicts. Artur Shambert
    Sumyan(ph) is an ethnic Armenian and a former adviser to the Georgian
    president. He says dark forces are at work, promoting a separatist
    movement among the Armenians here.

    Mr. ARTUR SHAMBERT SUMYAN (Former advisor to president of Georgia):
    (Through Translator) We need to be very careful right now. The
    Russians will leave in 2008. Neighboring countries are trying to
    create problems between Armenians and Georgians, and we have to make
    sure that doesn't happen.

    WATSON: Tbilisi is already struggling with two separatist regions
    which broke away from Georgia in the '90s and are, to this day,
    supported by Russia. The U.S. is keen to help the Georgian government
    avoid making the same mistake with its ethnic Armenian minority. Matt
    Bryza of the U.S. State Department says the U.S. is giving Tbilisi
    aid money and advice to help boost the local economy after the
    Russian military leaves.

    Mr. MATTHEW J. BRYZA (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for
    European and Eurasian Affairs): Well, yeah, we're watching it, we're
    concerned, but we're also actively involved in trying to improve the

    WATSON: U.S. aid money will help build a new highway through
    Alkhankalaki, but the ethnic tensions have not gone away. Last month,
    Georgian TV reported that the murder of an ethnic Armenian in another
    town triggered a riot here, as several hundred Armenians stormed a
    university and a courthouse. Artur Shamberg Sumyan, the former
    adviser to the Georgian president, is calling for calm.

    Mr. SUMYAN: (Foreign language spoken)

    WATSON: He says the world's oldest Christians are Georgians and
    Armenians. If a fight breaks out between these two ancient peoples,
    he adds, it will mean the death of Christianity in the Caucasus.

    Ivan Watson, NPR News.