The recent visit to Armenia by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili of Georgia may indicate a new beginning for the Armenians of Javakhk (Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region). However, the Byzantine world of international politics is part reality and part illusion. Gauging intent from what political leaders say is not overly reliable.
In an interview a few days following Ivanishvili’s victory in the October 2012 parliamentary election, he expressed surprise that “the Motherland of Armenia is just next door. For me it is incomprehensible. I have lived in France, in the United States, but I’ve always seen my village, my soil in my dreams.” While this comment may burnish his public image as a nationalist and his emotional attachment to Georgia, he failed to realize that the Javakhayer also see their village and their soil in their dreams—Javakhk, and not Armenia—simply because Javakhk has been the only home they and their ancestors have known for centuries. Then, during his visit to Armenia, the prime minister offered an opposing view that “…Armenians must feel in Georgia like in their home country.” Hopefully it will be this sentiment that will guide his actions.
While in Armenia, Ivanishvili graciously acknowledged the overwhelming support the Javakhk-Armenians gave to his Georgian Dream Party (GDP). In thanking them, he said he had made “…many promises. I won’t list these promises now. But I guarantee that the ball is now in my court.” During the parliamentary election, he continued, “I visited settlements inhabited by Armenians and I got a hearty welcome. We understand each other well. The government I head will do its best…to provide for their integration and will keep all the promises.” For the time being we must accept at face value the prime minister’s stated intention to keep his campaign promises to the Javakhayer.
However, given the present situation in Georgia where power is vested in two opposing leaders—Prime Minister Ivanishvili of the GDP and President Mikhail Saakashvili of the National Movement Party (NMP)—the prospect for change at this early stage is problematic. President Saakashvili is a formidable opponent. He still retains considerable support among the Georgian electorate, and is favored by the United States and Western Europe for his pro-western stance. If the prime minister moves too quickly in renewing ties with Russia or enacting the promised changes for Javakhk, he can expect to be met head-on by the opposition. The presidential election in 2013 should be an important test for the present administration. A victory by Saakashvili would stiffen his party’s opposition to any significant proposed initiatives that may run counter to policies and programs established during the his eight years in office. A resounding victory could place the prime minister’s foreign and domestic agenda (especially with respect to Javakhk) in jeopardy. A Saakashvili victory could also limit the degree of cooperation the Georgian Orthodox Church might be willing to extend the prime minister in resolving the issue of ownership and rehabilitation of Armenian Church property. Until now, Georgian Church leaders have been intransigent in their dealings with representatives of the Armenian Church in Georgia.
Having said that, the 2012 parliamentary election represented a seismic shift in Georgian politics. Seismic because Ivanishvili has indicated a willingness to consider issues and implement initiatives that: 1) are beneficial to the Javakhk Armenians; 2) will expand and intensify economic ties with Yerevan; 3) will encourage dialogue concerning ownership of Armenian religious property contested by the Georgian Orthodox Church; and 4) will seek to improve Georgian-Russian relations (which should benefit Armenia).
In a polarizing and extremely contentious campaign, Ivanishvili’s GDP received about 54 percent of the vote, with Saakashvili’s UNM (United National Movement) garnering the balance of the vote. No other party reached the five percent threshold. As a result, the 150-member parliament is represented either by the GDP or the UNM. The relation between the two parties is acrimonious at best, and on many significant issues they hold opposing views. It can be expected that President Saakashvili’s NMP will vote en bloc in opposing or curtailing the intent of legislation important to the Javakhk Armenians. Xenophobia still remains a potent force within the Georgian government.
During his visit to Armenia, the prime minister said that he expected the railway from Russia to Armenia via Abkhazia and Georgia to reopen. This is a 180-degree turn from Saakashvili’s policy, which held the opening of the railway hostage to a Russian-Georgian dialogue concerning the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This policy placed an added burden on the already fragile Armenian economy. Coincidentally, a representative of the Armenian community in Abkhazia, Galust Trapizonian, lent his voice to the need to reopen the railway to Armenia. Although its opening is important to Armenia’s economy, it is of greater importance to Russia’s geostrategic interest in strengthening its presence in the south Caucasus. Mentioning the likelihood of its reopening is a major initiative by Prime Minister Ivanishvili that heralds the intent to reinstate a pro-Russian orientation while continuing Georgia’s policy of developing closer ties with Europe.
During his visit, the prime minister touched upon two principal areas of concern that are vital to the Javakhk Armenians: their ability to educate their children as Armenians, and the opportunity to be effectively integrated in the socioeconomic and political life of Georgia. He agreed that the history of the Armenian people should be taught in the Armenian schools and that a project would be set up to achieve that objective. What is meant by “setting up a project” and agreeing on material that serves the needs of Armenian school children, while not denigrating Georgian history, is to be determined. Related issues include the teaching and use of the Armenian language in public documents, the ability of teachers to participate in professional meetings in Armenia, allowing in-service courses for teachers in Javakhk, and the right to have supplies and equipment for Armenian schools enter Georgia unimpeded.
The need for socio-economic and political integration is another vital objective that will not be easy to achieve, even with Ivanishvili’s support. Integrating an ethnic minority could be a hard sell, especially in view of the many ethnic Georgians who have not benefitted from the economic development that has taken place during the eight years of President Saakashvili’s administration Also, for many Georgians, sandwiched as their country is between Russia and Armenia, the Russian-Armenian relationship is viewed with some concern. Georgians are fully aware as to what happened with respect to their Abkhazian and South Ossetian regions and the de facto independence of the Artsakh-Armenians in neighboring Azerbaijan. How much demagoguery is required to tap into the latent concerns of ethnic Georgians that their Samtskhe-Javakheti region, which shares a common border with Armenia, could face a similar fate? President Saakashvili and the NMP can be expected to allude to this possibility or even suggest that legislation beneficial to Armenians comes at a cost to economically overlooked ethnic Georgians. While these fears are unfounded, it would not prevent Saakashvili’s NMP from using such tactics. Both Russia and the Armenians in Georgia are obvious targets to attack and weaken Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s domestic and foreign agenda, and his popularity.
Vahagn Chakhalyan’s from prison followed, by several weeks, the release of Armenian activists Armen Gevorgyan and Ruben Shekoyan. His delay was the result of pressure by Saakashvili supporters to exclude Chakhalyan’s name from the list of eligible political prisoners. Chakhalyan’s release generated a fusillade of condemnation by members of the opposition NMP that can best be described as vehement and demagogic. At the time of his arrest on July 21, 2008, Chakhalyan was the leader of the United Javakhk Democratic Alliance. The reason for his arrest, the constraints placed on his right to defend himself, and the rampant judicial misconduct during the months of his trial guaranteed his conviction. Saakashvili’s policy was to view any activism as a prelude to more serious challenges to the country’s spatial integrity, especially with respect to the Javakhk Armenians (see “Javakheti Activist Vahagn Chakhalyan: Justice Denied by Georgia,” the Armenian Weekly, September 19, 2009).
The xenophobic mind-set that influences the Georgian politician (and possibly a segment of the electorate) is deep-rooted, and an unfortunate obstacle to developing a democratic society. Ivanishvili’s promises to our brothers and sisters in Javakhk speak to an improved quality of life that has been long delayed. However, at this point in time little can be guaranteed. Both the prime minister and the Javakhk Armenians have a determined adversary in Saakashvili and the NMP.
In what could be a significant breakthrough for the Armenian Church in Georgia, in his meeting with the Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II, the prime minister assured His Holiness that he would personally monitor resolving the ownership of contested Armenian Church property. A resolution to this long-running controversy would go a long way toward improving the situation of Armenians in Georgia.
With respect to Armenia itself, the victory of the GDP and Ivanishvili marks an opportunity to improve and expand economic ties between the two countries. Armenian President Serge Sarkisian suggested the creation of a common market that would be beneficial to both countries, and the prime minister accepted in principle. However, any benefits to be gained by greater cooperation between Armenia and Georgia or the reopening of the railway should not end up lining the pockets of the oligarchic dons who have hijacked the Armenian economy for their personal gain.
For the Javakhk-Armenians, this is the first opportunity within the past 100 years to achieve a better quality of life within their own lands. The diaspora can do its part through its philanthropic and humanitarian organizations by complementing Tbilisi’s initiatives. The prime minister has a background as a very successful entrepreneur and could be amenable to an entity cooperatively established by these diasporan organizations, which would undertake various projects within parameters acceptable to his administration. An improvement in the quality of life for our people in Javakhk is absolutely necessary to halt their continued out-migration. We can help by accelerating the change promised by the prime minister. If the present situation continues or change occurs at too slow a pace, Javakhk could be irretrievably lost within the next 20-30 years. That is something we cannot allow to happen.