This commentary provides background on Javakhetia, the ethnically Armenian region in southern Georgia, in order to establish that is not the next Karabakh and not another Abkhazia, and therefore neither flashpoint nor bottleneck for oil pipelines crossing the Caucasus from the Caspian to the Black Sea. Stability in Javakhetia is likely to continue, although in the long term there is a wild card: the Meskhetian Turks, a people deported by Stalin whose has been mandated to their homeland, which lies west of Javakhetia proper and east of Ajaria.
1. Background to Javakhetia
If Karabakh has played so direct a role in the recent and contemporary political life of Armenia, and in the selection of its leading political figures in particular, it is necessary to pose the question of a lesser-known Armenian-populated territory called Javakhetia in southern Georgia (Javakheti in Georgian, Javakhk in Armenian). Indeed, the Armenian national movement in Javakhetia formed in response to events in Mountainous Karabakh. Both regions are located in the republics bordering Armenia, and Armenians are the overwhelming majority of the population. Volunteers from Akhalkalaki in Javakhetia went to fight in Karabakh from the first armed clashes there.
Since 1991, Javakhetia has been raised by different observers as an obstacle to the eventual construction of a Baku-Ceyhan export pipeline (the route has to go through Georgia) and as a threat to the territorial integrity of the Georgian state that Eduard Shevardnadze has been trying to consolidate. Is Javakhetia indeed, as some would have it, "the next Karabakh"? Is it "another Abkhazia" waiting to happen, an overlooked bottleneck whose irredentism will thwart grand designs for oil and gas export in the New Great Game? The answers to these questions are no, and no. To understand why, it is necessary to look closely at the history and present-day situation in the region.
Javakhetia is divided into two districts called Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda (formerly Bogdanovka), which are also the names of the district capitals that make up about 20% of the total population. Together the two districts cover about 850 square miles with a population slightly over 100,000, of which over 90% is Armenian. (Armenians settled in southern Georgia after 1828, when a treaty ceded the region from Turkey to Russia.) However, Armenians make up only about one-third of the population of Meskhetia (mostly in the Akhaltstikhe district), so that they constitute about 40% of the population of the whole administrative region called Samtskhe-Javakhetia. This region is also called Meskheti-Javakhetia. Meskhetia will be remembered as the place where the "Meskhetian Turks" lived, of whom Stalin deported all 90,000 to Central Asia in one night during World War II.
2. Not "The Next Karabakh"
Although Javakhetia was effectively outside Tbilisi's control from the late 1980s through 1991, once Shevardnadze came to power and named a prefect acceptable to the local population, the self-constituted political-administrative apparatus of the region voluntarily dissolved itself, and the region accepted the Tbilisi regime. The Armenian organization "Javakhk" organization in Javakhetia no longer exists per se. Javakhk was not a political party and its members have dispersed their activities among legally constituted parties. Formed in response to Gamsakhurdia's "Georgianization" policies, the Javakhk mainstream and its representatives have under Shevardnadze sought only cultural autonomy. This is now guaranteed as the large majority of schools are taught in Armenian, using textbooks published in Armenian that are provided to the region via an intergovernmental agreement with Tbilisi.
The most radical members of Javakhk have had ties with the Armenian "Dashnak" party and demand unification with Armenia, but there is also a significant pro-Georgian faction, as well as a segment through which Russia tries to exercise influence. Neither the Armenians in Javakhetia nor those in Armenia seek to detach Javakhetia from Georgia. Leaders of the former Javakhk mainstream agree that tensions are rooted in social problems, and feel that deeper ties with Armenia may help to resolve these. Earlier this year, President Kocharian of Armenia said that his country could indeed play a role in relieving the socio-economic tension in the region, for example through providing electricity, road-building and even school teachers. However, Armenia does not support the demands of some in Javakhetia for the region to obtain a separate administrative status within Georgia.
3. Not "Another Abkhazia"
An anti-Armenian sentiment infused Georgia in the early 1990s as Armenians in Abkhazia initially supported that region's separatism. Still sensitive, and important economically, are Russian military bases in and around Akhalkalaki. Indeed, these bases are a source of employment for many Armenians, who have taken temporary Russian citizenship to qualify for the work. These bases are indeed the most important employers in the region. Shevardnadze signed an agreement with Russia permitting them to remain, but that agreement has not been ratified by the Georgian parliament. Over a thousand families depend on the main Russian base. For local residents, the bases represent a job, cheap products, and money (albeit of Russian origin).
The Armenian residents tend to regard their relations with the Russians as an integral part of the existing social order, and some even claim that the Russians are a deterrent against Turkey. They realize that this opens the way for the Russians to use them as a geopolitical pawn but for the moment they see no alternative, despite Shevardnadze's stated willingness to increase social programs and economic investment in the region. The realization of such programs is complicated by the fact that the Akhalkalaki region, one of the economically least developed in Georgia, is principally agricultural and has a sometimes difficult topography. Communications in Javakhetia (road, rail, etc.) are in general poor, as is infrastructure overall.
4. Javakhetia: Neither Flashpoint Nor Bottleneck
Aside from the historically good relations between Armenia and Georgia, there is a very pragmatic reason for this. Subject to trade blockades by other neighbors, Armenia's only outlet for international trade is via the port of Batumi in Ajaria, an autonomous region in southwest Georgia, on which Samtskhe-Javakhetia borders. If Javakhetia were to split away from the Samtskhe-Javakhetia region and obtain its own administrative autonomy within Georgia, then Armenia's trade via Batumi would be complicated, since the region representing Javakhetia would no longer border on Ajaria.
From the foregoing discussion, it should be clear that Armenians in Javakhetia do not seek to secede from Georgia or to join Armenia; and Armenians in Erevan feel the same way. So Javakhetia is not another Karabakh. At the same time, Javakhetia is not another Abkhazia for the simple reason that if and when the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline is built, it will not go through Javakhetia, although there was talk of this several years ago. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline will go instead through Ajaria, where oil from Kazakhstan that has transited by rail from Baku is already exported from the port at Batumi.
5. A Wild Card: The Meskhetian Turks
Earlier this year, Georgia's membership of the Council of Europe was conditioned upon its adoption of a law of repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks within two years, and the completion of the process within a decade. Whereas under 100,000 Meskhetian Turks were originally deported, those wishing to return, including descendants, may today number up to a quarter-million or more. New settlers to the region, many of them Georgians, have preferred to build new dwellings. Thus, while the Meskhetian Turks' original houses have by and large not been occupied, they are today used by current residents of their old villages as ancillary buildings, storage facilities, and the like.
As a result the local authorities contend that there is no land available for any returnees. While that contention may be slightly disingenuous, it is certainly true that the return of Meskhetian Turks in significant number would strain the social resources of Samtskhe-Javakhetia, of which the population today is slightly under a quarter-million. Without suggesting that the return of the deportees is unwarranted, it is possible to observe that the new Russian demand to the Council of Europe, that Georgia be pressured to repatriate the Meskhetian Turks as soon as possible and specifically to repatriate them to Meskhetia, is a cynical political ploy designed to increase pressure on Tbilisi. Being forced to implement such a recommendation would cause severe disruption, even if the international community were to provide significant assistance, which is far from certain.
Copyright © Robert M. Cutler unless otherwise noted.
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First published in Eurasia Insight, 6 December 1999.