By Edmond Y. Azadian
While Armenian news media outlets have been concentrating on the French Senate action criminalizing the denial of the Armenian Genocide, closer to home relations with neighboring Georgia are causing heartaches for citizens and government officials alike. Relations are tense, to say the least.
Georgian authorities are cognizant that they have the upper hand in their bilateral relations with Armenia; they are using that advantage to help tighten the noose which Azerbaijan and Turkey have put in place through their blockade. That policy is nothing less than the continuation of the Genocide by squeezing Armenia out of existence.
By virtue of its NATO ambitions, the Tbilisi government is doing anything and everything to ingratiate itself to Ankara and Baku. Unfortunately, Armenia is at the receiving end of that policy.
Georgian actions have bearings on three different areas: a) regional politics, b) domestic abuses of human rights in Georgia and c) a planned depopulation program in Javakhk.
Because of the blockade, Armenia is restricted in its access to the outside world, which impacts negatively on its economic development.
One outlet for Armenian is Iran, which remains precarious, because of sanctions and threats against that country by the United States and the European Union. In the event of a conflagration, Armenia will be devastated.
The other outlet is, of course, Georgia. The Tbilisi government is using that leverage against Armenia cynically. Every excuse is being used to restrict the movements of people and goods to the outside world through Georgian territory: road conditions, weather, tense relations with Russia, etc. Recently many citizens of Armenia were stranded on the Georgian borders with Turkey and Russia because of weather conditions. Their ungraceful Georgian hosts took the opportunity to impose exorbitant taxes on those citizens. These seem minor issues, but many Armenians travel to Turkey through Georgia to bring goods for sale to Armenia in order to provide for their families.
But besides such low-level harassments, high political games are at play. At one point, Mikheil Saakashvili’s government toyed with the idea of a federation with Azerbaijan to further strangulate Armenia. During his last visit to Baku, the Georgian president assured President Ilham Aliyev that Georgia would side with Azerbaijan should a war break out. The only problem that Azerbaijan has at this moment is with Armenia (if we discount the late president of Azerbaijan Abulfez Elchibey’s dream to wrest Northern Azerbaijan from Iran).
To add insult to injury, recently Georgia’s deputy speaker of the parliament, Friton Dotvan, announced in Baku that “Azerbaijan and Georgia will return their occupied territories, because those are their own.” The reference is, of course, to Nagorno Karabagh, which is being equated to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, all casualties of reckless actions of war-mongering leaders in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
The next level of political harassment in Georgia is against citizens of Armenian origin. For centuries, Tbilisi had been a hub of Armenian culture. Georgian jealousy has reduced that community to a shell of its former self and that discriminatory policy is still on-going. Armenians are not only being denied equal economic opportunities under different, at times cryptic statutes, but their schools are forced to close down and their churches are being usurped and re-consecrated as Georgian churches.
In 2009, the 14th-century St. Kevork of Mughni Church collapsed; despite repeated requests to the government to shore up the building before the collapse, the government took no steps to help. The Georgian authorities have yet to make good on their promises to rebuild the church. At this time, the destiny of St. Nishan Church in Tbilisi is at stake. Recently an “accidental” fire broke out, causing the collapse of one wall. In the late 19th century, there were 29 active Armenian churches in Tbilisi; today there are only two. St. Nishan is among the six Armenian churches claimed by the Georgian Orthodox Church.
During the visit of Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II to Georgia both President Saakashvili and Patriarch Illya II had promised to resolve the contentious issue, which to this date remains unattended.
The Georgian government, in its desire to join NATO and the European Union, had promised to discontinue trampling minority rights. One of the issues the Georgian government had pledged to HH Karekin II and the international community was to recognize minority churches as legal entities. Now that issue has turned out to be a catch-22. The legalization of the Armenian Church in Georgia has been tied to the legalization of the Georgian Church in Armenia, where there is no restriction whatsoever, not only for different religious groups, but even fanatical sects. But it turns out that the Georgian Church does not intend to take the initiative to seek legal status in Armenia, thus leaving the legal status of the Armenian Church in Georgia in limbo, because of a lack of reciprocation.
Every day a new scandal breaks out, forcing the Armenians to forget the existing ones. The most recent scandal is the potential sale of the poet Hovhanness Toumanyan’s Tbilisi house which in 1899 was baptized as Vernadoon, where writers, poets, artists, editors gathered rendering it a hearth of Armenian culture. Writers Ghazaros Aghayan, Avedik Issahakian, Levon Shant, Derenik Temirjian and others have been permanent guests. In the 1930s, Toumanian’s descendants had turned over the house to the government of Soviet Georgia, including a valuable research library. After taking over that cultural sanctuary the Soviet government of Georgia had put it to “good use” by converting it to a macaroni storage. And today, the democratic government of Georgia has put the facility for sale and the buyer is a Turkish-Georgian company, which intends to convert it into a hostel for Turkish guest laborers. Armenians in Armenia and Georgia are appalled and they are trying to salvage that cultural icon.
The third level of pressure is on Javakhk Armenians. Javakhk is a historic Armenian territory that fell into Georgian hands during political upheavals in the region, before the region’s absorption into the Soviet Union.
The Russian government maintained a military base in Javakhk. Armenians depended heavily on the base for economic sustenance and for security guarantees. Moscow decided to evacuate the base prematurely, driven by its own political motivation, leaving the Armenian community to the tender mercy of the Georgians.
Javakhk is a depressed economic area. There are no proper roads, living conditions are substandard and the authorities manipulate the situation in such a way that the condition of the Armenians is further aggravated. Political activists like Vahakn Chakhalian are jailed, organizations are banned in this country, which is a darling of the West for its openness and transparency. There is yet another threat hanging over the heads of the Armenians; the Tbilisi government is planning to resettle in Javakhk Turkish Metzkets exiled to Central Asia by Stalin. That will further exacerbate the ethnic tensions in the region, which is the intention of successive Georgian administrations.
Anti-Armenian policies in Javakhk are so strong now that they don’t even allow textbooks from Armenia to be used by Armenian students there.
What is the Armenian government doing to confront these provocations?
Unfortunately, Yerevan’s hands are tied; first, Armenia does not wish to jeopardize its access to the outside world through Georgia. And then, the leaders in Armenia remember that history repeats itself. We are at a political juncture where we were during the first independent republic (1918-20). Armenia cannot confront its hostile neighbors on three sides.
Recently, Minister of Culture asmik Poghosian gave an interview citing all these problems and highlighting the importance of Georgian-Armenian relations. She has dispatched a commission to study the situation in Georgia and seek solutions.
That very much outlines the position of the government, which soft-pedals all relations with Georgia. Following the visits of Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian and even President Serge Sargisian, similar pronouncements were made. A deceptive formula is being promoted to hide the intentions and grievances of both sides that there are no problems between the two countries that cannot be solved.
We need to be aware, however, that not only are the issues not being solved, but that Georgia is able to easily apply more pressure to keep up its chokehold, its political fig leaf not withstanding.