Georgia on My Mind

By Edmond Y. Azadian

No, this column is not about Ray Charles’ song, Georgia on My Mind, nor is it about the southern US state of Georgia. It is about a country of 5 million tucked in the Caucasus Mountains, a next-door neighbor to Armenia.

The region is plagued by many complex problems, because of the rivalry between regional and world powers. One of those problems is the Ottoman dream of Pan-Turkism, which has been checked by the existence of two Christian nations, Armenia and Georgia, blocking the eastward thrust of Turkish nationalist powers.

In recent years, however, it has become apparent that Georgia’s leaders do not consider Pan-Turkism an existential threat to their country, choosing instead short-term political accommodations with Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Successive Georgian governments have consistently voted with Turkey and Azerbaijan at the UN. But above all, they have been sanguine in supporting any economic plan which intends to isolate Armenia. For example, Tbilisi governments have joined rail and pipeline networks which bypass Armenia.

As a Christian nation with a long history with the Armenians, we are always deceived into thinking that a Christian nation’s interests would coincide with another Christian nation experiencing the same predicaments. But Tbilisi has tried to dispel that notion time after time by its hostile policies against Armenia.

Some foolhardy people sometimes blame the Armenian government for not adopting a tougher stand against Tbilisi. However, while simmering conflict rages with Azerbaijan, it is not wise for any administration to open a second front on its borders, especially when its lifeline crosses through the territory of that neighbor.

That is why we have considered Georgia as a friendly foe. But recently, the Economist weekly has used another word which suits better the two nations’ relationship, “frenemies.” The word was also used by the magazine when Moscow and Beijing cut an energy deal worth $400 billion. Outwardly, it was a political scoop for President Putin of Russia, in view of threatened economic sanctions by the West, but per the Economist, Russian and Chinese national interests will diverge in the long run. (The word frenemies, a mashing of friend and enemies, is more popular with teens rather than nation states.)

Georgia is not only a worrisome neighbor through its international relations, but also through its domestic policy towards its diverse ethnic groups. Armenians constitute 6-7 percent of Georgia’s population, along with an almost equal number of Azeris. Armenians are concentrated in the capital city of Tbilisi and in the Javakhk region on Armenia’s northern border.

The confiscation of Armenian churches and community properties has not been resolved yet.

May 18-22, the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay visited Georgia and she expressed her concern over the Tbilisi government’s discriminatory policies with regard to its minorities and called for the government to implement its own constitutional obligations and respect international law.

That is, of course, a slap on the wrist which cannot have consequences as long as Tbilisi’s aspirations to join NATO can be manipulated by the West to undermine Russian posturing in the region. Georgians are very cognizant of that political reality and intend to continue their discriminatory policies with impunity.

Javakhk was once home to a Russian military base, which provided security and jobs to the local Armenians. With total disregard for the Armenian population, Moscow liquidated its military base prematurely, to assuage the Tbilisi government, which in turn promised Armenians economic help, improved roads and communications, none of which have materialized yet. The Georgian authorities blame Javakhk Armenians for their economic difficulty, arguing they have failed to learn the Georgian language. They are blamed for continuing to use the Armenian language and practicing their ancestral traditions, even though Javakhk has been a historic territory of Armenia.

The Tbilisi authorities have been implementing a two-pronged policy towards Javakhk: persecuting human rights activists and assimilation. In the first case, the religious and ethnic rights of minorities are willfully trampled, which leads to the depopulation of the region. In the second case, the remaining Armenians are exposed to an intense Georgianization, forcing them to forgo their identity under the pretext of creating job opportunities. The central government has introduced cosmetic improvements in the region to deflect criticism.

The Armenian problem for them is not new. At one point, the government intended to resettle in Javakhk the Meskhetian Turks, who had been expelled by Stalin, in order to create ethnic tensions.

Another region of concern for Armenians in Georgia is Ajaria, which became the Ajarian Autonomous Republic after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Between 1991 and 2004, Ajaria’s president was a local warlord, Aslan Abashidze, who during the Rose Revolution sided with former President Eduard Shevardnadze. When Mikheil Saakashvili consolidated his position in Tbilisi, he gave an ultimatum to Abashidze, who until that point was ruling Ajaria as a sovereign state. Saakashvili behaved at that point in the same manner that he behaved later in 2008 against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, using military force to subdue them.

But in the case of Ajaria, Moscow still believed that helping Saakashvili would curb his anti-Russian zeal. Therefore, a helicopter flew Abashidze to Moscow and the threat of armed conflict was resolved. Ajaria fell under the control of Georgia, courtesy of the Kremlin. That convinced Saakashvili that bullying will always win but that gamble did not work in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ajaria is a vital economic link for Armenia, which is already under a crippling blockade by Turkey. Most unofficial trade and tourism between Armenia and Turkey crosses through Ajaria. The region was under Turkish rule for a while and the Georgians were forced to adopt the Moslem religion. By the time of independence, Ajarians had mostly converted back to Christianity. Today, the Turkish influence is so great that 70 percent of the population has adhered to Islam.

In his quest to turn Ajaria into a tourist destination, Saakashvili opened the floodgates to Turkish economic penetration. Parallel to that economic drive, he offered citizenship to anyone who applied for it. Already, 25,000 Turkish citizens have received Georgian citizenship and they have taken white collar jobs in and around Batumi, unlike Europe, where the Turks are mostly unskilled laborers.

The Turkification of Ajaria is moving on many levels especially education and religion. Already there are 50 Turkish boarding schools in Ajaria. An important factor in this Turkification drive is ascribed to Saakashvili’s mother, Giuli Alasania, a professor of Turkish history who cooperates with Fetullah Gulen.

As we can see, a cross-border territory for Armenians is fast becoming hostile territory. The long-term effect of this Turkification process is that the road is being paved through a so-called Christian land for pan-Turanists like Ahmet Davutolgu.

Georgia’s political alienation from Armenia is further amplified through its gradual integration of Turkish-Islamist mainstream.

Whether we sing Charles’ Georgia on My Mind or not, we always need to have in mind Georgia with its perpetually hostile posture vis-à-vis Armenians and Armenia.