Europe Briefing N°63 23 May 2011
The mostly Armenian-populated Javakheti region, along the southern border with Armenia and Turkey, has been a potential flashpoint since Georgia’s 1991 independence, when a paramilitary group practically ran it, and physical links with the rest of the country were weak. After the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, many outside observers, recalling that there had been violent demonstrations in Javakheti in 2005 and 2006, predicted it would be the next to seek autonomy – or more. But the situation has stabilised. Tbilisi has successfully implemented programs to increase the region’s ties to the rest of the country, stopped projects that were seen as discriminatory and reduced the influence of the few remaining radical groups. It should maintain this momentum and take additional steps to guarantee that Javakheti and its 95,000 mainly Armenian speakers feel fully integrated in Georgia and provide an example of respect for minority rights in a region where minorities who feel discriminated against have all too often been attracted to secession, such as in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Lack of knowledge of the state language (Georgian) and poverty encourages migration from the region to Armenia and Russia. A paucity of media reporting on the isolated area helps reinforce feelings of marginalisation. Many Javakheti residents do not feel like full-fledged citizens, so prefer to become involved in the political and cultural life of neighbouring Armenia, whose nationalist groups are quick to argue that they are the victims of ethnic discrimination due to Georgian government policies and to amplify their grievances over poverty, unemployment, education and the lack of formal laws recognising Armenian as a “regional language” in Javakheti. However, the current Yerevan authorities are playing a stabilising role in decreasing tensions and have arrested alleged Javakheti radicals in Armenia.
Georgia was concerned about Moscow’s intentions in the region, especially as a major Russian military base – a left-over from the Soviet era – was located there. Some Russian commentators speculated that the Kremlin could use its influence in Javakheti to cause Georgia to renounce its NATO membership aspirations. But the base was closed in 2007, and Moscow lost more of its ability to manipulate local grievances the next year, when it committed to Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence. Nevertheless, in Tbilisi fear that Russia could use the region to destabilise Georgia has increased since the war, even though this presently seems highly unlikely.
Although Javakheti poses no immediate threat to Georgia’s territorial integrity, Tbilisi needs to continue to increase its focus on the region, so as to build confidence with local leaders and engender a sense of loyalty towards the state. This would help to avoid interpretations that the local aspects of nationwide problems, such as the economy, reflect ethnic discrimination.
To ensure the political stability and sustainable development of Javakheti and improve regional integration, thereby reducing the region’s vulnerability to destabilisation, the Georgian government, with the support of international partners, should:
Nationalist groups and media in Armenia should fully acknowledge that Javakheti’s residents are Georgian citizens and refrain from over-politicising sensitive issues by labelling them cases of ethnic discrimination. Many of Javakheti’s problems are shared by other isolated regions in Georgia. The donor community and international organisations should continue to work with Tbilisi to further develop democratic institutions, judicial independence, rule of law and free media, with a view to improving stability in Javakheti as in the rest of Georgia.
Tbilisi/Yerevan/Brussels, 23 May 2011