“Language is an intrinsic part of who we are and what has, for good or evil, happened to us”.
“A people without a language of its own, is only half a nation”.
Thomas Osborne Davis
In 1991 when Georgia became an independent country, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was a nation of many ethnicities and languages. The previous year had already seen the South Ossetians declare themselves as an independent Republic ( from an Autonomous Oblast)within the Soviet Union only to be drawn into a war with Georgia. Abkhazia, which was an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic prior to 1991 started warring with Georgia over their continuing independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although an agreement was signed in 1993, the friction over the status of this republic, inside Georgia, is still evident. Additionally, Georgia contains the Autonomous Republic of Adjara on the Black Sea coast, which is populated by the Ajars, who are ethnically Georgian, but speak their own specific local dialects, and the Javakhk region populated by Armenians, who speak their own language.
The Rose Revolution at the end of 2003 following disputed parliamentary elections, and widespread corruption, brought to power Mikhail Saakashvili as the new President. He also promised to deal with the on-going separatist influences within the country.
The Javakhk (Samtskhe-Javakheti in Georgian) region is home to 125,000 Armenians who represent just over half of the population of the area. Most are concentrated in the towns of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda. The history of how the Armenians arrived in this area is disputed; the Georgians would maintain that it has been only since the early 19th Century after the Russian-Persian War, the Armenians consider their heritage to be considerably longer. This is very typical of the history debates in the South Caucasus, which ultimately will never be concluded; the important fact is that Armenians live here, within the control of the Georgian government.
Whilst it is natural that a country specifies a state language, in this case, Georgian (and Abkhazian), for the purposes of formal administration, one would expect that it would be respectful of the fact that many citizens do not speak the language and , particularly, where it has significant minority groupings. In the 10 years up to 2006, the restrictions on people, in public life, have increased to the point that even Doctors, Lawyers, Teachers, Court officials, have been dismissed due to their inability to pass Georgian language exams; in many cases they have been replaced by ethnic Georgians.
The further irony is that English is recognised as an “alternative state language” being used on road signs and for some official purposes. This still continues to exclude those people who can only speak their mother-tongue. This whole situation is exacerbated by the clause within the 1997 Election Act which bans the formation of political parties ‘with regional or territorial traits’. This effectively prohibits any organisation which promotes the rights, language, culture and identity of those people.
Following the election of Mikhail Saakashvili in 2004 his policies were becoming progressively more anti-Armenian. There were rumours that he was of Armenian descent and that his actions were a means to counter that accusation. In addition to the language restrictions, there were prohibitions on books being held which taught about Armenian history and the Armenian Apostolic Church (Given the status of the Georgian Orthodox Church as the state religion, and its influences and privileges in state affairs, this is not surprising)
The creeping suppression of the use of the Armenian language, the deferrment of the promised Armenian Higher Institute, and expression of an Armenian identity within Georgia led to the rise of the United Javakhk movement, and its leader Vahagn Chakhalyan.
In May, I met up with Vahagn in Akhalkalaki to discuss more about the situation of the Armenians in Javakhk and his personal treatment by the Georgian authorities. He had been released in January 2013, from prison, after 4.5 years for his political activism. We met in the main square of the town and drove to his house under the watchful eye of the local Georgian Police. Our presence was expected as Vahagn was being monitored 24 hours per day.
Vahagn has been an active member of the Armenian community for many years, and originally with Youth groups. His first case of harassment by the authorities was in 2001 when they tried to disrupt his event to commemorate the Armenian Genocide on April 24. At that time he was the head of the “Javakhk Youth Sports and Cultural Union”, similar clashes happened over the subsequent years, and gained frequency in 2005, and 2006, as the suppression of the Armenians increased.
In October 2006, in unusual circumstances he was invited to Yerevan by a close friend to attend a birthday party. During that brief visit he was arrested by the Armenian Police force, and sentenced to 2 months in jail on the premise of an “illegal border crossing”. This was the first example of serious intimidation by the Georgian authorities, and implicit cross-border co-operation with wider political undertones.
During 2008 the situation for the Armenians got worse, and this coincided with Saakashvili’s re-election. Although his popularity was much-reduced he was given the mandate to continue with his policies. During the elections, there was evidence that the boxes from some of the Armenian villages were tampered with. In one example, from a village just 8 km from the counting station, the voting papers took 3 days to arrive, and there were no votes for the United Javakhk party. The local candidate knew that there should have been at least one vote, and that was his own!
In July 2008 following an explosion in Akhalkalaki and the deaths of 2 policemen, Vahagn’s house was raided in the early hours of the morning and he was arrested along with his Father, and his younger brother. The original accusation was the illegal ownership of firearms which were alleged to have been discovered in his house. In the process of bringing a case against him over the following months the authorities kept changing their minds over what the crime was that he was supposed to have committed.
Despite there being no finger-print evidence to connect him with the weapons ( Vahagn asserts that the weapons were planted), and the proceedings being conducted in the Georgian language ( which he didn’t understand), with poor interpretation, and also no opportunity being given to him to cross-examine witnesses, he was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison.
In prison, he was treated badly. He was in a small cell with 5 other men. He had very limited access to people outside of the cell, and for long periods had no access to bathroom facilities. On occasions he was deprived of water for many hours at a time, and during one summer he was left thirsty for 3 days. Whenever there were any activities outside of the prison in support of him, he would be taken away and beaten including, on one occasion, on 14 April 2009 when Armenians in France were holding a protest in his favour. This continued physical maltreatment and psychological torture proved fruitless as he would not give up on his political activity or encourage others to do so.
At one point he was offered the opportunity of an early release and a move to France with his family, including money and an apartment if he agreed to stop supporting the Armenian cause. Needless to say, he rejected this offer.
Over time Human Rights groups became interested in his treatment and he was subsequently moved to better conditions in a different prison.
The change of Government in Georgia and the intervention by the Armenian Catholicos meant that Vahagn was released on January 24 2013 into an environment where there is much promise about the future . Vahagn is an optimist, and looks forward to the Government delivering on their promises particularly with respect to the University and the use of the language. I hope that his optimism proves to be founded and that his 4.5 years of isolation from his young family have achieved something for the Armenian people of Javakhk.
For the Armenians of Javakhk, and those living elsewhere in Georgia, independence or annexation is not their wish. In that respect they are different to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. The irony is that the very policies that were designed to suppress separatism could be in danger of fuelling it. As with many Armenians throughout the world they want to live peacefully, promote their culture, worship at their churches, and proudly speak, and live, their language.
Georgia has strong connections with Azerbaijan, and Turkey. The strongest company in Georgia is SOCAR which is an Azerbaijani organisation. A significant proportion of the investment on the Georgian stock market is from Turkey and Azerbaijan. It is alleged that Saakashvili’s presidential campaign was funded by Azerbaijan.
All 3 countries are connected by the lucrative Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil and gas pipelines, and will soon be serviced by the $700m Baku-Tblisi-Kars railway. The pipelines and railway will all transit through Javakhk. A heightened sensitivity by the Georgian Government to any hint of Armenian separatism in Javakhk will be strongly felt. Given that Armenia ‘s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed, due to the continuing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, and Iran is of limited value as a trading route, Armenia has to remain close to Georgia for all practical land links to the rest of the world.
The geo-political and economic conditions in the area make the position of the Javakhk Armenians a very delicate one.
Categories: Being Armenian