Sunday, June 29, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Appears Ready to Play Armenian Ethnic Card against Georgia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 29 – After Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine signed association agreements with the European Union on Friday, Kremlin officials said that Moscow would take measures in response to show the Russian government’s displeasure at this step and to defend Russia’s national interests.

            Such measures are likely to take various forms, but one of the most probable involves complaining about the mistreatment of ethnic minorities by the governments of these countries – Russians in the case of Ukraine, Gagauz in the case of Moldova, and Armenians in the case of Georgia – and doing so in ways that initially at least invoke international standards.

            But as events in Ukraine and Moldova have shown, Moscow’s concern about the rights of such minorities is less than disinterested but instead reflects a desire to find a means to weaken the central governments in those countries by using ethnic minorities as levers against the regimes.

            If a great deal of attention has been given to Moscow’s moves in this regard in these two countries, much less has been given to the potential for such mischief in Georgia. Indeed, since Moscow orchestrated the independence of Abkhazia and South Osetia in August 2008, most commentaries about Georgia have ignored the ethnic factor in that country.

            That reflects the fact that Georgia is, without those two breakaway republics, far more ethnically homogeneous than at any point in its modern history, and that there are only two significant minorities, the ethnic Azerbaijanis and the ethnic Armenians, who each form approximately six percent of the population.

            Some local Azerbaijanis have complained about Tbilisi’s handling of schools and other institutions in areas where they live, but there is little evidence to suggest that these complaints are building or that they have been or could easily be manipulated from the outside to put pressure on the Georgian central government.

            The situation with regard to the Armenians who are concentrated in the Javakhetia region along the Armenian and Turkish borders, however, is very different; and a new article by Sergey Minasyan, deputy director of the Yerevan Institute of the Caucasus, on a Moscow portal suggests that Georgia’s Armenians will soon be put in play (

            Minasyan says that Georgia’s decision to sign an association agreement with the European Union not only will not lead to the disappearance of problems in Georgia but in fact will intensify them if Tbilisi does not respond in a positive way.

            “One of these,” he says, “is the problem of the integration of ethnic minorities living in Russia, the defense and realization of their rights in various spheres (as full-fledged citizens of the country), the normalization of [their] social-economic and social-political situation, and the development of processes of democratization in places of their compact settlement.”

            “In particular” and in the context of Tbilisi’s orientation toward Europe, the Armenian analyst says, “this concerns the primarily Armenian-populated Samtskkhe-Javakketia” region which is more commonly referred to simply as Javakhetia.

            Conditions for the Armenian population had been bad under former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, Minasyan says, but they had improved after the change in government in Georgia in the fall of 2012.  Unfortunately, he continues, “approximately by the middle of 2013, signs began to appear of a return by the Georgian authorities” to Saakashvili’s “methods.”

            Prominent among these, the Yerevan commentator says, has been an expansion in the influence of the Georgian special services on the social-political and social-economic life of Javakhetia “at almost all levels.”

            The Council of Europe and the United States have periodically called attention to such trends, Minasyan says, but only in a restrained way.  Nonetheless, many ethnic Armenians in Javakhetia still hope that the integration of Georgia into Europe will “sooner or later” lead to an improvement of their own situation because of the values of the EU.

            But so far, there has been little basis for such hopes, Minasyan argues.  In February 2014, Tbilisi adopted a new election law which eliminated elections in smaller towns. In Javakhetia, that meant that citizens could vote for a city government only in Akhaltsikhe but not in Akhalkalaki.

            Worse, the Armenian analyst says, the new electoral arrangements opened the way for the involvement of Georgian force structures and special services “in the political processes” of the region in much the same way as they were involved under Saakashvili. As a result, the Armenians were “completely deprived of their constitutional right to free elections.”

            “In contrast to Tbilisi and many other regions of Georgia, the elections in the two most densely populated Armenian districts ... in fact passed under the control of the Georgian special services with numerous violations and falsifications,” Minasyan says, a striking situation given that the elections in ethnic Georgian areas were generally violation-free.

            Consequently, the Armenian analyst warns in conclusion, despite hopes and expectations in many quarters, the problems of the Armenian minority in Georgia “by all appearances hardly will find a positive resolution in the near future.” And both that and outside attention to it are thus cause for concern.

            On the one hand, Minasyan’s complaints about the status of Armenians in Georgia directly parallel Russian complaints about the handling of ethnic minorities in Moldova and Ukraine. And on the other, having a Yerevan analyst make them gives Moscow plausible deniability even while it in fact may be readying to get more involved.

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