Javakhk: A test for Georgian Democracy

The old Armenian University in Akhalkalak

BY VARANT MEGUERDITCHIAN

The victory of opposition Georgian Dream Party leader Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili at the October 2012 Georgian Parliamentary elections demonstrated the public’s overwhelming rejection of the decade-long domination of Georgian politics by President Mikeil Saakashvili and his United National Movement Party.

In the preceding two years constitutional amendments were enacted that would gradually shift Georgian political power from the President to the Prime Minister. This ensured that the period of transition in which Georgia finds itself today is marked by a power struggle between the Presidency of Saakashvili and the Prime Ministership of Ivanishvili. Georgia’s numerous native ethnic minorities have been impacted by this power struggle and the Armenians of Javakhk are no different.

With him, Ivanishvili brought hope for reform and was warmly welcomed by the Armenians of Javakhk. Just months later that hope turned to promise, when in January 2013, during a visit to Armenia Ivanishvili declared that the “ball is now in my court” to fulfil the election promises and address the requests of the Javakhk Armenians which were largely ignored during the dominance of the Saakashvili leadership. Now, nine months on from his election victory what have these hopes and promises meant, on the ground, for the Armenians of Javakhk?

Varant Meguerditchian

The release of activists Vahan Chakhalyan and Artur Poghosyan demonstrated both Ivanishvili’s power to make decisions and his intent to bring about change. Both activists had been vocal but peaceful advocates of the rights of Javakhk Armenians and had been arrested on dubious charges. Ivanishvili also removed a number of Saakashvili’s personnel from key Javakhk regional government positions replacing them with his own.

Beyond these actions, Ivanishvili has also made a series of promises to be implemented in the future. These have included the promise to fund a historical commission to determine the origins of churches in Javakhk and, more broadly, in Georgia, the ownership of which is disputed by the Georgian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Church authorities. There are promises also for improvements in the sphere of education for the Armenians of Javakhk. Additional hours for teaching the Armenian language, the addition of Armenian history into the school curriculum and granting approval for the opening of a new Armenian University campus in Georgia are just some of the initiatives around which there is now serious speculation and hope. A review is underway to address the unfair dismissal of Armenian teachers from schools in the Javakhk region for their perceived inability or unwillingness to accept the changes to Armenian schooling implemented by Saakashvili. There is even talk of compensation for those affected.

The mood that has been created by the leadership of Ivanishvili has given the Javakhk Armenians some necessary reprieve. Today, the Armenians of Javakhk are unafraid of ‘offending’ the Georgian government, and they more liberally exercise the freedoms of assembly and expression. So much so that based on the various European minority rights charters – including the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages – the Akhalkalak Regional Council (ARC) resolved to apply to the Georgian government for the Armenian language to be granted the status of an official regional language in Javakhk.

But the Armenians of Javakhk remain cautious. The power struggle between Saakashvili and Ivanishvili has thus far made the ARC reluctant to formally apply for Armenian language rights. Saakashvili’s refusal to acknowledge the needs of ethnic minorities still has some influence over political decision-making in Georgia – even if only to prevent further Armenian requests being fulfilled by Ivanishvili. Aside from the promises for improvement to education and religious rights, the situation largely remains the same. For example, Armenians who voice the concerns of the Javakhk population are still briefly interviewed at the Georgia-Armenia border upon entry to Georgia.

There is some hope that at the upcoming Georgian Presidential elections in October Giorgi Margvelashvili of Ivanishvili’s Georgia Dream coalition will defeat Saakashvili’s United National Movement. If so, Ivanishvili will be well-placed to implement some of these pledges for reform. Margvelashvili is the current Georgian Education Minister in Ivanishvili’s cabinet under whom many of the promises for improving the educational rights of Javakhk Armenians have been made.

According to the Global Democracy Ranking Index Georgia is ranked as the 58th most democratic nation in the world. While Georgia’s democracy ranking is well above that of its Caucasus neighbours Armenia (89th) and Azerbaijan (unranked) due to its efforts to reduce corruption, Georgia has yet to prove its genuine democratic credentials. Given the ethno-linguistic make-up of the Georgian state, with its Svan, Mskhetian, Mingrelian, Laz, Ossetian, Adjarian, Abkhaz, Armenian and other minority populations, one of the greatest measures of Georgian democracy will be its treatment of ethnic minorities.

Time will tell whether there will be genuine reform or whether the Armenians of Javakhk are just a pawn in the power struggle between Saakashvili and Ivanishvili. The outcome of the Georgian Presidential elections in October 2013, and the ensuing policies of whichever political force assumes power thereafter, will be a major determining factor of the immediate fate of the Armenians of Javakhk.

Varant Meguerditchian is the former Executive Director and President of the Armenian National Committee of Australia. He currently works as a government relations professional in Sydney. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in politics and business administration and is currently completing his second Master’s degree in International Relations.

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