BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
With apologies to Ray Charles for using the title of his song, I have to confess that I, too, have Georgia on my mind. Of course, it’s a different Georgia, not the one in the U.S., but the one north of Armenia, on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. And, it’s not an “old sweet song” that keeps it on my mind, but concern.
While I think (perhaps erroneously and presumptuously) that I understand the motivations of other nations and the states/governments they maintain, somehow, I cannot say the same for Georgians (with all their constituent peoples) or Tbilisi/Tiflis. I’d like to think I know, broadly, what drives policy in Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey (Armenians’ immediate neighbors) and more broadly Russia, the “Middle East”, European countries, and the United States of America, at least as it relates to the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh, I cannot say the same of Georgia.
We do not read to much about our northern neighbor in the Armenian media, either, at least not in the Diaspora. So it seems worthwhile to occasionally review developments, even if they are scattered, perhaps even unrepresentative. They at least keep us aware of the importance of the northern access we have to the rest of the world.
In July of 2018, Georgia’s Constitutional Court ruled that exempting only the Georgian Orthodox Church, but not other religious institutions, from the country’s VAT (“value added tax”, similar to the “sales tax” used in some states in the U.S.) was unconstitutional. The news report I encountered mentioned that eight religious groups had brought this suit, without specifying which ones. I have not researched further, so I do not know if the Armenian church was one of them, but it does have problems in Georgia.
These problems are long running. The Georgian church has taken ownership of many Armenian churches, and this is a matter that has not yet been resolved. Where the fault lies is not clear to me. Is it a remnant of Soviet times? Is it just the Georgian church being greedy? Does it have popular and/or government support in the property grabs? Regardless, the persistence and currency of the issue is borne out by an October report in Asbarez (Armenian language), about the Armenian church in Teeghom. It seems that Armenian inscriptions on it, observed at least as recently as 2003, had been scraped off or plastered over recently to hide the church’s true origins.
On the non-Armenian, international, front we have the beginnings of the closure of International Black Sea University. Just three weeks before classes started for the 2018-19 academic year, Georgia’s National Center for Education Quality Enhancement’s “Authorization Board” annulled the enrollment of first year students in that institution. This is from a piece titled “Georgia’s awkward neighbors” by George Mchedishvili which raises concerns about the sustainability of democratic governments surrounded by less or non-democratic neighbors. He posits that this action was a result of Turkish pressure because IBSU is “Gulenist” institution. The pressure is part of Turkish President Erdogan’s worldwide campaign against institutions associated with his former ally, Fethullah Gulen, whom he now accuses of being a “terrorist” mastermind. The fact that Georgia buckled and acted against IBSU is attributed to the dependency of the country on its trade with Turkey. This may be a a bad sign from an Armenian perspective because its exposes Georgia’s susceptibility to Turkish pressure. Conversely, it might be a good sign because the Gulenists have been engaged in extensive pro-Turkey propaganda over the years, burnishing its image worldwide. Of course this is all assuming that IBSU can indeed be considered a Gulenist institution, the only fact supporting this affiliation presented in the article is that it was started with funding, in part, from the Gulenists.
In what strikes me as an example “opposite” to the preceding one, in December, the Georgian government rejected the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the country. According to a “Foreign Policy” article, this happened because she was perceived as being too favorably inclined towards former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The same piece reports that Saakashvili is living with a relative in the Bronx, NY, having been stripped of two citizenships, Georgian and Ukrainian (the latter happening after he served as a government minister in Kiev), and currently sentenced (in absentia) to six years in prison for abuse of power while president. How is it that the Georgian government responds to Ankara favorably, but finds the backbone to resist Washington?
I hope these examples show why Georgia and the policies it pursues are unclear to me. But that makes it all the more important to try to understand what drives policy there. Be aware of and alert to developments in this country that is so important to the Armenian republics.