YEREVAN (RFE/RL–Noyan Tapan)–An Armenian political group operating in Georgia’s Javakhk region on Monday rejected the latest Georgian accusations of separatism that followed its renewed calls for greater local self-rule.
The Virk party–which is denied registration by the government in Tbilisi–said that the claims made by Georgian politicians and the media "mainly do not correspond to reality" and aim to "prepare ground for external interference in the region’s life."
"The population and political organizations in Javakhk have never demonstrated separatism–and the region has always been one of the most peaceful corners of Georgia," Virk leaders said in a statement circulated through A-Info–a local news agency.
The statement said Virk will not take any steps that could destabilize the situation in the Armenian-populated districts of Akhalkalak and Ninotsminda where public discontent with wrenching living conditions has run high for the past ten years. It said the party and its allies are only campaigning for a "higher status of local self-government."
The heads of local administrations are appointed by the Georgian government. The two districts are in turn part of the larger Samtskhe-Javakheti province which incorporates surrounding Georgian-populated areas. The Samtskhe-Javakheti governor is also named by Tbilisi.
The calls for Javakhetia’s autonomy–which have never been backed by Armenia–led a key committee of the Georgian parliament to hold an emergency meeting late last month. Its chairman–Giorgi Baramidze–has reportedly accused the local nationalist groups of having ties with unspecified foreign intelligence services. He has also stressed the fact that none of them is officially registered with the Georgian ministry of justice.
But the Virk statement countered that the authorities in Tbilisi themselves refuse to register the party by citing "unfounded justifications." The refusal is a "blatant violation of human rights," it said.
Virk leaders–like the vast majority of Javakhk Armenia’s–are vehemently opposed to the closure of the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki–sought by Georgia as part of its efforts to forge closer ties with the West. The base is the single largest employer in the unemployment-stricken area. The locals also regard it as a security guarantee against neighboring Turkey.
The future of the facility is a key bone of contention in the uneasy Russian-Georgian relations–with Moscow pushing for continued presence of its troops.
The Noyan Tapan news agency reported that Virk party co-chairs Mels Torosian and Davit Rstakian said the tension in Javakhk is being artificially accelerated by Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze’s opponents for the purpose of intensification of the overall political situation. The uneasiness in their words is caused by the fact that several politicians put the Javakhk problem on the same level as that of the Pankisi Gorge.
The agenda of the Georgian parliament was the situation in the Pankisi Gorge and Javakhetia. The same agenda is expected at the Georgian Council of Security. The co-chairs indicated that the above mentioned problems are principally different: the legislative initiative about giving Javakhk a status of administrative-territorial unit as a part of Georgia submitted by the public and political organizations of Javakhk threatens neither national nor state interests of the country.
In Rstakian’s opinion–the situation is also getting intensified by the pro-American Georgian politicians concerning the Russian military bases in Akhalkalaki. These politicians intend to show the Americans that Javakhk is a pro-Russian-orientated region. "We do not hide our interest in the Russian bases. It’s where our people work–it’s not only a social issue. For us–the security of our population is important–and the presence of the Russian bases is a significant guarantee," said Rstakian.
In regards to the military cooperation of Georgia with Turkey–he noted that "Virk" is not against the cooperation with Turkey unless it is directed against Javakhk. As the "Virk" co-chairs stated the party–is currently occupied with explanatory work in their foremost structures. The population of Javakhk must not succumb to provocations which are made by Georgian mass media and not be inclined to separatism.
Mels Torosian also commented on the theme of repatriation of the Turks of Meskheti–which was spread by Georgian mass media and non-governmental organizations. As is known–a certain part of the Meskheti population was deported from Javakhk in 1944. Head of the Council of Georgian repatriates Marat Baratashvili said the organization headed by him establishes a dialogue with the representatives of the Armenian community of Samtskhe-Javakheti. In November 2001 a meeting was held with the local Armenian non-governmental organizations–and a seminar was held in January 2002 on studying the experience of the repatriation of the Georgian Tatars.
Baratashvili expressed hope that in May-June 2002–a meeting will be called with the influential Armenian public and political organizations of the region. Mels Torosian is confident that the given problem–as well as any problem connected with repatriates–does not only concern the Armenian part of the Javakhk population–but–first and foremost–the national majorities and the powers (i.e. the Georgian population).
"Some politicians and mass media try to impose this problem on us–as if the Armenian population of Javakhk is against the repatriation of the Turks of Meskheti. However–we already expressed our opinion in the early 90s and we still have the same opinion. The issue of the repatriation of the Meskheti residents is a matter of discussion at the state level," Torosian said.