Wednesday, 13 November

On Javakhk, Separatism, and Preserving the Armenian Language: An Interview with Tbilisi Mayoral Candidate

The local self-government elections in Georgia will be held on June 15. Members of local government councils, heads of regional administration, and mayors (including of Tbilisi, the capital) will be elected by vote. A new alliance was established in Georgia with the aim of participating in these elections — "Non-parliamentary opposition". Free Georgia, one of the parties in the alliance, began its campaign also in Javakhk. Two days ago, representatives of the alliance paid a visit to the region and met with local residents, among them the alliance's candidate for the Tbilisi mayoral election, Free Georgia party leader Kakha Kukava, who spoke with Hetq on the matter.

Why did you decide to visit Javakhk and what was your impression of the region?

The situation in Samtskhe-Javakheti is such that in Georgia's southern regions, where ethnic minorities live, have become an ethnic region in the reserve, where they were forced to vote for the ruling government. Such a tradition was formed here. Each time we try to somehow engage the Armenian minority, to oblige them to integrate into Georgian politics. If someone wants to vote for the ruling authorities, let him, and whoever wants to vote for the opposition, let them vote for the opposition. 

That is, you want the positions of opposition parties in Javakhk to be strengthened?

Our bloc now has achieved success in Akhalkalak, also in Ninotsminda, but more so in Akhalkalak. There, our bloc is led by former Member of Georgian Parliament Melik Raisyan. He also managed the Georgian Dream's pre-election headquarters until October. The situation there is such that Georgian Dream activists are now voting for us. We already have our candidate for the position of head of the region — [AkhalkalakSocio-Economic Development Organization President] Artashes Palanjian. We hope that he has great chances in being elected. This is something new because previously, the head of the region was appointed from the center, Tbilisi, which caused several psychological and political problems between the local population and the central authorities. But now the local population has the opportunity to elect its leader, and I think that's a good step in solving local problems. 

Who is your competition?

Represented in Akhalkalak is our bloc; the ruling party, Georgian Dream; and [Mikheil] Saakashvili's party, the [United] National Movement [Party]. But I think the competition will be between our candidate and the ruling party's candidate because that is a specific region and not all the parties can have strong staff.

Have you also met with local residents? What are the issues of concern for them, and in general, what problems do you see in Javakhk?

First is the problem of unemployment, which developed because of the new project, Kars-Akhalkalaki railway. The main employer of the population of Javakheti until 2007 was the Russian military base, but based on the interests of Georgia, we removed the military base from here. At that time, the Georgian authorities promised that there will be support programs that will help to develop agriculture or other sectors, where new jobs could be created. But the exact opposite happened. Now the mega-project of this railway, which joins three countries — and it's in Javakheti where the main construction works are taking place — brought workers from neighboring countries, and no one from the local population (neither Armenians nor Georgians) works on the construction. This is simply discrimination and segregation — the local population also stated this; meanwhile, this is a problem not of the local population, but of Georgia. Investment companies behave here as British colonialists did in South Africa 200 years ago. This is not acceptable, when they hire based on ethnic affiliation or other criteria. Of course we welcome any investment in Georgia for the reason that it will create jobs for the local population. But if they're not creating jobs for the local inhabitants, then we don't understand what is the gist of that investment. 

Second, as you know, Javakheti is Georgia's richest agricultural region, where high-quality agricultural goods are produced; for example, meat products, dairy products, potatoes, and so on. Unfortunately, there is legislation in Georgia that is interpreted as regulatory mechanisms for entry into the EU, which means that in the Georgian market, local meat products are more expensive than the frozen meat imported from Brazil or India. And in recent years, this almost killed our agriculture industry. We demand the cancellation of those regulations, which create artificial obstacles for local producers […] The old system has to be reinstated so that the villager can sell his meat products in his or the neighboring village market. Whereas now, for him to register his products, he has to travel hundreds of kilometers, make payments, acquire documents — as if he's producing not meat but airplanes. 

There are also other problems in Javakheti that are specific to not only this region, but also other regions of Georgia: that is, corruption, the inefficient spending of the budget; there are two or three clans there, including Samvel Petrosyan's clan, that have been controlling the region for decades. We have to replace these individuals. There, ethnic problems were created also artificially; for example, there is a counterintelligence service in Akhalkalak. They tell the central government that there is separatism in Javakheti; they foresee some things, and so on. On this basis there is a very strict regime placed here. But, in fact, those individuals who "fought" against this separatism became rich. Since the central authorities were afraid of this and wanted to uproot separatism in Javakheti, they gave a full mandate to [the] counterintelligence [team], who used that mandate with financial motives. Those people in a few years have become millionaires.

What is your position on the matter: is there separatism in Javakhk or not?

Separatism is not a tangible thing; it's a mood, which perhaps exists partially in some segments of the population. The question is what we call separatism. If there are some groups that demand political autonomy, then, of course, the Georgian political arena doesn't welcome them. But if there are groups that are demanding to preserve the Armenian language, Armenian culture, to develop it in local schools, well that's normal. What's important is the approach, the concept. Until recently, the Georgian government thought the effective means of fighting separatism were [the use of] law enforcement bodies: the police, counterintelligence, special forces, and so on. Perhaps this works in the short-term, but in the long-term it has the opposite effect. The North Caucasus is an example of this. We think that issues here have to be settled and the tension dispelled through not law enforcement bodies, but local self-government and economic methods. If you appoint  a leader there from another region and you give him a full mandate, then of course this will create tension, which later can develop and become a political trend. But if we give locals the opportunity to elect their leader themselves and they resolve the problems locally, I think, not only the local population, but also the interests of the Georgian state will benefit.

You mentioned language. Are Javakhk residents demanding Armenian language be given regional language status? Are you preparing to take steps in this direction?

The charter on languages provides for different statuses for languages. If we're talking about Armenian language being practiced in Armenian schools or educational or cultural institutions, I'm in favor of this. But to use the Armenian language also in state structures, I don't support this idea because this is a step back. This problem existed 20 years ago and the local population didn't understand the state language — because of this, many communication problems arose. Now, the problem is more or less solved; the new generation learns the state language. For this reason I think that the state language has its place, and the local population's native language, its place. This practice exists also in European countries, when the state protects the language of ethnic groups, but it doesn't replace their language with the state language. 

[Former Georgian President Mikhail] Saakashvili repeatedly said that infrastructure developed and investments were made in Javakhk. So why do people continue to emigrate?

On the contrary. I hadn't been to Javakhk for a long time, and I was surprised by the fact that the local population may be among the wealthy in Georgia because they really make a living from their agricultural products, particularly from potatoes, but if you look at the city of Akhalkalak — you don't feel that. It is one of Georgia's poorest, or rather, it would be more accurate to say, not constructed cities, and there are no multi-dwelling apartment buildings in the city. It's not so pleasant to see one-storey houses […] I wanted to visit a cultural institution — a museum or something else; it turned out nothing's there. So, the infrastructure is not so developed.

What steps is your alliance planning on taking to develop Akhalkalak?

The best approach to this question, which is also in our party's program, is to return the tax revenues, which the central budget now takes, to the local self-government bodies. Neither our party nor another party, nor any leader, as Saakashvili, should decide what to build in Akhalkalak. Let's return the tax revenues that were taken in 2005, and let them decide — whether important for them is a museum, a bridge, or something else. This is a modern European approach, for the money to be retained locally, and for the locals to decide their fate.  

Photo retrieved from Kakha Kukava's personal Facebook page.

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