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Review & Outlook - 01/22/2004

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GEORGIA IN TRANSITION: IMPLICATIONS FOR ARMENIA AND JAVAKHK

Armenian News Network / Groong
January 22, 2004

By Khatchik DerGhoukassian and Richard Giragosian


For more than six months, the South Caucasus has been locked in a
significant period of political transition. Each of the region's three
states, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, has faced a daunting set of
internal obstacles and challenges during this transitional period,
compounded by a varying degree of incomplete or weakened statehood,
systemic corruption and a pronounced trend of authoritarian rule.
Each state also faces greater insecurity and vulnerability stemming
from the dramatic shift in regional geopolitics in the wake of the new
post-September 11 strategic landscape, and remains hostage to the
course of the new U.S.-Russian strategic partnership.

In the first stage of this regional transition, Armenian President
Robert Kocharian was reelected in a two-round election in February and
March 2003, followed by the election of a new parliament in May
2003. The transition in Azerbaijan, the second stage of this regional
transition, featured a more troubling transfer of power from father to
son, further tainted by dubious elections and widespread pre- and
post-election violence. By far, the third stage in this transition
process was the most interesting, and least expected, as the long-time
Georgian leader, President Eduard Shevardnadze, was unceremoniously
forced to resign in late November 2003 in the wake of tainted
parliamentary elections.

With the recent election in Georgia, popular opposition National
Movement leader Mikhail Saakashvili was elected as the country's new
president, garnering more than 96 percent of the vote. But
Saakashvili's election victory may turn out to be as much punishment
as reward for his successful ouster of President Shevardnadze.  The
euphoria generated by the so-called Rose Revolution at least partly
eclipsed the magnitude of the problems bequeathed to the new
leadership by its predecessors.

Although the immediate aftermath of the transition has not been marred
by the violence that some observers feared (a fear generally grounded
in Georgia's early period of chaotic independence), the Georgian
transition is by no means complete, particularly as new parliamentary
elections are fast approaching. Moreover, a disturbing number of
factors may herald a return to the instability and violence of the
early 1990s unless the new Georgian leadership can move quickly to
maintain its still potent popular support. The new Georgian leadership
now has a window of opportunity to take advantage of public support
for real reform. But this window will close fast, and public
expectations have been raised to perhaps unrealistic levels by the
sweeping promises contained in Saakashvili's ambitious election
platform. And, if the events of the past few months hold true,
Georgia's citizens may no longer be content with the role of spectator
and, in the event of discontent, may very well turn quickly on their
erstwhile heroes.  Shevardnadze was, after all, welcomed home to
Georgia in March 1992 as the one true savior capable of restoring
stability and security to the country in the aftermath of the excesses
of the Gamsakhurdia regime.

In addition to inheriting a mantle of such "great expectations," the
new leadership has also inherited the very same problems that served
so well as public indictments of the Shevardnadze government. These
fundamental challenges, ranging from systemic crime and corruption to
the loss of territorial control over several key areas of the country,
threaten the authority and legitimacy of the Georgian state no matter
who is in charge. And Georgia's new president has comparatively little
experience to draw on in tackling those challenges.


Georgia's "Rose Revolution"

Georgia's "Rose Revolution" received a wide degree of international
coverage and attention, with a focus on some perceived similarities
with East and Central European transition and post-transition
processes during which popular uprising toppled authoritarian regimes
and corrupt governments without bloodshed. The "Velvet Revolution" in
former Czechoslovakia and the fall of Milosevic in Yugoslavia are the
two most common cases of comparison. The fairly close ties between
Saakashvili and some opposition activists in Yugoslavia further
reinforced this perception. With personal charisma, Saakashvili is
young and U.S. educated, feeding the image of a new Georgian leader
engaged in a total break with the past, despite several facts to the
contrary. Overall, in contrast to the period of the 1990s, with the
excesses of ultra-nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the
Saakashvili-Burjanadze-Zhvania trio's success in forcing the
resignation of a long time regional strongman without violence was
impressive.

Aside from the challenges of corruption, social injustice, organized
crime, and state weakness, the nationalities question remains an
underestimated issue, bound to reemerge. This is particularly
important, as the "Rose Revolution" was comprised of a mobilized elite
that was largely limited to Georgians, and involved few if any of the
country's significant minorities. This exclusivity is a fundamental
limitation, as neither the Abkhazians nor the Ajarians considered
themselves part of the "Rose Revolution." In fact, the Ajarians
initially opposed the anti-Shevardnadze campaign and sought to
maximize the political influence wielded by Ajarian leader Aslan
Abashidze, and the Armenians of Javakhk and the Azerbaijanis of
Marneuli each adopted a cautious wait-and-see position. And as
Saakashvili has yet to formulate an answer to the country's essential
problem of the nationalities, the "Rose Revolution" threatens to
remain an exclusively Georgian affair.

Another underlying element is the Georgian role within the
U.S.-Russian strategic partnership. This aspect was most obviously,
and most crudely, seen in the conspiracy theories promulgated in much
of the Russian press, accusing the U.S. of manipulating developments
in Georgia to "punish" Shevardnadze for his increasing concessions to
Russia. The dubious objectivity of these articles notwithstanding,
Georgia has emerged, and potentially will remain, as a new arena for a
greater U.S.-Russian competition. For obvious reasons, Saakashvili is
seriously limited in managing this delicate balance and the Russians
still hold vested geopolitical interests in Georgia, while the
American economic and security investment has clear limitations.
Fortunately for the vulnerable Georgians, despite this geopolitical
competition, Washington and Moscow are more prone to accommodations
and cooperation, especially within the confines of the global war on
terrorism. But although this means an engagement beyond the Cold War
period, now marked by a lessening of the traditional clientelistic
dimensions that defined relations between small countries and big
powers for so long, it also means that the U.S. commitment to Georgia
is limited by the greater stakes of relations with Russia.

The repercussions of Georgia's transition are, therefore, profound,
with the country having emerged as the new key to regional security
and stability. The outlook for Georgian statehood, although still
rather bleak, is now a major factor in the strategic interests of all
regional actors. But by far, the major regional power engaged in
Georgia is Russia. Analyzing the complex nature of the Russian role in
Georgia also reveals the severity of the challenges and threats faced
by the Georgian state. The new Georgian leadership will also face the
same challenges, and will even be more threatened given the
combination of their inexperience and raised public expectations.


The Russian Role in Georgia

For Russia, the Georgian situation offers both promise and peril.  The
direct intervention in the early stages of the political conflict by
the Russian foreign minister has been widely cited as helping to avoid
bloodshed. And by helping to force the resignation of President
Shevardnadze, the Russians have clearly bolstered their already
impressive influence over events in the vulnerable Georgian state.
But the Russian power and influence in Georgia is matched by a similar
pattern of reassertion throughout the region.

In the months to come, however, it seems likely that the traditional
friction between Georgian and Russian interests will resurface,
although it may be too late to overcome the powerful leverage that
Moscow now holds over Tbilisi. This Russian leverage rests on three
legs: the political, the military and, most recently, the economic.
The political leverage stems form the rather hidden Russian influence
over significant segments of the Georgian political elite, both within
Georgia and through some former political figures enjoying refuge in
Russia. But the political leverage is the weakest of the three and is
only truly effective when exercised in conjunction with the military
or economic leverage held by Russia.

The second pillar of the Russian leverage over Georgia is the
military.  By continuing to maintain two of its four military bases in
the country (located at Batumi and Akhalkalaki) in direct violation of
an agreement signed at the 1999 Istanbul summit of the Organization
for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Russian military
presence remains a fundamental threat to Georgian sovereignty. More
significantly, the two remaining bases are in the most geopolitically
sensitive regions: Ajaria and Samtskhe-Javakheti (Javakhk).

To be more precise, there is an additional military presence, albeit
much reduced in scope, in Abkhazia as well. The Russian military
peacekeepers, empowered to conduct peacekeeping operations between
Abkhazia and Georgia proper under the auspices of the Commonwealth of
Independent States (CIS), are using the former Russian military base
in that region as a logistical center for operations, and thereby
retaining a military presence in yet another geopolitically important
region. And even more threatening to Georgia, the Russian military
also provides training and even employment to the local population in
each of these regions. For example, the Abkhazians, the Ossetians, and
even some Ajarians, are provided with a degree of military training
and employment at the Russian bases, and the Russian base at
Akhalkalaki in Javakhk is the region's largest employer and most
important source of income (and security). Understandably, therefore,
while the Georgians and the central government in Tbilisi perceive the
Russian presence as threat to the country's sovereignty, other
nationalities consider the Russian presence quite differently.  To the
more insecure minorities, who have an economic interest in maintaining
the bases and fear the reemergence of Georgian nationalism that would
threaten their own rights of autonomous existence and national
identity, the Russian military presence provides an essential
guarantee for security and stability.

Although evident for some time, the most recently expanded element of
Russian leverage is economic. In August 2003, the Russian Unified
Energy Systems (UES) firm acquired a 75 percent stake in Georgia's
Telasi energy-distribution company that provides the power to the
Georgian capital. During the same period, the Russian state-owned
natural gas monopoly Gazprom forged agreements with both Armenia and
Georgia designating Gazprom as the predominant natural gas supplier
for both countries. For Armenia, a five-year agreement was signed in
June 2003 and for Georgia, a 25-year agreement was signed in July
2003.  In line with the fact that the Russian manipulation of energy
supplies to Georgia has served as its most effective leverage for
years and has included several episodes of disruption, delay and, at
times even destruction, of critically needed natural gas and
electricity from Russia, these moves represent only a greater Russian
hold over the Georgian (and Armenian) economy.


Understanding the Reality of the Georgian Transition

The impressively peaceful transition of leadership in Georgia offered
an air of optimism starkly out of place in the normally tumultuous
politics of the South Caucasus. Initially rooted in the seriously
flawed elections for a new parliament in November 2003, the
opposition's challenging of the results and its success in mobilizing
the country's mounting dissatisfaction with the Georgian government
was able to force the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
This success, bolstered by the opposition's prudent course of peaceful
and legal confrontation, came as a surprise to many, even to the
opposition leaders themselves. In a rare demonstration of at least
outward unity, the then parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze and Mikhail
Saakashvili, the main opposition challenger to President Shevardnadze,
were able to galvanize the mounting public outrage and direct it into
a personalized political assault against the president.

Although Burjanadze and Saakashvili emerged as the public faces of the
movement against the Shevardnadze government, there was a much broader
effort involved. A coalition of disparate forces, well beyond their
two opposition parties, actually provided the real momentum for
change.  This breadth and depth in the movement opposing the
government also marked the graduation of the country's civil society
from a potential to a powerful agent for change. Another important
actor, ands perhaps the most understated, is Zurab Zhvania, now
serving as Saakashvili's Minister of State (the Georgian equivalent to
Prime Minister).

The victory of Georgian civil society in overcoming the state,
resulting in the demise of a decade of Shevardnadze rule, is the real
reason for the exuberance and optimism that quickly replaced the
apathy and frustration that has long hindered Georgian politics.  But
the explanation of such a smooth and peaceful transition lies much
deeper than any public victory of civil society, however.

The fundamental reason for such an easy transition was actually the
vacuum that has existed in the country for some time. The steady
collapse of the Georgian state, with a significant loss of authority
and an obvious failure to provide the most basic services to its
people, provided a relatively unopposed path to power. This loss of
state power has been so profound and so extensive that it also
resulted in a serious drain of legitimacy. The failure of the army and
the security forces to support the president at the height of the
crisis further demonstrated the extent of this collapse. And it was
this loss of legitimacy that accelerated the resignation of the
president and paved the way for a new leadership.

But these very same factors that aided in the swift transition pose
the most serious obstacles for the new leaders. The sheer magnitude of
the collapse of the state in recent years, as seen by the recently
revealed bankruptcy of the state budget, presents the next Georgian
leadership with a set of very limited options. The empty state
coffers, both literally and figuratively, combined with the danger of
raised public expectations, demonstrate the difficulty of assuming the
economic and political legacy of Shevardnadze's governance.


Why the Georgian Case is Unique

Despite some initial comments noting the possible implications for
Armenia, the Georgian model of transition that has emerged over the
past few weeks is unique and holds no real lessons for the Armenian
situation. The change in the Georgian government stems from a
complicated combination of factors, very few of which are seen in
either of Georgia's neighbors.

The most significant difference with the Armenian situation is the
fact that Georgia's civil society was able to emerge victorious from
its confrontation with the Georgian state apparatus by virtue of the
fact that the state apparatus was near collapse. Unlike Armenia, the
Georgian state has been steadily eroded from within by a discredited
political elite, a bankrupt state economy and corruption, and by a
failure to exert control over many key parts of the country. Thus, the
peaceful change in Georgia's government was due to the weakness of the
state more than the strength of its civil society. This also suggests
that there is an even greater danger for instability in the next
several months, especially as the people hold higher expectations
(perhaps too high) and the new leaders face the same economic and
political problems of the Shevardnadze regime.

And as the central power and authority of the Georgian state has been
disintegrating for some time, power has been devolving steadily to the
regions, a trend starkly different than the Armenian situation.  The
Armenian state remains firmly entrenched, with a monopoly over the
elements of force and power and a degree of legitimacy not seen in
Georgia (or in Azerbaijan). And despite the potential of the Armenian
civil society, there is no easy or open avenue to confront the
government, despite the illusion of the opposition's demands for
impeachment and sporadic demonstrations in the streets.

The second key difference between Georgia and Armenia is one of
geopolitics. Unlike Armenia, which is strongly, in many ways too
strongly, within the Russian orbit of economic and military power, the
Georgian crisis was more of a conflict between the West and the East,
with the crisis initially threatening to emerge as an obstacle in
U.S.-Russian relations. And against a backdrop of a continued Russian
military presence in the country, there was a potentially volatile
convergence of competing interests between Moscow and Washington, with
a clash between the U.S. pursuit of stability and the Russian
preference for vulnerability in Georgia. But as events unfolded,
Russia emerged as the real winner in the power politics of the crisis.


Inheriting the Challenges of a "Failed State"

The new Georgian leadership has inherited the very same problems that
allowed them to rise to power on a wave of discontent and despair. In
general terms, it seems assured that this new Georgian leadership will
continue to pursue the traditional foreign policy of the Shevardnadze
Georgia. There will be a continuation of policies largely driven by
the overriding imperative to strengthen statehood in the wake of a
severe decline in state power and control. This will be matched by a
deepening of Georgia's pronounced pro-Western strategic orientation, a
direction rooted in the recognition of a mounting external threat from
an assertive Russia and from an internal collapse of authority and a
loss of territory and sovereignty.

The current transitional leadership has already been threatened by one
concrete manifestation of this loss of state authority.  Specifically,
this pressure comes from the Ajarian leader, Aslan
Abashidze. Personifying the erosion of state power, Abashidze has
built a clan-based fiefdom in his southern Georgian region,
withholding any contribution to the central budget and exercising an
increasingly potent ability to project power on the national level.

Further bolstered by the presence of a Russian military base and
control over a key Black Sea port, Abashidze is increasingly able to
leverage his regional power into a decisive role in determining the
outcome of the next stage on Georgian's transition. In recent days,
this power was demonstrated by a closure of his region's borders, a
public threat to boycott the coming elections, and demonstrating his
"independent power" through a series of high level meetings with
senior Russian officials.  By assuming the role of "kingmaker,"
Abashidze seeks to position himself in a pivotal role to either
stabilize or undermine the next government.

The power and influence of the Ajarian leader is also matched by the
roles of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  This
steady devolution of power from the central Georgian state to the
regions has also been compounded by the external role of Russia, which
has granted citizenship to much of these breakaway regions'
populations, and by the internal pressure emanating from the southern
regions with their Armenian and Azerbaijani populations, each
demanding a degree of greater autonomy. It is, therefore, becoming
increasingly likely that recent events have only exacerbated the
weakening of Tbilisi to the benefit of the regions.

This battle between the weakened central state and the emboldened
regions also threatens to revert to the "warlordism" and violence of a
decade ago. And although the geopolitical importance of Georgia
remains constant, derived from the country's role as a "transit state"
stemming from the proposed Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline and as a frontline
state in the global "war on terrorism," the internal fragility of this
collapsing state may be far too profound for any practical benefit
from such strategic value. Thus, the next stage in Georgia's difficult
transition lies outside of the capital, but holds the key for the
future of the country as a whole.


The Armenian Need for a Stable Georgia

For more than a dozen years, Georgia has remained an important
strategic neighbor for Armenia. This strategic relationship was
largely driven by an economic imperative, as Armenia was forced to
depend on Georgia as the sole external link with Russia. Necessitated
by the severe restraints imposed on Armenia by the dual blockade of
the landlocked country by Azerbaijan from the east, and Turkey from
the west, made the outlet to the north, the route through Georgia a
vital necessity. The Azerbaijani and Turkish blockade of Armenia's
railway and transport links, their disruption of the regional energy
network and the breakdown of communications links have all contributed
to a serious Armenian dependence on Georgia for its link to its
largest trading partner, Russia. Such a vulnerable dependence has also
been exacerbated by the continued closure of the Russia-Armenia
railway link through Abkhazia.

The Armenian imperative for a stable Georgia defines much of Yerevan's
cautious self-restraint over the rights of the Armenians in Javakhk.
Differentiating between the Nagorno Karabagh and Javakhk cases,
successive Armenian governments have encouraged their nationals in
Georgia to frame their demands within the context of the Georgian
political process and through the exercise of their rights as
citizens. Unfortunately, neither the Gamsakhurdia nor the Shevardnadze
administrations reciprocated these efforts and failed to address the
needs of the Javakhk Armenians. The economic development of Javakhk
has been systematically negelected, thereby exacerbating tension.
Moreover, Tbilisi continued pursuing a covert yet clearly
discriminatory policy in Javakhk aiming at pressuring the local
Armenian population to migrate, a xenophobic drive far too
short-sighted, with long-term repercussion to only harm Georgia.
Already, the Kocharian government is under pressure internally to
speak louder and more forcefully for the rights of the Armenians in
Javakhk.


The Armenians of Georgia

At the time of the last official Soviet census of 1989, the Armenians
of Georgia constituted some 8 percent of the total Georgian
population, or nearly 438,000. There has been a serious decline in the
Armenian population in Georgia in more recent years, however, as the
Georgian national census of 2002 has revealed. Based on the census
data, there are about 250,000 Armenians currently living in Georgia,
representing under 6 percent of the total population. This excludes
the 70,000 Armenians living in Abkhazia, however (see below). And
although there are some uncertainties over the accuracy of the 2002
Georgian census and despite the fact that the total numbers fail to
count the annual exodus of local Armenians from Georgia to Armenia or
Russia for seasonal work, the downward trend in Georgia's Armenian
population has been fairly well established.

For much of the 20th century, the core of the Armenian community of
Georgia was centered in the capital Tbilisi. But from the 1980s
through today, there has been a constant outflow and decline of the
Tbilisi Armenian community, leaving the majority Armenian population
in the southern Georgian district of Javakhk as the remaining bastion
of Armenian identity and presence in Georgia.

There is also a significant Armenian community in Abkhazia. Although
not accounted for in the Georgian national census of 2002 (which also
omitted South Ossetia), there are presently about 70,000 Armenians
living in Abkhazia, second only to the 90,000 native Abkhazians.  The
Armenian population of Abkhazia is thought to have declined by some
10,000 over the past dozen years but still retain significant villages
and towns in six of the seven districts of Abkhazia, excluding the
Gali district.


The Armenians of Javakhk

The historically Armenian region of Javakhk primarily consists of the
districts of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda, with the Armenian population
constituting 95 percent of the population. In 1994, in an effort to
dilute this Armenian majority, Javakhk was incorporated by the central
Georgian government into a much larger administrative unit, the
Samtskhe-Javakheti region, with an area of nearly 6413 square
kilometers, or about 9.3 percent of Georgia proper, and with a total
population of almost 235,000 (as of 2000).

This Samtskhe-Javakheti region comprises six districts (Adigeni,
Aspindza, Akhalkalaki, Akhaltsikhe, Borjomi, and Ninotsminda), with
Akhaltsikhe as the regional center, and seven major towns, 66 smaller
administrative units and over 250 villages. Within this greater
region, with historical Armenian Javakhk as its core, the Armenian
population's majority has been steadily reduced to about 61-62 percent
of the population. The Samtskhe-Javakheti region (hereafter Javakhk)
lies about twenty kilometers east-southeast of Ajaria, shares a
roughly 80-90 kilometer border with Turkey to its west and southwest,
and has approximately 45-50 kilometers of common border with Armenia,
which lies to its south, and is just west of the ethnic
Azerbaijani-populated region of Marneuli.


Economic Neglect and Underdevelopment in Javakhk

Relations between Javakhk and the central Georgian government have
been strained for several decades, mainly stemming from a conscious
policy of economic neglect by the Georgian authorities. For decades,
Javakhk was the most underdeveloped region of the country and since
independence, a series of irresponsible and shortsighted economic
policies, mismanagement and neglect have contributed to a serious
socioeconomic crisis in the region. This neglect is most evident in
the pronounced state of disrepair of the regional infrastructure, but
can also be seen in the poor state of the labor market as the region
has suffered over a decade of net job loss and labor migration.

The most pressing problems in Javakhk are economic. Although the
challenges and problems facing Georgia during its difficult transition
period of market reforms is shared by all regions of Georgia, they are
not shared equally. As Javakhk was notably the most underdeveloped
region in the country for many years, the mounting social costs of
Georgia's transitional economics are disproportionally higher for
Javakhk. It has one of the highest unemployment rates of the country,
the lowest level of state investment, and its infrastructure is the
oldest and most damaged in Georgia.

Local industry is virtually nonexistent in Javakhk, aside from the
service industry affiliated with the local Russian base. For Javakhk
residents not fortunate enough to have work associated with the local
Russian military base, conditions force much of the male population to
seasonally migrate to Russia in search of work, only returning to
their families in winter. The most vulnerable of the population, the
elderly, are forced to rely on such family support in the absence of
reliable pension benefits or even basic health care and social
services.

The communications infrastructure is in such a state of disrepair that
outside communications links with Armenia is easier to establish than
with Tbilisi. Road and highways continue to be in severe need of
investment and reconstruction. The normal two-hour trip from
Ninotsminda to Tbilisi, for example, takes six to seven hours due to
the poor conditions of the main road. These overwhelming needs,
therefore, tend to exacerbate the overall economic decline in the rest
of the country and the relative poverty of Javakhk, consistently below
the national level, only heightens Javakhk's vulnerability and
insecurity.

Roads and highways continue to be in severe need of investment and
reconstruction, as the only improvement in transport in the past ten
years has been on the Armenian side of the border. In fact, almost all
of Javakhk's roads and external trade routes are southward toward
Armenia, further strengthening the ties between Javakhk and Armenia.
This isolation from the rest of Georgia is another key element of the
region's economic difficulties with the Georgian government.  These
overwhelming needs, therefore, only tend to exacerbate the effects of
the overall economic decline in the rest of the country and the
deepening poverty of Javakhk, consistently below the national level,
only heightens Javakhk's vulnerability and isolation.


Armenia's Role in Javakhk

The economic constraints on Armenian policy toward Georgia have
greatly influenced Armenian policy on Javakhk, generally limiting it
to a secondary role. When circumstances have provided an opportunity,
however, Armenia has been able to offset these constraints, as seen by
the export of Armenian electricity to Georgia. The Armenian government
has also played an important role in assisting the Armenian population
of Javakhk, with particularly notable examples in the field of
education. For example, the Armenian government allocates approximately
100 million dram (about $180,000) annually for textbooks and supplies
to Javakhk schools.

Another important component of this Armenian aid program is the award
of specialized scholarships for Javakhk students in Armenian state
universities. Administered by the Armenian ministry of education, this
scholarship program waives all admissions requirements and testing,
including the financial enrollment fees, for university students from
Javakhk, in return for the pledge to return to Javakhk upon
graduation.  There are currently 600 Javakhk students enrolled in
Armenian state universities participating in the Javakhk scholarship
program.

The Armenian ministry of education also sets aside half of the seventy
university slots held for students from the Diaspora for students
specifically from Javakhk. Additionally, the education ministry has
also established a new teacher-training program for Javakhk teachers
in an attempt to improve the overall quality of education in Javakhk.

Additional support has come in recent years form the Armenian diaspora
and from their organizations, such as the Armenian Relief Society
(ARS) that fulfills a special role in providing social services and
some public health programs. Much of this aid targets the most
vulnerable of the population. These is especially important, as nearly
all medical facilities in Javakhk lack electricity and heating and
have been forced to require that patients bring their own medicine and
supply their own heating fuel for their hospitalization.

National identity in Javakhk today is strongly Armenian, and plainly
evident in most aspects of everyday life. Although three languages,
Armenian, Georgian and Russian, are seen in the street signs
throughout the region, the Georgian presence virtually ends there.
Armenian television, not Georgian, is watched in Javakhk due to both
easier reception and popular preference. The Russian ruble, the
Armenian dram, and to a lesser extent, the American dollar, are the
only forms of currency to be found in Javakhk.

Faced with a transaction involving the Georgian lari, most Javakhk
businessmen are not even sure of the official exchange rate.  All
schools in Javakhk today are dominated by Armenian-language instruction,
with the only exception being a few Russian classes.  The relative
isolation of Javakhk combined with the unofficial cultural autonomy of
the region, has reinforced this strong Armenian identity despite being
under Georgian rule.


Autonomy for Javakhk is Essential

The trend of devolution of power from the central state to the
increasingly assertive autonomous regions and republics underway in
Georgia is determining the future of Georgian statehood. It has become
apparent that Georgia is on a course toward reconstituting its
statehood and transforming itself into a confederation. For Javakhk,
the most attractive path toward security and greater potential for
economic development is autonomy within a new Georgia. And as the new
Georgian leadership tackles the difficult question of its empowered or
separatist regions, an autonomous Javakhk may offer the one realistic
model for a new Georgia, offering an important incentive for the
regions to return to the Georgian state that has been sorely missing
to date.

There is also a set of potential economic benefits to be realized
through an autonomous Javakhk. The most realistic of these benefits
include the possible share of proceeds from the lease agreement for
the Russian military base in Javakhk currently being negotiated
between Tbilisi and Moscow. A second benefit lies in the possibility
of sharing in the profit from the utilization of Javakhk territory for
a possible oil pipeline or for the proposed Tbilisi-Kars railway.
There are some precedents for an autonomous region negotiating a share
of transit fees in this way, as the Ajarians are paid for the use of
their Black Sea port Poti or as the Chechen government has received
tariff payments for the pipeline from Baku through Chechnya to the
Russian port facilities on the Black Sea. Even more encouraging would
be the possibility of utilizing such revenue in a special "Javakhk
Development Fund," to be administered by the regional government of an
autonomous Javakhk, and designed to promote self-sufficiency and
greater transparency in the region.

By following this course of Georgia's devolution toward confederation,
an autonomous Javakhk, at this time, represents the most prudent and
most promising avenue for securing a stable Georgia. Such a Javakhk
model may also encourage and entice the Ajarians, and even induce the
Abkhazians and South Ossetians to consider a new Georgian
confederation.


The Georgian Transition and Regional Change

With the Georgian transition process confirmed by the election of
Saakashvili, questions over the broader future of the South Caucasus
region are inevitable. The high level of voter participation in the
election (almost 83%) and the generally impressive conduct of the vote
reflect a high level of civil society mobilization. The questions now
center on whether this same society can remain mobilized through the
process of the reconstruction of the state, and whether Saakashvili
will be willing, or able to rely upon civil society for needed state
renovation, or will he be forced to negotiate with the formidable
informal/formal power structures.

The challenge has an internal and an international dimension: to what
extent Saakashvili will be ready to rebuild the state with popular
participation, inevitably means creating institutions to allow that
participation express the different interests within the Georgian
society, including autonomy for non-Georgian nationalities. In other
words, we need to see what is his vision of a democratic Georgia.

In terms of an international dimension and in spite of their silent
competition, Russia and the United States finally did cooperate to
smooth the transition by helping Saakashvili and his allies in
negotiating the resignation of Shevardnadze. One should hope that this
cooperation continues, yet not with the illusion that it would forsake
the conditioning of their respective interests at any moment. The fact
is that the unresolved question of the nationalities in Georgia is a
fertile ground to be exploited to destabilize the country, unless
these nationalities are able to be granted a revised role as part of a
new Georgian state, with a liberal democratic regime bringing together
citizens with different ethnic/national identities yet with equal
rights and obligations.


The Need for Regional Reintegration

A Georgia where nationalities enjoy autonomy and are free of fears
from discrimination, or worse, could well open the way to the urgent
rapprochement between the three states of the Southern Caucasus and
may even offer a model of regional (re)integration, buttressed with a
vision for cooperation among these three struggling states. To date,
there has been a scarcity of statesmanship, with an over-reliance on
bilateral relations and no leader bold enough to take the initiative
in exploring the politics of integration, not even through small
experimental steps.

Without such an innovative vision for the Georgian state and the
region, Saakashvili may well fall into the trap of the syndrome of the
strongman, which so far has been the rule in the Caucasus. In 1998,
Armenia seemed ready for the first step toward replacing the rule of
the strongman, as it would not be accurate to qualify Kocharian as a
strongman, although there is now little doubt that political reform in
Armenia stopped short because of the prevalence of several strongmen.
In Azerbaijan, with the confirmation of the Aliyev dynasty, strongman
rule seems firmly entrenched and is reinforced by the role of oil in
fueling cronyism and clan-based rule.

The same would have been true for Georgia had the Baku-Ceyhan oil
pipeline progressed more rapidly than the popular discontent that
ended the Shevardnadze era. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline is well underway,
and its implications for economic and political reform are only months
away from being revealed. Without having yet to find a secure place
within the Georgian state, the non-Georgian nationalities have long
been vulnerable to the policies of the Shevardnadze period: his
foreign moves; his confrontation with Russia; his impatience to see
NATO expand into the region; and his adherence to the Baku-Ceyhan
project with the special paternalistic role granted to Turkish
interests, both political and military.

For the Armenians of Javakhk, these factors exacerbated an inherent
insecurity and fear, and only compounded a daunting set of threats,
both real and exaggerated, to their very existence. The Abkhazians and
the Ossetians were notably more secure given their closer relationship
with Russia (and their acquisition of Russian citizenship). Although
it would be unfair to expect the new Georgian leadership to ignore the
economic importance and necessity of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, one
hopes that the realization of the geopolitical and economic value that
the project infers on Georgia does not impede the rebuilding and
recasting of the Georgian state. If this process of state restructuring
along the lines of the already marked trend of power devolving to the
region can proceed under the Saakashvili government, then the
non-Georgian nationalities, and especially the Armenians of Javakhk,
will be offered strategic incentives to ensure their support for, and
through an autonomous place within, a new stable and secure Georgian
state.

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Khatchik DerGhoukassian is a Ph.D. Candidate in International
Relations at the University of Miami. He is the former editor
of the newspaper ARMENIA in Buenos Aires and writes as a political
analyst in the Armenian and Argentine press.

Richard Giragosian is a Washington-based analyst specializing in
international affairs and military security, with a focus on the
Caucasus, Central Asia, and Russia.

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