Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Armenians were the largest minority in Georgia prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union; since that time they have declined in both absolute and proportional terms to become Georgia’s second largest minority. According to the 2014 national census, there were 168,100 Armenians who made up 4.5 per cent of the total population. There is a substantial Armenian community in Tbilisi, and rural Armenian communities are compactly settled in the southern region of Javakheti bordering on Armenia. There is also a substantial Armenian community in Abkhazia.
Despite sharing a common Christian identity, relations between Georgians and Armenians have historically been tense, largely due to Armenian economic and political domination of Tbilisi and other eastern cities in the nineteenth century. Some Armenians expressed desires for emigration – continuing a trend established already in the Soviet period – due to political tensions in Georgia in the 1990s. In 1990–1991 tensions surfaced regarding land rights as some Georgian nationalist societies were accused of buying up land in areas of Armenian settlement with a view to encouraging more Georgian settlement and changing the local population balance.
Prospects for Armenian–Georgian conflict have been limited, however, due to preoccupation among Armenians with the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh. The Armenian government has therefore not encouraged any moves towards separatism in Javakheti, although some Armenian political groups in southern Georgia (supported by some political parties in Armenia) have mobilized for territorial autonomy and even secession.
In 2004 President Mikheil Saakashvili became the first Georgian president to visit Akhalkalaki and pledge greater efforts to meet this region’s needs. Nonetheless, efforts to reorganize the region’s (ethnically Armenian-staffed) police force have also been a source of conflict, with continued outbreaks of ethnic violence. In 2005 and 2006 mass demonstrations and political meetings were organized by Samtskhe-Javakheti activists, whose demands included autonomy within Georgia for Samtskhe-Javakheti and Tsalka Armenians and an end to settlement of ethnic Georgians from other parts of the country in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
Armenians remained sorely underrepresented in central government. In the parliament that sat until 2008, Armenians had five representatives out of 235 seats, or 2.1 per cent of the seats for a population constituting 5.7 per cent of the population. The parliament elected in 2008 only had 150 seats, and Armenians won three of these, amounting to only two per cent representation in the body. This pattern has continued: in the 2016 parliamentary elections, Armenian candidates won three seats again.
Legislation passed by the Georgian parliament in July 2007 on the repatriation of Meskhetian Turks raised concerns for the Armenian population because those settling on former Meskhetian lands following that group’s 1944 deportation were predominantly Armenian. The new law established a process for the acceptance of Meskhetian resettlement applications beginning in January 2008.
The principal concerns of Armenians in Georgia are the economic revival and integration of the Javakheti region, one of the country’s poorest. Districts where Armenians are concentrated – Akhaltsikhe and especially Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda – are characterized by extreme poverty and decline in rural production. The region remains very poorly connected to the rest of Georgia, and the Georgian government has taken very few steps to remedy this situation. This situation is exacerbated by the presence of a Russian military base in Akhalkalaki, which is the local population’s main source of employment and subsistence. It is also regarded by the local population as a guarantee against a perceived threat from Turkey.
In recent years Georgia has passed new migration legislation that has often been seen as discriminatory. These policies have created serious problems for foreigners who are permanent residents of Georgia and for former citizens of Georgia whose citizenship was suspended because they were granted citizenship of another country. Among those affected are ethnic Armenians living in Georgia’s southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region, since many travel to Russia every year to work as manual labourers. Before the passing of the new legislation, Armenian citizens were able to live in Georgia without any additional documents, as long as they crossed a state border once every year.
Updated September 2018