Policy paper of IPF  fellow Nana Sumbadze on the project: “Preparation of the program for opening the Center for Social Partnership”



1.Problem background

Georgia is the country where next to each other live people of different ethnicity and confession. The future of the country and the well-being of its population greatly depends on the co-existence of

population, on their sharing the main values and responsibilities. Azeries and Armenians , comprise the biggest minorities of the country. Moslem Meskhetians constitute  another big group, although not yet residing in Georgia, cultural integration of whom is of a paramount importance for the state. Religion, language and culture of Azeri  and Moslem Meskhetians are quite close to each other and hence the problems of integration of these two groups can be discussed together.


The main goal of the project is the preparation of a program and a working plan for the opening of the “Center for Social Partnership”. The need for establishing of such a center became especially evident as a result of the research carried out in the framework of the Open Society Institute International Policy Fellowship. The study of Moslem Meskhetians – Turcophone group deported in 1944 from South Georgia to Central Asia and now spread all over Central Asia, North Caucasus, central Russia and Ukraine, but in the first place concentrated in Azerbaijan, revealed that one of the main obstacles for repatriation, which is much sought by Meskhetians and is strongly advocated by the Council of Europe and other International organizations, is a negative attitude of the majority of Georgia’s population towards their return. Such an attitude is to a considerable degree determined by the low level of integration of Moslem Meskhetians to local communities in Georgia, as previously before the deportation, as well currently in the countries of their present residence.


Repatriation of Moslem Meskhetians is the obligation signed as a precondition of membership of Georgia in the Council of Europe, and is at the same time undoubtedly the question of the restoration of historical justice and a moral imperative for the Georgian state. However, without adequate planning and close monitoring of the process, it can turn into still another tragedy both for Moslem Meskhetians themselves as well as for the Georgian state. Expected influx of Moslem Meskhetians in coming twelve years should be well prepared on legislative and organizational levels. Contact of local population with returnees can easily become a source of conflict, especially if the other side is perceived as a rival for available scarce resources. Therefore there is a pressing need of organizing the contacts between the local population and returnees in a way conducive for peaceful cooperation.


In the survey, representatives of the population of Georgia, as well as Moslem Meskhetians living in Georgia and Azerbaijan, pointed to the big cultural distance separating deported people from the local population in Georgia. This distance is first of all determined by poor command of Georgian, different religious practices, little knowledge of dominant traditions, customs and history of Georgia. Not much is known by the local population either about the culture and the history of Moslem Meskhetians.  Attitudes of both groups feed on myths and memories of enmity rather than on facts of past peaceful co-existence.


The second group, whose integration issues should be targeted by the Center for Social Partnership is the community of ethnic Armenians, residing  in South Georgia,  compactly in Javakheti (districts of Akhalkalaki  and Ninotsminda), in   villages of Akhaltsikhe district, and are mixed with Georgian population in capital Tbilisi and town of Akhaltsikhe.



The research carried out on Moslem Meskhetians and reflected  in policy paper of 2001 IPF Fellowship allowed to single out the main issues that should be addresses by the center. Below is the attempt to analyse the problems of integration which are faced by the Armenian population residing in the South of Georgia, in the region of Samtskhe-Javakheti.


2.Description  of the situation in Samtskhe-Javakheti region

2.1.General description

Samtskhe-Javakheti region is one of the 11 regions of Georgia.  Akhaltsikhe, the regional centre is on 262 kms distance from the capital, Tbilisi. Region borders  Turkey and  Armenia.  Samtskhe-Javakheti province occupies about 9.3% of Georgia's entire territory and accounts for about 4.4% of its population, is among the most ethnically non-homogeneous regions of Georgia. A number of its current problems stem from this diversity. Integrating the two major ethnic groups – Armenians and Georgians, represents a major political challenge for the region. The ethnic composition is characterized by clear-cut ethnic boundaries between different settlement types, and the absence of major mixed ethnic settlements. The only truly mixed  in Samtskhe-Javakheti province is town of Akhaltsikhe.

Javakheti, comprising of two districts of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda is dominated by ethnic Armenians, who make up to 95% of Javakheti (while they make approximately 40% of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti region), others being mostly Georgians, who are a small minority there. Armenians mostly belong to Armenian Apostolic (Gregorian) Church, with some Catholics, but unlike ethnicity religion plays relatively little role in forming identity.

Part of Georgians here are resettled from Ajara in 1989, after catastrophic landslides there, and these form a small relatively young rural community, predominantly Moslem. Other Georgians, mainly Christian Orthodox and Catholic, play little role in the society. Due to difficult economic conditions, many young males go to Russia in search of work, in many cases seasonally, returning home for the winter. This causes significant demographic disbalances, distorting the age and gender structure of the local population, aggravated further by increasing emigration to Armenia and Russia, especially of more educated and skilled young men. This partly reduces land shortages, on one hand, and helps with cash inflow through transfers, but negative consequences seem to be more conspicuous and longlasting.

Significant part of the urban population in Akhalkalaki is bilingual, speaking Russian in the first place and then colloquial Armenian (although often unable to read and write in that language), while in the countryside Russian is much less known. However, the overwhelming majority of Armenians in Akhalkalaki district, like as in neighbouring Ninotsminda, do not speak Georgian, which is a state language, at all, although it is supposedly taught in schools, and show little interest in learning it. All ethnic Georgians here, in their turn, speak fairly good Armenian.

In Akhaltsikhe district with the population of about 55,000, Georgians are playing much more important role. Relative economic prosperity of the town, its role as the administrative centre within the region and its geographic location along major communications routes, mitigate socio-economic problems and create conditions for quite effective cohabitation. More Armenians in Akhaltsikhe district speak Georgian than in Javakheti and demonstrate fairly good command of it, but still even there the language skills deficiency is still a very serious problem, leading to informational and cultural isolation. Intermarriages are quite common.

In Akhaltsikhe there is also a very limited number of Moslem Meskhetians (up to 100), who have repatriated in recent years, but although the issue of repatriation is widely discussed, actual repatriation is insignificant. Seasonal migration and emigration is less noticeable in Akhaltsikhe district, partly due to better economic conditions and less isolation, but also because of weak tradition of seasonal migration here.


2.2.Problems of the region


Now one of the least developed in the country, Samtskhe-Javakheti was historically one of the most developed regions of Georgia, and great number of cultural monuments, churches, citadels and karvasla-s (or karavan-sarays - ancient inns situated along the great silk road passing the Mtkvari valley) serve as a vocal evidence of the past glory. It differs from other parts of Georgia due to the experience of centuries of isolation and multi-ethnic and multi-confessional composition. The southern part of Samtskhe-Javakheti for some centuries belonged to Turkey, became Islamised, and partly inhabited by nomadic Turkic tribes. In the first half of the 19th c. the region was conquered by the Russian Empire, significant part of the Moslem population were pushed out to Turkey, replaced by Armenians mostly from Eastern Anatolia in Turkey. The remaining part of Moslem population (c. 100,000) were deported in 1944 by Stalin to Central Asia, never allowed to return throughout the Soviet period. The majority of them were from Akhaltsikhe, Aspindza, Adigeni districts, and about 10% from Akhalkalaki. Soviet rule left other sad trace – Southern part of Georgia along the border with Turkey was defined as so called “border zone” with special heightened security regime, which precluded any person from outside the zone to enter it without special permit. At the same time, the economic conditions were maintained artificially slightly better than in other parts of the country. This special “border” regime caused dramatic isolation, not yet overcome, and on one hand brought economic decline, but on the other kept down criminality and chaos. Due to such experience the region is more self-sufficient and is less integrated into economic, political and cultural life of other parts of the country.

With Georgia’s independence, in addition to economic decline, dramatic emergence in interethnic tension was caused by president Gamsakhurdia’s nationalist rhetoric, but never led to large-scale violence. Another important event was the Karabakh conflict. Many young Armenians from Akhalkalaki, led by patriotic feelings, have participated in the conflict, and this experience continues to play significant role in forming values and identities, and especially in strengthening anti-Moslem attitudes. The last event, causing much dissatisfaction among Akhalkalaki Armenians, was dividing of Georgia into 11 administrative regions, so that Akhalkalaki district now belongs to Samtskhe-Javakheti region with capital in Akhaltsikhe. Dissatisfaction is caused by mainly two points – the necessity to go to Akhaltsikhe in order to solve some administrative issues, and the fact that unlike Javakheti, i.e. Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda districts, where Armenians form absolute majority of the population and could aspire for autonomy, their average share in Samtskhe-Javakheti is much more modest, around 40%. As a result, there is ongoing demand for separating the two districts of Javakheti from Samtskhe - i.e. Akhaltsihe plus the districts of Adigeni, Aspindza and Borjomi. Inhabitants of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda districts reveal quite strong adherence to traditional, patriarchal values and ways of life, strengthened by decades of isolation. This is especially noticeable among the Armenian population of Javakheti, particularly in such issues as gender roles. Women play here secondary role in the society, and hardly ever are allowed to express their opinion publicly. Compared to other regions of Georgia, there are relatively few women involved in civil sector. Now, as more and more young males go in search of work abroad, either seasonally or on permanent basis, women started to play increasingly important social roles, but also are obliged to undertake the double burden of raising the children and taking care of subsistence farming.

Armenian-speaking districts of Javakheti experience extreme informational, political, communicational and economic isolation from the rest of Georgia. Lack of integration with the rest of Georgia not only creates public alienation, weakening of the feeling of citizenship and belonging, as well as security and confidence in future, but also has highly adverse impact on civil and economic development of the area. Poor knowledge of the Georgian language among ethnic Armenians, and little willingness to integrate into the Georgian society due to practical difficulties as well as elements of ethnic nationalism, contribute further to isolation, underdevelopment and the risks of instability.


Attitude towards Turkey and Islam

Both Turkey and Islam are looked at with suspicion by the inhabitants of the whole region, Georgian and Armenian communities alike. The Georgian inhabitants of Akhaltsikhe district to certain extent preserve historic memories of being oppressed  under Turkish Ottoman rule and remember atrocities related with the Moslem population of the region, until their deportation in 1944. Georgians in general are suspicious of Turkey’s intentions, keeping in mind centuries of invasion. Such suspicione have been further aggravated during Soviet times, when the special regime of the border zone had clear function of protecting against hostile NATO member state.

Armenian population of Samtskhe-Javakheti, in its turn, is traditionally much more hostile than ethnic Georgians toward Turkey, and toward any Moslem groups like Moslem Meskhetians and Azeris who are identified as closely related to Turks. The bitter memories of many cases of interethnic violence in Turkey involving Armenians, especially the bloody events of 1915, are extremely strong. Involvement of many Armenians from Samtskhe-Javakheti in military action in Karabakh further revived such hostile attitudes. It is the more so, that majority of Armenians in the region got resettled from Turkey in 19th century, and still don’t feel themselves fully comfortable on the territory, as revealed by repeated attempts to erase any remains of Georgian inscriptions on old churches and other monuments and attempts to prove their previous presence here. Due to the closeness of Turkish border this sense of insecurity is even more strengthened, also supported by the personnel of the Russian military base and Russian media.

Turkey is today the Georgia’s largest trading partner, responsible for 22% of exports and 16% of imports (Russia is the second with 21% of exports and 13% of imports). Javakheti has 80-90 km long border with Turkey and can benefit from increasing trade. However, Armenians of Javakheti look at the increasing cooperation of Georgia with Turkey, and also with Azerbaijan, with great concern (e.g. Turkish military aid provided to Georgia, especially 1.27 million dollars for reconstruction of military airfield in Marneuli district, predominantly populated by ethnic Azeris). Another similar concern is the construction of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which is supposed to increase further Turkish influence and serve as an excuse of its presence in Georgia..

The  planned  287 km long railway connection of Tbilisi with Turkish town of Karsi via Akhalkalaki is another great concern for Javakheti population. Kars-Tbilisi railway line project, which is expected to contribute to the improvement of economic and trade relations between Turkey and Central Asia, was included into the 2003 year investment program of the Turkish government. Project and tender works are expected to start in the coming weeks, with approximately 423 trillion lira of mostly foreign investment expected. Following the completion of Kars-Tbilisi railway line, railway transportation of Europe to the Caspian – Central Asian region would be via Turkey.


Risk of ethnic conflict

One of the dividing lines between the government and Armenian community in Javakheti is the issue of the closure of Russian military base.  By Istanbul, 1999 agreement, 30 000 servicemen strong military base, stationed in Alkhalkalaki is to be closed. Javakheti Armenian population strongly disagree with such solution  as they see Russian base as defence from much feared Turkish invasion and the as the sole employer for the inhabitants of the district. In the situation of existing tensions situation becomes prone to being sensitive toward external manipulation on all levels. Various actors in the region often exploit popular fears associated with political and economic insecurity. The crisis is likely to occur if the government fails to develop and publicise in time a comprehensive package of economic and social measures aimed at mitigating negative consequences of the base closure. The demand of separating Javakheti from the Samtskhe-Javakheti region along ethno-demographic lines and creating a political autonomy is one of bargaining chips and leverages promoted if not induced from outside. There are other opportunities for manipulation with potential interethnic tensions not only from Yerevan, Ankara and Moscow, but also from illegal businesses and clans as well as extremist nationalist organisations interested in preserving uncertainty and disorder.


Repatriation of Moslem Meskhetians

The issue of  repatriation of Moslem population which in 1944 was deported from Samtskhe-Javakheti region to Central Asia and  now is spread over republics of Central Asia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine and Georgia as well as Turkey arises much concern among the population of the region. The aspirations of rank and file Meskhetians as well as numbers of those who actually want to change their present place of residence are unknown. While many claim that they want to return, such a claim may imply having such option rather than denote actual readiness to leave home and start a new life. On the other hand Georgia, as a condition of membership of Euro Council took an obligation to repatriate Moslem Meskhetians in a period of 12 years, of which three already has passed.

Major fears and concerns that reside at the heart of the popular opposition to the repatriation are the following:

·        Fear of Turkicization of the region and potential secessionist trends. People fear that after the repatriation, the demographic balance changes dramatically and the whole province will become predominantly Turkish and Moslem. In this scenario, the Moslem Meskhetian  are expected to outnumber everybody else in the province of Samtskhe-Javakheti, demand autonomy for it and eventually claim union with Turkey.

·        Fear of ethnic tensions. In the meetings and discussions residents of Samtskhe-Javakheti claim that in case of attempts  of repatriation undertaken by the state, they will took to arms and would not allow Moslem Meskhetians to enter the region. Stories of tension, bloodshed and atrocities between the Moslems on the one hand and Christian Georgian and Armenian population on the other hand during the 1918-21 period and afterwards are widely discussed. The record of conflict between Turks and Armenians, and general Armenian perception of historical victimization by Turkey, is an additional factor of these fears.

·        Property Those inhabitants of Meskheti, who had been forcibly brought from different parts of Georgia and settled in the houses of deportees in 1944 fear that repatriates will reclaim their land and property.

·        Competition for scarce resources. Population fears that with the influx their employment opportunities  will be farther reduced. The deficiency of land for agriculture will be aggreviated.

Despite all that, in Samtskhe-Javakheti as well as in other parts of Georgia there are examples of successful adaptation of those repatriates that had arrived earlier.



Future of the region depends primarily on the initiative of the population itself, but external interventions and policies can do a lot in promoting development, stability and democracy in Samtskhe-Javakheti. With the growing interest toward the development of the region both within the country and internationally, it is important to reflect on elaborating a clear-cut list of strategic priorities for intervention, understand the feasibility of planned initiatives and compare to other policy options. Also, as much of support is coming from international sources, these should be translated into universally accepted and comprehensible objectives and goals.

·        Overcoming isolation  - achieving social, communicational, economic and political integration of all parts of the region into the Georgian society and state

·        Creating conditions for every ethno-cultural group living in the region to preserve its identity, language and culture, as well as to preserve links with related groups

·        Providing conditions for implementation of justice both toward the deported and repressed groups of the population (Moslem Meskhetians) and the current residents of the region

The activities of the Centre for Social Partnership are aimed to tackle the outlined problems.


3.The center for Social Partnership

In order to prevent ethnic conflict and promote a happy co-existence of different Ethnic groups in Georgia and to assist regional development, there is an urgent  need in overcoming the isolation, in sharing the concerns and hopes, inspirations and  life of the rest of population of Georgia. Just living next to Georgian community  without appropriate policy and the goal directed actions of the government did not result in integration of ethnic minorities. Clash of interests of   states at the border zone creates a serious threat of igniting interethnic conflict. The sole instrument to prevent such possible development is bringing  close to each other Georgian, Armenian and Moslem Meskhetian communities, fostering feeling of citizenship and building cooperation. Next to the existence of state policy the instruments for the realization of such a policy is needed. The Centre for Social Partnership is intended to be  one of such  instruments.

The center is conceived as the meeting place for different cultures. It is intended to be opened in Javakheti and in Tbilisi. The courses offered at the center, round tables, discussion, video, audio and printed material of informational character, will all serve the aim of increasing cross-cultural understanding:


·        Courses. The center will offer two main courses of cultural awareness and Georgian language. The courses in law, human rights, healthy life-style will also function.


·        Consultations. The center will offer legal assistance through consultations, publication of main laws and regulations and their interpretations in Armenian and Azeri languages.


·        Resources. Resource center will provide the information on Georgia, its history, geography, culture and laws as well as the information on culture, history and present day of Armenia and Turkey.


·        Meetings. The center will become a meeting place for representatives of different cultures. Round tables and discussions will be held for expressing the positions and gaining understanding in the views of representatives of Georgian, Moslem Meskhetian  and Armenian communities. The information about the history of the region, deportation of Moslem Meskhetians, their life in deportation and afterwards will be presented. Eventually the meetings of local population with Moslem Meskhetians will be organized.