Georgia May Face Breakaway by Armenians

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This month, Georgia and its former colonial ruler, Russia, signed an agreement for the withdrawal of a Russian military base from the Georgian town of Alkhankalaki. The predominantly Armenian inhabitants of the impoverished military town are furious. As a result, the locals — most of whom don't speak the language of government in Tbilisi — may press for autonomy.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Relations between Russia and the small former Soviet Republic of Georgia have been getting steadily worse. A revolution swept a pro-Western government to power in Georgia two years ago. Recently, Moscow agreed to withdraw a military base from a community in southern Georgia. The U.S. has stepped in with aid money to prevent ethnic passions from flaring in the area. NPR's Ivan Watson traveled to the mountains of southern Georgia and filed this report.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

When the snow melts in Alkhankalaki, it turns the road running through the town's main market into one long, muddy puddle. Russian soldiers in green uniforms wander through the market alongside locals who almost all speak Armenian. The street signs are written in Armenian, too, along with Russian and Georgian, and Armenian dance tunes blare from bootleg music shops.

(Soundbite of music)

WATSON: For a moment, it's hard to tell what country you're in. That's because most of the residents are ethnic Armenians who can't even speak the Republic's official language, Georgian. Some of them, like this schoolteacher named Ofelia Ambartonmien(ph), say they're suffering from an identity crisis.

Ms. OFELIA AMBARTONMIEN (Resident, Georgia): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Who are we, she asks. We were educated in Russian schools. We are also ethnic Armenians. But we live in Georgia. It's very difficult, she adds, to understand what our identity is. To complicate matters, the locals here often appear to have stronger ties to Russia than to the Georgian government in Tbilisi. That's partly because the Russian military base on the edge of town is the single largest employer in an otherwise impoverished region. And now it's due to be closed. Nearly everyone you talk to in Alkhankalaki opposes that decision.

(Soundbite of men speaking foreign language)

WATSON: There's no other work here aside from the Russian base, complain these young, unemployed Armenian men, who spend their days hanging out in a local gambling hall.

Mr. ARMEN POGASIEN(ph) (Resident, Georgia): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: The Russian soldiers are like peacekeepers. They protect us, says 29-year-old Armen Pogasien. We don't want a conflict with the Georgians, he adds. Some here complain that the Georgian government in Tbilisi discriminates against the Armenians here. Nonsense, says Alexander Rondeli, a Georgian political scientist.

Mr. ALEXANDER RONDELI (Georgian political scientist): Armenian minority is brainwashed quite seriously by, you know, Russians standing there, you know, staying there as military base.

WATSON: But high unemployment and the presence of a disaffected ethnic minority are dangerous ingredients in the Caucasus, which has already had its share of separatist ethnic conflicts. Artyush Ambartsumyan is an ethnic Armenian and a former adviser to the Georgian president. He says dark forces are at work, promoting a separatist movement among the Armenians here.

Mr. ARTYUSH AMBARTSUMYAN (Former advisor to president of Georgia): (Through Translator) We need to be very careful right now. The Russians will leave in 2008. Neighboring countries are trying to create problems between Armenians and Georgians, and we have to make sure that doesn't happen.

WATSON: Tbilisi is already struggling with two separatist regions which broke away from Georgia in the '90s and are, to this day, supported by Russia. The U.S. is keen to help the Georgian government avoid making the same mistake with its ethnic Armenian minority. Matt Bryza of the U.S. State Department says the U.S. is giving Tbilisi aid money and advice to help boost the local economy after the Russian military leaves.

Mr. MATTHEW J. BRYZA (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs): Well, yeah, we're watching it, we're concerned, but we're also actively involved in trying to improve the situation.

WATSON: U.S. aid money will help build a new highway through Alkhankalaki, but the ethnic tensions have not gone away. Last month, Georgian TV reported that the murder of an ethnic Armenian in another town triggered a riot here, as several hundred Armenians stormed a university and a courthouse. Artur Shamberg Sumyan, the former adviser to the Georgian president, is calling for calm.

Mr. SUMYAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: He says the world's oldest Christians are Georgians and Armenians. If a fight breaks out between these two ancient peoples, he adds, it will mean the death of Christianity in the Caucasus.

Ivan Watson, NPR News.

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