Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia Accused of Bullying Ethnic Armenians

Some Yerevan politicians say arrest of Armenian activists on espionage charges is attempt to intimidate the minority.
Politicians in Armenia have been angered by the arrest in Georgia late last month of two ethnic Armenians charged with spying for Russia’s secret services.

The two Armenians – Grigor Minasian and Sargis Hakobjanian – are campaigners in the Armenian community in the southern region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, where Armenians form a majority of the population.

They were arrested on January 21, but little publicity has been given to the case.

Georgian newspapers have barely mentioned the affair, and a high-ranking official at the interior minister said officials were deliberately not releasing a lot of material so as not to “make a lot of noise about this, as it is an isolated case of Russian spies trying to work in Samtskhe-Javakheti”.

Some Armenian politicians, however, have been furious and said the arrests were an attempt to intimidate their ethnic kin in Georgia.

Georgia’s state minister for re-integration Temur Lakobashvili said Russia had intensified espionage activities in the country since the August war over South Ossetia.

“We have information that the Russians tried to hide their activities within non-governmental organisations. We are talking about dozens of millions of dollars,” said Lakobashvili, refusing to elaborate further.

Georgia has previously accused Russia of espionage, and the two countries fell out spectacularly in 2006 when police arrested four Russian officers. Russia effectively blockaded Georgia as a result, even after Georgia released and deported the men.

The lawyer for the two arrested ethnic Armenians, Nino Andriashvili, said they were accused of cooperating with a Belarus-based organisation allegedly set up by Russia’s Federal Security Service, FSB, called the Association for Legal Assistance to the Population, ALAP.

Andriashvili said the two men had admitted being involved in espionage, but denied a secondary charge of planning to create a private army. She said the investigators had a video of the two men discussing the creation of such an army with the local head of ALAP, but that they had not thought he was being serious.

“Minasian and Hakobjanian came to see him in his office, and they were having a drink. And this person started to say things like ‘we are really cool, we will make a good army, we will train up some lads’. And they started to agree with him,” she said.

She said the un-named man from ALAP suggested funding three projects, including a sports hall for around 100,000 US dollars.

But some ethnic Armenians do not believe the government’s story of Russian-funded treachery, saying this is an attempt to intimidate the community whose region hosted a Russian military base until 2006.

“How many more political prisoners, uninvestigated cases and murders does this society need? God alone knows who wanted this. It is possible that more arrests could follow this,” said one man from Samtskhe-Javakheti who knew Minasian, but who asked not to be named.

“There won’t be an uprising or bloodshed, but there will definitely be protests about this.”

And the local Armenians could count on support from some public figures in neighbouring Armenia, if they did take to the streets.

Shirak Torosian, who represents the Republican Party in the Armenian parliament, said the Georgian government needed to be told this was unacceptable.

“Now pressure from public opinion is crucial, to makethe Georgian authorities think more carefully. Otherwise, this incident could have dangerous consequences for the region,” said Torosian.

“This arrow could turn into a boomerang.”

Both of the arrested men promoted the rights of the Armenian community. Minasian, 33, headed a youth organisation and Hakobjanian, 50, campaigned on cultural issues.

Minasian’s organisation also worked with the Union of Armenian Assistance, which has links to Dashnaktsutyun (the Armenian Revolutionary Federation), a controversial nationalist party and member of Armenia’s ruling coalition.

Kiro Manoian, the head of the Dashnaktsutyun office of political affairs, said the arrests were an attempt to cow Armenians.

“The story with the arrest came at a very convenient moment to secure the attention of society and shut the mouths of Armenians,” he said.

“Georgian society is already bored of hearing about problems with Russia. Of course Armenia and the population of [Samtskhe-Javakheti] became a convenient target to distract attention from the country’s internal problems.”

ALAP seems to be based in Minsk, and its website says the organisation is dedicating to promoting “peace, education and civil society development”, but has no information on the source of its funding.

Local NGOs said the organisation appeared in Samtskhe-Javakheti several months ago. In December last year, a representative gave questionnaires to representatives of NGOs in the region. They received between 300-800 dollars if they filled them in – a lot of money in the region.

Minasian and Hakobjanian’s completed questionnaires were presented as proof of their alleged espionage, although their lawyer said none of the information they provided was a state secret.

IWPR saw one of the questionnaires and it included 20 questions related to the region, some of which were potentially sensitive. One question concerned the resettlement of Meskhetian Turks – a people deported in Stalin’s time who have been agitating to come home ever since – while another addressed security around a pipeline being built.

Other NGOs in the region also filled in the forms, though they realised the questions were unusual.

“We all joked that this organisation reminded us of the FSB. And we were very surprised when we found out that they intended to spend so much money,” said the head of one NGO in Samtskhe-Javakheti, who asked to remain anonymous out of concerns that the criminal case might expand to take in other public figures.

“We were told that the possible projects were unlimited, and the money also. I have worked for many years in the non-governmental sector. When has there ever been money like that?”

The ALAP office in central Tbilisi closed a month ago. The telephones were disconnected, and they have not replied to emails.

Olesya Vartanian is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi. Tamuna Uchidze is a journalist with Southern Gates, an IWPR-supported Georgian-Armenian newspaper in Samtskhe-Javakheti, Georgia. Nelly Babaian is a journalist with the Aravot newspaper in Erevan.