Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A Pro-Armenia march in Akhalkalaki, Georgia. (Photo: Kristine Marabyan)
A memorial in Akhalkalaki for young Armenian men killed in the Nagorny-Karabakh conflict. (Photo: Kristine Marabyan)
Zoya Tataryan spends most of her day in front of the Armenian church in Akhalkalaki, a town in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia, collecting money to send to Nagorny Karabakh.
She is one of many young people in this majority ethnic Armenian area who want to support Armenia following the fresh outbreak of fighting in Karabakh.
“When the war started, my friends who live in Armenia signed up as volunteers and are in the war now,” Tataryan said. “I was ready to go there too. I told my mother about it. Mum said, I know you can do this. But it so happens that I cannot go to Armenia right now. Therefore, I decided to help in this way. First, we decided to collect medicines, then more young people joined us in the effort.”
All day long, locals bring money, clothes, mattresses and other supplies to the collection point outside the church. These are all logged and sent to a warehouse from where they are collected and sent on to Karabakh via Armenia. In just a few days, Armenians in Javakheti raised 270,000 US dollars for Armenia, with the campaign ongoing.
According to the latest census in 2014, Armenians make up 4.5 per cent of the population of Georgia, mostly concentrated in Samtskhe-Javakheti just over the border from Armenia. Georgia also has a significant ethnic Azeri population of 6.3 per cent.
Armenians living in Javakheti have maintained close links with their historical homeland. Before the borders were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, locals often traveled to Armenia to visit relatives, access medical treatment or attend university.
Now many watch Armenian news channels constantly to find out what is happening on the ground and out of concern for younger relatives of military age who may be called up to serve.
Akhalkalaki resident G, who like most of those interviewed asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the situation, said he felt helpless stranded in Georgia while all of his children live in Armenia.
“It was very bad when the borders with Armenia were closed due to the pandemic, now it is even worse because there is a war going on,” he said. “My children live there, and we spent practically all our free time in Armenia, and now we can do nothing to help them. We worry and empathize from afar. And we are worried about every family member who may be called to war.”
A local Armenian administration has controlled Karabakh, an enclave of about 150,000 people inside Azerbaijan, since the 1994 ceasefire that ended an early 1990s war. That agreement has been frequently violated, with a previous large-scale conflict erupting in 2016 and the most recent fighting starting on September 27.
Armenians in Georgia have staged numerous protests and shows of support. A day after the conflict began, local Armenian men gathered in the stadium of Ninotsminda, a city in Samtskhe-Javakheti, to sign up as volunteers to fight in Karabakh alongside the Armenian army. Later that same day, tensions erupted with Georgian border guards when a group of ethnic Armenian men tried to cross the state border.
There have been fears that this outpouring of support for Armenian might lead to clashes with ethnic Azeris in Georgia. They are largely concentrated in and around Marneuli, in the south east of the country.
“At the beginning, when the conflict began, the Azerbaijanis from Marneuli came to us to trade,” said M, an Akhalkalaki resident. “But now there is not a single Azerbaijani seller in the market. From here also, at first, they did not go to Lilo to trade either, and they were afraid and honestly expected a conflict with Azerbaijanis trading there. We only talk during trading with local Turks and Azerbaijanis. I heard that they are wary of raising this issue, but still there is anxiety. There is tension.”
Thus far, despite feelings running high in both communities, there have been no official reports of violence.
Political analyst Gela Vasadze said that the danger of conflict was exacerbated by the fact that both communities consumed media from Armenian and Azerbaijan, which fuelled both separatism and inter-ethnic antagonism.
The government had failed to anticipate this, he continued.
“Our authorities and politicians were surprised to find that we have citizens living in the information field of Azerbaijan and Armenia,” Vasadze said. “And this is not only TV channels but social media networks. Which would be fine but during a war, a simple algorithm of social networks predetermines a tough confrontation between various groups.”
He added, “Which of the representatives of the central authorities went to the regions to calm the people down? Nobody. The situation was left to the mercy of local authorities and law enforcement agencies.”
Some Armenians feel that they are being stigmatised for wanting to help their historic homeland, accused of separatism or disloyalty.
“We feel support from local Georgians,” said another Akhalkalaki resident, A. “Many local Georgians have made donations to the fund for Armenia. But there is no support in social networks. They condemn that we are helping Armenia, many do not understand that Armenia has only us, the diaspora, there is no one else to help her. There are a lot of provocations, there are Georgians who are led to these provocations.”
Tensions have indeed erupted between local Armenians and officials who they have accused of trying to disrupt relief deliveries, or also allowing Azerbaijani ally Turkey to use Georgian territory to transport military aid.
On September 28, Armenian residents of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda filled several large lorries with supplies, including food and tires, before accompanying them to the Bavra border checkpoint.
Georgian customs officers did not allow the vehicles to pass, which led to angry confrontations with the locals. Following a long dispute, the lorries were finally allowed to cross in the early hours of the following day, but only with food supplies and not tires, which customs officials said required a special permit.
A week later, several thousand local Armenians briefly blocked and closed the Georgia-Turkey highway, claiming that Ankara was transporting weapons to Azerbaijan via this road.
“We do not want Georgia to impede humanitarian aid to Armenia,” A continued, “and we do not want Azerbaijan to use Georgia as a transit country for military cargo.”
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