Georgian Resettlement Scheme Blamed for Tensions

In an ethnically mixed part of Georgia, tensions are high as locals blame new settlers for crime wave.

Georgian Resettlement Scheme Blamed for Tensions

In an ethnically mixed part of Georgia, tensions are high as locals blame new settlers for crime wave.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Ethnic issues are playing a part in growing communal frictions in a region west of the Georgian capital. But both the government and local residents say the tension is more about crime, poverty and bad policies than real animosity in this diverse part of the country.

Rising crime has worsened relations between original residents in the Tsalka district - mostly Armenians and Greeks - and newcomers from other parts of Georgia.

Feelings run so high that Tbilisi deployed a ten-man unit of crack police in the village of Avranlo after an inter-communal clash.

The police’s job is to keep the Armenians and Georgians in check, not to make peace between the communities.

"They haven’t been dispatched here as peacekeepers to reconcile the Armenians and Ajarians," said a local resident. "Instead, they are operating at night - combating criminals, and checking the documents of everyone they meet on the streets."

The trouble began when an elderly Greek couple, the Kaloyerovs, were victims of a violent mugging which left them both in hospital.

The couple’s relatives, who are Armenian, took matters into their own hands and attacked Ajarian newcomers in Avranlo, beating up about 15 of them and damaging a local school.

The clash was serious enough for Georgian interior minister Vano Merabishvili to come to the village himself.

Tsalka district has always been ethnically diverse, with most villages there inhabited by Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Greeks.

The demographics shifted radically in the Nineties: after Georgia became independent in 1991, the collapsing economy drove many people to leave the country. As in other parts of Georgia, many opted for Russia, but the minorities in this district also emigrated to Armenia and Greece.

By the mid-Nineties, the area received an influx of people resettled from landslip-prone mountainous areas of Ajaria, in southwest Georgia, and Svanetia, high in the Caucasus mountains, under a government programme to offer such vulnerable rural communities a more secure future.

The arrival of the settlers soon created frictions between old and new residents of Tsalka district. And because the newcomers belonged to the ethnic majority, the media started talking about inter-ethnic violence.

Svans are closely related to the Georgians, while Ajarians are ethnically Georgian, differing only in that they have a Muslim rather than Christian heritage.

Many Armenians here believe the resettlement policy is a deliberate government attempt at social engineering, to create a more Georgian population mix.

Not all Armenians agree with this analysis. Razmik Anesyan, from the village of Ozni, said, " The people who have described this as an ethnic problem are journalists who’ve spent one hour here and drawn some odd conclusions."

Leila Metreveli, Georgia’s deputy minister for refugees and resettlement, says the assertion that the government has embarked on some kind of ethnic project is nonsense. "Tsalka district was chosen [for resettlement] because there’s a lot of abandoned houses and uncultivated land there, not because of its ethnic composition," she told IWPR.

Guram Svanidze of the Georgian parliament’s human rights committee, sees ethnic differences as incidental to the real problem.

"I wouldn’t describe these conflicts as ethnic,” he told IWPR. “They are due to another reason – social disorder and economic problems. The local, established population consists of Greeks and Armenians, while the ethnic Georgian newcomers have not settled in."

Slavik Kuchukyan, who heads the Armenian community in Tsalka, says no one is against Georgians coming into the area. "On the contrary, it is actually better for us. We can learn the Georgian language from contact with them. If you don’t know Georgian, you won’t be accepted into public service.”

However, language differences have proved a barrier to good relations, since many young people in the area do not know Georgian, while their counterparts from Ajaria often cannot speak Russian – a common lingua franca – and certainly would not understand Armenian.

Many Armenians told IWPR they believed religious differences played a part, with the Muslim Ajarians at odds with local Armenian and Greek Christian practices.

Razmik Anesyan says that Ajarians in his village of Ozni “go to pray in a mosque in an Azerbaijani village several kilometres away, and they can’t bury the dead in Christian graveyards. It’s rumoured that there have been acts of vandalism [of cemeteries. It all increases the tension".

Attempts by the local authorities to build bridges between communities have often failed to overcome the hostility. A friendly football match between local lads and migrants in the village of Kizil-Kilisa descended into a massive fistfight.

Many Armenians and Greeks are conscious that they too were once newcomers – the two communities began arriving as refugees from Ottoman Turkey two centuries ago.

Hayk Meltonyan, a local member of the Georgian parliament, says the longstanding residents just want to see some order imposed to a chaotic migration process. "The only thing that we want is to stop the mass resettlement temporarily,” he said. “We need to take a look at the issues, and provide legal arrangements for the lives of those who have already moved to Tsalka."

Other local officials also believe the resettlement programme has been mismanaged. The scheme to move communities away from mountain areas prone to landslides and avalanches started up in 1988, when Georgia was still part of the Soviet Union.

The demand remains high – the ministry for refugees and resettlement estimates that about 200,000 people in the highlands of Ajaria alone need to be relocated to lower-risk areas.

But not enough new homes have been built for the settlers, and it is only in the last six years that the authorities have started buying existing houses. Impatient settlers have simply moved into unoccupied homes, often in Greek villages, and tilling the farmland.

As a result, desperate migrants started illegally occupying houses and farmland, mostly in Greek villages. Others find themselves in a subordinate position as tenants on land owned by the original residents, and the situation is worsened by the lack of clearly regulated ownership and distribution of farming land

There has also been an upsurge in crime, which gets blamed on the newcomers.

"The fact is that both the local population and the migrants are hostages to the government's lack of professionalism and concern," said Tsalka district administration chief Mikheil Tskitishvili.

According to district police chief Zurab Keshelashvili, "There is zero criminality among the local population, with the exception of minor brawls. It is the migrants who are mostly involved in thefts, robberies and brigandage. Visitors, as they are called, were involved in the two most recent attacks on Greeks."

Some villagers draw a distinction between the earlier migrants who have now established themselves and more recent arrivals, whom they blame for much of the trouble.

Vardo Yegoyan, from Kizil-Kilisa, recalled that after a couple of difficult years, original residents and the early wave of settlers became good neighbours. "The current conflicts have to do with a new group of migrants, most of whom did not move here as part of the environmental resettlement," he said. "Robberies and bandit attacks have become regular occurrences.”

Yegoyan added, “No one would justify beating people or smashing things up, but when the police stand idly by, the only thing people can do is to resolve their own problems themselves."

Police chief Keshelashvili said it had been hard to cope given the few resources he had before Tbilisi sent down the extra ten-man squad, "Fifteen policemen with two cars can hardly cope with the crime situation in 42 villages."

Settlers say they are being unfairly branded as troublemakers because of offences committed by a small number of criminals.

"We’re peasant farmers. Most of us never even leave our land holdings,” said an Ajarian settler who gave his name as Jumber, “but the rules round here are that if one person commits a crime, everyone gets beaten for it. Property left behind by [emigrating] Greeks is being stolen, and Ajarians are getting the blame.

“So it’s the robbers who are fomenting trouble, setting people against each other.”

Zaza Baazov is a freelance journalist in Tbilisi.

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