Hiding in History

Conflict is brewing in southern Georgia - not that you would know from reading the local press.

Hiding in History

Conflict is brewing in southern Georgia - not that you would know from reading the local press.

Tuesday, 25 September, 2001

Many in Samtskhe-Djavakheti are unready to admit that the Soviet Union broke up a decade ago. Travel down to this south Georgian region and you'll step back in time.

Only one cracked, rutted, pot-holed road joins the region with the rest of the country. Besides the bus from Tbilisi, which runs alongside the River Kura to Georgia's southern border with Armenia, few travel along the 250 km artery.

In Djavakheti, you'll find banners draped across the streets, and decorating the fronts of hotels and municipal buildings, singing the praises of the USSR, "Glory to the Soviet peoples - builders of Communism !", " Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union".

In keeping with the general myopia, the local paper, Arghalujts, based in the administrative centre of Ninotsminda, hardly addresses the issues of the day. News to Djavakheti's hacks - a gaggle of elderly men in linen suits and straw hats sitting in a sea of old newspapers and broken typewriters - are stories about events of 1945. Other features go back further - to 1918.

Granted there are pieces on characters still alive - profiles of the two leading lights in regional agriculture. But if you didn't know this, Arghalujts could just as well have come out in the days of Stalin. The Soviet Union is gone but noone has told the journalists here.

With their head buried so deeply in the sand, prospects of any sort of real journalism are grim.

The fact that the majority ethnic Armenian population in the area is leaving in droves - partly because of the privations suffered here but mainly out of fear that returning Turks will trigger off a conflict - barely gets a mention.

Armenians flooded into the region to escape Turkish pogroms in 1918. Now that Georgia plans to reintroduce Meskhetian Turks - forcibly deported by Stalin in 1944 - they fear they'll be surrounded and afforded no protection by the Tbilisi authorities.

"If they return, we will be surrounded by Turks," said an Armenian in Akhalkalaki. A Russian military base there gives local Armenians a sense of security. Moscow's influence is evident everywhere. People pay with Russian roubles; they smoke Russian cigarettes; and car registration plates are in Russian.

But with Moscow under pressure to pull its forces out of the region, Armenians are edgy.

"People are afraid that if the Russians leave they will have no protection against the Turks, " said Karine Khodikian, editor of a newspaper in Armenia's capital Yerevan.

"We are not armed," said a grey-haired man talking to his friends in front of a local museum in Akhalkalaki. "When the Russian soldiers are gone one Turk with a machine gun could shoot up half the town."

Besides fears of ethnic conflict, the miserable life people lead here is driving away the young. Electricity, for instance, is on for just three hours a day. If you want more then you have to pay 20 US dollars to local mafia for more.

Gesturing to his two friends, the man outside the Akhalkalaki regional museum said, "Of the three of us here, one has two daughters in Russia, the other's only son has also gone. My daughter is in Moscow, and now my son is going to join her. Only the dead in their graves are left here, and us ..."

A Yerevan-based analyst feels radicals in Armenia may exploit the exodus of their ethnic kin to call for the Djavakheti's secession from Georgia. "I am afraid we'll have a repeat of Karabakh there," he said.

As a result of the abysmal economic conditions and the escalating ethnic tensions, the region appears to be becoming increasingly unstable. The local newspaper may choose to ignore what's going on but the authorities in Tbilisi cannot afford to - unless they're prepared to see it turn into the next Caucasian conflict zone.

Mark Grigorian is a freelance journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia

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