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Violence Flares in Armenian Enclave
Fears are growing that the Russian troop withdrawal from an Armenian enclave in southern Georgia could spark violent ethnic conflict in the region.
Unrest has been simmering in Samtskhe-Djavakheti for the past year as plans move forward to close the Russian military base in the administrative capital, Akhalkalaki.
The province's largely Armenian population bitterly opposes the withdrawal, claiming that it will leave the region vulnerable to Turkish expansionism and cripple the local economy.
Meanwhile, some observers point out that the province has long nurtured breakaway tendencies and warn of a "second Nagorny Karabakh" if urgent action is not taken.
Tensions came to a head in June this year when fighting broke out between Georgian pilgrims and Armenian residents of the Poka settlement, in Samtskhe-Djavakheti.
Endzel Mkoyan, an Armenian deputy in the Georgian parliament, later claimed the violence flared after one of the visitors hit a local youth. However, fellow deputy Van Baiburt said the clash was sparked by agents provocateurs "who champion the cause of securing autonomy for this region of southern Georgia".
Ten days later, a checkpoint on the Armenian-Georgian border became the scene of fresh fighting, when Armenians from Akhalkalaki exchanged blows with Georgian border guards. Witnesses said the situation spun out of control after one of the guards hit a 70-year-old Armenian woman with his rifle-butt.
According to Georgian sources, local villagers later set fire to a nearby military building and, on the following day, a group of ethnic Armenians smashed through the barrier of the Ninotsminda checkpoint in a truck.
Leading politicians on both sides of the border have been eager to attribute the violence to deep-rooted local frustrations, dismissing any wider political context.
However, Armenians living in Samtskhe-Djavakheti have been vocal in their protest against the closure of the Akhalkalaki base ever since the idea was mooted at the OSCE summit in Istanbul last year.
Following its withdrawal from the two bases at Gudauta and Vaziani, Moscow has promised to close the Akhalkalaki and Batumi camps by 2004.
But Melik Raisyan, an Armenian MP from Akhalkalaki, believes the move will have a disastrous effect on the region's economy since "over half" the residents survived by providing services to the Russian troops.
The MP went on to say that local Armenians, who make up 90% of the population of 76,000, "still remember the attacks made by the Turks in the 1920s".
Raisyan claimed that Georgian border guards only had token control over the Turkish frontier and the presence of the Russian military was vital to the region's security.
In Armenia, military leaders have echoed these concerns. In an interview with the Aiastani Anrapetutyun newspaper, the border troops commander, Major-General Levon Stepanyan, said, "We're worried that our Georgian colleagues won't be able to guarantee security after the Russians have left."
Stepanyan even claims that, for a time, the Georgian side of the border was patrolled by a detachment of ethnic Azerbaijanis. "Just imagine the consequences of even the slightest scuffle," he said.
However, the general went on to say he had received assurances from his Georgian counterpart, Lieutenant-General Valery Chkheidze, that this section of the border would only be guarded by Armenians in the future.
The spectre of neighbouring Turkey continues to cast a chilling shadow over the region. One Akhalkalaki resident, David Antonyan, 46, said plans to build a railway between the town and Kars would inevitably herald increased Turkish influence in Samtskhe-Djavakheti.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijani politicians have been quick to capitalise on the growing tensions in southern Georgia. Two deputies, Ali Alirzaev and Fazail Agamaly, told the Baku parliament that the "alarming behaviour" of the Akhalkalaki residents proved "that they are pushing towards autonomy for the region - or else secession to Armenia."
Both deputies concluded that "the Armenians have territorial ambitions not only in Azerbaijan but also in Georgia." Melik Raisyan dismissed these remarks as "provocative".
But the leaders of Georgian and Armenia have wasted no opportunity to play down the situation. The Armenian president, Robert Kocharian, put the unrest down to social and economic problems while Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze, on a recent visit to Armenia, commented, "Our region has a wonderful future and I believe that in time the borders between Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan will be purely symbolic."
People in Samtskhe-Djavakheti remain unconvinced. Roza Saakyan, 65, who lost her son in the Nagorny Karabakh war, said, "I really hope that Shevardnadze and Kocharian have the brains to prevent another Karabakh breaking out here."
Ara Tadevosian is director of the Armenian independent news agency, Mediamax
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