PROTESTS ERUPT AFTER GEORGIA DETAINS ETHNIC ARMENIANS
Feb 25 2009
Georgia has detained two ethnic Armenians on charges of espionage. In
the past, some of the ethnic Armenians who largely populate Georgia’s
Samtskhe-Javakheti region have complained of poor treatment or gotten
into conflicts with police.
Onnik Krikorian is a freelance photojournalist and writer from the
United Kingdom based in Yerevan, Armenia. He writes at the "Frontline
Club" about attending a protest in Armenia’s capital and discusses what
the anger means for regional relations with both Georgia and Russia.
Demonstration outside Georgian Embassy
To be honest, I hadn’t particularly planned on attending today’s
demonstration staged outside the Georgian Embassy in Yerevan to protest
the detention of two ethnic Armenian activists in Georgia’s Samtskhe
Javakheti region – or rather, I was in two minds about doing so. To
begin with, a friend in town from Tbilisi told me on Saturday that the
region could hardly be considered a hotbed of separatist nationalism
seeking autonomy or unification with Armenia, a sentiment also shared
by a foreign journalist based in the Georgian capital.
True, socio-economic conditions aren’t particularly good either,
but that’s pretty much the case for most ethnic Georgian
or Azerbaijani-populated regions in the country as well as
pretty much anywhere outside the center of Yerevan, the Armenian
capital. Nevertheless, after a phone call from one of those publicizing
various other protests staged outside the Embassy informing me that
the demonstration had been rescheduled for three hours later than
originally planned, I jumped in a taxi and headed downtown.
Perhaps the main reason for going was to see how many people turned
up. My taxi driver, for example, had heard about the protest on Radio
Free Europe’s broadcast the day before and guessed why I was heading
there. However, he seemed quite concerned that blockaded by Turkey
and Azerbaijan, problems between Yerevan and Tbilisi would be the
end of Armenia. With over 70 percent of the country’s trade going
through Georgia, and still at war with Azerbaijan over the disputed
territory of Nagorno Karabakh, he had a point.
As it was, about 100 people turned up, a third of which were
reporters — an unnaturally high level of media interest for a
demonstration which could hardly attract more than 70 people mainly
from Samtskhe-Javakheti, a region populated by a little over 100,000
ethnic Armenians (54 percent of its total population). What was also
notable was that while some did hold up plackards of the two detained
activists charged with espionage, most seemed more interested in
screaming out "Javakhk," the Armenian name for the region.
Staging the demonstration in Yerevan also raises a few questions as
to why it wasn’t held in Tbilisi. Some argue that it could be for
internal political consumption a few days before the first anniversary
of the 1 March post-election clashes in the Armenian capital during
which 10 people died, or to whip up emotions among the population
which would indirectly lead to the rejection of any normalization
of ties with Turkey and a possible future settlement of the Karabakh
conflict. It could also directy lead to increased support for Russia,
already accused of stirring up trouble in Georgia.
[…]The police moved in to clear the way when Gachechiladze arrived
and the protest organizers entered the Embassy to voice their demands,
handing over a letter in Armenian which the Embassy promises to pass on
to the authorities in Tbilisi once translated into Georgian. Typically
for any demonstration in Armenia, they promised to fight until the end,
but judging from the chants and the lack of any slogans calling for the
release of the detained activists, it’s seems more likely that their
main hope was to whip up anti-Georgian sentiments among the public.