Georgian-Armenians charge “intimidation” by Tbilisi

After arrests, calls for restraint, Armenia’s involvement

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Thursday January 29, 2009

Sarkis Hakobjanian and Grigor Minasian, who have been arrested on espionage charges by authorities in the Republic of Georgia. Photolure

Washington - Two Armenian community leaders from Georgia's Samtskhe-Javakheti province have been arrested on espionage, weapons, and conspiracy charges, the country's Interior Ministry said in a brief statement on January 23, and others reported.

The arrests come amid Georgia's continued standoff with Russia and the opposition's increasingly vocal calls on Mikheil Saakashvili to resign.

The arrested Armenians, Grigor Minasian and Sarkis Hakobjanian, are a youth club director and a local representative of Aznavour pour l'Arménie, respectively, in the town of Akhaltsikhe. Both men are members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun).

There has been no public reaction to the arrests from the ARF, which is a member of Armenia's governing coalition, or from Armenian government officials.

Sergei Minasian of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Institute, an expert on Georgia, called the arrests "unprecedented."

"This is the first time that Georgia arrests ARF members and accuses them of espionage," Mr. Minasian told the Armenian Reporter. In effect "Georgia is raising the stakes, once again trying to dominate in relations with Armenia."

Latest in simmering tensions

After being arrested the two men were brought to Tbilisi, where a court granted prosecutors' petition for two months' pretrial detention. It was not immediately clear from the charges which country the two are accused of spying for.

Spokesperson for the Interior Ministry Shota Khizanishvili told on January 23 that "further statements on the matter will be made later." According to Armenian Public Radio, those statements were expected on January 26. No statements were made as of press time.

Interethnic relations in Georgia, particularly in Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti and Azerbaijani-populated Kvemo Kartli, have frequently been tense.

Following the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, many Georgians have suspected the country's other ethnic minorities - currently comprising about 15 percent of the population and living outside the Georgian mainstream - of harboring separatist intentions. Ethnic minority groups, in turn, charge Tbilisi with discrimination and seeking to encourage their emigration.

According to official statistics, there are about 100,000 ethnic Armenians in Samtskhe-Javakheti, over half its total population, with Armenians making up large majorities in the Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda areas. Another 100,000 or more Armenians live in Tbilisi and elsewhere in Georgia.

Armenia, which relies on Georgia's transportation infrastructure, has long worked to smooth over tensions in the Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti province.

Warnings of consequences

In the absence of any Armenian government reaction, there have been vocal protests by individual parliament members and by nongovernmental organizations, all of which protested the arrests as "baseless" and "politically motivated."

Shirak Torosian is a parliament member from the governing Republican Party and leader of the Javakhk Compatriotic Union. He visited Akhhaltsikhe this week. On January 27 he argued the arrests were intended to "intimidate" the local population, Regnum news agency and others reported.

Mr. Torosian, who is known as proponent of Georgian-Armenian cooperation, warned that "Javakhk would not become another Nakhichevan," referring to the Azerbaijani-controlled region from which all ethnic Armenians were expelled in the 19th century, reported.

He instead identified two alternatives: either Javakheti's issues are addressed through Armenian-Georgian cooperation, or the current tensions could lead to an outright war. Mr. Torosian urged immediate involvement of the Armenian government.

Another parliament member, Larisa Alaverdian of the opposition Heritage Party, said the arrests were a reflection of democratic reversals in Georgia. "This is a radical step, a scare tactic against activists," Ms. Alaverdian said on January 23. "And it undermines Georgian statehood."

The arrests were intended to "cement" Tbilisi's control in Armenian-populated territories in the aftermath of Georgian reversals in South Ossetia and Abkhazia last August, Vahe Sargsian of the Yerevan-based Mitq analytical center ( suggested on January 26.

Mr. Sargsian also linked the arrests to the recent flare-up in the long-running Armenian-Georgian dispute over the building of Surb Nshan church in Akhaltsikhe. Similar church disputes have been underway in Tbilisi (see stories in the Armenian Reporter for December 20).

Support for arrested and calls for restraint

According to Mr. Sargsian of Mitq, the Akhaltsikhe youth club was founded in 2006, with funding from ARF-affiliated Armenian Relief Society (ARS), while the Charles Aznavour Charitable Union was founded in 1990. The organization is named after the French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, whose parents are originally from Akhaltsikhe.

The ARF-affiliated Council of Armenian Public Organizations of Samtskhe-Javakheti issued a statement urging local Armenians to "remain calm and not to react to provocations."

And Yerkir Union,, which works to promote repatriation and strengthening Armenian communities in border areas, also called for restraint.

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