10TBILISI196, GEORGIA: CHALLENGES FACING ETHNIC ARMENIANS

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
10TBILISI196 2010-02-16 07:27 2011-08-30 01:44 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Tbilisi

VZCZCXRO4060
PP RUEHDBU RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHNP RUEHROV RUEHSL RUEHSR
DE RUEHSI #0196/01 0470727
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 160727Z FEB 10
FM AMEMBASSY TBILISI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2858
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 TBILISI 000196 
 
SIPDIS 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/12/2020 
TAGS: KIRF PGOV PHUM AM GG
SUBJECT: GEORGIA: CHALLENGES FACING ETHNIC ARMENIANS 
 
REF: A. 09 TBILISI 2438 
     B. 09 TBILISI 538 
     C. 09 TBILISI 2106 
     D. 09 YEREVAN 844 
 
Classified By: Charge d'Affaires a.i. Kent Logsdon for reasons 1.4 (b) 
AND (d). 
 
1. (C) SUMMARY. New and expanding economic opportunities 
should serve to lessen the isolation of many of the 250,000 
ethnic Armenians resident in Georgia, enabling them to branch 
out of their traditional region of Samtskhe-Javakheti and 
allowing younger ethnic Armenians to pursue their goals of 
higher education within the Georgian system (refs A and B). 
Armenian groups in Georgia report that travel for ethnic 
Armenians to and from Abkhazia is (unsurprisingly) difficult. 
 The most contentious issues remain the inability of 
religious minority groups to register as an entity of public 
law (only the Georgian Orthodox Church has that right) as 
opposed to an NGO and the claims by the Armenian Diocese to a 
number of disputed churches. While the Georgian Orthodox 
Church continues to block, from behind the scenes, government 
movement on the registration issue (ref C), a joint 
commission on the ownership of the churches is seen as a 
possible means to resolve these disputes. Many hope that a 
possible meeting by the heads of the Armenian and Georgian 
churches in the spring will move contentious religious issues 
closer to a solution.  This is a joint cable on the issue 
from Embassies Tbilisi and Yerevan.  END SUMMARY. 
 
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES 
 
2. (C) Poloff, along with visiting Embassy Yerevan Poloff, 
met with contacts in Tbilisi December 14 and 15 to discuss 
the challenges facing the ethnic Armenian communities in 
Georgia. PolOffs met with local NGOs who work with ethnic 
minorities in Georgia, a priest of the Armenian Apostolic 
Church (AAC) Diocese in Georgia, a professor of Armenian 
studies, and members of the GOG Ministry of Foreign Affairs 
who are responsible for Georgian-Armenian issues. The major 
topics of discussion were the historic churches claimed by 
both the AAC and the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) and the 
issue of religious equality for ethnic Armenians. 
 
3. (C) According to the GOG,s 2002 census, there are 
approximately 250,000 ethnic Armenians in Georgia (5.7 
percent of the population), the majority of whom live in the 
Samtskhe-Javakheti region in southern Georgia along the 
Armenian border.  Approximately 90,000 live in Tbilisi.  The 
Samtskhe-Javakheti region remains relatively undeveloped due 
to many years of geographic isolation.  Arnold Stepanian, 
Chairman of the Public Movement "Multinational Georgia" and 
ethnic Armenian himself, stated that ethnic Armenians are no 
worse off economically than Georgians in similarly isolated 
regions.  This situation should improve due to the 
construction of a new major road (an MCC project) in the 
region which will allow the inhabitants to expand their 
economic integration with regions outside of 
Samtskhe-Javakheti. 
 
4. (C) In the political arena, interlocutors claim ethnic 
Armenians in Tbilisi are integrated into the political 
process, but those living in Samtskhe-Javakheti (S-J) are 
less so. In addition to their location, ethnic Armenians in 
S-J have trouble participating in the national political 
system because so few of them speak Georgian. Stepanian 
believes that the new road will encourage ethnic Armenians to 
integrate into broader Georgian society once they see the 
economic advantages of learning the Georgian language. The 
GOG recognizes the problem and is sending Georgian-language 
instructors to Samtskhe-Javakheti to aid in that integration 
(refs A and B). Stepanian pointed out that the ethnic 
Q(refs A and B). Stepanian pointed out that the ethnic 
Armenians in Tbilisi have accepted the reality that their 
options for higher education greatly increase by speaking 
Georgian. Students who wish to study at non-technical 
universities cannot be admitted without knowledge of 
Georgian. According to Stepanian, interest in speaking only 
Armenian has waned in Tbilisi as witnessed by the closing of 
five of the eight Armenian-language schools. 
 
5. (C) Professor Lela Jejalava of Tbilisi State University is 
an Armenia expert and works as a mediator on religious 
tolerance issues. She argued that Georgian society has 
trouble fully accepting the ethnic Armenians (as well as 
other ethnic groups) because of Georgia,s history of fending 
off occupying forces. She argued that, while the Georgian 
people outwardly boast of their tolerance, they view minority 
religious groups -- at least subconsciously -- as agents of 
outside influence and objects of foreign political 
manipulation. And as the GOC is seen by many as an essential 
part of the national identity, those who disagree with or 
battle the GOC are enemies of the state. 
 
 
TBILISI 00000196  002 OF 003 
 
 
ETHNIC ARMENIANS IN ABKHAZIA 
 
6. (C) Estimates of the number of Armenians resi
ding in the 
separatist region of Abkhazia range from 14 percent of the 
population to as much as a third.  (Although precise numbers 
are unavailable, most estimates put the total population of 
Abkhazia around 200,000.)  Stepanian, whose group maintains 
contacts in the region, claimed that the Government of Russia 
(GOR) was providing privileges to ethnic Armenians over 
ethnic Abkhaz and encouraging ethnic Armenians from Sochi and 
surrounding areas in Russia to settle in Abkhazia to increase 
their number. According to Stepanian, the ethnic Abkhaz, 
while more than happy to take Russian money to support the 
local economy and their separatist cause, are not actually 
friendly to their Russian neighbors, and the GOR believes it 
strengthens its support in the region to have a greater 
concentration of ethnic Armenians. 
 
7. (C) Our interlocutors agreed that it is unfortunate that 
ethnic Armenians in Abkhazia face difficulties traveling 
between there and Armenia, through undisputed Georgia. Many 
ethnic Armenians travel through Russia and then by a 
circuitous route to Armenia.  Some observers in Armenia seem 
to believe that it is also illegal to enter or leave Abkhazia 
via undisputed Georgia.  Kakha Chitaia, Deputy Director in 
the European Deparment of the GOG Ministry of Foreign 
Affairs, clarified that any Georgian citizen, including 
ethnic Armenians from Abkhazia, can use the official Georgian 
checkpoints when leaving Abkhazia, and Armenian citizens can 
also do so as long as they have obtained the necessary 
permissions.  (Note: Although the Georgian government does 
not restrict the right of its own citizens, including 
residents of Abkhazia, to cross the Abkhaz administrative 
boundary, the Abkhaz de facto authorities and Russian Border 
Guards have imposed strict limitations on movements across 
the boundary in both directions.  It remains a violation of 
Georgian law for foreigners, including Armenian citizens, to 
enter Abkhazia from Russia.  End note.) 
 
RELIGIOUS EQUALITY AND THE DISPUTED CHURCHES 
 
8. (C) The issue of registration of the Armenian Apostolic 
Church (AAC) and the dispute over a number of historical 
churches dominated the conversation in almost all meetings 
(ref D). The consensus was that many of the ongoing problems 
faced by the AAC in Georgia are caused by the growing 
conservatism of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) (ref C). 
Ethnocentrism and strong nationalism in the GOC leads it to 
oppose registration of religious minorities on a basis of 
equality to the GOC.  The Georgia Orthodox Church uses its 
influence over the Georgian government to block any 
liberalization of government policies on these issues. 
Jejalava believes that the Patriarch of the GOC is open to 
conversation and closer relations with religious minorities, 
but conservative elements of the GOC prevent him from acting. 
Others, such as Stepanian, argue that the Georgian church as 
a whole is not yet ready to accommodate religious minorities' 
requests. 
 
9. (C) Father Narek Kushyan, of the Armenian Apostolic 
Church, Diocese of Georgia, lamented the power of the GOC and 
stated that the GOG was prepared in the past to allow 
minorities to register their religious organizations on par 
with GOC registration, but that the GOC opposed the action. 
Based on his conversations with GOG officials, he raised the 
possibility of the GOG making a separate bi-lateral agreement 
with each religious organization as it had done with the GOC. 
On the subject of maintenance of the disputed churches, Fr. 
QOn the subject of maintenance of the disputed churches, Fr. 
Kushyan stated that the Armenian Church could not legally 
protect or restore those churches because (1) the GOG has 
legal title to the building and so maintenance is their 
responsibility and (2) ethnic Armenians could not obtain the 
necessary permits to do the work. However, it does not appear 
that the ethnic Armenian community has ever tried to obtain a 
permit to restore any of the disputed churches.  The AAC 
completed their own restoration of an Armenian Apostolic 
Church in Tbilisi on January 10. 
 
10. (C) Georgian contacts were in agreement that a joint 
commission composed of religious representatives, historians 
and scientists is a good means to resolve the issue of 
ownership of the disputed churches. Although they all said 
that the Armenian side refused to participate when this idea 
was raised last year, no one could say who actually turned 
down the offer. Fr. Kushyan said that the Armenian Diocese in 
Georgia is willing to join the commission and present 
historical records to prove their claims of ownership, but 
only to discuss those disputed churches outside of Tbilisi. 
Fr. Kushyan stated that the five churches in Tbilisi and one 
church in Akhaltsikhe are clearly Armenian and that they will 
not participate in any commission until that concession is 
made.  Fr. Kushyan also doubted the fairness of any 
commission that would take place in Georgia.  According to 
 
TBILISI 00000196  003 OF 003 
 
 
Prof. Jejalava, the GOC Patriarch will invite the Catholicos, 
the head of the AAC, to Tbilisi after Easter in 2010 to 
discuss the idea of a joint commission. 
 
11. (C) COMMENT. The growth of economic and higher education 
opportunities should lead to greater integration of ethnic 
Armenians into broader Georgian society, as they see the 
benefits of learning the Georgian language and participating 
in civil society. This integration could also ease the 
tensions over the ownership issue of the disputed churches as 
ethnic Armenians and ethnic Georgians recognize their joint 
heritage in buildings that have been used by both groups for 
hundreds of years and their joint responsibility to maintain 
those churches as part of Georgia's patrimony. A joint 
commission composed of all interested parties may be the best 
option to resolve the issue, and Embassy Yerevan and Embassy 
Tbilisi will continue to suggest this to the Armenian 
Apostolic Church, the Georgian Orthodox Church and the two 
governments. END COMMENT. 
BASS

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