By Emil Danielyan
An ethnic Armenian political group operating in Georgia's Javakhetia region on Monday rejected the latest Georgian accusations of separatism that followed its renewed calls for greater local self-rule.
The Virk party, which is denied registration by the government in Tbilisi, said that the claims made by Georgian politicians and the media "mainly do not correspond to reality" and aim to "prepare ground for external interference in the region's life."
"The population and political organizations in Javakhetia have never demonstrated separatism, and the region has always been one of the most peaceful corners of Georgia," Virk leaders said in a statement circulated through A-Info, a local news agency.
The statement said Virk will not take any steps that could destabilize the situation in the Armenian-populated districts of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda where public discontent with wrenching living conditions has run high for the past ten years. It said the party and its allies are only campaigning for a "higher status of local self-government."
The heads of local administrations are appointed by the Georgian government. The two districts are in turn part of the larger Samtskhe-Javakheti province which incorporates surrounding Georgian-populated areas. The Samtskhe-Javakheti governor is also named by Tbilisi.
The calls for Javakhetia's autonomy, which have never been backed by Armenia, led a key committee of the Georgian parliament to hold an emergency meeting late last month. Its chairman, Giorgi Baramidze, has reportedly accused the local nationalist groups of having ties with unspecified foreign intelligence services. He has also stressed the fact that none of them is officially registered with the Georgian ministry of justice.
But the Virk statement countered that the authorities in Tbilisi themselves refuse to register the party by citing "unfounded justifications." The refusal is a "blatant violation of human rights," it said.
Virk leaders, like the vast majority of Javakhetia Armenians, are vehemently opposed to the closure of the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki, sought by Georgia as part of its efforts to forge closer ties with the West. The base is the single largest employer in the unemployment-stricken area. The locals also regard it as a security guarantee against neighboring Turkey.
The future of the facility is a key bone of contention in the uneasy Russian-Georgian relations, with Moscow pushing for continued presence of its troops.
The authorities in Armenia, which also has a common border with Javakhetia, have so far avoided any interference in the dispute, saying that it is Georgia's internal affair. Yerevan has also sought to distance itself from the autonomy demands.