By Karine Kalantarian
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian ended on Monday a two-day visit to Georgia that focused on Tbilisi’s and Yerevan’s joint efforts to improve the socioeconomic situation in the country’s Javakheti region predominantly populated by Armenians.
Markarian met with President Mikhail Saakashvili and parliaments speaker Nino Burjanadze in Tbilisi the day after touring the impoverished area bordering Armenia and Turkey together with his Georgian counterpart, Zurab Noghaideli.
A Georgian parliamentarian of Armenian descent who was present at the talks described them as “productive.” “The Georgian side is very happy that Armenia is expressing readiness to render financial and economic assistance to the region,” Van Bayburt told RFE/RL from Tbilisi.
Markarian was greeted by Noghaideli on Sunday as he crossed the Javakheti section of the Armenian-Georgian border. The two men spent several hours visiting the regional towns of Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki as well as several villages.
Markarian described the joint trip as a “historic event” at one of the meetings with disgruntled local residents. “I would like to express my gratitude to Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli for inviting me to Javakheti,” he said. "It is the first time in history that the prime ministers of neighboring countries meet on the border. I am sure that all problems will be resolved with our joint efforts.”
Javakheti’s grave socioeconomic problems are compounded by the extremely poor condition of local roads that have hardly undergone major repairs since the Soviet collapse. Officials announced that the Georgian government will finally start to rebuild them in 2007 with financial assistance which it expects to receive under the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Account program. Armenia and Georgia are the only ex-Soviet states eligible for the scheme.
“I think road construction should take between two and three years,” Noghaideli told reporters. “The Americans will start [financing it] from 2007. The road construction will be very intensive here.”
The two governments are also making plans for the reconstruction of local secondary schools that have long fallen into disrepair. Officials said a joint plan of actions will be finalized this September.
However, road and school repairs alone would not address Javakheti’s number one problem: unemployment. Scores of local residents have left for Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union in search of jobs over the past 15 years. “Few young people are left here,” an elderly man in the village of Gandza complained to Markarian. “They want to build a school but there are no students.”
“Things will get better, don’t worry,” the Armenian premier replied.
The region’s single largest employer, a Russian military base in Akhalkalaki is to be closed in 2008 under a Russian-Georgian agreement signed recently. The government in Tbilisi has pledged to cushion the resulting loss of hundreds of jobs.
Saakashvili said earlier this month that Javakheti farmers will become the principal suppliers of agriculture produce to the Georgian army. According to Bayburt, the Armenian and Georgian governments also plan to set up several food processing plants in the largely agricultural area.
“We need to provide opportunities for economic development and we are doing that,” said Noghaideli. “I think that in three or four years this region will change beyond recognition.”
Also on the agenda of Markarian’s talks in Tbilisi were increasingly serious disputes over ownership of old churches claimed by the Armenian Apostolic and Georgian Orthodox Churches. One such dispute resulted in a violent clash last week between residents of a Javakheti village and a group of young Georgians that visited a nearby medieval church. The locals believe the visitors were intent on seizing the church.
Speaker Burjanadze welcomed an Armenian proposal for the two governments to set up a commission that will look into the matter on a case-by-case basis. “All people in Armenia and Georgia, including Samtskhe-Javakheti, must realize that if they incite tension between the Armenian and Georgian populations, they will play into the hands of our enemies,” she said without elaborating.
Markarian likewise urged a group of Javakheti Armenians to be “prudent and realistic.” “Do not think that everyone is our friend,” he said. “We and the Georgian people will build our future and strengthen our states by ourselves.”