MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 479: Georgia Accused of Bullying Ethnic Armenians

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Sun Feb 8 12:25:23 2009


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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 479, February 5, 2009

GEORGIA ACCUSED OF BULLYING ETHNIC ARMENIANS  Some Yerevan politicians
say arrest of Armenian activists on espionage charges is attempt to
intimidate the minority.  By Olesya Vartanian in Tbilisi, Tamana Uchidze
in Akhaltsikhe and Nelly Babaian in Yerevan (CRS No. 479, 5-Feb-09)

AZERBAIJAN: OUTCRY AT COMMISSARS' REBURIAL  Armenia furious over move as
some of the communists were Armenians.  By Magerram Zeinalov in Baku,
and Gegham Vardanian in Yerevan (CRS No. 479, 5-Feb-09)

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GEORGIA ACCUSED OF BULLYING ETHNIC ARMENIANS

Some Yerevan politicians say arrest of Armenian activists on espionage
charges is attempt to intimidate the minority. 

By Olesya Vartanian in Tbilisi, Tamana Uchidze in Akhaltsikhe and Nelly
Babaian in Yerevan 

Politicians in Armenia have been angered by the arrest in Georgia late
last month of two ethnic Armenians charged with spying for Russia’s
secret services.

The two Armenians – Grigor Minasian and Sargis Hakobjanian – are
campaigners in the Armenian community in the southern region of
Samtskhe-Javakheti, where Armenians form a majority of the population. 

They were arrested on January 21, but little publicity has been given to
the case.

Georgian newspapers have barely mentioned the affair, and a high-ranking
official at the interior minister said officials were deliberately not
releasing a lot of material so as not to “make a lot of noise about
this, as it is an isolated case of Russian spies trying to work in
Samtskhe-Javakheti”.

Some Armenian politicians, however, have been furious and said the
arrests were an attempt to intimidate their ethnic kin in Georgia.

Georgia’s state minister for re-integration Temur Lakobashvili said
Russia had intensified espionage activities in the country since the
August war over South Ossetia.

“We have information that the Russians tried to hide their activities
within non-governmental organisations. We are talking about dozens of
millions of dollars,” said Lakobashvili, refusing to elaborate
further.

Georgia has previously accused Russia of espionage, and the two
countries fell out spectacularly in 2006 when police arrested four
Russian officers. Russia effectively blockaded Georgia as a result, even
after Georgia released and deported the men.

The lawyer for the two arrested ethnic Armenians, Nino Andriashvili,
said they were accused of cooperating with a Belarus-based organisation
allegedly set up by Russia’s Federal Security Service, FSB, called the
Association for Legal Assistance to the Population, ALAP.

Andriashvili said the two men had admitted being involved in espionage,
but denied a secondary charge of planning to create a private army. She
said the investigators had a video of the two men discussing the
creation of such an army with the local head of ALAP, but that they had
not thought he was being serious.

“Minasian and Hakobjanian came to see him in his office, and they were
having a drink. And this person started to say things like ‘we are
really cool, we will make a good army, we will train up some lads’.
And they started to agree with him,” she said.

She said the un-named man from ALAP suggested funding three projects,
including a sports hall for around 100,000 US dollars.

But some ethnic Armenians do not believe the government’s story of
Russian-funded treachery, saying this is an attempt to intimidate the
community whose region hosted a Russian military base until 2006.

“How many more political prisoners, uninvestigated cases and murders
does this society need? God alone knows who wanted this. It is possible
that more arrests could follow this,” said one man from
Samtskhe-Javakheti who knew Minasian, but who asked not to be named.

“There won’t be an uprising or bloodshed, but there will definitely
be protests about this.”

And the local Armenians could count on support from some public figures
in neighbouring Armenia, if they did take to the streets. 

Shirak Torosian, who represents the Republican Party in the Armenian
parliament, said the Georgian government needed to be told this was
unacceptable.

“Now pressure from public opinion is crucial, to makethe Georgian
authorities think more carefully. Otherwise, this incident could have
dangerous consequences for the region,” said Torosian.

“This arrow could turn into a boomerang.”

Both of the arrested men promoted the rights of the Armenian community.
Minasian, 33, headed a youth organisation and Hakobjanian, 50,
campaigned on cultural issues.

Minasian’s organisation also worked with the Union of Armenian
Assistance, which has links to Dashnaktsutyun (the Armenian
Revolutionary Federation), a controversial nationalist party and member
of Armenia’s ruling coalition. 

Kiro Manoian, the head of the Dashnaktsutyun office of political
affairs, said the arrests were an attempt to cow Armenians.

“The story with the arrest came at a very convenient moment to secure
the attention of society and shut the mouths of Armenians,” he said.

“Georgian society is already bored of hearing about problems with
Russia. Of course Armenia and the population of [Samtskhe-Javakheti]
became a convenient target to distract attention from the country’s
internal problems.”

ALAP seems to be based in Minsk, and its website says the organisation
is dedicating to promoting “peace, education and civil society
development”, but has no information on the source of its funding.

Local NGOs said the organisation appeared in Samtskhe-Javakheti several
months ago. In December last year, a representative gave questionnaires
to representatives of NGOs in the region. They received between 300-800
dollars if they filled them in – a lot of money in the region.

Minasian and Hakobjanian’s completed questionnaires were presented as
proof of their alleged espionage, although their lawyer said none of the
information they provided was a state secret.

IWPR saw one of the questionnaires and it included 20 questions related
to the region, some of which were potentially sensitive. One question
concerned the resettlement of Meskhetian Turks – a people deported in
Stalin’s time who have been agitating to come home ever since –
while another addressed security around a pipeline being built.

Other NGOs in the region also filled in the forms, though they realised
the questions were unusual.

“We all joked that this organisation reminded us of the FSB. And we
were very surprised when we found out that they intended to spend so
much money,” said the head of one NGO in Samtskhe-Javakheti, who asked
to remain anonymous out of concerns that the criminal case might expand
to take in other public figures.

“We were told that the possible projects were unlimited, and the money
also. I have worked for many years in the non-governmental sector. When
has there ever been money like that?”

The ALAP office in central Tbilisi closed a month ago. The telephones
were disconnected, and they have not replied to emails.

Olesya Vartanian, Tamana Uchidze and Nelly Babaian are IWPR
contributors.

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