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Eurasia Insight:
Molly Corso and Gayane Abrahamyan: 2/12/09
Georgia's arrest of two ethnic Armenians on espionage charges is threatening to increase tensions in the country's predominately ethnic Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Although aspects of the case remain unclear -- including an alleged confession -- the arrests have triggered public outrage in neighboring Armenia. Meanwhile in Georgia, many suspect that Russia is somehow involved.

On January 22, police arrested Grigol Minasian, the 29-year-old director of a youth center in the town of Akhaltsikhe, and Sarkis Hakopjanian, the head of a local charity organization, on charges of espionage and of creating an "illegally armed group." The pair's lawyer, Nino Andriashvili, told EurasiaNet that the two men pled guilty to "part" of the charges during their January 24 arraignment.

"In part, they admitted that they are spies, but they did not admit that they were preparing to form a [militia group]," Andriashvili said, adding that the two men told her they were under "pressure" when they made their admissions of guilt.

A senior official from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, however, denies that either man has confessed to espionage. "No [confessions]. Nothing has happened yet," said administration head Shota Khizanishvili,

The ministry has not named the country in whose favor the pair was allegedly spying. Local conjecture supposes that it is Russia, but no evidence has been presented to substantiate that claim.

According to Andriashvili, the government's case against Minasian and Hakopjanian focuses on a questionnaire the two men were allegedly paid to fill out by a Belarus-based non-governmental organization. Little is known about the organization, called the Association for Legal Assistance to the Population (ALAP). Its website is not functioning and there is no listing for an office in Georgia.

An online directory of Belarusian civil rights organizations identifies ALAP as active in human rights issues, and the recipient of a 1999 award from the New York-based International League for Human Rights. The American organization did not respond to EurasiaNet's requests for comment. The ALAP, which at the time was headed by Oleg Volchek, a former state prosecutor-turned-reformer, opened a human rights protection center in 2001 in Minsk. In its 2004 report on human rights conditions in Belarus, the US State Department noted that Volchek suffered a severe beating in September of 2003 at the hands of an unidentified assailant. The attack came just a few weeks after a Belarussian court "shut down" the association. The circumstances surrounding the association's subsequent revival remain murky.

The Georgian Interior Ministry's Khizanishvili would not comment on claims that the government's investigation focuses on the ALAP, adding that he did not know anything about the group.

The ALAP questionnaire zeroed in on natural gas supply questions -- an increasingly sensitive topic in the South Caucasus -- and general questions about Georgia that could be answered "from newspapers," or from other publicly available information, lawyer Andriashvili said.

Andriashvili said that the government is using a videotape that shows an inebriated Minasian and Hakopjanian discussing the formation of a militia group with an unidentified man from the ALAP. The video, the government contends, substantiates its claim that the two men were attempting to sow unrest in Samtskhe-Javakheti.

Andriashvili stressed that while the two men admit to being on the tape, they claim that they were "just playing." The two, however, had misgivings about the ALAP, she claimed, and suspected that it had some kind of connection to Russia's Federal Security Service. In Akhaltsikhe, people close to Minasian, who was prominent in the town's ethnic Armenian community, describe themselves as flabbergasted by his arrest and the charges. By contrast, the arrest of the lesser-known Hakopjanian sparked few comments.

"We are in a vacuum here. We don't know anything," said Veronika Hambarian, an Armenian-language teacher at Minasian's youth center.

Hambarian recounted that police took the hard drive from the center's computer and all Armenian language material, including her language lessons and fairy tales. They did not take Russian or Georgian language books and materials, she said.

Parliamentarian Tamaz Petriashvili, who represents Akhaltsikhe in Georgia's National Assembly, as well as an acquaintance of Minasian, described the arrests as a "surprise."

As did some ethnic Armenians in Akhaltsikhe, Petriashvili suspected that "some people" -- a veiled reference to Russia -- want to create conflict in Samtskhe-Javakheti. Certain groups in the region "are financed as if from Yerevan, but that is not from Yerevan," he said. "We all know that very well."

Within Armenia, the arrests have set off a wave of public criticism. Rather than espionage, many people see the case as an example of an alleged Georgian campaign to push ethnic Armenians out of Samtskhe-Javakheti, a region that many Armenians see as historically part of Armenia.

"We Armenians have always tried to have good relations with Georgia, but the only thing working in Georgia today is anti-Russian sentiment, and Armenians, Russia's partners in that context, are seen as Georgians' enemies," commented Yerevan-based political analyst Levon Shirinian. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

A representative of the Armenian Foreign Ministry said that the government in Yerevan was monitoring the situation concerning Minasian and Hakopjanian's arrest. "We watch the developments and are in a continuous daily contact on various levels" with the Georgian government, commented spokesperson Tigran Balaian.

Some politicians and interest groups, however, charge that the Armenian government has responded passively to the two men's arrest. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation Party (ARF), a member of Armenia's governing parliamentary coalition, insists that the region deserves to have some form of autonomy. The ARF regularly raises the issue of ethnic Armenian rights in Georgia during parliamentary debate in Yerevan.

"The Georgians simply need to understand that if Javakhk [the Armenian name for Samtskshe-Javakheti] or any other Armenian-populated region loses its Armenian population, it does not mean it will be inhabited by Georgians," commented ARF parliamentarian Vahan Hovhannisian, a former presidential candidate and deputy chairman of parliament. "Any vacuum in the Caucasus is immediately filled with Turks."

The issue of education is frequently raised as well in conjunction with coverage of the Minasian-Hakopjanian arrests. Many ethnic Armenians in the region have limited knowledge of Georgian and, hence, are unable to study in Georgian universities.

Name differences divide the two countries as well on the Minasian-Hakopjanian case. While the Georgian government states Minasian's first name as "Grigol," Armenian media use the Armenian version of the name, "Grigor."

But while Samtskhe-Javakheti is known for its strong Armenian ties, such cultural influences appear slight in Akhaltsikhe, where store signboards are all in Georgian. Georgian town residents interviewed had little or no knowledge of the arrests.

According to Eduard Ayvazian, a computer instructor at Minasian's center, prior to the arrests, no real tension existed between the town's Georgian and Armenian communities.

"There is discrimination here, but not strong discrimination," Ayvazian said. "The authorities are afraid that a conflict can start here. But I believe they are moving in the wrong direction with these types of arrests."

As a result of the arrests, many ethnic Armenians in Akhaltsikhe now "are actually thinking about how to leave here," Ayvazian continued. "We are all afraid. No one needs problems."
Editor's Note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for the weekly in Yerevan.
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