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The Critical Corner - 02/02/2010

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Armenian News Network / Groong
February 2, 2010

By Eddie Arnavoudian



In historical times the Tchavakhk region now just beyond the north
Armenian border was one of the nine districts of the northern Armenian
province of Gugark. But, since 1918 and against the will of its
overwhelming Armenian majority constituting 92% of the population, it
has been annexed to Georgia.  During the Soviet era and after,
Tchavakhk's Armenian community has continued to experience national
oppression at the hands of a Georgian elite determined to cleanse the
Armenian community from its homeland. Though sometimes over-detailed
and frequently lax in argument and supporting evidence, Ashot
Melkonian's `Tchavakhk through the 19th and the First Quarter of the
20th century' (544pp, 2003, Yerevan, Armenia) constitutes a valuable
introduction to yet another disputed region in the Caucuses. It has in
addition a substantial appendix of important documentary evidence, but
amazingly there is not a single map in the entire volume!

Propounding a case for Tchavakhk's secession from Georgia or for its
annexation to Armenia is not the author's primary concern. What he
does rather is mount a firm defence of the Armenian population's
national rights against a rising tide of Georgian chauvinism that
buttresses its contemporary anti-Armenian campaign by a fabricated
history that denies any ancient Armenian presence in Tchavakhk.
Falsifying the historical record Georgian chauvinists are developing a
counterfeit history in which a significant Armenian presence in
Tchavakhk is wrongly dated to commence only in the 19th century and as
if a result only of 19th century Tsarist engineered mass migrations at
the expense of the native Georgian population.

It is to Melkonian's credit that he does not attempt to assert an
exclusive Armenian identity or Armenian political right to the region.
The synopsis of Tchavakhk's pre-19th century history shows that it
never had an exclusive national physiognomy, Georgian, Armenian or
otherwise. As a political and social entity it had been endlessly
fought over and passed back and forth among Armenian and Georgian
monarchies and principalities, and later among Arab, Turkish, Persian
and Tsarist claimants. In the constant violent contests Tchavakhk was
repeatedly battered, beaten and reduced to waste, frequently with the
entire region depopulated and repopulated and its demographic
structure repeatedly and radically altered.

Successive occupying powers, Arab, Ottoman, Persian and Tsarist all
used mass population relocations as instruments of policy,
repopulating Tchavakhk, and not only Tchavakhk, with a pliable
community that would serve it, produce taxable wealth, act as a social
base for their rule and supply fodder for their armies and
administrations. During Arab, Persian and Ottoman domination inward
non-Armenian migration and outward Armenian emigration contributed
significantly to the decline of Tchavakhk's Armenian population. This
decline was accelerated by campaigns of forced conversions to Islam
and to equally pernicious forced conversion to the Georgian Orthodox
Church. In this connection Melkonian's excavation of documentary
evidence is particularly persuasive.

For Armenians who suffered disproportionately under Ottoman and
Persian rule and whose leadership was locked into alliance with the
Tsarist Empire, mass migration to Tsarist controlled territory was
frequently regarded as a path to salvation and freedom. So in the
trail of Russian troops Armenians would readily abandon their older
homelands in the hope of rebuilding their lives in new territories
conquered by Tsarist armies. The Tsarist state readily encouraged
Armenian emigration in view of the Armenian Church's willingness to
act as a vanguard and ally of Russian invaders and recruit the local
Armenian population to aid Tsarist military efforts. This led Turkish
or Persian forces to treat all Armenians as a fifth column for Russian
expansion to the frequent slaughter of the innocent population.

It was as a result of one such mass Tsarist sponsored migration that
followed the 1829-30 Ottoman-Russian war that the much diminished
Armenian community in Tchavakhk was restored to a majority position
that endures to this day. An estimated 20,000 Armenians abandoned
Erzeroum, then part of historic Ottoman occupied Armenia, for the
newly Tsarist occupied Tchavakhk. After much hardship the newly
established communities flourished. Old dilapidated Church's were
restored and new ones built along with new schools, libraries and
social institutions.  From its very beginning this process was opposed
by an emerging Georgian nationalist movement. Nevertheless Tchavakhk's
Armenians went on to play a significant role in their national
movement with outstanding figures from the region including poet Vahan
Derian, novelist and dramatist Terenik Demirjian, troubadour Ashough
Djivani, the controversial Rouben Ter-Minassian and Hovanness

In connection with the mass 1830 emigration that restored an Armenian
majority in Tchavakhk it is worth remarking that it simultaneously and
qualitatively undermined the demographic density of Armenian
population in the heart of historical western Armenia. In this it
constituted a decisive moment in a historical trend of depopulation of
Ottoman occupied Armenia - by emigration and repression - and had deep
negative consequences for the development of the Armenian national
movement as a whole. Damaging demographically, the 1820-30 migrations
removed from the core of historic Armenia a central social force of
the national movement. A substantial portion of those who left Erzerum
were craftsmen, traders, merchants, artisans and skilled workers. This
stratum could have provided a crucial foundation both for Armenian
economic development, and in an age of rising nationalism, the cadre
for an indigenous and independent leadership.

Melkonian's volume is most interesting in its coverage of the years
between 1917 and 1923. These coincided with the victory of Georgian
ultra-nationalists who rejected earlier Georgian-Azeri-Armenian
agreements to settle post-war territorial border disputes according to
demographic compositions or by popular referendum. Intent on
territorial aggrandisement they displayed complete disregard for the
interests of the local inhabitants, not just in Tchavakhk but in other
areas populated by Armenians or Azeris. Deemed Georgian territory they
insisted in addition that these were strategically necessary for
Georgian state security and so refused to consider anything but their
annexation. In collaboration with German imperialism and with Turkey
they moved rapidly to enforce Georgian rule both by military and by
other means.

Armenians of course were no angels and when their elite had commanded
primary economic positions in Georgia they had no hesitation in
humiliating their Georgian opposition. Yet this elite prejudice and
discrimination could not justify the indiscriminate Georgian elite's
campaign against the entire Armenian community within its
jurisdiction.  In Armenian populated territories that remained in
their control after the 1918 Georgian-Armenian war, Georgian leaders
resorted to national repression, cultural prohibition, economic
discrimination and even starvation in an attempt to cleanse contested
regions of their Armenian inhabitants. When almost the entire Armenian
population of 80,000 fled the Turkish invasion of Akhalkalak they
were, despite being formally Georgian citizens, denied rights of
transit or resettlement in other regions of state. They were later
denied the right of return to their homes. The result was in the
region of 30-35,000 dead.

In the drama of the Tchavakhk's Armenian community the British, as
they had done in Karabakh, Nakhichevan and elsewhere, again played
their pernicious role. Exploiting a vacillating Armenian government
they deployed deceptive diplomacy to impose arrangements that passed
Armenian populated regions to Georgian control. They urged Armenians
to relinquish rights not only to Tchavakhk, but to Karabakh (Artsakh)
and Zangezur on the grounds that large portions of Western Armenia
were to be offered them from the collapsing Ottoman Empire! Armenians
were also prompted to political passivity with promises that
international conferences would offer them justice! Melkonian does not
explain the roots of Britain's pro-Georgian policy, but it was
certainly driven in part by fear of a pro-Russian Armenia becoming a
rampart for Russian ambition just at the moment that Bolshevism had
been victorious. The British in addition had an eye on substantial
Georgian economic resources and sought to counter significant German
influence there.

Georgia's anti-Armenian policy continued well into the Soviet era when
they succeeded in grabbing more Armenian populated land and
consolidating their grip on Tchavakhk despite the vocal protests of
local Armenians. Nationally minded Armenian Communist Party leaders
such as Alexander Miasnikian, who attempted a more democratic
resolution, were no match to the influence that their Georgian
opponents had in Moscow. Yet despite the fact that the Armenian
population recovered its 1917 numbers only in 1989 and despite the
mass Armenian emigration of the 1950s-70s the Soviet era Georgian
nationalists failed to decompose Tchavakhk's Armenian majority.

In the post-soviet period the rampantly nationalist Georgian elite has
resumed its campaign, starving Tchavakhk of economic support and
redesigning provincial borders to break up and isolate Armenian
majorities in the hope of this time accomplishing their ambitions.
Armenian resistance however remains stubborn and confronted with an
unrelenting Georgian state this resistance could easily express itself
in a desire for annexation to Armenia.



`The Loss to Armenian Culture Caused by the Destruction of Armenian
Monasteries and Churches During 1894-1896 and 1915-1925' by Rev. Fr.
Dajad Yardemian (107pp, Mekhitarist Publication, San Lazzaro, Venice,
1995) should be compulsory reading. It shows why and how cultural
barbarism was integral to the Young Turk genocide attempt against the
Armenian people. In relation to Armenian culture the Young Turks acted
in accord with Nazi Goering's infamous remark that whenever he heard
the word culture he reached for his gun. With shocking statistical
data Yardemian catalogues the loss represented by the `2500 plundered,
burnt down or destroyed monasteries, Churches, libraries, refuges,
chapels and other holy places (p11)'.

Armenian Churches and Monasteries were more than just spiritual
centres and places of worship. They constituted social, cultural and
educational hubs of Armenian life, in many ages being an
organisational foundation and core. Religious establishments
functioned as schools, universities and academies. They were centres
of learning for historians, philosophers and poets. They were
workshops for the production of hundreds of thousands of beautifully
designed manuscripts and books. With their thousands of cultural
objects church building were veritable museums as well as being
architectural monuments. Church grounds were in addition social
centres and gathering points for popular celebrations.

Right into the 19th and 20th centuries this Church continued to play a
vital role in the Armenian life.  Grasping its central role in
sustaining Armenian nationhood, Sultan Hamid II's regime in 1896 and
the Young Turks thereafter identified it as primary targets. Their
mobs `took their rage out most fiercely on Armenian monasteries,
Churches, schools and libraries' writes Ormanian, that brilliant
historian of the Armenian Church (p20). The story is repeated with
greater savagery in 1915. Through the centuries the Armenian Church
had been targeted repeatedly by foreign invaders but none compares to
the scale, the speed and finality of the 1895-1925 vandalism.

In 1898 French lieutenant R Hubert registered the existence of 218
Armenian monasteries and 1740 Churches in Ottoman territories. In 1904
an official census registered a higher figure, 228 and 1958
respectively. The figures for the period just before the 1895-1896
massacres would of course have been even higher. According to Henri
Barbie during the 1895-96 massacres `568 Churches and monasteries'
were `destroyed or turned into Mosques (p19).' 1915 delivered the
final fatal blow. By 1919, 83 Archbishoprics, 1860 Churches and
chapels, 229 monastic institutions, 26 secondary schools, 1439
elementary schools and 42 orphanages had been wholly or partially

The loss this represented - to Armenian life and to human culture - is
staggering. Up to 200,000 manuscripts and books, ancient classical
literary, philosophic, historical and religious texts protecting
centuries of human thought were destroyed (p73). This loss, as
Yardemian rightly says, `cannot be measured by any material criteria
nor can it be replaced by other values.' The works of many historians
and intellectuals whose names have reached us will as `a result of
Young Turk vandalism now never be accessible to us and still how many
other unknown authors and their works will as a result also `remain
forever unknown' (p74).

Symbolising the Ottoman and Young Turk vandalism was the fate of the
8th century Monastery of Narek, home to the greatest Armenian poet,
10th century Krikor of Narek, a man of the stature of Dante. In 1896
the monastery was destroyed and in 1915 the manuscript of the poet's
`Lamentations' written many believed in his own hand was burnt. To the
loss of invaluable manuscripts is to be added the loss of vast amounts
of gold and silverware, bronze work, jewellery, woodwork, stone
etchings, crosses, chalices, Church vestments and decorations,
carpets, curtains, cushions and grave stones - all products of human
creativity, labour, ingenuity and skill.

Within what was Ottoman controlled historical Armenia, of the vast
heritage there once was, today virtually nothing remains and what
remains is also under threat of irreversible destruction,
notwithstanding recent cosmetic and propaganda moves by the Turkish
government. From 1925 onwards Churches that were not turned into
Mosques, storage depots or dumping grounds, were demolished, used as
military target practice and its stone plundered for local building

To the crime against humanity represented by the one and a half
million dead, is the crime of cultural barbarism. But the 1896-1925
attempts to annihilate Armenian culture and society failed, despite
the vastness of irreplaceable loss.

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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