This is a story about those who live in the southern region of Georgia, Javakheti, and think that the rest of the country has long existed separately from them.
There are tens of thousands of citizens in Georgia who are almost completely dependent on another country - their families live off money earned in Russia. They have Russian and Armenian passports, and they receive information mainly through Russian and Armenian media.

The goal of the project is to find out why this happened. Is Russian influence growing in the region and does it pose a threat to the well-being of the people living there, as well as the statehood of Georgia and the stability of the region?

Javakheti is a historical and geographical province in the south of Georgia, a part of the Samtskhe-Javakheti region.

Javakheti is mainly populated by the citizens of Georgia, ethnic Armenians
2 588 sq. km.
69,561 (2014 census)
ethnic Armenian
Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki (two towns and 95 villages)
Javakheti consists of two municipalities
ethnic Georgians
Part I

Seasonal husbands

Thousands of men living in Javakheti leave their homes with the onset of spring and go to Russia for seasonal work. Until late autumn, men work in other countries to feed their families, and spend the winter in their homeland.

In winter, Javakheti is covered with snow. This region is located at an altitude of 2,100 meters above sea level. There is no such severe winter anywhere else in Georgia - sometimes the temperature here drops to -30 degrees Celsius.

When it snows heavily, the roads to the highland villages are closed for months. Roads are rarely cleaned in such villages.
Javakheti is an alpine zone, there are almost no forests here - but a lot of clean, fresh air, blue skies and beautiful lakes, which this region is very rich in, are covered with ice in winter.

Locals are used to harsh winters.
The architecture is also adapted to these conditions - in the villages mainly one-story stone houses are built. Some roofs are covered with hay, so the house retains more heat.

In recent years, gas has been supplied to many villages and many people bought domestic gas heaters. However, charcoal is still one of the main heating methods, especially in rural areas. Charcoal is a rectangular briquette, which is harvested all year round using a special technology.

"Coffee-Moffee?" - you will definitely get asked that in Javakheti when you are visiting someone. This means offering you a coffee.

We drive in an old semi-dead red Opel from Akhalkalaki to the village of Kartikami - uphill. The road is snowy an muddy, and our driver, Uncle Leva, doesn't even blink, driving his car through the snow.

A small family of three lives in the center of Karthikam. A large cast-iron stove stands in the hallway of a traditional Javakhetian stone house. It is warm inside. Coffee is brewed on the stove, the aroma of which spreads fills the entire house.
There is nothing unique in Garegin's history. This is the way of life for thousands of Armenian men here

Winter is a rare time of the year when all members of this family get together. For the mistress of the house, Venera, this is a real holiday - both her husband and son, who working in Russia, are now home.

Garegin is 60 years old. He explains why he has spent more than half of his life away from his family, in Russia.

“I am a mechanical engineer by profession. After finishing my studies in Rostov, I returned to my native village and started working as a school teacher. Then for some time I worked as an engineer on a farm, then in a quarry. When the Soviet Union collapsed, everything stopped here, all enterprises, everything.
Only the base worked. There were no jobs anywhere else. I had children and the family had to stay. It was very hard for me, but what could I do. I first left in 1996 and I have been supporting my family ever since”.

In Georgia, there are no official statistics on how many people leave for Russia, forming a seasonal labor market. The EMC (Social Justice Center), which studies minority issues, reports that in Javakheti, about 70% of working-age men are involved in labor migration.

According to a survey conducted by local media organization Jnews, 63% of families in Javakheti have at least one person working in Russia. That is, six out of ten families have a "seasonal husband" - that’s how they call men who only spend one season a year at home.

Unlike other regions of Georgia, where migration is also high, in Armenian families it is mostly men who take on seasonal work abroad.

The geography is very limiting - almost everyone from Javakheti goes to Russia.
Some spend six months there, others - ten months. It depends on what kind of work they do how fast they finish it.

According to the National Statistical Office of Georgia, in 2021, unemployment in Georgia reaches 18%.

In Samtskhe-Javakheti, the unemployment rate is 11.4%.

However, as experts say, this figure would be much higher if the statistics did not count self-employed as employed. That is, a person who left for another country for seasonal work, according to official statistics, is considered employed.
Garegin travels to Russia every year. He mainly works at construction sites, like other Javakhetian men.

Sometimes he builds a large object by order of some large company, sometimes he takes private orders - he repairs cottages and houses.

It is easy for men from Javakheti to find an employer in Russia. Many Armenians from Javakheti live there and have created their own construction companies, using their compatriots as cheap labor.

As a rule, several people from Javakheti travel together - as a “team”, where everyone has different building skills.

The average salary of Garegin and members of his “team” ranges between 55,000 and 65,000 Russian rubles [about $700-800] per month.

Javakheti men, "khopanchi" as they call those who go to work in Russia, bring home an average of 20,000-25,000 lari [from $ 6,000- 8,000] per season.

This money must be distributed even before departure.

“When you have everything at home, this money is budgeted easily. And if, for example, the wife calls and says that our refrigerator is broken, or the TV is burned out, or something else, then these are unforeseen expenses”, said Garegin.

Garegin spends an average of seven months a year in Russia. His wife Venera stays at home alone and does housework:

“Potatoes, cows, pigs, vegetables, cucumbers, tomatoes, fruits, we have everything. When he's here, he takes care of all this himself. It's hard - not only for him, but also for me. Laundry, cooking dinner, breakfast, washing dishes - all this is on me. And over there [he has to do it all himself]. It is difficult, of course, for a man, it is not easy for him to wash dishes or wash clothes.
Venera was 20 years old when she married Garegin. Prior to that, she graduated from an accounting college in Leninakan (Armenia). She worked in the village council for two years. Then her mother-in-law got sick and she quit her job.

The main goal of Garegin is to raise the family to such a level that his son does not have to leave to work abroad. Vladislav graduated from Batumi State University. For a year he worked as an intern journalist at the local Jnews outlet, but then, last year, he left for Russia with his father. Garegin does not want Vladislav to follow in his footsteps:

“I did not give him an education for that. If he has the opportunity to earn a living and live a normal life, I will not hesitate for a second, I will not let him go anywhere.

Russia's share in Georgia's remittances is the largest. For example, in January 2022, a total of $169 million was transferred to Georgia from abroad (12.7% more than in the same period last year). Russia is in second place with $22 million. Now is not the season, and this amount is not as impressive yet. In the summer of 2021, transfers from Russia amounted to $37-40 million.
“The influence of Russian money in the region is great. This money comes to Javakheti not only through seasonal migration, but also from thousands of people who use the money they earn in Russia to support their families and relatives in Georgia.

It doesn't matter if you are a seasonal migrant or not. It is important how much money comes from Russia to Javakheti. Seasonal migration is dangerous for Georgia, because these people, in addition to money, also bring the foreign [Russian] mentality. Conservative values ​​are strong in Russia, a person from there also becomes the bearer of these values ​​and is actually an ally of that state. And Georgia should develop differently”, says Arnold Stepanyan, director of the non-governmental organization Multinational Georgia.

Part II

Russian military base as a reminder of the good life

The Russian military base located in the city, which was disbanded in 2007, had, for many years, been a major socio-economic stronghold of the Armenian community of Javakheti, providing employment to hundreds of local residents and offering opportunities for quality education and treatment.
Abandoned, dilapidated buildings, half-empty houses, empty streets and the hum of a cold winter wind make this place look like a ghost town.

Sometimes women, wrapped in thick coats, come out of the porches to throw out the trash or pick up linen from the street, and then quickly disappear back into the house.

We are in the so-called "town" - on the outskirts of Akhalkalaki, where there used to be a Russian military base.

The last trainload of Russian military equipment left Akhalkalaki in May 2007, ending nearly 200 years of Russian military presence in the area.

Javakheti was the last point for the Russian Empire - an outpost against the Turks. For the local Armenians, the presence of Russia was a guarantee of their security and protection from their historical enemy - Turkey.

When Turkey became a member of NATO in 1952, the base in Akhalkalaki gained even more importance - it was located right on the border between the USSR and NATO.

The proximity to the border with NATO also meant that in Soviet times the entire region was a closed zone - foreigners were not allowed there, Soviet citizens also needed special permission.

Such closeness meant that relations between the Armenian population of Javakheti and the Russian military developed without any outside interference.

About 1,500 people worked at the Russian base during and after the Soviet Union. 10% of the local residents were Armenians living in Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda.

Therefore, the decision to close the base did not cause great joy in Akhalkalaki.

65% of Armenian residents consider the collapse of the Soviet Union a bad event (Source: NDI, April 2019)

On May 24, 2007, the last echelon with Russian military equipment left the Akhaltsikhe storage facility.

Rimma Gharibyan, editor of the local Jnews outlet, says that hundreds of locals left with the Russian military and were offered alternative service in Russia.

The Georgian authorities then promised local residents to create jobs in the region in return, in particular, to open a Georgian military base in the same area where local residents would work. However, even after 15 years, the problem of employment remains the most prominent in the region, as well as for the country as a whole.

Grandma Minazar is 80 years old.

She lives alone in a one-room apartment on the territory of the former military base. The house is cold, a heater is nowhere to be seen.

She was still a student at medical college, having arrived in Russia as an intern at a military hospital. The head physician liked her so much that he hired her straight from practice. Since then, Minazar has lived in the "town". Here she met her future husband - he was a military man, an ensign:

“In the hospital they called me a “spare tire” because I worked everywhere: in therapy, in the infectious diseases department, in cardiology. I was curious, I wanted to know everything. I worked until the Soviet Union collapsed. And then no one needed me anymore”.

“Me, Asya, Rimma, no one else”, Minazar names people who used to work at the base and now live in one of its buildings.

Grandmother Minazar had two sons, both of them went to Russia. A few years ago, one of them was killed in Moscow. Her husband also died three years ago.

Minazar still keeps her Soviet passport and receives pension from Russia:

“I couldn’t imagine such old age, such loneliness”, she tells us. “It was a good time then, the Soviet Union should not have collapsed. But we don’t want to talk too much, we don’t want problems”.

When she leaves, she puts sweets in our pocket and asks us to visit her sometimes:

“I have no one here, no relatives. I'm alone".

After the departure of the Russian military base, part of the residential buildings of Russian officers was handed over to local residents. Some of them sold houses - the buyers were mainly residents of Akhalkalaki villages. Some failed to sell, so they emigrated - their apartments are now closed and are slowly decaying without supervision.

“When I was little, this settlement was the most comfortable in Akhalkalaki. I remember how I ran away from school and came here - roads had asphalt, there were playgrounds, everything was clean and tidy”, recalls Rimma Gharibyan.

State language as a barrier

Most ethnic Armenians living in Javakheti do not speak Georgian. “Generations here grow up and grow old and never use state language in everyday life. Their mother tongue has no status in the state and therefore is not used officially. All this significantly complicates their integration with the rest of Georgia.
Rosa, Narine and Veronika are friends. They study at the Armenian folk school in the village of Zaki.

Rosa and Veronika are visiting Narine. Her father invited friends to have some trout.

In their families, neither parents nor grandparents knew the Georgian language.

“When you do not need a language in everyday life, you do not use it, then it is difficult to learn it. In the village, we all speak Armenian. That's all”, Narine Karakhanyan tells us.

Vardan is also among those who went to work abroad. His trout farm was built with money earned from seasonal work in Russia.

Vardan no longer travels to Russia. He takes care of trout while also working as a caretaker and supplier at a school in Zaki.

Vardan says there is a big difference between his generation and today's youth:

“In fact, we did not know a word of Georgian, but today's youth is learning the Georgian language well", he said.

According to the latest 2014 census, out of 81,089 ethnic Armenians living in Samtskhe-Javakheti, only 16,676 speak Georgian fluently.

There has always been a problem with Georgian language teachers and qualified staff in this region. Since 2009, long-term programs for studying the Georgian language have been launched in Javakheti.

“Teaching Georgian as a Second Language” was the name of the program, within the framework of which 50 Georgian teachers from different regions of Georgia were sent to work in Armenian-language schools in Javakheti.

Among them was Tsaulina Malazonia.

For 12 years now, Tsaulina has been living in a rented house in the village of Zaki in Javakheti and has been teaching Georgian to children at a local school. Rosa, Narine and Veronica are her students.
Tsaulina recalls how the locals greeted her in the village:

“When I arrived, they told me: “It’s good that you came and will teach Georgian. But there is no motivation for learning it, because people go to Russia to work, and to Armenia to study. Why do we need Georgian?!”
Tsaulina says that much has changed in Javakheti over the years:

“The main change is that young people are gradually starting to see their future in Georgia”.

A few years ago, most young people from Javakheti continued their studies in Armenia or Russia. The Russian-Armenian University in Yerevan was a good opportunity for young people to get higher education.

However, the project known as the Educational Program 1+4 turned out to be a turning point. The project has been implemented by the Georgian government since 2010. There is a quota for non-Georgian-speaking students - they take a general test in their native language, and then study Georgian intensively for a year (and pay 2,250 lari [about $700] for this). A year later they continue their studies in the desired undergraduate program without exams.

This program has significantly changed the choice of the youth of Javakheti.

In 2010, 247 non-Georgians entered Georgian higher education institutions under the “1 + 4 program”, in 2021, 1,331 young people were enrolled under this program.
However, change is still slow. After graduating from school for the Javakhetian youth, the question of continuing education in Georgia is still on the agenda.
Rimma Marangozyan, a native from Akhalkalaki, holds a master's degree in journalism from the Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA) in Tbilisi.

There were 17 students in Rimma's class. Four of them continued their studies in Tbilisi, one went to Yerevan. Rimma also wanted to go to Yerevan, but her family did not let her. Now she knows Georgian well:

“The preparatory course was easy. I didn't learn much that year, only grammar. I had a very small conversational base, so the first course was very difficult for me. It was a nightmare, I could not understand what the lecturers were talking about. I studied day and night. The second year was relatively easy, and from the third year I no longer needed a dictionary.

Haykanush Karabekyan, 20, is studying linguistics at the Russian-Armenian University in Yerevan. Haykanush graduated from the Russian-language school in Akhalkalaki, so she chose Yerevan, where she studies in the Russian sector: “I also applied to Tbilisi State University, but in the end I chose Yerevan”, said Haykanush

She says that she is already forgetting Georgian a little, which she learned at school: “Now I live mainly in Armenia. If you want to know the language well, you must speak it regularly, you must have communication, which we do not have”.

Now Rosa, Narine and Veronika are faced with a choice:

“My brother studies at Javakhishvili University in Tbilisi. I also want to study there”, said Veronika Petrosyan, who is 17 years old and is due to enter the university in a year. In the meantime, she is trying to learn the Georgian language better.

Rosa's family was told that she should choose where to continue her studies.

Rosa chose Georgia: "I was born here, my friends are here, so I want to study here".

Narine also wants to continue her studies in Georgia: “Most of my relatives live in Armenia and Russia. But I love Georgia, my country, and I don’t want to go to another country”.

Tigran Tarziani, 27, is a local activist from Javakheti. He lives in Ninotsminda, in the village of Uchmana, and has a blog about the life of Javakheti.

Tigran says that the root of all problems in Javakheti is the lack of knowledge of the state language. There is no language learning environment in Javakheti - people don't use Georgian outside of class:

“Children have been studying Georgian at school for 12 years and still do not know it. Why?! Because there is no environment. It would also be nice to have practical courses, we need them, because we speak Armenian everywhere - in the village, at home, at school. You can't learn a language in 40 minutes or one hour a day".

There are 86 schools in Javakheti. The two largest schools with the most students are Russian-speaking.

Out of 86 villages in Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki, only 22 villages have a kindergarten.


Russian channels

Most residents of Javakheti watch Russian or Armenian TV channels daily. Almost no one here knows the Georgian language, so almost no one watches Georgian channels.

The evening of January 20, is cold, it is -11 degrees Celsius outside.

Haikazar Alvanyan sits at home with his elderly mother, watching TV. His wife Nadya Ghazaryan cooks Armenian soup in the kitchen. There is a fat cat by the stove. Evening news are on air of the Russian TV channel "Russia 24". The host talks about the negotiations between Moscow and America. This is the time when the whole world is waiting for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“Joe Biden continues to threaten Russia, new American technology is approaching the borders of Russia and Moscow is accused of aggression”, the host says.

“You can say who is a liar and who is a righteous man. They are in total competition with each other. Ukraine blames Russia, Russia blames America. Each side has its own truth. This is a whole life, Russia and America cannot decide which part of the world one country wants and which does the other", the host says.

According to a public opinion poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in April 2021, 40% of respondents watch non-Georgian-language channels in Armenian settlements in Georgia. In the list, the top four positions are occupied by Russian channels.
“We have been watching Russian channels since childhood, the whole family understands this language”.

At dinner, the family talks about the future of their children. They have two, and both studied in Yerevan. Nadya says that her eldest son, who now works as a programmer in Yerevan, should go to Russia: “They say these specialists have better salaries there”.

“For example, I recall one case - some kind of infection, late blight, attacked the potatoes, and we had to buy German drugs. But local farmers said, "We have never heard of such drug, they don't use it in Krasnodar [in Russia]." They are watching Russian channels for information on how to take care of the crops”, said Makhare Matsukatov, a local activist and head of the Business Association NGO.


Lost citizenship

Thousands of residents of Javakheti do not have Georgian citizenship. There are two reasons for this - some of them renounced Georgian citizenship when they went to work at the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki. The other part lost their citizenship a few years ago by accident, so as not to lose the opportunity to earn money in Russia.
Kamo Simonyan lives in the village of Zhdanov. All his life he traveled to Russia to support his family.

Kamo Simonyan lives in the village of Zhdanov. All his life he traveled to Russia to support his family.

Until 2006, it was easy to leave for Russia. After the Russian embargo in 2006 and then the war in August 2008, relations between Georgia and Russia soured and it became difficult for people to move between the two countries.

Therefore, thousands of Javakhetian Armenians discovered that they were no longer citizens of Georgia when they were at the border.

In 2013, the law on Georgian citizenship was amended, and everyone who had the citizenship of another country was automatically deprived of the Georgian one.

But no one warned the residents of Javakheti about such changes in the country’s legislation.

Therefore, thousands of Javakhetian Armenians discovered that they were no longer citizens of Georgia when they were at the border.

This means that thousands of people in Javakheti do not have access to state programs and do not participate in elections.

During the last two years, when there was a pandemic, the state did not even finance their treatment.
“These people want to regain their citizenship. They were born here, lived here, they had citizenship. They didn't want to go to Russia, it was a necessary measure to save themselves", said Harut Malkhasyan.
said Harut Malkhasyan.
Last year, Harut, along with several friends, founded a public organization in Javakheti. The first thing it wants to solve is the issue of returning citizenships to the inhabitants of the region.
There is no specific data on how many people were left without citizenship.

The number is estimated to range from 3,000 to 28,000.

To restore citizenship, applicants must pass a state language proficiency test.

The test consists of 200 questions. The applicant is required to have a general knowledge of the basics of law, the history of Georgia and the Georgian language.

Kamo Simonyan passed the exam twice and failed both times.

“I have been living in Georgia for 64 years, I was born and raised here. At this age, how can I learn Georgian? It is very difficult to accept that I am no longer a citizen of Georgia”, says Kamo Simonyan in an interview with the local TV Channel 9.
It's virtually impossible for anyone with citizenship problems here to pass the test, Harut says.

The public organization of Javakheti has already sent a letter to the president and public defender of Georgia. The organization demands that this issue be investigated. But the presidential administration is well aware of this problem.

Salome Zurabishvili was only a presidential candidate when she promised local residents who came to Javakheti to solve this problem.

Zurabishvili even made a Turkophobic statement, telling ethnic Armenians that ex-president Saakashvili "gave out citizenship to many Turks, but not to them".

Zurabishvili won 60% of the local vote in Javakheti, but no longer mentions stateless Javakhetian men.

Harut believes that the procedure for returning citizenship to these people should be simplified.

“Taking away Georgian citizenship from people who end up leaving the country as citizens of Russia (and you know what Russia says when it comes to the concept of security), is at least absurd! I do not understand it! This is another time-bomb added to already existing time bombs in Javakheti”, Arnold Stepanyan said.

Is Javakheti's dependence on Russia a threat?

"Tomorrow there may be riots in Javakheti, and people will want to secede from the state. Abkhazia and Samachablo [South Ossetia] might do the same”, said Mahara Matsukatov.

Tamta Mikeladze, director of the Equality program at the Center for Social Justice (EMC), says the government is responsible for Javakheti's severe isolation.

She believes that the perception of Russian threats is somewhat exaggerated, and the state uses this attitude against the Armenian community:

“This topic is used against the abandoned region and people, who are trying to escape to other markets in order to survive in the realities that exist around them. They are accused of having high interests and strong ties with Russia. Naturally, if the state created a base for their employment and earnings in Georgia, there would not be so many problems in this region”.

“Risks in this region, of course, exist and have always existed”, said Arnold Stepanyan, noting that state policy should be pragmatic, but focused on long-term rather than short-term policy:

“If you are in power, you want opposition, and when you think about the country, you should think not only about what happens during your reign, but also about what will happen to the country in the future. There is always something going on in this country, and the mood is something like this - what time is it for minorities?! This is not true. This approach can be understood from the pragmatic point of view - let's control this region so that nothing happens before we start the integration process, but this is wrong".

Project team:

Sopho Bukia

Original author
Nino Narimanishvili
Author, journalist

David Pipia Пипия

Photo/ Video

Rima Garibyan

Project adviser

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