You see houses all around. Half of them are empty. Everyone left. They could not live here anymore. We are 40 kilometers from Ninotsminda (regional center). We do not have a kindergarten, doctor, or market in the village. We do not even have natural gas. We use Tsiva( dried manure) for heating.
We need 500 Lari to go to the city in winter, and a safe return is not guaranteed. Do you know why? When my wife was about to deliver a baby, we went to the hospital with my „Willys.“ Blizzard caught us, and we did not know if we could live or die. Sometimes, we need to call a tractor to avoid freezing or burying alive if we are stuck on the road.
Sometimes we cannot even find fuel in the whole village. We spoke about that with our deputies last year,“ – Genadi Gigilov has much to say about local issues, but having a road is the most important.
Akhali Khulgumo is located in Ninotsminda municipality, west bank of Paravani lake, 2150 meters above sea level. The village is 3 kilometers away from Tsalka-Ninotsminda motor road. Locals cannot use the road in winter.
Snow-drifts from Samsara and Javakheti range cover the road, making it impassable. Tractors rarely clean it. Another option for Akhali Kulgumo residents is to pass through a frozen lake at the expense of their lives.
On December 7, 2004, Boris Topalian, 20, and three brothers – Oganes Gigilov 24, Vitali Gigilov 25, and Esai Gigilov 26 were driving on the lake when it collapsed, drowning all of them. Ice collapsed under the feet of Poghos Chivchian on November 28, 2009. His brother, Roman, 16, heard the boy screaming and ran to help him. Unfortunately, the lake collapsed again, killing both of the brothers.
„The road near Akhali Khulgumo is always open. However, we cannot clean it in blizzards. As for the kindergarten, there are only 15 children in the village. More children live in Rodionovka, where we plan to open the kindergarten in 2021, - Says Mayor of Ninotsminda, Anivard Mosoian, to “Mtis Ambebi.“
We take risks when we do not have any other choice
In winter, Egor and Andrey go fishing on the frozen lake. They drill holes in the ice to catch different varieties of fish. Fishing is a daily and stable source of income for those living in villages encircling the lake.
Andrey is 30. He sails in a lake with his boat at 7:00 AM every morning and returns at noon. They repeat the same routine starting 4:00 PM until late evening. In winter, days are shorter, and Andrey goes home in darkness. They have caught 10kg of vendace today. The price of 1kg is 4-5 Lari.
„Buyers like this price, but for us, to risk our own lives… Fishing in a strong wind like this is dangerous. Still, we take this risk when we do not have any other choice,“ – Andrey and other fishermen are worried that after enlisting Paravani lake in Javakheti Protected Area, the administration will ban fishing there.
Andrey and other residents also own cattle but can’t use them for farming, even though the village is rich in pastures.
„540ha of the land is granted to one person on lease. He pays 3000 Lari and rents the place on shepherds from other regions for 20000 Lari. We cannot use pastures in our village. At the meeting with the regional government, we asked them to lease the land to us instead of some millionaires.
Akhali Khulgumo is not the only village where locals have issues regarding pastures. In Orlovka, Gorelovka, Jhdanovakan, Saghamo, Orojalar, Eshtia there were numerous rallies last year. Locals protested the practice of government members or their relatives „grabbing“ thousands of hectares of land. They do not trust the designated workgroup created in the Ninotsminda city assembly. One of the persons owning the land is the head of the city assembly.
„Sumbat Kiureghian, head of the Ninotsminda city assembly, owns 170 ha of the land. In 2015 he bought
159 ha for 50000 Lari. 314 Lari per hectare.“
His mother, Margarit Kiureghian, owns 137ha of the land in Gorelovka. Seiran Kiureghian, director of Ninotsminda election administration and father of the head of city assembly, owns 131 hectares in the same village. In total, the Kiureghian family is owners of 438ha only in Gorelovka.
According to statistical data, the number of livestock in Samtskhe-Javakheti has reduced by 11000 between 2016 and 2019.
Another source of income in Samtskhe-Javakheti is potato farming. Unfortunately, the total harvest of potatoes has reduced from 160000 tons in 2016 to 115000 tons in 2019. Locals indicate several reasons: youngers leaving for Russia, hard work required to farm potatoes, and low product price.
„There are no jobs here. Only teachers have jobs. The young generation leaves for Russia; others stay here torturing themselves working on potatoes. 50-60 Tetri is the price. Before every election, we are promised the potato factory, but nothing happens. Everybody lies. It’s like they don’t even know us after elections,“ – Rubik Mgdchian, 68, lives in Gomani. Almost every young person from his village works in Russia.
Georgian programs against Russian leverage
According to the 2014 census, out of 81089 ethnic Armenians living in Samtskhe-Javakheti, only 16676 speak fluent Georgian.
In 2010 Georgia started the 1+4 educational program, fully funded from the state budget. Ethnical minorities can receive higher education using this program. Students study the Georgian language during the first year and, in case of getting 60 credits, continue learning on their desired faculty. The number of students taking part in the program gradually increases. In 2010 there were 247 students; In 2019, there were 1335.
State Administration School, named after Zurab Zhvania, offers Georgian language courses in Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, and Kakheti.
Professional assistance program for non-Georgian schools also aims to teach the Georgian language to ethnic minorities, with teachers in Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki schools. There are 86 public schools in these two regions. However, the program cannot cover half of them.
Khatia Mekokishvili started teaching in Javakheti 8 years ago. She did not know Armenian, and others around her did not speak Georgian.
„The language barrier made even using public transport complicated. I am the only person who speaks Georgian among these people. From the beginning, we were strangers here, but everything gradually changed, and I’ve been working here for eight years already. I was planning to stay for a year here,“ – Khatia teaches in Gomani public school. She says learning the Georgian language helps decrease the pro-Russian mindset, even though dependency on Russian capital is still high.
More and more students from Javakheti choose Russian or Armenian education.
According to the National Democratic Institute (NDI) research, 65% of the population in Georgian Armenian settlements thinks that the dissolution of the USSR was an adverse event for Georgia. Furthermore, 53% believe that developing a better relationship with Russia will be more beneficial for Georgia than the EU and NATO. These indicators are the highest in Georgia.
Russian and Armenian TV channels are the primary source of information in Javakheti.
In past years, several independent Georgian organizations: jnews.ge, skynews.ge, Ninotsminda community radio „Nori,“ TV channel 9, started Armenian-language broadcasting for the local population. The only Georgian Russian-language channel, „TOK TV,“ tries to replace Russian media for locals. The website of Georgian Public Broadcaster provides information in Armenian. The main news program „Moambe“ is being simultaneously translated into Armenian and Azerbaijani languages.
Kristina Marabian, a journalist at jnews, says that Russian channels still are the primary source of information in Javakheti.
„80% of the population gains economic profit from Russia. So how strong do you think the dependency on Russia would be?“
„People here want Georgia to have a good relationship with Russia. They want to go there, return home and support a family. The fact that locals work in Russia increases the dependency and positive attitude towards Russia. We don’t have factories here. We don’t have public offices where the Georgian language could be required to work. Therefore, people cannot understand the merits of knowing Georgian. We have the public service hall, but only people educated in Tbilisi work there. If you ask a shepherd or potato farmer, they do not need Georgian. 95% of us are Armenian and communicate in Armenian, unfortunately. Only the younger generation who want to work needs the Georgian language. However, there are no jobs here. No motivation to learn Georgian. We all know it is the official language of Georgia, and we need to learn it. Still, it’s hard to learn a language you do have communication on.“
Jnews.ge is a trilingual (Armenian, Georgian, Russian) internet publication, working with aid from international foundations since 2014.
„We wanted to provide information to the Javakheti population and also to let know the rest of Georgia what the situation is like here. Some stereotypes show the Javakheti population as strangers, non-patriots, separatists. That not the reality“, - says Kristina and accents on lack of state attention to Kvemo Kartli and Javakheti.
Young people leave this place. Now borders are closed, but once they open, a new wave of migration will start.