By Lilit Grigoryan and Pietro Shakarian
Ajara is a unique region in the Caucasus. A state within a state, it is an autonomous republic of Georgia, located in the southwestern corner of the country on the Black Sea coast, with Turkey to the south. It is home to a significant Armenian community and has served as a popular tourist destination for Armenians vacationing from Armenia. This has had a positive effect on Armenian-Georgian relations.
Ajara: A General Introduction
As a region of Georgia, Ajara is famous for its tea, citrus, tobacco, crop, and subtropical fruit growing. It is also considered to be the best and the largest beverage distributor in Georgia (wine and mineral water).
One of the most famous dishes of Georgian cuisine — Ajaran khachapuri (or Ajaruli) — is native to Ajara. It is a sort of “Georgian egg pizza,” made by placing a dough boat of bovine cheese in an oven and baking it. Once browned, a raw egg is added to the cheese bread. The khachapuri is then baked once more for three minutes. Once finished, a slice of butter is added, and it is ready to serve.
The Ajaran capital, Batumi is an old city, mentioned as “Bathus” in the first century by Pliny. Located on the Eastern shore of the Black Sea, the city has warm though humid subtropical climate. Temperatures are relatively high in winter, and in summer 35°C is no exception. Because of this, Batumi was a major center for Soviet tourists and today remains a major center for tourism from Europe and the former USSR.
In fact, the beauty of Batumi is so well renowned that Andrey Nikolayevich Krasnov, the founder of the Batumi Botantical Gardens once famously stated that “if St. Petersburg is considered as a window to Europe, Batumi with the same right can be called a window in Southern Europe.”
In ancient times, the region was colonized by the Greeks and it is in Ajara that the legend of the Golden Fleece is said to have taken place. Throughout much of its history, Ajara was part of different Georgian kingdoms until the 17th century when it was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. Later, it was taken by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, it was controlled by the Ottomans, the British, and the Menshevik Georgian Republic.
In 1921, the Ajaran capital Batumi was threatened by the Turkish nationalist forces of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. However, the Bolsheviks, who had gained control of Georgia proper, were able to retain Ajara in the Treaty of Kars. Turkey accepted Moscow’s control of the region on the condition that it would be granted autonomy, for the sake of the Muslims among the region’s mixed population. On July 16, 1921, the Soviet government declared the Ajar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Ajar ASSR) of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (Georgian SSR). Since the breakup of the USSR in 1991, the region has been part of independent Georgia.
Ajara is a highly diverse region, both geographically and demographically. As a territory, it is comprised of beautiful scenic mountains and warm, relaxing coastline. Ethnically, approximately 75% of population are Georgians, most of whom are from the Ajar subgroup. Religiously, the majority of these Georgians are Orthodox Christians, while a significant minority are Sunni Muslims.
Christianity has ancient roots in Ajara, dating back to early excursions by St. Andrew and St. Simon the Zealot to bring the faith to the region. However, with the onset of Ottoman rule, the population of Ajara gradually converted from Orthodox Christianity to Islam. Soviet rule brought secularization. Since perestroika and the subsequent independence of Georgia from the USSR, there have been massive re-conversions back to Christianity, though a significant Muslim minority remains.
Armenians in Ajara
In addition to the Ajaran Georgians, there are also many national minorities, including Russians, Abkhaz, and Ukrainians. There is a historic Greek community as well, and even an African community that goes back over 200 years! Overall, there are more than 80 nations and nationalities in Ajara.
But it is the Armenian community, which forms the region’s second-largest ethnic group that I would like to focus on.
The Armenian community has a historic presence in Ajara. It grew significantly following the incorporation of the area into the Russian Empire in 1878. More arrived fleeing the 1915 Armenian Genocide and by 1926, the Armenian population in Ajara (not including the Hamsheni) reached its height at 8% of the total population and 21% of the capital Batumi.
Today, Armenians form 3% of Ajara’s total population and 7.5% of the population in Batumi. However, “to many residents [of Batumi] they appear more numerous,” according to Vahan Ishkhanyan. “Perhaps the reason is you can find Armenians working industriously in many of Batumi’s workshops, photographic studios, and cafés.” The community generally maintains friendly and amicable relations with their local Georgian neighbors and intermarriages are common.
The Armenian church in Batumi, known at the St. Savior (Սուրբ Փրկիչ or Surb Prkitch) Church, was founded in 1873. Originally made of wood, it was destroyed and then later rebuilt by local donations under the supervision of the Austrian architect Robert Marfield in 1889. The great Russian-Armenian painter Ivan Aivazovsky, a native of Crimea, once planted a magnolia tree in the church’s courtyard. In 1923, as part of the Soviet anti-religious campaign, the church was dramatically closed and, in 1959, it was nearly torn down by Soviet authorities. However, it was saved through the efforts of the Ajaran Armenian community and the Armenian Catholicos Vazgen I. The building was preserved as an observatory until it was restored to the ownership of the Armenian Church in the post-Soviet era.
In the 19th century, an Armenian cultural center was founded in Batumi and later a theatre troupe which eventually led to the founding of a local Armenian State Theatre in 1931. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were four Armenian schools in Batumi and during the 1920s era of the NEP (Lenin’s New Economic Policy which mixed capitalism and socialism), an Armenian Artists Hall was founded and there were two Armenian newspapers. Today, there is only one Armenian newspaper, Source (Աղբյուր or Akhpiur).
Ajara also used to have a significant community of Muslim Hamsheni Armenians who spoke the Homshetsi dialect of Armenian. Many who had traveled to Russia in search of work found prosperous occupations as bakers in Batumi. However, most of the Hamsheni were concentrated in the southern portion of Ajara. In 1944, most of them, along with their neighbors, the Laz and other “unreliable populations,” were deported to Soviet Central Asia by Joseph Stalin.
During perestroika, these Ajaran Hamsheni petitioned Moscow to allow them to move to Soviet Armenia. At the time, Moscow decided against this, concerned about potential tensions between the Muslim Hamsheni Armenians and their Christian Armenian cousins. However, since the Soviet breakup, many of these Ajaran Hamsheni have resettled in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai and more recently in Armenia and Karabakh. Significantly, many Homshetsi-speaking Hamsheni still live south of Ajara, across the border in Turkey’s Artvin Province, where they comprise the majority in the city of Hopa and in the surrounding Hopa district.
Ajara under Abashidze
After Georgia became independent in 1991, Ajara became a semi-independent territory ruled by long-term leader Aslan Abashidze. Descended from an old feudal family, Abashidze went down in history as an “Ajarian lion” (Aslan) and stood out for his independent attitudes. As Abkhazia and South Ossetia became engulfed by ethnic violence and Georgia proper fell into civil war, Abashidze formed his own political, administrative and power structures in Ajara. He refused to pay taxes to Tbilisi, restricted the political rights of the people, and put his own “Ajaran” militia on the “border” with Georgia. He even created a new Ajaran flag, coat of arms, and national anthem, all of which are no longer used.
Due to his strong independent policy, Ajara became almost totally independent from Tbilisi. Corruption was a major problem and, much like his ancestors from the 16th century, Abashidze ruled Ajara like his own feudal estate. While not advocating outright separation from Tbilisi, he nonetheless maintained off-and-on relations with Georgian President Eduard Shevarnadze.
Armenian attitudes toward Abashidze were mixed. Though he reserved top level political positions for local Ajaran Georgians and was widely regarded as corrupt, he nonetheless managed to maintain stability in Ajara, avoiding the civil war in Georgia proper and the chauvinistic nationalism of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Among other things, Abashidze allowed for Armenian news broadcasts in the Armenian language and it was Abashidze who returned the St. Savior Church to the Armenian community. It is said that the great “Ajaran lion” had a soft spot for Armenians, stemming from the fact that, as a child, his father was cared for by an Armenian woman.
After the 2003 Rose Revolution, in which the overtly pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili came to power, Abashidze declared a state of emergency in Ajara and a confrontation began with the new government of Georgia. Eventually, a massive movement began, sympathetic to the Rose Revolution, to finally oust Abashidze from power in Ajara.
The situation reached crisis levels on March 14, when Saakashvili was denied entry into the territory by Aslan Abashidze’s armed supporters. However, amid mounting pressure from the Ajaran public and fears of civil war, Abashidze resigned on May 5, 2004. The next day, the embattled Ajaran leader flew to Moscow. The departure of the “Lion of Ajara” is still celebrated in Ajara to this day.
After Abashidze, construction and restoration work in Ajara began intensively. Within a very short period of time, historic buildings were renovated and almost all the state institutions (ministries, banks, theatres, hospitals, etc.) were constructed in a new architectural style. Today, the governor of the region is Archil Khabadze of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgian Dream coalition. He has maintained good relations with both the Armenian community and with visiting officials from Armenia.
Today, Ajara is the one of the most developing regions in the Caucasus. Due to its subtropical climate and wonderful nature, it has become a major center for tourism in Georgia. It also plays a very important economic role in the whole region, especially for small, landlocked Armenia which have no access to the sea. Tourists from neighboring Armenia regularly vacation in Ajara. The growth of Armenian tourism has impacted Armeno-Georgian relations positively. In November 2006, Batumi became a sister city to Vanadzor in northern Armenia. In addition, Yerevan also has an official consulate in Batumi.