Havlabar: Armenian community in Tbilisi pays the price of urbanization

News of the construction of an elite district in Tbilisi was uneasily met by the Armenian Diaspora of Georgia. The new district is to be constructed in Havlabar, the hilltop of the city and the home for the majority of 150,000 Armenians of Tbilisi.

Havlabar, the historical area of Armenian habitation in Georgia is called “Little Armenia on the hill.” Mostly covered by private houses Havlabar is well known for its “Italian yards”, when families from several houses share the one yard. Traditionally here lived the Armenian craftsman and traders and some houses still bear the signs in Armenian language of the people living there. Houses constructed by the richest and famous Armenian dynasties like Mantashov and Aramiants still stand in the district.

Despite the assurance of the Georgian authorities that the Havlabar residents will be offered enough compensation for their houses some people both in Tbilisi and Armenia see serious political motives behind the construction. Many Armenians believe that the destruction of Havlabar is another step by the Georgian authorities toward the extirpation of the history of Armenians in Tbilisi.

Three years ago the largest Georgian Orthodox Church Holy Trinity was constructed in Havlabar and now next to the church is being constructed a seminary in the area which used to be the oldest Armenian cemetery “Khojivank.”

Arnold Stepanyan, the head of the “Tbilisi Community of Georgian Armenians” non governmental organization in Tbilisi says as the cemetery was considered by the Georgian authorities to be old no reburial was organized and a great number of skeletons appeared during digging the foundation ditch.

“That was very insulting. The bones and gravestones, mostly Armenians were scattered all over the construction site. Only after Armenian organizations in Georgia interfered the gravestones have disappeared from the construction site during one night.”

Stepanyan says the reconstruction of Havlabar was proposed by the president Mikhail Saakashvili personally and not recently. He says he saw the plan of reconstruction of Havlabar hang in the office of the president since he was elected.

“Once I had a meeting with the president and saw the Havlabar master plan on the wall. I asked what this plan is and the president said that it would be a new business center of the city. When I asked where the Armenian population will move he changed the topic but then laughed off that the Armenian Diaspora will be financing the project.”

Lamara Hambartsymyan’s family moved from Tbilisi to Yerevan 35 years ago, but her daughter Gayane got married and was back to Tbilisi. Now Gayane lives in Havlabar, in a house bequeathed by her grandmother.

“We all worry what will be next,” says Lamara, “and we are concerned that the residents of Havlabar would share the fate of North Avenue in Yerevan, when the residents were forcibly kicked out to the streets and offered a pittance.”

“But the issue of compensation is only part of the story,” Hambartsyumyan adds. “We (Georgian Armenians) are shocked by the fact that Havlabar would disappear in Tbilisi. In a few decades there will be not a single sign that the district was built and inhabited by the Armenians.”

Ruben Ananikyan, another Havlabar resident expresses the utmost opposite opinion. Ahanikyan, the founder and the head of the non-governmental organization in Tbilisi “Inter ethnical tolerance” welcomes the construction of the new district and does not see in the urban project any manifestation against Armenians. He says that many houses in Havlabar lack elementary hygiene, like sewage or water supply.

“No one is going to kick Armenians from the district. We were promised after the district is constructed people will get homes in the new buildings. During the construction people will be offered financial compensation to rent apartments somewhere in the city.”

“All these talk of the ‘Georgian hatred towards Armenians’ is largely exaggerated. Havlabar is a problem for the city but only in terms of the old district. All countries worldwide have problems with the old dwellings of their cities. And Georgia is going to do what is done in all civilized countries- to destroy the old and construct the new.”

Sergey Minasyan, the political analysts of the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan sees the merit of both opinions.

“From the one side no one can deny that the construction in Havlabar is an urban project, followed by the reconstruction in other old and historical parts of Tbilisi, like Vake, Saburtalo or Sololaki. Havlabar could be called a façade of Tbilisi but since many houses there are uncared for it looks unattractive.”

But the analyst says from the other side in the destruction of Havlabar there are some obvious political motives. He says in fact the elimination of Armenian historical presence has started in Georgia long ago, in 1920, when Armenian Soviet republic was created, then during Stalin’s rule which largely promoted the migration of Armenians from Georgia and then in 1990, during the rule of Georgia’s President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Eduard Yedikiselov from Yerevan is anxiously waiting for the news from Tbilisi concerning Havlabar. In 2001 Edikiselov has founded in Yerevan the “Union of Tbilisi’s Armenians” to keep the culture and traditions of the Georgian Armenians.

“Havlabar is a significant part of Armenian history in Tbilisi. The worse side of that story is that Armenians once compactly living in Havlabar will be dispersed. And no one could call the area ‘Armenian’ any more.”