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“Obviously there are several attributes that distinguish the population in this region from the majority Georgian population,” notes Christofer Berglund, a Ph.D. candidate based at Uppsala University in Sweden, who is studying ethnic minorities in Georgia, including Armenians living in Samtskhe-Javakheti. “There is the linguistic one, the religious one, the ethnic one ... there are the surnames. So there are many differences separating the population in this region from the majority. Each of these attributes contributes a potential ground for discrimination.”

He notes that while he was researching life in the villages a few years ago, locals referred to going to Yerevan as traveling to Armenia, and going to Tbilisi as traveling to Georgia.

“Which implicitly reflects a state of ambiguity of where the region actually belongs,” he says.

But today life is better for many in the tiny Catholic villages &mash; and their Armenian Apostolic neighbors &mash; which make their ties to Tbilisi much stronger. In part, the change is the result of a series of reforms put in place by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, the outgoing leader who initiated broad, sweeping language policies and infrastructure plans to help ethnic minorities find their place in the Georgian state. State scholarships &mash; and special rules for ethnic minorities taking the state exams — have helped Armenian students enter Georgian universities, assisting the minority communities in creating a life for themselves in Georgia, instead of emigrating to Armenia or Russia.

Infrastructure projects have also helped make life more bearable for Armenian communities. Villages such as Ujmana and Eshtia, along with neighboring Toria, were finally connected to the nation’s natural gas system so residents can heat their homes with inexpensive gas, instead of being forced to buy logs for wood burning stoves.

In addition, a concerted effort has been made to teach the youth Georgian, in addition to Armenian, the language most spoken in village homes.

Dr. Tereza Ovsepian, a family doctor who serves the area as a physician and an ambulance medic, says life is getting better for many households in the area.

“There are problems here, of course. There are problems in every government. But we cannot say that everything is bad here, and good somewhere else,” she says, noting that she is optimistic the government will resolve issues like the poor roads “with time.”

“The big thing is the road — they need to fix that somehow. They gave us gas — that has been a big help. The social service program is operating well here, there is a free ambulance service and free insurance for pensioners and free health programs. So it is not correct to say we only have problems here.”

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