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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Russian Base Means No Work, No Nothing

AKHALKALAKI, Georgia -- For Tariko Petrossyan, the Russian military base on the hill is a lifeline.

"When work at the base finishes for the day, everyone does his shopping," says Tariko, who sells washing powder from a rickety stall at the back of the town's bazaar. "If the base closes down, no one will have the money to buy anything anymore."

Built in the 1960s, the Russian base at Akhalkalaki was one of four in Georgia used to guard the Soviet Union's southern border. But an agreement signed by the Russian and Georgian presidents two years ago states that all the military bases must close. Russian troops in Tbilisi and Abkhazia have already packed up and gone home.

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In Akhalkalaki, the idea of closing the base fills the local population with dread. The base is the region's biggest, and almost only, employer. People from the town work there as technicians, cleaners and cooks, or they serve the officers.

There used to be other industry in the area -- a dairy, a slaughterhouse, a couple of factories -- but all those have closed.

"Without the base," says Tariko, wiping a tear away with the corner of her dirty apron, "we're sunk."

Akhalkalaki stands apart from other towns in Georgia because 96 percent of the population is ethnic Armenian. Many of the residents moved to the area to escape the massacre of millions of Armenians in western Turkey at the start of World War I.

But they haven't integrated well into Georgia. Most don't know more than a few words of Georgian, and it's rare to see a Georgian lari in the town. Everyone uses Russian rubles or Armenian dram.

The only road out of Akhalkalaki is one of the worst in Georgia. Closing the base would leave it cut off from the rest of the country in every sense.

Their greatest fear, Tariko says, is that Meskhetian Turks, deported from the area by the Soviets, will come and resettle there, and Georgian authorities have said this wouldn't be a problem. Given the traditional hostilities between the two races, Armenians are terrified this could lead to another bloodbath.

The Georgian government has promised to provide new work in the region. But it has more pressing concerns in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and the Pankisi Gorge and, anyway, the residents of Akhalkalaki don't believe it.

The town's radical Virk party is now calling for autonomy from Georgia. Tariko, like many others, supports the idea.

"We won't let the base go quietly," she says. "If necessary, we'll fight to keep it open. After all, we have to live. The Georgian government should remember that."

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.