By Emil Danielyan
Military cooperation between Turkey and Georgia does not threaten security of Armenia or any other third country, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili said on Monday, in another effort to allay Yerevan’s concerns about Ankara’s military engagement in the region.
“Tbilisi will not take steps directed against Armenia,” Menagharishvili told the Georgian Prime News agency. "Therefore, such fears on the part of some elements in Armenia's political elite are unfounded," he said.
Earlier this year, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian expressed concern at the growing military contacts between Armenia’s two western neighbors, warning that they could disrupt the existing “balance of forces” in the South Caucasus. Georgian leaders, including President Eduard Shevardnadze, insist that the worries are not justified.
Turkey has provided $15 million worth of assistance to the cash-strapped Georgian army over the past four years. The most recent such grant worth $2.5 million was announced on June 4 during a visit to Tbilisi by a high-ranking delegation of the Turkish general staff. The bulk of the sum, $2 million, will go toward modernizing a motorized infantry division, rebuilding a military airfield near the Georgian-Armenian border and for equipment for the military academy in Tbilisi.
Sixty-six Georgian officers and 29 cadets are now undergoing training in Turkey. Fifteen more Georgian servicemen are to be sent to Turkey for the next academic year.
It is not clear if the subject of Turkish-Georgian military cooperation was on the agenda of regular “consultations” between senior Armenian and Georgian diplomats that ended in Yerevan over the weekend. Meeting with a visiting Georgian deputy foreign minister, Oskanian described the relationship between the two neighboring states as “the most important factor of stability in the region.”
The perceived threat from Turkey is seen as the main reason for Armenia’s reliance on Russia for security guarantees. The Russian-Armenian military alliance, a key element of Yerevan’s national security doctrine, is part of a broader defense grouping bringing together six former Soviet republics. The signatories of the 1992 Collective Security Treaty (CST) held a two-day summit in Yerevan late last month, pledging more joint efforts to fight what they described as “international terrorism and extremism.”
Georgia, which has had strained relations with Russia for much of the past decade, pulled out of the CST along with Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan in 1999, saying that the ex-Soviet alliance has proved ineffectual. Menagharishvili said on Monday that his country has no intention to rejoin the treaty because “the situation in the CST does not seem to have changed.”
Tbilisi is instead keenly interested in developing ties with NATO and has not ruled out the possibility of seeking alliance membership some time in the future. As recently as last week, it hosted military exercises in western Georgia under NATO's Partnership for Peace program. More than 4,000 troops and 40 ships from 11 countries, including Turkey and Azerbaijan, practiced peacekeeping duties, rehearsed earthquake relief and the rescue of a ship in distress, and conducted anti-guerrilla exercises near the Black Sea port of Poti.
The exercises were “very successful and useful,” according to Shevardnadze.
The Shevardnadze administration has been pushing for the withdrawal of all Russian troops stationed on Georgian territory within the next three years. Two of the four Russian military bases in Georgia are to be closed down by July 1 under the terms of an agreement signed at a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe at Istanbul in 1999.
Some of the personnel of the Vaziani base 30 kilometers south of Tbilisi will return to Russia, while the remainder will be allocated to jobs at the other bases in Georgia or at Russian bases in Armenia, AFP reported on Monday, quoting a senior Russian military commander. The other Russian base due to be evacuated soon is in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia.
The fate of the two remaining facilities, located in the autonomous republic of Ajaria and the Armenian-populated region of Javakhetia, remains uncertain, with Moscow demanding that it retain them for another 14 years.
Javakhetia Armenians are strongly opposed to the Russian troop pullout, also citing the alleged Turkish threat.