By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian indicated on Monday that Armenia supports continued presence of Russian troops in Georgia’s Javakhetia province predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians. Speaking ahead of his Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze’s official visit to Yerevan, he said the Tbilisi government, which is pushing for Russia’s withdrawal from the military base there, should reckon with the opinion of the local population opposed to its closure.
“We understand the worries of Javakhetia’s population over the possible withdrawal of the Russian military base,” Kocharian told the Georgian Prime News agency publicized by his press service. “The people there feel safer with the military base than without it. That is why we believe that it is necessary to take very balanced decisions.”
Negotiations between Russia and Georgia on the future of the base in the town of Akhalkalaki stalled earlier this year. The two countries are still far apart on the key question of when it should be shut down. Shevardnadze’s government wants the Russians to pull out within the next three years. But Moscow says it needs at least ten years to vacate the facility.
Kocharian said the issue is an internal Russian-Georgian affair but added that the base is “the only source of survival” for many Javakhetia Armenians. He also pointed to the perceived security threat from neighboring Turkey frequently cited by them. According to Kocharian, the Armenian and Georgian authorities have closely cooperated on addressing problems facing the Armenian minority in Georgia. He said his government stands ready to further assist Tbilisi in improving the socioeconomic situation in Javakhetia.
The Akhalkalaki base, the largest single employer in the economically depressed region, is one of the four Russian military facilities on Georgian territory. One of them was closed this summer. Georgia’s pro-Western leadership wants a quick end to the Russian military presence to pave the way for an eventual membership of NATO. Tbilisi is keen to deepen military cooperation with NATO member states, including Armenia’s arch-enemy Turkey. Yerevan, by contrast, maintains close defense links with Moscow.
Kocharian claimed that Russia plays a “stabilizing role” in the South Caucasus and reiterated Armenia’s unease over growing military ties between Georgia and Turkey. He said: “We are closely watching the development of Turkish-Georgian military cooperation. The current scale of that cooperation does not give us cause for serious concern, even though we don’t feel happy with that for understandable reasons.” Kocharian signaled Armenia’s opposition to the idea of Georgia eventually joining NATO when he warned against the creation of “new lines of confrontation in the South Caucasus.”
Shevardnadze will arrive in Armenia on Tuesday for a two-day official visit during which he will discuss a wide range of issues of mutual interest. The two presidents are due to sign several economic agreements, including a deal on re-structuring Georgia’s $20 million debt to Armenia. Under the agreement finalized by the finance ministers of the two countries, its repayment will be postponed until 2021. In a weekly radio address to the nation on Monday, Shevardnadze described the trip as very important. “We have common problems such as [ethnic] conflicts and are both looking for ways to resolve them peacefully,” he said, according to the Caucasus Press news agency.
The two leaders are likely to discuss the recent upsurge of violence in Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia which has a substantial ethnic Armenian population. Over a dozen local Armenian civilians were reportedly killed earlier this month in two attacks blamed on a combined force of Georgian and Chechen militants. Kocharian said Yerevan is “worried” about the plight of Abkhazia’s Armenian community but stopped short of blaming any of the parties for the killings.
Kocharian did not rule out Armenia’s participation in international efforts to resolve the Abkhaz conflict, but made it clear that “this can not be a separate mediation effort.” And he said it is “unlikely” that the Armenian military will be involved in a multi-national peace-keeping force which Shevardnadze hopes will replace the Russian contingent in Abkhazia.