By Armen Zakarian and Emil Danielyan
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze ended a two-day official visit to Armenia on Wednesday with renewed calls for the creation of a new security system in the volatile South Caucasus. Meeting with the faculty of Yerevan State University, Shevardnadze again put in circulation his idea of a “Caucasus Security Pact” that would bring peace to the region and usher it in a new era of development.
He suggested that Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and their “great neighbor” Russia should initiate an international conference that would discuss ways of putting in place a system of regional security. Similar proposals have been made in the past by other regional states. But it is widely agreed that their successful implementation hinges on the settlement of the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia.
Shevardnadze laying flowers at the genocide memorial in Yerevan
Shevardnadze and his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, reassured each other on Tuesday that their sometimes conflicting security interests will not harm bilateral ties. The two Caucasus neighbors, whose foreign policy priorities have differed over the past decade, sealed a comprehensive treaty on “friendship, cooperation and mutual security” at a summit in Yerevan.
The main highlight of the treaty is a provision obliging either party not to join alliances that are considered hostile by the other. The mutual commitment is aimed at addressing the unease with which Armenia and Georgia have followed the development of each other’s defense and security links with the more powerful third
Nations: Turkey and Russia.
The two presidents declared that the treaty puts their military contacts with Russia and Turkey respectively in a strictly bilateral framework, which precludes any threat to Tbilisi and Yerevan. “Rest assured that not a single treaty signed by Georgian leaders will ever be directed against Armenia’s interests,” Shevardnadze said at a joint news conference after its signing. “We know that you too sign many agreements and we know that they are not directed against Georgia.”
Shevardnadze alluded to Armenia’s military alliance with Russia which he has long accused of seeking to restore its hegemony over pro-Western Georgia. And while Tbilisi has been pushing for the closure of all Russian military bases in Georgia, Yerevan views their presence as a key element of its national security doctrine. Russian troops stationed in Armenia have been beefed up with sophisticated military aircraft and air-defense systems over the past two years.
Many Georgian politicians fear that the build-up could pose a threat to their country. They believe that Moscow was instrumental in Georgian troops’ defeat in the early 1990s at the hands of secessionist forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Armenian leaders, however, argue that the main rationale for their reliance on Russia is the perceived threat from Armenia’s traditional enemy, Turkey. They say it was the Russian military presence that had staved off Turkish intervention in the Armenian-Azerbaijani war on Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey, which shares ethnic and religious affinity with Azerbaijan, maintains an economic blockade of Armenia, demanding that Yerevan return the disputed region under Azerbaijani control. Ankara is also helping Georgia by supplying weapons and training military personnel. This is in line with the Shevardnadze government’s long-term goal of joining NATO.
The Turkish-Georgian military cooperation has caused unease in Armenia which is strongly opposed to the growth of Turkish influence in the region. “These fears are understandable for me in the emotional sense,” Kocharian explained on Tuesday. “But the document which we signed today aims to dispel them.”
Kocharian and Shevardnadze assured that they will not allow ties with other countries to spoil what they described as a “fraternal” rapport between Armenia and Georgia.
The Georgian leader on Wednesday laid flowers at the Tsisternakabert memorial to the victims of the Armenian genocide in Turkey. But at the meeting with the Yerevan university professors later in the day he stopped short of using the word “genocide” when referring to the “tragic events” of 1915. He welcomed the creation of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission, saying that Tbilisi “looks with hope” at its activities.
Shevardnadze also heaped praise on Georgia’s ethnic Armenian minority, saying that it is part of the country’s “indigenous population.” “The golden hands of Armenians built and continue to build Georgia,” he said. “The Armenian citizens of Georgia are part of the strength and wealth of our country.”
Periodic tensions in Georgia’s Javakhetia region mainly populated by Armenians are a potentially destabilizing factor in bilateral relations. Severe economic hardship in the region has prompted calls for greater autonomy from the Georgian government. The local population in Javakhetia is also opposed to the proposed withdrawal of Russian troops from a military base there -- a move the Georgian leadership strongly supports. Analysts believe that the continued Russian military presence gives Russia additional leverage against Tbilisi, whose control of the rugged area bordering on Armenia is limited.
Armenia is walking a delicate line on the issue, avoiding any confrontation with Georgia. Kocharian said the Armenian minority in Georgia should serve as a “bridge of friendship” between the two nations rather than divide them.