By Hrach Melkumian
The Armenian and Georgian militaries reaffirmed on Friday plans to forge closer ties, saying that their joint “working groups” are already exploring possibilities for cooperation. The chief of staff of the Armenian army, General Mikael Harutiunian, and his visiting Georgian counterpart, General Joni Pirtskhalaishvili, said the two neighboring states want to extend their relations into the area of defense and security.
Pirtskhalaishvili arrived in Yerevan on Wednesday for a three-day working visit. He on Friday met with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian to discuss ways of boosting bilateral defense ties.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Harutiunian after the talks Pirtskhalaishvili said Georgian-Armenian military cooperation “has already begun.” He said the signing of a memorandum of understanding by the two army chiefs marked an “historic moment” in bilateral relations.
Harutiunian, for his part, said the two militaries are planning “joint activities,” but added that they have still to decide what concete forms they will take. “Our working groups must look very carefully into existing possibilities,” he explained. “We will make a decision very soon.”
The joint working groups were formed following Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s visit to Georgia last October. Sarkisian said after the trip that the two militaries agreed to maintain “permanent contacts.”
On Thursday, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian announced that Yerevan will seek to upgrade its relationship with Tbilisi in line its intention to step up defense cooperation with the United States and other Western powers that are being increasingly involved Georgia. Sarkisian said Armenia supports Georgia's position on solving the conflict with its breakaway region of Abkhazia. He said that Yerevan is particularly concerned about Abkhazia because of the large Armenian community living there, "and we don't want Armenians to be pulled into military actions."
Premier Markarian also voiced concern at the plight of ethnic Armenians in Abkhazia and another Georgian region, Javakhetia. Markarian was quoted by his press service as telling Pirtskhalaishvili on Friday that he hopes the Georgian government “will not allow certain forces” to destabilize the situation there. “Our wish is to see Georgia as a stable, economically developed and strong state,” he said.
According to a government news release, Pirtskhalaishvili replied that the Georgian authorities “take into account interests of [ethnic] Armenian citizens.”
Pirtskhalaishvili also told reporters that Georgia does not plan to take military action in its lawless Pankisi gorge anytime soon despite the impending arrival of U.S. troops.
The United States claims that members of the Al-Qaeda terror network are among Islamic militants that have fled to the area from Russia’s breakaway region of Chechnya. Washington announced last month that it will send up to 200 military instructors to Georgia to train its armed forces for an anti-terror campaign in Pankisi.