By Emil Danielyan and Hrach Melkumian
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian told visiting Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze on Tuesday that Tbilisi should do more to alleviate wrenching living conditions in Javakhetia, Georgia’s restive Armenian-populated region.
Markarian urged the Georgian government to speed up the implementation of its plans for the socioeconomic development of the impoverished area bordering Armenia and Turkey. He said his government believes that increased economic assistance would ease “artificial tensions” in Javakhetia and stands ready to make its own financial contribution.
“It is time to get down to business,” the Armenian premier was quoted by his press office as saying. “Armenia is prepared to do everything it can to address the existing problems.”
The situation in Javakhetia, seen as another potential hotspot in Georgia, is a subject of regular discussions between the Armenian and Georgian governments. Markarian and his Georgian counterpart, Avtandil Jorbenadze, discussed the issue at a meeting in Moscow as recently as last May. But it is still not clear how the two governments plan to help the economically depressed region where public discontent is running high.
The dire economic situation is a key reason why local Armenians are opposed to the closure of a Russian military base in Javakhetia, their largest employer. Several thousand of them reportedly rallied in the regional town of Akhalkalaki last week to reaffirm their opposition to the withdrawal of Russian troops sought by the authorities in Tbilisi.
Tevzadze said upon his arrival in Yerevan on an official visit Monday that concerns of the Javakhetia Armenians are primarily economic ones and that the Georgian government is committed to addressing them. Tevzadze told Markarian that there must be no foreign troops on Georgian territory.
He was at the same time quoted as saying that President Eduard Shevardnadze will officially declare Georgia’s intention to join NATO at a summit of the Western alliance in Prague this November. Tbilisi has repeatedly stated that it will eventually seek NATO membership, but has so far refrained from formally launching the membership bid.
Unlike Georgia, Armenia maintains close military ties with Russia and is opposed to NATO’s expansion into the South Caucasus. In a rare foreign policy statement, Markarian called on Tuesday for “serious [Georgian-Armenian] discussions on the creation of a regional security system.”
The latest outbreak of tensions between Russia and Georgia over suspected Chechen rebel activity in the Pankisi gorge appears to have featured large during the Georgian defense chief’s meeting later in the day with President Robert Kocharian. Tevzadze passed on to Kocharian a written message from Shevardnadze explaining Georgia’s position in the bitter row with Moscow.
Speaking to RFE/RL afterwards, Tevzadze claimed that he and Kocharian did not discuss the possibility of Armenian mediation of the Pankisi crisis which Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian did not rule out last week. “This is a very interesting idea. We would welcome any mediation because this problem must be resolved quickly,” Tevzadze said as he left the Armenian parliament after meeting its multi-party leadership.
According to the chairman of the parliament’s committee on defense and security, Vahan Hovannisian, the Georgian minister and other officials accompanying him indirectly sought assurances that Yerevan will not back possible Russian military attack on the lawless gorge. “Our Georgian friends should not be worried about that,” Hovannisian told RFE/RL, adding that Moscow’s tough anti-Georgian rhetoric is “not always justified.”
Armenia has until now avoided taking sides in Russian-Georgian disputes and is likely to continue to tread the delicate line.