By Hrach Melkumian
Armenia is ready to help Georgia and Russia settle their escalating dispute over the presence of Chechen rebels on Georgian territory but is not seeking a mediating role, Deputy Foreign Minster Ruben Shugarian said on Friday.
“I think that Armenia can not yet act as a mediator in various international conflicts. We would rather act like a facilitator,” Shugarian said, laying out official Yerevan’s position on mounting tensions over Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge bordering Russia’s separatist republic of Chechnya.
Russia has threatened to use force to flush out the rebels believed to be hiding in the rugged area and periodically launching cross-border raids on Russian troops in Chechnya. But Georgia insists that any Russian attack would amount to “military aggression” against its sovereign territory and that it will itself establish order in the lawless gorge. Georgian Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili said on Friday that Tbilisi’s ongoing military operation in Pankisi, dismissed as window dressing by Moscow, has already yielded important results, Reuters reported.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion of the Pankisi crisis in Yerevan, Shugarian said that Armenia can take part in “some negotiations” aimed at easing the tensions because it is “interested in having a stable Georgia.”
Armenia, which is Russia’s main regional ally and hosts Russian troops, could find itself in a very delicate situation in the event of an armed confrontation between Moscow and Tbilisi. Hence, its reluctance to upset any of the conflicting parties.
The situation in Pankisi was on the agenda of this week’s visits to Yerevan by Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze and the influential chief of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration, Aleksandr Voloshin. Few details of the talks are known though.
A senior Russian diplomat on Friday denied speculation that the Kremlin may be pressing the Armenian government to endorse its toughening stance on Pankisi. Yuri Urin, the Russian military attaché in the Armenian capital, also ruled out the use of the Russian military base in Armenia in a possible military operation in Georgia. “That would make no military and political sense,” Urin told RFE/RL.
Armenia’s former defense minister, Vagharshak Harutiunian, said he also thinks that Moscow does not need to rely on its Armenian base, something which would require Yerevan’s consent. The Russian troops headquartered in Gyumri are believed to have about two dozen MiG-29 fighter jets. According to Harutiunian, this type of sophisticated military aircraft is not designed to carry out bombing raids.