By Armen Zakarian
Georgian State Security Minister Valery Khaburdzania held talks with his Armenian counterpart Karlos Petrosian on Wednesday, becoming the third top official from Tbilisi to visit Yerevan since the outbreak of Georgian-Russian tensions three weeks ago.
The talks were shrouded in secrecy, with the Armenian Ministry of National Security refusing to provide any details. Georgian media reported earlier this week that the situation in Georgia’s Armenian-populated Javakheti region will be high on the agenda of Khaburdzania’s low-key trip.
One former senior Armenian national security official suggested that Khaburdzania arrived to seek Yerevan’s assistance in holding in check the pro-Russian Javakheti Armenians. He said the government of President Eduard Shevardnadze fears that Russia, which has threatened military action against Tbilisi for its alleged support of Chechen rebels, might open a new front against Georgia by stirring up simmering tensions in Javakheti.
Russia has a military base in the local town of Akhalkalaki, which is the largest employer in the impoverished and economically depressed region. The local Armenians are opposed to its closure demanded by the Tbilisi government. Thousands of them rallied in support of the Russian troops last month. The demonstration took place the day after Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to launch military strikes against the lawless Pankisi Gorge bordering Chechnya.
An Akhalkalaki-based Armenian news agency, A-Info, claimed on Tuesday that hundreds of Chechen rebels led by Islamist warlord Ruslan Gelayev have left Pankisi and are “moving towards” the larger Samtskhe-Javakheti region with the aim of crossing over into neighboring Turkey. Khaburdzania’s agency categorically denied the report, calling it a “provocation.”
But the agency, citing unnamed “reliable sources,” insisted on Wednesday that the Chechen militants have already reached Georgian-populated areas in Samtskhe-Javakhetia, including the regional capital Akhaltsikhe. It said Gelayev has already “discussed with representatives of the local criminal underworld possibilities of crossing into Turkey.”