By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian discussed on Tuesday mounting post-election tensions in Georgia in a phone conversation with his embattled Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze, saying that Armenia is keenly interested in political stability in its sole Christian neighbor.
The conversation was followed by a surprise visit to Yerevan by Aslan Abashidze, the strongman ruler of Georgia’s autonomous republic of Ajaria who is emerging as a crucial Shevardnadze ally in his standoff with the pro-Western opposition. Abashidze met with Kocharian late in the evening.
The talks came amid continuing street protests in Tbilisi against the official results of the November 2 parliamentary elections which the Georgian opposition claims were rigged in favor of Shevardnadze’s loyalists. The veteran leader, for his part, accused his radical opponents the previous day of plotting a coup following his defense minister’s warning that the political situation in the country is “practically out of control.”
“Details relating to the situation that has arisen since the parliamentary elections in Georgia were discussed during the conversation,” Kocharian’s press service said in separate brief statements on his talks with Shevardnadze and Abashidze. It cited the Armenian president as expressing hope that the situation “will stabilize as soon as possible.”
“Political stability is necessary not only for Georgia but also Armenia and the entire region,” he told Shevardnadze. No further details were reported.
Landlocked Armenia has always closely watched internal political developments in Georgia, a country that has served as its main conduit to the outside world since the Soviet collapse and the onset of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Secessionist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia coupled with political turmoil in Tbilisi in the early 1990s had aggravated the crippling effects of the Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades imposed on Armenia.
Georgia is also home to a substantial ethnic Armenian minority which makes up at least 10 percent of its population. A large part of it lives in the restive Javakheti region bordering on Armenia and Turkey. Javakheti has long been seen as another potential source of internal strife given its predominantly Armenian and impoverished population’s long-standing grievances against the government Tbilisi.
The post-election tensions have so far been largely confined to the Georgian capital where some 1,000 opposition supporters continued to protest before the parliament building on Tuesday. They disputed the official election results that put Shevardnadze’s For A New Georgia bloc in the lead with 21.1 percent of the party list vote. It is followed by Abashidze’s Democratic Revival Union.
The most popular pro-Western opposition group, the National Movement of Mikhail Saakashvili, placed third with 18.2 percent. Another opposition bloc led by two former parliament speakers, Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania, got only 8 percent, according to the preliminary vote tally.
The Ajar leader, known for his close ties with Russia, rarely leaves his Black Sea stronghold of Batumi for trips abroad. It is his first visit to Armenia since the Soviet break-up. Very few details of his brief stay in Yerevan were immediately known. Kocharian’s office added only that Abashidze outlined “possibilities for carrying out joint economic projects between Armenia and the Ajar Autonomous Republic.”
Abashidze’s unexpected arrival coincided with an official visit to Armenia by Russian Defense Sergei Ivanov. No meetings between the two men were officially announced.
Russia keeps military based in both Armenia and Ajaria whose leader has for years defied Shevardnadze’s pro-Western administration. Russian support has been essential for Abashidze’s unchallenged rule which began in the dying years of the Soviet Union. It could also prove important for Shevardnadze’s efforts to neutralize his opponents in Tbilisi with Abashidze’s help. The Georgian president was warmly greeted by Abashidze during a rare trip to Batumi on Monday.
Incidentally, Shevardnadze’s party made its strongest showing in Javakheti’s Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda districts and the Kvemo-Kartli region in eastern Georgian mainly populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis. Official figures showed it grabbing almost 54 percent of the vote in
Akhalkalaki and as much as 82 percent in Ninotsminda.
Saakashvili has charged that vote-rigging in Javakheti and Kvemo-Kartli was even more widespread and systematic than in most other parts of the country. Some local Armenian activists agree with this assertion.
David Restakian, leader of the Akhalkalaki-based Virk party which stands for the region’s greater autonomy, said that although the November 2 vote was cleaner than the previous ones, local authorities again heavily relied on state resources and overt fraud to ensure the Shevardnadze bloc’s victory. A-Info, a local news agency, reported this week that an Armenian villager was briefly detained by local police for publicly insulting Shevardnadze on polling day.
Speaking to RFE/RL from Akhalkalaki, Restakian claimed that widespread cynicism and apathy among local Armenians facilitated vote manipulation. “People don’t expect anything from the main Georgian parties,” he said. “These elections have once again showed that Georgia needs an officially registered party representing its ethnic minorities. It would definitely get 20 to 25 percent of votes.”
Virk has for years been denied registration by the central government on the grounds that Georgian law does not provide for the existence of regional parties. But its leaders say that they also have many followers in Tbilisi and other Armenian-populated areas.
In the run-up to the elections, Virk and a number of other Armenian groups in Akhalkalaki, Ninotsminda and the neighboring Tsalka district urged their supporters to vote for the opposition Ertoba bloc led by Jumber Patiashvili, Georgia’s last Soviet-era Communist boss. They say that of all Tbilisi-based politicians only Patiashvili pays sufficient attention to the Armenians’ socioeconomic woes and cultural needs.
Still, Ertoba got only 9 percent in Javakheti and failed to clear the 7 percent nationwide threshold for entering the parliament under the system of proportional representation which covers roughly two-thirds of all legislative seats. The remaining seats were contested in individual single-mandate constituencies. Three Armenian candidates were elected to the parliament on that basis from Akhalkalaki, Ninotsminda and Tsalka.
“I consider myself a sincere friend of the Armenian people and am against any comment, opinion or statement that can be deemed anti-Armenian,” Patiashvili told A-Info on Saturday.
He was responding to claims by a pro-Shevardnadze politician that Saakashvili, Burjanadze and Zhvania are trying to engineer an “Armenian revolution” through their demonstrations. Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, one of the leaders of For A New Georgia, apparently alluded to the opposition trio’s reported ethnic Armenian roots which their rivals often present as a big disadvantage.
“I don’t see anything Armenian in them,” Restakian said. “As far as our problems are concerned, they are no different from other Georgian leaders.”