By Armen Zakarian and Emil Danielyan
Armenia must be ready to help defuse lingering political tensions in Georgia if they threaten its national interests, a senior lawmaker representing the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) party said on Thursday.
Armen Rustamian, who heads the parliament committee on foreign relations, indicated that Yerevan should not hesitate to step in, if the post-election political crisis threatens Armenia’s communication with the outside world and the security of Georgia’s sizable Armenian minority. The remarks contrasted with a more cautious stance adopted by President Robert Kocharian who has ruled out interference in the neighboring country’s affairs “under any circumstances.”
“We must use all of our possible influence to foster quick stabilization of the situation in Georgia,” Rustamian told RFE/RL. “That is necessary not only for the Georgian people but also the entire region.”
Rustamian argued that official Yerevan is right to remain neutral on the controversy surrounding Georgia’s disputed November 2 parliamentary elections, but should not hesitate to thwart a political chaos in the neighboring country which serves as Armenia’s main conduit to third countries. “If they start blowing up gas pipelines, block roads and turn the anti-Armenian hysteria into violence against local Armenians, that will not have anything to do with the elections,” he said, alluding to the Georgian civil strife of the early 1990s that aggravated the Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades of Armenia.
So far the opposition protests against the official vote results have been confined to the capital Tbilisi and have not caused any disruptions in Georgia’s road, railway and pipeline infrastructure vital for the Armenian economy.
Kocharian expressed hope this week that political stability there will be restored “as soon as possible.” In a statement on Wednesday, the Armenian embassy in Tbilisi said Yerevan will avoid any actions that “might damage the Georgian state or be regarded as interference in its internal affairs.”
The assurances followed this week’s unexpected visit to Yerevan by Aslan Abashidze, head of the Georgian Black Sea region of Ajaria and a key ally of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Georgian opposition leaders claimed afterwards that Shevardnadze is seeking military assistance from Armenia and Russia (which has long supported Abashidze) to suppress the daily street protests against reported vote rigging.
There are rumors that Abashidze held a secret meeting in Yerevan with visiting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on Tuesday night. But they were flatly denied by Ivanov’s Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian.
Still, Georgian opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili insisted on Thursday that Shevardnadze would like to use the Russian military base stationed in the Javakheti region predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians. Interviewed by the Georgian Mze TV channel, he alleged that Shevardnadze is also keen to neutralize his opponents by stoking separatist sentiment in Javakheti as well as the-Azerbaijani-populated Kvemo-Kartli region.
Those claims were promptly denied by David Restakian, a local Armenian activist. “Maybe someone wants a destabilization of the political situation to use it for their political aims, but the population of Javakheti will not succumb to provocateurs,” Restakian told the Interfax news agency.
“We can not stay indifferent to statements that have an anti-Armenian nature,” Rustamian said for his part, apparently referring to Armenian-related comments by Saakashvili and other opposition leaders. “We must try to prevent them from having a snowball effect by all means. Political neutrality has its limits.”
However, another Armenian parliamentarian who monitored the November 2 vote sounded a note of caution. “Our interference in the Georgian elections could lead to very complicated consequences,” Ruben Hovsepian, also affiliated with Dashnaktsutyun, told the Yerevan daily “Aravot” in an interview published on Thursday. “The objective, at least for us, is to save not Shevardnadze, but Georgia’s stability. It can be achieved by means of the [Georgian] opposition as well.”
Hovsepian argued that the Armenian factor has already been heavily exploited by Georgian politicians during the electoral race. Interestingly, the most controversial comment reported so far came from a leader of Shevardnadze’s For a New Georgia bloc, Vakhtang Rcheulishvili. He claimed last week that Saakashvili and two other prominent opposition figures, Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania, are plotting an “Armenian revolution” in Tbilisi.
The three pro-Western leaders are said to have ethnic Armenian roots which are often presented as a big disadvantage by their rivals.
(AP-Photolur photo: Burjanadze and Zhvania leading an opposition protest in Tbilisi last week.)