By Emil Danielyan
The presidents of Russia and Armenia met in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg on Sunday for talks apparently motivated by the dramatic regime change in neighboring Georgia which has caused unease in Moscow.
Neither President Vladimir Putin, nor his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian mentioned Georgia in televised remarks preceding the meeting, few details of which were reported. Putin commented instead on the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Russian-Armenian economic ties.
Georgia’s likely next president, meanwhile, vowed to improve his country’s relations with Armenia which he described as a “strategic partner.”
Kocharian’s office in Yerevan refused on Monday to disclose any details of the talks, saying that it has nothing to add to scant information provided by a top Kremlin official. Sergei Prikhodko, a deputy chief of Putin’s staff, told journalists in Saint Petersburg that the two leaders discussed the current state of the Karabakh peace process ahead of a fresh flurry of diplomatic activity by international mediators expected next weekend. He voiced Moscow’s support for a further “political dialogue” between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Television crews were allowed to videotape the opening remarks by Putin and Kocharian. “The Azerbaijan leaders have a positive attitude to this issue, even though this problem is difficult and chronic,” Putin said, pointing to his phone conversation with the recently elected President Ilham Aliev.
American, French and Russian negotiators heading the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are scheduled open on Friday a new round of regional shuttle diplomacy which could answer the nagging question of whether a Karabakh settlement should be expected in the coming years. It should also clarify whether Aliev is in a position to embrace a compromise peace deal reportedly reached by his ailing father and predecessor Heydar and Kocharian in 2001.
Putin also mentioned bilateral economic ties, notably the implementation of the so-called equities-for-debt agreements that settled Armenia’s debts to the Russian government and energy resource suppliers totaling $140 million. In exchange for writing it off, Russia was given control over the bulk of Armenia’s power generating facilities.
Putin said the two governments have still to work out unspecified “technical” issues. He also trumpeted a 84 percent jump in the volume of bilateral trade in the first nine months of this year, portraying it as an indication that commercial links between Armenia and Russian are developing rapidly. Kocharian likewise welcomed the “serious boost to economic relations.”
Prikhodko confirmed that also on talks’ agenda was the political situation in Georgia in the aftermath of the November 23 bloodless overthrow of President Eduard Shevardnadze by tens of thousands of opposition supporters furious with his handling of the November 2 parliamentary elections.
“We are not indifferent to the events in Georgia,” said the Kremlin official who specializes in foreign policy. “Political processes in that country are important not only for Georgia, but also for Russia and other countries.”
“Time will tell in whose interests Georgia's new leaders will govern -- in the Americans' interests or in the interests of Georgia's people,” he added, underlining Putin’s fears that the new government in Tbilisi may be even more pro-Western than the Shevardnadze administration was.
Significantly, Prikhodko mentioned the fact that Georgia is home to some 300,000 ethnic Armenians whose cultural rights he said must be protected. A large part of them live in the economically depressed Javakheti region bordering Armenia and Turkey. The region also hosts one of the two Russian military bases still stationed in the country that has officially declared its intention to join NATO.
Many Georgians have long accused Russia of encouraging separatist sentiment in Javakheti and other regions populated by ethnic minorities. Two of them, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, broke away from Georgian rule with Russian support in the early 1990s. Another region, Ajaria, is now openly defying the authorities in Tbilisi after its pro-Russian ruler, Aslan Abashidze, condemned Shevardnadze’s ouster.
Abashidze as well as the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaders met in Moscow last week for joint consultations initiated by the Kremlin. The move fueled speculation that the Russians are playing the ethnic card to hold the new Georgian leadership in check. Some Yerevan commentators believe that they also need Armenia’s backing for the success of the endeavor.
In a separate development, the man tipped to win the January 4 Georgian presidential election has pledged to seek closer ties with Armenia and facilitate its communication with the rest of the world. In an interview with the state-run Armenian Public Television broadcast on Sunday, Mikhail Saakashvili accused Shevardnadze of paying little attention to the “vital” Georgian-Armenian relationship.
“Armenia is Georgia's key strategic partner and neighbor,” Saakashvili said. “A stable and prosperous Armenia would be a guarantor of Georgia's success and prosperity.”
The 35-year-old popular lawyer, who was instrumental in the success of the “velvet revolution” in Tbilisi, acknowledged that transit fees levied by Georgia from Armenian cargos are disproportionately high and promised to cut them considerably once in office. He blasted Shevardnadze for tolerating corrupt customs officials who routinely extort kickbacks from Armenian businessmen and therefore “don’t give a damn about Georgia’s state interests.”
More than 90 percent of landlocked Armenia’s external trade is carried out via Georgia.
Saakashvili also sounded unusually receptive to the Javakheti Armenians’ concerns about the possible closure of the Russian base in the local town of Akhalkalaki -- the impoverished region’s single largest employer. He said Tbilisi should provide them with an alternative source of income before citing a 1999 international treaty that obligates Russia to close all of its military facilities on Georgian territory by 2007.