By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian left for Tbilisi Friday on an apparently impromptu visit which may be connected with renewed tensions in Georgia’s Armenian-populated areas.
In an unusually brief statement, Kocharian’s office said the two-day visit was initiated by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and will have a “private” character. It gave no further details. Kocharian’s trips abroad are usually announced by the presidential press service in advance.
The Georgian news agency Caucasus Press cited Saakashvili’s press service as saying that the two men will meet in the resort town of Gudauri and discuss a “wide range” of issues of mutual interest.
“This is not an official visit,” Gela Bezhuashvili, secretary of Georgia’s National Security Council, told Imedi television in Tbilisi. “We will discuss regional issues as well as bilateral relations.”
Asked whether the situation in the Armenian-populated Javakheti region will be on the agenda of the talks, Bezhuashvili replied, “We will discuss everything.”
The restive and economically depressed area bordering Armenia and Turkey is home to one of the two Russian military bases in Georgia which Tbilisi has been trying to have closed. Saakashvili’s administration has stepped up its pressure on Moscow in recent weeks, threatening to declare the Russian military presence illegal.
The Russian base in Akhalkalaki is Javakheti’s single largest employer and most local Armenians are opposed to its closure. Thousands of them took to the streets of Akhalkalaki on March 13 to protest against withdrawal of the troops. They staged another demonstration there on Thursday.
According to the local A-Info news agency, the latest rally was dominated by socioeconomic issues, with organizers demanding that the government in Tbilisi pay greater attention to the local population’s needs. They called, in particular, for an urgent repair of local roads and simplification of customs procedures.
The authorities in Yerevan likewise press Tbilisi to address those problems. But they have at the same time urged the Javakheti Armenians to exercise caution, mindful of Georgia’s geopolitical significance for Armenia.
Many Georgians, for their part, feel that the local population is being manipulated by Russia and accuse Moscow of playing the ethnic card to prolong its military presence in Georgia.
Saakashvili and Kocharian might also discuss a dispute over the ownership of 15th century Armenian church in Tbilisi which threatens to sour Georgian-Armenian relations. The local diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church has accused the Georgian Orthodox Church of seeking to “misappropriate” the church and destroying Armenian monuments across Georgia.
A high-level delegation of Armenian clerics is due to travel to Tbilisi this month in an attempt to settle the row.
(Photolur photo: Kocharian and Saakashvili presented with flowers during their previous meeting in Georgia last October.)