The former U.S. ambassador in Tbilisi accused Russia of financing “minority extremists” to foment trouble in Georgia’s Armenian-populated Javakheti region, in a confidential cable obtained WikiLeaks and publicized this week.
The cable sent to the State Department in July 2007 by then-Ambassador John Tefft detailed this and other “covert actions” which he said Moscow has taken against the pro-Western administration of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
“Georgian officials in Tbilisi and [the regional town of] Akhalkalaki, as well as local community leaders and political activists, have confirmed that the Russian government has funded radical ethnic-Armenian nationalists in Samtskhe-Javakheti in a bid to destabilize this multi-ethnic, politically fragile region,” wrote Tefft.
“Tensions peaked during spring 2006 when scattered violent demonstrations occurred in Akhalkalaki in March, following the murder of an ethnic Armenian in the city of Tsalka, and on May 2, when protesters briefly halted the first stage of Russian base withdrawal,” he said.
“As the withdrawal moved ahead, disturbances in Akhalkalaki dropped off precipitously, lending credence to Georgian allegations that the tensions were being stoked by elements operating from within the Russian base,” added the diplomat.
The Soviet-era military base headquartered in Akhalkalaki was Javakheti’s single largest employer until its closure in 2008. This was a key reason why many ethnic Armenian residents of the impoverished region opposed the Russian troop withdrawal agreed by Tbilisi and Moscow in 2006.
Also opposed to the base’s closure were local Armenian groups agitating for Javakheti’s greater autonomy from the central government. One of them, a political party called Virk, has for years been denied official registration.
Virk’s leader, Davit Rstakian, on Friday flatly denied any Russian assistance to his party and other individuals who “really defended the interests of the Javakheti Armenians.” “To be honest, I don’t know on what sources the embassy based that information,” he told RFE/RL’s Armenian service by phone. “There had long been rallies in Javakheti against the pullout of the [Russian] troops.”
Rstakian argued that local residents did not want to see the base closed down because it “fed many, many Javakheti families” and was also as regarded by them as a “security guarantee.” “Whom did [the Russians] finance and what did those people do? They [the U.S. Embassy] should have talked about that openly, if they have facts.”
In the leaked cable, Tefft also implicated the Kremlin in other subversive acts against the Tbilisi government such as missile attacks in Abkhazia and even murder plots. “The cumulative weight of the evidence of the last few years suggests that the Russians are aggressively playing a high-stakes, covert game, and they consider few if any holds barred,” he charged just one year before the outbreak of the Russian-Georgian war in South Ossetia.
The credibility of such allegations contained in this and other leaked cables sent by American diplomats in Tbilisi was questioned on Thursday by “The New York Times.” The paper said they relied too heavily on “the Saakashvili government’s accounts of its own behavior.”
“In neighboring countries, American diplomats often maintained their professional distance, and privately detailed their misgivings of their host governments,” it wrote. “In Georgia, diplomats appeared to set aside skepticism and embrace Georgian versions of important and disputed events.”