President Serzh Sarkisian on Tuesday began a two-day official visit to Georgia amid calls from at least one local ethnic Armenian group to address their identity issues at meetings in Tbilisi.
Sarkisian was received by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili at his Palace after which the two sides reportedly signed a raft of agreements, including those concerning cooperation on border issues, standardization and metrology, cooperation between some ministries.
At a joint press conference with Saakashvili following the meeting Sarkisian spoke about “dynamically developing” relations between the two neighboring nations.
“We spoke about all issues. Those are energy, transportation, relations between our parliaments, defense, security at the borders, and these discussions will be continued,” the Armenian leader said, according to the Georgian news website Georgia Online.
Both Sarkisian and Saakashvili spoke about regional conflicts, with the Armenian president stressing that solutions to these conflicts are possible only through negotiations.
The Georgian president, for his part, stressed that all conflicts in the Caucasus have been ‘instigated’ from outside and again presented his ‘United Caucasus’ concept as a way to settle all disputes.
Sarkisian is scheduled to meet with representatives of the Georgian-Armenian community and take part in a Georgian-Armenian business forum slated for Wednesday.
Meanwhile, an organization of local Armenians called the Community of Armenians of Georgia disseminated an open letter on the eve of Sarkisian’s visit to Georgia urging the leaders of the two countries to consider also issues that “will promote improved good-neighborly relations between the two peoples.” According to the authors of the letter, among these issues are “availability of education in the native [Armenian] languages” for members of the sizable Armenian community, “the return of the property seized from the Armenian Apostolic Church during the Soviet years, the conservation of churches and other buildings and monuments and their transfer to lawful owners.”
The organization, according to its press service head Armen Aghajanov, was not on the guest list of the meeting with Sarkisian and chose to publish an open letter instead.
“The most important question is the opportunity to receive education in our native language. The number of Armenian schools in Tbilisi has been decreasing in recent years,” Aghajanov said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service (Azatutyun.am).
In general, Sarkisian’s current visit to Georgia comes amid lingering speculations about the Armenian leader’s earlier reluctance to travel to the neighboring state.
It wasn't until November 22 that Sarkisian’s office announced the date of the visit that is said to have been delayed earlier. Tbilisi had reportedly been expecting Sarkisian to pay an official visit at the beginning of November, but official Yerevan denied it had delayed the visit, saying that the Armenian leader had not scheduled any trips abroad for the period in question.
The conflicting information sparked speculation that by ostensibly cancelling or rescheduling his visit Sarkisian meant to expressed his displeasure with Saakashvili’s reported remark that Georgian authorities would have responded faster and more effectively to a massive landslide in northern Armenia that killed five people in early October. Armenia’s Minister of Emergency Situations Armen Yeritsian afterwards questioned the veracity of the statement attributed to the Georgian president.
Visiting Yerevan on November 7, Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze insisted that Sarkisian’s visit was not cancelled. He said the two sides simply failed to prepare for it on time.
Later, on November 19, the Armenian and Georgian prime ministers chaired a regular session of an inter-governmental commission on economic cooperation in the Georgian city of Batumi. They said their governments were pressing ahead with plans for joint management of the Georgian-Armenian border crossings and will continue to expand bilateral commercial ties.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian Service on Tuesday, Yerevan-based political analyst Stepan Grigorian said that meetings between the two countries’ leaders are necessary particularly for smoothing out possible differences.
“Let’s face it. Georgia is oriented to Europe and NATO, we work more closely with Russia. Reforms in the state system of Georgia have clearly made headway, and it is obvious that we are starkly different from them. That’s why these meetings are necessary as a means to iron out the differences that may arise.”
Grigorian also stresses the importance of Sarkisian-Saakashvili meetings as an opportunity for political discussions to find a solution to the issue of Armenian churches.
Despite amendments approved by Georgian lawmakers in July to grant Georgia’s minority religious groups, including the Armenian Church, the status of ‘legal entities of public law’, a number of issues, including those relating to property, still remain between the Armenia Apostolic and Georgian Orthodox churches.