By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian will fly to Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg on Sunday for an unexpected meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin announced on Friday. Political observers suggested that the situation in Georgia will feature large at the talks.
The news, announced by the Kremlin through news agencies, was confirmed by Kocharian’s spokesman. The presidential press secretary, Ashot Kocharian, told RFE/RL that the Armenian leader will travel to Russian on a “working visit” at Putin’s invitation. He declined to disclose issues to be discussed by the two presidents.
Kocharian, whose country is Russia’s closest ally in the South Caucasus, is a frequent guest in Moscow, having already met Putin on several occasions this year. The approximate agenda of such meetings was normally publicized by the two governments in advance, and it is the first time that a Russian-Armenian summit is announced at such a short notice. It is also unclear why it will take place in Putin’s hometown, not the Russian capital.
According to some local analysts, the talks are necessitated by the volatile situation in Georgia in the wake of the bloodless overthrow of its veteran President Eduard Shevardnadze by the opposition. Putin has already discussed the issue by phone with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev.
“I think that Kocharian’s unexpected visit has to do with Georgia,” said Aghasi Yenokian, director of the Yerevan-based Center for Political and International Studies. “Russia wants to use Armenia in a quite intensive way so that it can achieve its political goals in Georgia.”
Russian-Georgian relations have been strained throughout Shevardnadze’s 12-year rule and could deteriorate further under the new Georgian leadership which is seen as even more pro-Western than the deposed president. Some Russian politicians have already expressed unease over the almost certain victory in the January 4 presidential election of Mikhail Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer who led the “velvet revolution” in Tbilisi.
The Kremlin indicated its intention to continue to exploit its main leverage against Georgia by hosting a meeting earlier this week of the leaders of the country’s three independence-minded regions that have effectively been beyond Tbilisi’s control for the past decade. The leaders of Abkhazia, Ajaria and South Ossetia met in Moscow ostensibly to discuss ways of deepening their economic links. All of them are deeply mistrustful of Georgia’s new leaders.
Citing unnamed Russian Foreign Ministry sources, the Moscow daily “Izvestia” reported that the Kremlin is ready to offer Abkhazia and South Ossetia the status of a Russian “protectorate” which would solidify their de facto independence from Georgia.
Meanwhile, Ajar strongman Aslan Abashidze, who denounced Shevardnadze’s ouster as a coup d’etat, was on Friday again received by Russian Foreign Igor Ivanov. Abashidze’s defiant stance is shaping up as the most serious challenge facing Saakashvili and his allies who have pledged to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity.
Yenokian suggested that Putin is seeking Armenia’s backing of his Georgian policy. “I believe that serving Russia is more important for Kocharian than thinking about Georgian-Armenian relations,” he claimed.
Kocharian and other Armenian leaders, however, ruled out any intervention in Georgia throughout the political crisis engendered by the November 2 parliamentary elections denounced as fraudulent by the West.
The Armenian president’s hotly disputed reelection, which sparked similar opposition demonstrations in Yerevan earlier this year, was endorsed by Russia.