By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Gevorg Stamboltsian
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili lavished praise on Armenia and its President Robert Kocharian on Friday during an official visit to Yerevan which the two leaders used to stress “the high level” of relations between their nations.
Meeting for the first time, they vowed to strengthen “friendly” bilateral ties, promote regional cooperation and continue to seek integration into European structures. In a joint declaration issued by them, Yerevan again disavowed recent calls for self-rule in Georgia’s Armenian-populated areas.
Saakashvili described Armenia as an “ideal partner,” saying that his country has a lot to learn from its neighbor's nation-building experience. He was also very generous in paying compliments to Kocharian.
“The president of Armenia left an extremely positive impression on me,” Saakashvili told a joint news conference after the talks. “I think that he is a very energetic and able leader who is well aware of the region’s problems and international relations in general. And I think Armenia is lucky to have such a president.”
“I remember telling my ministers that there are many things they can learn from Armenia,” the 36-year-old leader said, mentioning its armed forces in the first instance.
“We are going to develop, get stronger and promote peace and stability. In this sense, we have an excellent, an ideal partner in Yerevan.”
Kocharian was more reserved in his comments. “I am happy with the sincere character of today’s exchange of opinions,” he said, adding that Armenian-Georgian summits will now be more frequent than in the past.
Kocharian also noted an “amazing convergence” of the two governments’ positions on the situation in Javakheti, the restive Armenian-majority region in southern Georgia which is home to a Russian military base. He said they both believe that the only way to ease simmering tensions in the impoverished region is to address its socioeconomic problems and promote its residents’ “deep integration” into Georgian society.
The joint declaration implies that Armenia will not seek a status of autonomy for Javakheti demanded last month by a junior member of its governing coalition, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). “The Parties reiterated once again their commitment to the principle of non-interference with each other's internal affairs, mutual respect for self-rule, territorial integrity and inviolability of borders,” it reads.
Saakashvili was quick to publicly welcome Kocharian’s “principled stance” on what he stressed is his country’s internal affair. Strongly hinting at Russian governing circles, he said attempts to destabilize Javakheti are sponsored by unspecified external forces located “thousands of kilometers” away from the region.
“I think that any attempt to artificially disrupt stability there is doomed first of all because Armenia has a president who is well aware of the significance of peace and stability. It is also fraught with such a tragedy that I don’t advise anyone to even think about that,” he said.
Touching upon the uneasy Russian-Georgian relationship, Saakashvili suggested that Yerevan, which maintains close ties with Moscow, might “greatly assist” in their improvement. Tbilisi, for its part, is ready to help defuse tensions between Armenia and its regional arch-foes: Azerbaijan and Turkey, he said
Economic issues were also high on the agenda of the talks, with the two presidents agreeing to step up activities of a Georgian-Armenian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. It will now be co-chaired by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and Georgian State Minister Zurab Zhvania.
Saakashvili effectively reaffirmed his pledge to lower transit fees levied from goods imported to and exported from Armenia through Georgian railway and Black Sea ports. The latter handle 90 percent of Armenia’s external trade. The Georgian tariffs for Azerbaijani cargoes have until now been considerably lower.
“Armenia must have the most favorable regional tariffs, no less favorable that any of our neighbors has,” Saakashvili declared.
But it was not clear if any bilateral agreements to that effect will be signed by the two governments soon.
Later in the day Saakashvili visited the genocide memorial on Yerevan’s Tsitsernakabert Hill and met with leaders of the Armenian parliament and its pro-Kocharian majority.
Opposition lawmakers were not present at the meeting in keeping with their boycott of parliament sessions that was launched last month in protest against the authorities’ refusal to hold a referendum of confidence in Kocharian. Ironically, for many of them Saakashvili has been a role model for regime change since sweeping to power in a bloodless revolution last November. The U.S.-trained lawyer was elected president with a crushing majority of votes in January.
Opposition leaders, who accuse Kocharian of rigging last year’s presidential election, say they will launch a similar campaign of street protests in Yerevan this spring. These plans were reaffirmed on Friday by Stepan Demirchian and other leaders of the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc while they met supporters in the central Aragatsotn province.
“Power will be given back to the people,” Demirchian told a rally in the town of Talin. “The person who usurped power will quit without casualties.”
“We will surround the presidential palace with people…and will stand there to the end, until the leader of the Karabakh clan flees the Republic of Armenia,” said parliament deputy Victor Dallakian.