By Emil Danielyan
Civic groups in Georgia’s Armenian-populated Javakheti region called on the local population on Tuesday to stop protesting against and come to terms with the eventual closure of a Russian military base stationed in the area.
A coalition of local non-governmental organizations was reported to urge the Javakheti Armenians to accept its withdrawal, demanded by the authorities in Tbilisi, as a “fait accompli.” A joint statement issued by them came as the Russian and Georgian governments reported further progress in their difficult talks on a timetable for ending the longtime Russian military presence in Georgia.
The Javakheti town of Akhalkalaki is home to the two Russian bases in Georgia. It has also been the single largest employer in the economically depressed and restive area ever since the Soviet collapse. Hence, the local population’s strong opposition to its closure.
“True, the military base in Akhalkalaki has somewhat mitigated economic problems and served as a psychological security guarantee, but the Javakheti people should not consider its withdrawal a tragedy,” read the NGO statement cited by the local A-Info news agency. “If the Georgian state fails to ensure the security of the Javakheti people, one can always count on the assistance of the international community and international law.”
Tbilisi has long been seeking the closure of the Russian bases, regarding them as a holdover from the Soviet era that hampers its efforts to forge closer links with NATO and the European Union. The administration of the pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili stepped up pressure on Moscow last March, threatening to declare the Russian military presence illegal.
The move was resented by many Javakheti Armenians. Thousands of them rallied in Akhalkalaki on March 13 in support of the Russian base. The protest was widely covered by state-run Russian media.
President Robert Kocharian unexpectedly traveled to Georgia for informal talks with Saakashvili on April 1, just days after another rally in Akhalkalaki. The situation in Javakheti was high on the agenda of the meeting. Saakashvili said afterward that he is satisfied with Yerevan’s position on the issue.
While regularly pressing the Georgians to alleviate hardship in Javakheti, the authorities in Yerevan have always sought to restrain the local Armenians, including pro-Russian nationalist activists. It was not clear if the latter were among the signatories of the statement.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili said late Monday that Tbilisi and Moscow are close to finalizing an agreement on the time frame and other terms of the Russian pullout. Georgia has insisted the bases be out by January 2008, but Russia wants more time to prepare infrastructure to house the returning troops and equipment. Georgian officials have indicated that they would not mind if the Russians agree to close them in the course of 2008.
Russia's armed forces chief of staff General Yuri Baluyevsky said last week Moscow might have to move some of the Akhalkalaki base’s military hardware to Armenia where it has stronger military presence. The Russian military has already done that in the past.
Baluyevsky’s statement drew protests from Azerbaijan. "Such developments will not serve the interests of peace and security in the region and will create tensions ... in the process of solving the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan," the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said in a note to Moscow.