Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili pledged to seek the restoration of Georgia’s railway communication with Russia, vital for Armenia, and help make Georgian-Armenian relations “ideal” during his first official visit to Yerevan on Thursday.
He also announced an ambitious initiative to end a long-running dispute between the government-backed Armenian and Georgian churches after holding talks with President Serzh Sarkisian and Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian.
“I think Armenian-Georgian relations can today be considered normal and even good,” Ivanishvili told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) in an exclusive interview. “We spoke about their future with your president and prime minister. I think we agreed that our centuries-old relations must become ideal and exemplary.
“This is what I personally and our new government are aiming for, and I felt the same desire by the Armenian government.”
Ivanishvili, who swept to power after defeating Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party in last October’s parliamentary elections, was particularly satisfied with his “very warm” meeting with Tigran Sarkisian. “We spoke in such an atmosphere as if we have known each other since childhood,” he told a joint news conference with his Armenian counterpart.
Ivanishvili spoke of “interesting decisions” adopted by them. “There are a few remaining issues that need further discussion, but I am confident that we will agree on them as well,” he said.
One of the key issues on the agenda was Ivanishvili’s post-election calls for the reopening of the railway linking Georgia to Russia via its breakaway region of Abkhazia. The railway, which used to serve as a lifeline road for landlocked Armenia, has been closed since the outbreak of a bloody war in Abkhazia in 1992. Successive Armenian governments have for years held out hope for its re-launch.
“I think that [the railway] will definitely be opened,” Ivanishvili told RFE/RL’s Armenian service later in the day. “We have discussed this issue today for two or three times. On our side, there is full readiness [to have it reopened.]”
“I feel that Russia is showing understanding for this issue. There are positive signals from our Abkhaz brothers,” he said.
Ivanishvili explained that renewed rail communication between Georgia and Russia would be in line with his government’s strategy of facilitating the eventual resolution of the conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia through confidence-building measures.
The billionaire businessman-turned-politician, who made his huge fortune in Russia in the 1990s, has advocated a softer Georgian line on Moscow ever since entering the political arena in late 2011. Georgia and Russia severed diplomatic relations after fighting a brief but bitter war in 2008.
Prime Minister Sarkisian said he reaffirmed Yerevan’s strong interest in the reopening of the Abkhaz railway during the talks with his Georgian counterpart. “We stressed that we will make every effort to have the railway operate efficiently,” he told reporters. “We are interested in a quick solution to that issue and will adopt a proactive stance in its settlement.”
Most of the freight shipments to and from Armenia are currently carried out through the Georgian Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti. The Russian-Georgian rail link would make some of those deliveries cheaper and thus shore up the struggling Armenian economy.
According to Ivanishvili, Sarkisian also called for the creation of a Georgian-Armenian “common market.” He said he likes idea.
In what was described as a further step towards bilateral economic integration, the two premiers presided over the signing of a Georgian-Armenian agreement on joint customs administration at the border between the two neighboring states. Yerevan had tentatively agreed on the joint use of the border checkpoints with Georgia’s previous cabinet controlled by Saakashvili.
Ivanishvili also discussed in Yerevan the thorny issue of worship sites claimed by the Armenian Apostolic and Georgian Orthodox Churches. The unresolved dispute centers on ownership of several formerly Armenian churches in Tbilisi as well as abandoned medieval monasteries in Armenia’s Lori province bordering Georgia. The supreme heads of the two churches failed to reach any agreements during almost one week of negotiations held in June 2011.
Ivanishvili said he proposed that his private charity finance the renovation of all disputed churches “in both countries” pending a joint Georgian-Armenian study of their origin. “We could also do archaeological work there, which I’m also ready to finance through my fund,” he said.
“I think this initiative was received well by the [Armenian] president and the prime minister,” added Ivanishvili. “I think that we will set up a bilateral commission in a matter of days, start the process of restoration of these monuments and clarify their origin.”
Ivanishvili discussed the matter at a separate meeting with Catholicos Garegin II at the Echmiadzin headquarters of the Armenian Church. Garegin’s office said the Armenian pontiff expressed hope for its “proper resolution.”
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service, Ivanishvili also pledged to do his best to improve the situation in Georgia’s impoverished Javakheti region mainly populated by ethnic Armenians. Many of them voted for his Georgian Dream alliance in the October elections.
“The Georgian opposition has never received so many ethnic Armenian votes before,” said Ivanishvili. “I want to again thank [Javakheti Armenians.] I gave them many promises. I won’t list those promises now. But I guarantee that the ball is now in my court.”