Armenia has reaffirmed its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity after its parliament speaker Galust Sahakian angered official Tbilisi by meeting with a leader of South Ossetia, a breakaway Georgian region.
Sahakian and Anatoly Bibilov, South Ossetia’s parliament speaker, reportedly met over the weekend during their separate visits to Nagorno-Karabakh aimed at monitoring parliamentary elections held there. Bibilov’s office said that the “working meeting” focused on “bilateral relations.”
Aides to the Armenian speaker insisted, however, on the “private” and unofficial character of his first-ever contact with the representative of what the Georgian government regards as an “occupation regime” installed by Russia. Bibilov’s office afterwards acknowledged and apologized for the “inaccuracy” in its initial report on the meeting.
These explanations did not satisfy the authorities in Tbilisi, with Deputy Foreign Minister Gigi Gigiadze summoning the Armenian ambassador to Georgia, Yuri Vartanian, to express “grave concern” on Monday. “Gigi Gigiadze emphasized that this fact runs counter to the spirit of traditionally friendly relations between Georgia and Armenia, causing damage to bilateral relations,” the Georgian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“Georgia considers as totally unacceptable any kind of communication with representatives of the occupation regime by officials of the partner country,” Gigiadze told Vartanian, according to the statement.
The diplomatic scandal prompted Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian to telephone his Georgian counterpart Irakli Gharibashvili later in the day. According to a Georgian government statement, Abrahamian downplayed the controversial meeting as an “informal communication of personal character.” He also insisted that Sahakian and Bibilov did not discuss any “issues related to Georgia’s occupied territories.”
“Hovik Abrahamian reiterated firm support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia and emphasized Armenia’s friendly and good-neighborly attitude towards Georgia,” added the statement.
Abrahamian’s office issued no statements on the phone call. The Armenian Foreign Ministry similarly avoided any press releases on the Georgian protests, which were also conveyed by Georgia’s ambassador in Yerevan, Tengiz Sharmanashvili, to Armenia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Manasarian. Georgian media quoted Sharmanashvili as saying that Manasarian “voiced regrets” and reaffirmed Yerevan’s “explicit support” for Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia.
It emerged on Tuesday, that Vahram Baghdasarian, the parliamentary leader of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), also took part in the meeting with Bibilov. “It was a private meeting,” Baghdasarian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). He claimed that the South Ossetian leader requested it with the sole purpose of “expressing condolences” in connection with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
Alexander Arzumanian, an opposition lawmaker who had served as Armenia’s foreign minister in 1996-1997, questioned the wisdom of that encounter. “If I were parliament speaker I would probably not meet [Bibilov,]” he said. “Let’s hope that these explanations will satisfy our Georgian partners.”
Russia recognized South Ossetia as well as another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states shortly after a brief war with Georgia in 2008. Moscow reportedly pressed Armenia, its main regional ally, to follow suit at the time. The authorities in Yerevan categorically ruled out such a possibility.