Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 67

During his March 28-29 visit to Georgia, President Robert Kocharian issued another set of signals of his willingness to extricate Armenia from dependency on Russia and to promote a more balanced policy. Kocharian made two significant gestures, both of which run counter to Russian policy in the South Caucasus but which correspond to Armenia’s own interests. First, he adjusted Armenia’s proposal for a South Caucasus Stability Pact in a manner designed to accommodate Western interests. Second, he emphatically endorsed Georgia’s pro-Western President, Eduard Shevardnadze, for reelection in April 9 balloting.

In his speech to the Georgian parliament, Kocharian announced that “Armenia reaffirms her commitment to the declared principle of complementarity”–that is, a policy which takes not only Russian but also Western interests in the region into account. That principle has mostly been forgotten or at best–as Kocharian seemed to imply–merely “declared” by Yerevan for the last few years. Kocharian’s statement reinforces the recent ones made by his political ally, Foreign Affairs Minister Vartan Oskanian, about the need to actually practice the complementarity principle (see the Monitor, March 15).

In his speech Kocharian made public a revised version of Armenia’s blueprint for the widely-discussed South Caucasus Stability Pact. He proposed a three-plus-three-plus-two format, which would include: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia as the region’s countries; Russia, Turkey and Iran as immediate neighbors; and the United States and the European Union as factors with major interests in the region. This new Armenian version differs from the initial one, which Kocharian and Oskanian had proposed at the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last November and in subsequent exchanges, and which did not include a full-blooded role for Western powers (or was at best vague on that crucial point). The Turkish, Georgian and Azerbaijani proposals had from the outset sought to ensure a major role for the West in shaping the region’s future (see the Monitor, November 24, 1999, January 18, 27; Fortnight in Review, December 3, 1999, January 21). Kocharian’s step should help bridge the differences with Armenia’s neighbors on that issue.

Somewhat predictably, Kocharian urged the neighboring countries and the West to “appreciate the depth of Russian interests in the region” and act with due regard to “a certain anxiety on Russia’s part”–a reference to Moscow’s oft-professed fear of being “excluded” from the region. Such remarks reflect, up to a point, Kocharian’s internal difficulties with his pro-Moscow rivals. More fundamentally, however, they reflect a view that Armenia’s military alliance with Russia forms one pillar of “complementarity.” This view, and the hosting of Russian troops on her soil, singularize Armenia in the region, complicating Kocharian’s and Oskanian’s efforts to overcome their country’s relative isolation.

Bestowing his seal of approval on the Georgian government’s treatment of the Armenian minority, Kocharian disavowed “provocateurs,” “troublemakers” and “negativistic attitudes” toward Georgia within that community–a reference to some Armenian circles in Georgia’s Javakheti region. At a special meeting in Tbilisi with Armenian community representatives, Kocharian urged the 400,000-strong population to vote for Shevardnadze and to “do everything possible” for him to be re-elected on April 9. Moreover, in a joint televised appearance with Shevardnadze, Kocharian expressed the confident hope that the two of them will closely cooperate during Shevardnadze’s next presidential term. Armenia’s alliance with Russia notwithstanding, the Armenian president joined the Western and pro-Western leaders–including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, Azerbaijani President Haidar Aliev and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma–in endorsing Shevardnadze for reelection (see the Monitor, April 3).

Kocharian’s endorsement ignores Russian interests on several counts. Shevardnadze faces pro-Moscow challengers; he is committed to getting rid of Russian troops, including those based in Javakheti, which are popular among local Armenians; he is identified with the transit projects that Russia opposes; and he seeks eventual admission to NATO for Georgia–a goal which Shevardnadze reaffirmed at the time of Kocharian’s visit.

Yet the Armenian government has ample incentive to pursue cooperation with Georgia in order to restore at least some of Armenia’s links with the outside world. Kocharian and Shevardnadze agreed to request the European Union to finance the rehabilitation of the Yerevan-Tbilisi highway and the post-war reconstruction of the Abkhazian stretch of the ex-Soviet Transcaucasus Railroad, which continues to Yerevan. Additionally, Georgia and Armenia are discussing the restoration of transport links from the Georgian port of Batumi on the Black Sea to Armenia–a connection which passes through Javakheti, thus creating an Armenian stake in ethnic peace in that region (Noyan-Tapan, Armenpress, Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, Georgian Television, March 29-31).