Information published earlier this month on the website of the de facto parliament of the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia caused a diplomatic scandal between Yerevan and Tbilisi. Reportedly, the chairman of the South Ossetian parliament, Anatoly Bibilov, met with the speaker of Armenia’s National Assembly, Galust Sahakyan, in the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Karabakh on May 2. According to the South Ossetian parliamentary news service, Sahakyan and Bibilov discussed the possible development of bilateral relations (Ekho Kavkaza, May 4). However, information about the meeting with Sahakyan was promptly deleted from the website, which now only mentions Bibilov’s meetings with representatives of Karabakh; in an added postscript, the South Ossetian parliament’s information service apologized, stating that the previously published information about Sahakyan’s overtures to Bibilov was incorrect (Parliamentrso.org, accessed May 7). Yet, Bibilov and Sahakyan’s joint photo, available from other sources, along with other evidence, shows that some sort of meeting did, in fact, take place.
Georgia’s ambassador to Yerevan expressed strong indignation to Armenia’s Deputy Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sergei Manaseryan, who reiterated his country’s support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Additionally, Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan made a phone call to his Georgian counterpart, Irakli Garibashvili, and also confirmed support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, while attempting to explain that Sahakyan’s meeting with Bibilov had been a non-official one (Aravot.am, May 7). However, Armenia’s ambassador to Georgia, Yuri Vardanyan, was still summoned to Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There, Deputy Minister Gigi Gigiadze noted that official contacts with representatives of the Russian occupying regime are not acceptable and that Sahakyan’s meeting with Bibilov threatened the friendly relations between Armenia and Georgia. Gigiadze also indicated that Armenian officials’ claims about a private rather than official nature of the meeting would not be considered a sufficient explanation (Apsny.ge, May 4).
Georgia’s newly-appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs Tamar Beruchashvili told at a joint session of several standing committees of the Georgian parliament that the government decided not to recall its ambassador from Armenia at this time. However, she also noted that Sahakyan’s meeting with Bibilov had demonstrated a dangerous tendency, and asserted that “some forces” making long-term plans concerning the region had been behind the controversial meeting. According to Beruchashvili, that incident would probably not be the last one, as Armenia’s political priorities may result in further manipulation of some issues, so potential future harm to Georgia’s interests could not be excluded (Apsny.ge, May 7).
Russian media paid relatively little attention to the incident. Nonetheless, some sources admitted that, although it would be in Moscow’s interest if Armenia recognized the independence of South Ossetia, Armenia’s security largely depends on Georgia, so it would be a mistake to demand such recognition from Yerevan (Expert.ru, May 7). Some Armenian observers noted that unofficial meetings with representatives of South Ossetia had taken place in the past, but were not publicized, so no scandals occurred. Several sources suggested that Bibilov used the opportunity to raise his own political profile, as he is preparing to run for the South Ossetian presidency (the next elections are scheduled for 2017). Meanwhile, Sahakyan allegedly did not expect that his face-to-face session with Bibilov would be presented as a working meeting (Ekho Kavkaza, May 4). It has also been argued that the incident occurred at a moment when Armenia is trying to advance relations with the United States and the European Union: a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with the US has just been signed, and a new cooperation agreement with the EU is being negotiated. Therefore, one Armenian commentator writing for Lragir.am argues that it is vitally important for Yerevan to act as a trustworthy partner of the West, but Sahakyan’s gaffe may spoil the situation as it may raise Western concerns about Armenia’s capacity to act on its own rather than to serve Russia’s interests (Lragir.am, May 6).
Sahakyan’s own explanations during a short briefing with Armenian journalists have not cleared up the situation but rather added to the embarrassment. Sahakyan, who is often ridiculed by journalists for his poor vocabulary and incoherent speech, this time also made some incongruous statements. He claimed that some circles were attempting to discredit him; nothing significant had happened during his meeting with the South Ossetian parliamentary head, Sahakyan stated, because he does not play a decisive role in Armenia’s relations with Georgia. Furthermore, Sahakyan noted that Bibilov just briefly approached him to express his sympathy with regard to the recent centennial anniversary of the tragic events of 1915: “Just imagine: a Turk [sic] pays a visit to express sympathy.” To a journalist’s question why a photo was taken if the meeting had been an unofficial one, Sahakyan replied: “That photo was made because I am not one of your kind, and I do not meet people secretly. Seems someone took a photo, and now I look at it and I know I was not wearing those clothes” (Aravot.am, May 7).
Although there have been suggestions that Sahakyan’s resignation would be the best solution to prevent a possible further deterioration of relations with Georgia, it is unlikely that Sahakyan himself would consider stepping down from his post. A decision by the parliamentary faction of the Republican Party of Armenia to replace him is also hardly conceivable considering the structure of party’s hierarchy, which is intermingled with business interests. Seemingly, President Serzh Sargsyan, who usually enjoys the loyalty of the party’s leadership, is the only person able to remove Sahakyan from office by demanding his “voluntary” resignation or ordering his party’s parliamentarians to vote accordingly. So upon returning to Yerevan after last week’s visits to Washington and Moscow, Sargsyan will apparently have to deal with an issue that may have long-term consequences for Armenia’s vitally important relations with Georgia