Armenia appears to have given Georgia fresh assurances that it will use its influence to prevent a major destabilization of the situation in the southern Georgian region of Javakheti, which is predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians.
Tension in the impoverished area bordering Armenia and Turkey mounted last month as Tbilisi stepped up its pressure on Russia to close two of its remaining military bases in Georgia. One of them is stationed in the Javakheti town of Akhalkalaki and has been the number one local employer ever since the Soviet collapse. The Georgians have long accused Moscow of exploiting socioeconomic and security fears among the local population to prolong its military presence in the South Caucasus country.
Few in Armenia doubt that the situation in Javakheti was the main reason for President Robert Kocharian’s unexpected visit to Georgia on April 1-2. Georgian officials admitted that it was high on the agenda of Kocharian’s informal talks with Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili, saying that Tbilisi is satisfied with Yerevan’s position on the issue (see EDM, April 4).
Saakashvili was already more than happy with what he was told by Kocharian when he visited Armenia in March 2004. “I think that any attempt to artificially disrupt stability [in Javakheti] is doomed, first of all because Armenia has a president who is well aware of the significance of peace and stability,” he said at the time.
The apparent need for more Armenia assurances underscores the extent of Georgian concerns. Thousands of people took to the streets of Akhalkalaki on March 13 to protest the withdrawal of Russian troops and demand greater attention from the central government to the region’s socioeconomic woes. Russian state television covered the protest in detail.
However, the issue of the Russian military base was conspicuously absent from the list of demands voiced by protesters at their next rally on March 31. According to the local A-Info news agency, its organizers called instead for an urgent repair of local roads and simplification of customs administration.
The Armenian government may well have had a hand in this abrupt change of rhetoric. “Naturally, the local residents cannot decide on the Russian base withdrawal,” Stepan Markarian, an adviser to Armenia’s Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, told the Yerevan daily Hayots Ashkhar in an interview published on April 6. “This problem should be settled through Russian-Georgian negotiations.”
Markarian argued that the economic situation in Javakheti “should not be linked to the existence of the Russian base” because it employs only a few hundred local residents — a drop in the ocean given the fact that between 20,000-30,000 Javakheti Armenians go to Russia for seasonal work every year. Armenia will only “work together with Georgia” to improve the situation, the official added.
Azg, another Armenian paper sympathetic to Russia, wrote on April 2 that Yerevan must do everything to prevent the Javakheti Armenians from becoming “a tool in Moscow’s hands.” “The Armenian-Georgian relationship is invaluable for Yerevan,” it said.
Indeed, more than 80% of Armenia’s external trade is carried out through Georgian territory, notably the Black Sea ports of Poti and Batumi. The closed borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey have left the landlocked country with virtually no alternative conduits to the outside world. 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.
The Kocharian administration has also been careful to distance itself from periodical calls for Tbilisi to grant Javakheti autonomy. Such demands were most recently voiced in February 2004 by a top leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, a pan-Armenian nationalist party represented in Kocharian’s cabinet. The Armenian government was quick to state that the demands did not reflect its view.
Russian withdrawal from Georgia is of concern to Armenian leaders only insofar as it raises questions about the sustainability of a continued Russian military presence in Armenia, a key component of Yerevan’s national security doctrine. Russia has no common border with Armenia and will therefore have more trouble providing material and logistical support to its troops stationed there after vacating the Georgia bases.
Moscow may have gotten a taste of things to come on April 5, when one of its A-50 radar planes, the Russian equivalent of NATO’s AWACS aircraft, was denied permission to use Georgian airspace for a flight to Armenia. The aircraft was supposed to take part in air-defense exercises held within the framework of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty organization. Some Russian military analysts say Moscow’s pullout from Armenia is now only a matter of time.
The closure of the Russian base in Akhalkalaki will not address the underlying causes of tension in Javakheti: a grave lack of economic opportunities coupled with a widespread perception of neglect and ethnic discrimination by Tbilisi. Successive Georgian governments have promised to address the problem, but little has been done so far.
As Kocharian and Saakashvili were holding talks in the Georgian resort town of Gudauri, non-governmental organizations from Javakheti held a conference in Akhalkalaki under the motto, “Integration, but not assimilation.” A resolution adopted by the participants accused the current Georgian leadership of continuing its predecessors’ “discriminatory policies” on education, culture and religious affairs.
(Hayots Ashkhar, April 6; Russian Channel One TV, April 5; A-Info, March 31, April 4; Azg, April 2; RFE/RL Armenia Report, March 12)