Neighbors fated for cooperation

The Messenger
Monday, April 4, 2005, #060 (0834)

Despite divergent foreign policy directions, Georgia and Armenia remain
close friends. Armenian President Robert Kocharian's unofficial visit
to Gudauri, where he met with President Mikheil Saakashvili on April
1, can be seen as an urgent need for consultation between the two
countries' leadership, however.

Saakashvili's press service, which learned of the unannounced visit
first from reporters, states the two presidents discussed issues
of strategic cooperation and regional security among neighboring
countries. Saakashvili himself underscored the close relationship
between the countries, explaining that state formalities were not
always necessary. "We do not need ceremonies and political limitations
with our neighbors. Without any prior preparations we can always
visit and hold talks with each other," he said.

Georgia's relations with Armenia have necessarily been affected by
the fact that Armenia was and still is Russia's principal ally in the
South Caucasus. Armenia has benefited significantly from this alliance,
first of all during the war with Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh and
afterwards as the conflict froze in Armenia's advantage. At the end
of the last decade, Georgia and Azerbaijan found themselves looking
to the west in order to balance Russia's domineering role in the
South Caucasus; by contrast Armenia was openly pro-Russian oriented.

The new century, however, has ushered in new realities, with the west
and particularly the United States strengthened its position in the
South Caucasus Georgia's categorical demand that Russia withdraw
its military bases from the country has created a situation that
could eventually lead to Russia losing its domineering role in the
region. Once oil begins flowing through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan
pipeline this fall, the west will take an even greater interest in
the region.

Russia, however does not want to give up so easily, especially
regarding the military bases. Only after great resistance have Russian
negotiators reduced their timeline for base withdrawal from a laughable
11 years to 3-4 years. Still, in recent months Moscow officials have
repeated demands for USD 300 million in order to finance the withdrawal
and construct new bases on Russian soil.

For Georgia, the issue is also connected to domestic ethnic issues.
Over the weekend two rallies in Akhalkalaki and Batumi demanded
that the cities' Russian bases remain in place. In Akhalkalaki in
particular, Russia's base is of major economic importance for the
community. The ethnic Armenians living in the remote city are cut
off from most of Georgia's political and economic life; only through
protests were they able to get a national passport office in their
town last month. Despite its large population, Akhalkalaki's residents
were forced to go to distant, and smaller, towns like Akhaltsikhe for
this purpose. Moreover, with dwindling infrastructure and no major
transport routes to the center, residents find themselves dependent
on the Russian base for survival.

Tbilisi's relationship with Yerevan becomes all the more important
as Saakashvili makes his latest gambit against Russian influence in
the area. Not only is Yerevan in a position to intervene positively
in talks between Akhalkalaki and Tbilisi, it is also a reliable
supplier of electricity. Armenian support is of great importance,
and Saakashvili seems to have won this, President Kocharian stating
that the withdrawal of Russian military base from Akhalkalaki was
Georgia's decision and Yerevan would never support any anti Georgian
force, as quoted by Khvalindeli Dghe.

Although neither president has commented in detail on the talks,
it seems likely that as well as the withdrawal of Russian bases,
the tough economic and social condition faced by the predominantly
ethnic Armenian population of the region and transportation of cargo
to Armenia would have been the main issues discussed.

Georgian experts think that while the Armenian president could defuse
the situation in the Akhlakalaki region, Saakashvili could for his
part help Yerevan develop stronger ties with the west and also help
the country avoid a velvet revolution predicted by several regional
analysts.