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Georgia: Shevardnadze Visits Armenia

Prague, 2 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is scheduled to travel to Yerevan today for a two day official visit.

Shevardnadze told RFE/RL's Armenian BD in Tbilisi yesterday that he considered Georgia's relations with Armenia "excellent." But two potential sources of friction are likely to feature in his talks with his Armenian counterpart Levon Ter-Petrossyan.

The first is the two countries' diverging foreign policy priorities, particularly with regard to Russia.

The second is the existence in the southern Georgian region of Samtskhe-Dzhavakheti of a sizable (200,000) Armenian ethnic minority, some of whose representatives are demanding that the Georgian government grant the region autonomous status within Georgia.

Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Armenia has maintained closer and more harmonious relations with Russia than has almost any other former Soviet republic. Armenia has signed a series of agreements with Moscow on economic and particularly on military cooperation.

By contrast, Georgia suspects Russia of having abetted separatist forces in its breakaway Black Sea province of Abkhazia during the 1992 -1993 war, which culminated in the Georgia's loss of control over the region.

Georgia's foreign policy is primarily Western-oriented and seeks to minimize its ties with, and dependence on, Russia. Georgia is also seeking to strengthen political ties and economic cooperation with Azerbaijan and Ukraine. Both these countries share the Georgian leadership's profound mistrust of Russia. Shevardnadze yesterday told RFE/RL that Georgia's "strategic partnership" with Kiev and Baku was directed against neither Armenia nor Russia.

Armenia's relations with Azerbaijan are marred by the ongoing dispute over the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh. These tensions have been exacerbated by the recent allegations of clandestine Russian arms shipments to Armenia via Georgia, which Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev has termed a potential threat to Georgia's security.

Some Georgian observers perceive the campaign for autonomy by the Armenian population of southern Georgia as posing a similar threat. The campaign is spearheaded by an organization named Dzhavakhk -- which is the Armenian name of the region in question. Its president, Norik Deboyan, claims that Dzhavakhk's aims focus primarily on preserving the Armenian population's national identity within Georgia, and on improving social and economic conditions in the region, which for decades have been lower than in some other parts of Georgia.

Poor road communications between Samtskhe-Dzhavakheti and the rest of Georgia have resulted in closer economic ties to Yerevan than to Tbilisi. The Russian military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda said in two months ago that the Russian ruble and the Armenian dram are used for financial transactions, rather than Georgia's national currency, the lari.

Following a visit to the region last year by Armenian President Ter-Petrossyan, Shevardnadze issued a decree aimed at improving social and economic conditions in the region.

A second problem plaguing Samtskhe-Dzhavakheti is crime. Travelers report that cars are routinely halted, and passengers either robbed or forced to pay bribes in order to continue their journey. Meeting recently, however, Georgian Interior Minister Shota Kviraya and Kviraya and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisyan registered a decline in such incidents.

Although Dzhavakhk's president Deboyan says that the organization is demanding no more than broad cultural autonomy, some Georgian observers claim that Dzhavakhk is trying to parlay the local population's dissatisfaction with social and economic conditions into popular support for a referendum on granting the region formal autonomous status within Georgia. The opposition Armenian Dashnak party is said to have expressed its support for such a referendum. Visiting Armenian officials, such as parliament chairman Babken Ararktsyan and the head of the majority Hanrapatutyun bloc in the Armenian parliament, Father Husik Lazaryan, say that Armenia fully supports Georgia's territorial integrity.

Ever suspicious of Russian meddling in Georgia's affairs, Georgian parliamentarians have recently accused Russia's intelligence services of "aggravating the situation in Samtskhe-Dzhavakheti" in order to bring about Georgia's disintegration and the transfer of the region to Armenia's jurisdiction. Two days ago, April 30, the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed these claims as "provocative" and "totally without foundation."