Armenia and Georgia have agreed to step up political and economic cooperation. RFE/RL correspondent Emil Danielyan reports from Yerevan on the "new stage" in bilateral relations.
Yerevan, 1 October 1999 (RFE/RL) - Armenia and Georgia agreed this week to work more closely together, in an attempt to promote stability in the conflict-riven South Caucasus. Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze met in Yerevan on Wednesday and announced the beginning of a "new stage" in relations between their countries.
The two leaders signed a joint declaration outlining the principles of the new cooperation. Kocharian said the document, in his words, "elevates our relations to a higher level." According to Shevardnadze, the two presidents also agreed to begin work on updating the Georgian-Armenian comprehensive treaty, which was signed six years ago.
Officials said economic cooperation figured prominently in the talks. Most of landlocked Armenia's foreign trade is carried out through Georgia's Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti. But bilateral trade makes up only a small share of the two countries' economic turnover. Less than 5 percent of the countries' exports go to each other.
To improve economic ties, a group of businessmen accompanied Shevardnadze to Yerevan. The executives met with their Armenian colleagues at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, and managers of two Armenian chemical enterprises told RFE/RL they reached agreement on supplies of raw materials from Georgia. Several Armenian companies also took an interest in imports of Georgian sugar and tea.
Shevardnadze and Kocharian also discussed regional issues, particularly the unrest in Russia's North Caucasus regions of Chechnya and Dagestan. Shevardnadze again rejected Moscow's claims that Georgia has been used as a transit route for supplies of weapons to radical Chechen warlords. He countered that the Chechen guerrillas are using weapons purchased from the Russians themselves.
The situation in Javakhetia, an Armenian-populated region in the south of Georgia, also figured in the two presidents' talks. Severe economic conditions there have often strained Tbilisi's relations with local ethnic Armenians. And the local Armenians have called several times for greater autonomy. But Kocharian insisted that the problems in Javakhetia are of a social and economic character, not an ethnic one. He said he hoped the Armenian community in Javakhetia could serve as a bridge linking the two countries. Shevardnadze said the issue will die down as Georgia's overall economic development continues.
The Armenian press speculated that Shevardnadze's visit may be aimed at wooing Georgia's ethnic Armenian citizens ahead of next month's parliamentary elections. Analysts say Shevardnadze's party will have to struggle to keep its majority in parliament. Officials in Yerevan, however, have dismissed that hypothesis. ss