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Caucasus: Georgia, Armenia Vow 'Mutual Security' Despite Differing Agendas

Armenia and Georgia have offered each other assurances that the countries' often conflicting security interests will not harm bilateral ties. The two Caucasus neighbors, whose foreign policy priorities have differed over the past decade, sealed a comprehensive treaty on "friendship, cooperation, and mutual security" at a summit on 23 October in Yerevan. Officials from both countries also emphasized a common interest in stepping up efforts to link their volatile region more closely to Europe.

Yerevan, 24 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The main highlight of the treaty agreed to at yesterday's summit is a provision obliging Armenia and Georgia to avoid making alliances considered hostile by the other. The mutual commitment is aimed at removing the unease Armenia and Georgia each feel regarding the other's defense and security links with more powerful third nations -- in this case, Russia and Turkey, respectively.

Tbilisi considers Yerevan's military ties with Moscow a threat to its own security. Armenia, in turn, says its security is weakened by Georgia's traditional ties with Turkey.

The Armenian and Georgian presidents declared that the treaty puts their military contacts with Russia and Turkey in a strictly bilateral framework, which precludes any threat to Tbilisi and Yerevan. Presidents Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia and Armenia's Robert Kocharian spoke at a joint news conference after signing the document.

Shevardnadze, who today wrapped up a two-day official visit to Armenia, had this to say: "Rest assured that not a single treaty signed by Georgian leaders will ever be directed against Armenia's interests. We know that [Armenia], too, signs many agreements, and we know that they are not directed against Georgia."

Shevardnadze's remarks alluded to Armenia's military alliance with Russia, which he has long accused of seeking to restore its hegemony over Western-leaning Georgia. Tbilisi is pushing for the closure of all Russian military bases in Georgia, but Yerevan views its own Russian presence as a key element of its national security doctrine. Russian troops stationed in Armenia have been equipped with sophisticated military aircraft and air-defense systems over the past two years.

Many Georgian politicians view this build-up as a direct threat to their country. They believe Moscow was instrumental in securing the defeat of Georgian troops in the early 1990s at the hands of secessionist forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Armenian leaders, however, argue that the main rationale for their reliance on Russia is the perceived threat from Armenia's traditional enemy, Turkey. They say it was the Russian military presence that successfully staved off Turkish intervention in the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute over the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been a source of contention between the two countries for some 13 years.

Turkey, which shares close ethnic and religious ties with Azerbaijan, maintains an economic blockade of Armenia, demanding that Yerevan return the disputed region to Azerbaijani control.

Ankara is also helping Georgia by supplying weapons and training military personnel. This is in line with the Shevardnadze government's stated long-term goal of joining NATO.

The Turkish-Georgian military cooperation has caused unease in Armenia, which is strongly opposed to the growth of Turkish influence in the region. Armenian President Robert Kocharian commented on this concern following yesterday's summit: "These fears are understandable for me in the emotional sense. But the document which we signed today aims to dispel them."

Kocharian and Shevardnadze offered assurances that they will not allow ties with other countries to spoil what they described as a "fraternal" rapport between their two countries.

They also played down another potentially destabilizing factor in bilateral relations -- periodic tensions in Georgia's Javakhetia region, which is mainly populated by Armenians. Severe economic hardship in the region has prompted calls for greater autonomy from the Georgian government. The local population in Javakhetia is also opposed to the proposed withdrawal of Russian troops from a military base there -- a move the Georgian leadership strongly supports.

Analysts believe the continued Russian military presence in Georgia gives Russia additional leverage against Tbilisi, whose control over the rugged Javakhetia area is limited.

Armenia is walking a delicate line on the issue, avoiding any confrontation with Georgia. Kocharian said the Armenian minority in Georgia should serve as a "bridge of friendship" between the two nations, rather than divide them.

The two presidents also reached agreement on stepping up the region's integration into various European structures. Shevardnadze said the South Caucasus should now be referred to as "Southeastern Europe" because it is "an integral part" of the continent.

But he and Kocharian acknowledged that the regional ethnic conflicts are a serious obstacle to the achievement of that goal, and called for their quick resolution. They said they discussed at length the situation in Georgia's separatist region of Abkhazia, where tensions are running high following a recent outbreak of fighting.

Kocharian said Armenia is "no less interested in a quick settlement of the conflict" than Georgia, because peace in the strategically important region would bring it economic benefits and guarantee the security of Abkhazia's substantial ethnic Armenian population. More than a dozen Armenian civilians were reportedly killed earlier this month in attacks on two villages, which Abkhazia's authorities blamed on a combined force of Georgian and Chechen guerrillas.

Shevardnadze said that, despite the recent bloodshed, he sees good prospects for resolving the Abkhaz conflict and urged Russia to play a "more active and useful" role in mediating a peace deal. Shevardnadze and other Georgian officials have often accused Moscow of supporting Abkhazia's separatist leadership and thwarting a settlement.