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Georgia: Armenian President Voices Uneasiness Over NATO Membership Bid

At last week's NATO summit in Prague, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze officially requested his country be invited to join the alliance. The move has stirred concerns in Russia's strategic ally Armenia. While stating that each country has the right to choose its own military partners, Armenian President Robert Kocharian cautioned the North Atlantic Treaty Organization against creating "new dividing lines" in the South Caucasus region.

Prague, 25 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze officially requested on 22 November that his country be invited into NATO.

The Georgian president made the announcement at a summit of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in Prague that was attended by NATO members and all former Warsaw Pact states participating in the alliance's Partnership for Peace program. Seven of these countries received official invitations to join the alliance at the summit.

Speaking to reporters at RFE/RL headquarters the day before he made his request, the Georgian leader elaborated on the reasons for officially knocking at NATO's door. Although Shevardnadze did not refer to any specific threat, it appeared quite clear that Georgia's membership bid is motivated primarily by what it sees as the security threat posed by Russia.

Georgia and Russia have had troubled relations for most of the past decade.

Among the grievances between the two countries are Tbilisi's alleged harboring of Chechen separatist fighters, Moscow's reluctance to vacate two military bases in southern Georgia, and Russia's continued support to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which seceded from Georgia in the early 1990s.

Tbilisi's increasing military cooperation with the United States and its NATO ally Turkey has further contributed to its dispute with Russia. It has also raised concerns in neighboring Armenia, which is still formally at war with Azerbaijan, another ally of Turkey, over the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial enclave.

Speaking at a press briefing at RFE/RL headquarters on 22 November, Armenian President Robert Kocharian, whose country is a strategic partner of Russia, reacted coolly to Georgia's official NATO aspirations.

Saying that "each state is free to decide its foreign-policy priorities and its place in the existing systems of security," Kocharian cited the ongoing rapprochement between NATO and Russia and downplayed the geopolitical impact of Georgia eventually joining the alliance.

The Armenian leader was, however, noticeably uneasy. He cautioned Georgia and NATO against further stoking the strife that has traditionally riven the South Caucasus region. "The South Caucasus area is a very sensitive place, because there are historically shaped influences and powerful neighbors that have their own interests in this region. In this light, it is necessary to keep a balanced and cautious approach in order not to create new dividing lines in the region," Kocharian said.

Kocharian went on to say that he had expressed his concerns before the NATO assembly hours earlier, urging the alliance not to rush things. "It was not an accident if, at today's session of the NATO summit, I, in my address, said that individual relations that NATO is seeking with various countries and partners should be harmonized with situations and problems specific to each particular region. Instead of creating new problems, we should solve problems that already exist," Kocharian said.

The Armenian leader was referring to the Karabakh dispute, as well as to Georgia's own unresolved conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In addition to these hot spots, concerns remain high that calls for autonomy in Georgia's predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Javakheti may degenerate into an open confrontation with Tbilisi.

Kocharian said that at a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Istanbul three years ago, he proposed that a subregional security system be created involving all South Caucasus states and their neighbors.

But addressing the Georgian nation in his weekly radio address, Shevardnadze today assured his fellow countrymen that they could not dream of a better security umbrella than that provided by NATO. "Georgia has never had such an opportunity to become a member of the Euro-Atlantic space. Georgia has never been offered such guarantees about its future security -- I would even say guarantees of eternal security -- throughout its entire history. Membership in NATO will give Georgia such guarantees," Shevardnadze said.

Saying he had been thinking about applying for NATO membership since coming to power in 1992, Shevardnadze added that he did not see "any objective reason" why Russia, which is itself cooperating with NATO, should react "compulsively" to Georgia's membership bid.

Moscow has not yet expressed its views on Shevardnadze's request to NATO. Despite years of vocal opposition to NATO expansion, it reacted calmly to last week's alliance invitation to seven former communist Central and Eastern European countries, including the three Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

NATO leaders have tried to reassure Moscow that it has nothing to fear from an enlarged alliance, saying it is in its interests to have a zone of enhanced stability to its west.

In a further attempt at appeasing the Kremlin's concerns, U.S. President George W. Bush flew to St. Petersburg from Prague on 22 November to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. It is not clear if the two leaders discussed Georgia during their talks.

Also on 22 November, Georgian Security Council Secretary Tedo Japaridze reportedly told the independent Tbilisi-based Imedi radio station that before leaving Prague, Bush met with Shevardnadze and assured him of his support for Georgia's membership bid.

Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, said yesterday in Tbilisi that his country would provide all necessary assistance to help Georgia bring its military standards closer to that of NATO.

Last April, the United States launched a $64 million Train and Equip program that is designed to modernize Georgia's depleted armed forces and train them in antiterrorism tactics.

Inclusion of Turkey in this 21-month military-assistance program has raised some concerns in Armenia, which is a member of the Collective Security Treaty, a Russian-led military alliance that also includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Armenia is also linked to Russia by a series of bilateral defense agreements, including a 1997 treaty on friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance.

Moscow and Yerevan sealed two additional defense accords during Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's visit to Armenia on 3-4 November.

Asked on Friday whether Georgia's request to join NATO could affect Armenia's foreign-policy agenda, Kocharian replied in the negative. The Armenian president said Yerevan will not consider applying itself for membership in the alliance and will remain committed to its strategic partnership with Moscow. "There is already a long line of countries wishing to join NATO. We have, in Armenia, a somehow different approach. We say that joining NATO is not on our foreign-policy agenda. Today, we envisage [our] regional security within the security system to which we currently belong, that, is the Collective Security Treaty and the rather well-developed military and technical cooperation we have with Russia," Kocharian said.

Unwilling to leave the South Caucasus region, Russia has progressively increased its grip over Armenia over the past decade, not only through defense agreements but also by acquiring large industries. Earlier this month, Yerevan ceded Moscow control over five state enterprises, including its largest thermal-power plant. In return, Russia pledged to forgive some $100 million in Armenian energy debts.

In what is officially presented in Yerevan as an attempt to counterbalance ties with Moscow, the Armenian leadership has tried to develop cooperation with NATO and Iran in line with the stated policy of "complementarity" launched in the mid-1990s by then-President Levon Ter-Petrosian.

Kocharian said last week that, although Armenia will not seek membership in NATO, it is nevertheless interested in expanding bilateral collaboration.

Yerevan last month joined NATO's Partnership for Peace Planning and Review process. Also, the alliance is due to hold its first-ever military exercise in Armenia next June in the framework of its Partnership for Peace program.

Citing its privileged ties with Yerevan, Russia, which has stayed away from similar war games held in Georgia and Azerbaijan in the past, has announced that it will take part in the Armenian exercise.