Georgian FM Hopes for ‘Strategic’ Ties with Armenia

YEREVAN (Combined Sources)–During an official visit to Yerevan–Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said on Monday that Georgia is interested in developing the kind of "strategic" relationship with Armenia that it already has with Azerbaijan.

His meetings with President Robert Kocharian–Prime Minister Andranik Markarian–and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian touched on a wide range of issues of mutual concern–including bilateral economic ties–unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus–and ways to spur regional integration. He also indicated Tbilisi’s desire to import Iranian natural gas through a pipeline currently constructed in southeastern Armenia. No concrete agreemen’s were announced after the talks.

At a joint news conference with Oskanian–Bezhuashvili was asked about implications of Georgia’s recently published national security doctrine that refers to its relations with Azerbaijani as "strategic" and seems to attach less importance to Georgian-Armenian ties. "They have a strategic character because as you know–a number of energy corridors run through Georgia," he said–referring to two major pipelines that will transport Azerbaijani oil and gas to Turkey. "They are very important for the development of our country not so much in the economic sense but in the security sense."

"That doesn’t mean we should not develop strategic ties with Armenia," added Bezhuashvili. "I think relations between our states have the potential of becoming strategic. And I believe that time will come for the emergence of political conditions for the implementation of programs of strategic significance involving all three regional states."

Bezhuashvili said relations between the three South Caucasian nations could transform into strategic partnership in future. Bezhuashvili said his government’s national security concept singles out USA–Ukraine–and Turkey as its strategic partners.

The two US-backed pipelines have made Georgia a key regional transit hub. That status would only be solidified in case of the planned construction of a new railway that would link the capital Tbilisi to the Turkish city of Gars.

The project–estimated to cost at least $300 million–has provoked strong objections from Armenia which fears that it would add to its regional isolation. The Armenian government says Georgia as well as Azerbaijan should instead use the existing Gyumri-Gars railway which Turkey has kept closed as part of its 12-year blockade of Armenia. Andranik Margarian said that the re-functioning of Kars-Gyumri-Tbilisi-Baku railway will give all the countries of the region an opportunity to get use of the regional corridor.

Oskanian told reporters that Armenia is even ready to avoid shipping any cargo through the Gyumri-Kars rail link and put it at the disposal of Turkey–Georgia and Azerbaijan only. "The international community–Georgia–Turkey–and Azerbaijan know that Armenia is ready to let that railway function without its participation," he said.

The Georgian foreign affairs minister said his country is considering the interests and concerns of its neighbors.

"Our economic projects are not aimed at isolating neighboring countries. We believe that in future all countries of the region will reap the fruits of joint regional economic projects." Bezhuashvili said a second railway may be needed when the cargo transportation in this region increases.

The two sides also discussed the future of another railway that connected Armenia and Georgia to Russia until the 1993 war in Abkhazia. The Georgian and Russian governmen’s have reportedly made progress towards its reopening over the past year. "The [Georgian foreign] minister has certain optimism on this score–but there are still unresolved problems," said Oskanian.

Regional cooperation is also seriously hampered by the unresolved Karabagh conflict. Oskanian said he briefed his Georgian counterpart on recent developmen’s in the Karabagh negotiating process that have brought the prospect of a peaceful settlement closer. Georgia’s position on the conflict was praised as "balanced" by Markarian.

Oskanian pointed out that because Armenian-Georgian relations are important in ensuring stability in the South Caucasus–the two sides must cooperate in the defense sphere.

A statement by Markarian’s office said Bezhuashvili told the Armenian Prime Minister that his country is "following the construction of the Iran-Armenia [natural gas pipeline] with interest and is also interested in developing cooperation with Iran in this sphere." The first section of the pipeline is slated for completion by the end of this year.

Both Armenia and Georgia currently import gas only from Russia and are expected to be hit hard by the recent surge in its cost. The administration of President Mikhail Saakashvili is reportedly interested in extending the Iran-Armenia pipeline to Georgia.

The issue was apparently on the agenda of Bezhuashvili’s meeting with Kocharian. A statement by the Armenian president’s press service said the two men "exchanged thoughts on the possibility of cooperation between the energy sectors of the two countries."

Also on the agenda of Bezhuashvili’s visit was Armenia’s and Georgia’s failure to complete the long-running demarcation of their border. Oskanian admitted that the two sides have so far failed to bridge their differences. "But that I think these are solvable issues–and with a bit of political will from both sides we will be able to settle them," he said.

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