Saakashvili Visits Armenia; Not Pressed on Javakhk

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The presidents of Armenia and Georgia reaffirmed their earlier pledges to step up bilateral cooperation in the economic and other fields after holding talks in Yerevan on Wednesday.

President Serzh Sarkisian said he and his visiting Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, agreed to facilitate the transit of Armenian cargoes through Georgian territory.

“This is an extremely important matter for us,” Sarkisian told a joint news conference with Saakashvili. “Especially now that we are about to start selling agricultural produce.

“I am sure that we will take more steps in that direction. Within a short period of time I will inform my counterpart on the results achieved by us,” he said. In particular, the two governments will press for the reopening of Georgia’s main border crossing with Russia that was widely used by Armenian exporters.

The Upper Lars crossing, which served as Armenia’s sole overland conduit to the former Soviet Union and Europe, was controversially closed by Russia in June 2006. Russian officials have since repeatedly assured Yerevan that it will be reopened soon.

Saakashvili confirmed that Georgia supports renewed commercial and passenger traffic through Upper Lars despite remaining in a de facto state of war with Russia. “We have always said that we are ready to open the Upper Lars crossing,” he said.

It was not clear whether the two leaders discussed Georgian transit fees for freight shipped to and from Armenia through Georgia’s Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti. Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian described them as disproportionately high during a recent visit to Tbilisi.

Sarkisian made clear that Yerevan will continue to seek simultaneously good relations with Georgia and Russia, Armenia’s closest political and military ally, despite the lingering Russian-Georgian conflict. “We are deepening our relations with both Russia and Georgia,” he said. “We are doing that openly, without hesitation, without a shroud of secrecy. And if our good relations with both Russia and Georgia can somehow help to normalize Russian-Georgian relations, we will only be happy.”

Sarkisian indicated his satisfaction with the current Georgian leadership by giving Saakashvili an Honor Medal, the highest Armenian state award set for foreign dignitaries. A statement by his office cited Saakashvili’s contribution to “strengthening the centuries-old Georgian-Armenian friendship.”

What is more, the Armenian leader praised the Saakashvili administration’s stated efforts to ease socioeconomic hardship in Georgia’s restive Javakheti region mainly populated by ethnic Armenians. “We welcome steps taken by the Georgian government to alleviate the socioeconomic situation, improve infrastructure and create jobs in Javakhk,” he said. “We, for out part, are ready to assist in that process.”

The remark sharply contrasted with strong criticism of the Tbilisi government’s actions regularly voiced by some political groups in Yerevan as well as Javakhk Armenian activists campaigning for the region’s greater autonomy. Shirak Torosian, one of those critics and an Armenian parliament member affiliated with Sarkisian’s Republican Party, was barred from entering Georgia on Friday as he traveled to Tbilisi to attend a German-sponsored seminar on Javakhk.

Torosian, who was born in Javakhk, condemned the ban as an affront to Armenia. The Georgian government has still not given an official explanation.

In a related development, several Javakh Armenian organizations appealed to Sarkisian last week to raise their long-standing demands with Saakashvili. Those include granting the impoverished region a status of autonomy, making Armenian its second official language, and allowing its residents to hold Georgian and Armenian citizenships.

They also urged Sarkisian to demand the immediate release of Vahagn Chakhalian, a local Armenian activist who was sentenced last April to 10 years in prison on charges which his supporters say are baseless and politically motivated. Chakhalian was already arrested by the Armenian police and spent two weeks in custody in October 2006 on equally controversial charges.


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