YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and other Georgian leaders deeply offended official Yerevan by repeatedly ignoring phone calls from their Armenian counterparts during Georgia’s disastrous 2008 war with Russia, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic document.
In a confidential cable publicized by WikiLeaks this week, a top U.S. diplomat in Yerevan also informed the State Department at the time that the then Georgian Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili snubbed her Armenian counterpart, Edward Nalbandian, as she returned to Georgia via Armenia on August 15, 2008, one week after the outbreak of the war.
“Top Armenian officials are growing increasingly offended by Georgians’ non-responsiveness to Armenian efforts to reach out,” wrote the diplomat, Joseph Pennington. “Armenians feel their good intentions have been met with an undeserved cold shoulder,” he said.
The administration of President Serzh Sarkisian sought to maintain neutrality in the weeklong Russian-Georgian war triggered by Tbilisi’s botched attempt to win back control over South Ossetia. It was anxious not to upset Armenia’s most important neighbor and closest military ally.
Sarkisian faced strong criticism from his political opponents and some media after he discussed the situation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev by phone on August 13, 2008 and only sent a letter to Saakashvili the next day. Critics viewed that an indirect endorsement of Russian military action.
Citing an unnamed Sarkisian aide, Pennington wrote that in fact the Armenian leader tried to phone both Medvedev and Saakashvili on the same day but was unable to get in touch with the latter. “After repeated attempts to get a call through, Sarkisian finally just sent a letter to Saakashvili, in a substitute effort to show support for the Georgian side,” he said.
Pennington, who was the U.S. charge d’affaires in Armenia at the time, added that Nalbandian and Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan were likewise unable to contact their Georgian counterparts. He said Nalbandian met him on August 15 to complain about the “hostile attitude” of the Georgians.
“Visibly agitated, FM Nalbandian noted that Armenia is trying to help Georgia by taking in more than 4,000 refugees and offering to serve as a humanitarian corridor for international relief efforts,” reveals the document.
“The final indignity, according to the FM, was when FM Tkeshelashvili arrived at Yerevan Airport at 4:00 am on August 15 en route overland to Tbilisi and declined Nalbandian’s proposal for a short Airport meeting at that hour. Tkeshelashvili said she was ‘under instructions’ to return to Tbilisi immediately,” it says.
According to Pennington, the then Georgian ambassador to Armenia shared the Armenian frustration but blamed Tbilisi’s lack of responsiveness on the emergency situation in Georgia. The U.S. diplomat found this justification “very valid,” suggesting that the Armenian leaders felt offended, in large measure, because of their relative inexperience.
“Both the president and foreign minister remain new enough in their jobs for such perceived slights to sting more than perhaps would be the case of more seasoned hands,” he said.
Whether or not Sarkisian managed to speak to Saakashvili by phone later in August or in September 2008 is unknown. Their first face-to-face meeting after the war took place in Tbilisi on September 30. The two leaders pledged to strengthen bilateral economic ties and further simplify border crossing procedures for their citizens.
Speaking at a joint news conference, Saakashvili thanked Sarkisian for “expressing support for Georgia’s territorial integrity” during the Russian-Georgian conflict and gave him a Medal of Honor, a top Georgian state award.