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Georgian FM Hopes For ‘Strategic’ Ties With Armenia

By Anna Saghabalian

Georgia is interested in developing the kind of “strategic” relationship with Armenia which it already has with Azerbaijan, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said during an official visit to Yerevan on Monday. He also indicated Tbilisi’s desire to import Iranian natural gas through a pipeline currently constructed in southeastern Armenia.

Officials said 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 of spurring regional integration. No concrete agreements 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 which 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 in reference 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 as security sense.”

“That doesn’t mean we should not develop strategic ties with Armenia,” added Bezhuashvili. “I think relations between our states have a very good potential for 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.”

The two U.S.-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 Kars.

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-Kars railway which Turkey has kept closed as part of its 12-year blockade of Armenia.

Armenian leaders conveyed their concerns to Bezhuashvili. 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.

Bezhuashvili, for its part, reiterated Tbilisi’s assurances that the Tbilisi-Kars project is not aimed at isolating Armenia and is only meant to bring Georgia extra economic benefits.

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 governments 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 conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Oskanian said he briefed his Georgian counterpart on recent developments in the Karabakh negotiating process that have brought closer the prospect of a peaceful settlement. Georgia’s position on the conflict was praised as “balanced” by Markarian.

A statement by Markarian’s office said Bezhuashvili told the Armenian premier that his country is “following the construction of the Iran-Armenia 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 Georgian territory.

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.” No details were reported.

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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