AAA: Armenia This Week – 03/12/2004

Friday, March 12, 2004

Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili arrived in Yerevan this Friday for
his first-ever official visit to Armenia. On the first day of a two-day
visit, Saakashvili met with President Robert Kocharian and other senior
officials, and visited the Armenian Genocide memorial.

The 36-year-old Saakashvili led a popular revolt against President Eduard
Shevardnadze last November. Saakashvili has since been elected President
with virtually no opposition, collecting over 95 percent of the vote. The
Armenian President’s political opponents said they would try to force
Kocharian’s resignation by emulating events in Georgia [see the next story],
but most observers believe that circumstances in the two countries are not
similar enough for this to happen.

Speaking at a joint press conference with Kocharian, Saakashvili praised
Kocharian as “a very active president, well aware of the problems [he
faces],” and that Armenia was “lucky to have such a president and the
Government.” He added that Georgia had much to learn from Armenia,
particularly from the experience of its armed forces and law-enforcement.

Interviewed by Armenian journalists on the eve of the visit, Saakashvili
offered his vision of economic integration between Georgia and Armenia. “It
is the [elimination] of all customs obstacles, setting common tariffs,
cutting them down and full cancellation in certain cases… It is
[ridiculous] that people have to wait 40-60 minutes at the border to cross
from Armenia to Georgia. It is unacceptable, unserious; it is a leftover of
feudalistic regime. We need free transit of both people and goods. (For
this) we need a common legal system… Today each one of our countries,
taken separately, is weak, for the market needs expansion, larger space.”

Saakashvili suggested that he would try to advance settlement of the
conflict with the breakaway republic of Abkhazia through economic
cooperation and specifically through opening of the Georgia-Russia railroad,
which is also of strategic importance to Armenia. Saakashvili also argued
for coordination of Armenian and Georgian policies towards Europe, Russia
and the United States. He suggested that Armenia could play a role in
improving of Georgian-Russian relations, while Georgia could do the same
with Turkey.

Turning to the problems faced by the Armenian community in Georgia,
particularly in Javakhk, Saakashvili pledged to improve the regional road
infrastructure, clamp down on corruption and secure European loans to
jump-start the local economy. According to the recent Georgian census, in
the last decade close to one-third of the 440,000-strong Armenian community,
centered in Javakhk and Tbilisi, has emigrated. But the community continues
to maintain 154 schools, 13 churches, 4 newspapers and a state-funded
theater. (Sources: Armenia This Week 1-16, 30; Arminfo 3-11, 12; Azg 3-12)

Armenian opposition parties have begun preparations for what they hope would
become a “popular revolution” leading to the early ouster of President
Robert Kocharian, whose term in office expires in 2008. The three main
groups led by Parliament members Stepan Demirchian, Artashes Geghamian and
Aram Sargsian, have so far acted largely independent of each other, holding
separate public meetings in small towns and villages and telling people that
Kocharian would soon resign under public pressure.

Meeting with students of Yerevan universities this week, Kocharian defended
his record in office, pointing to the strong economic recovery of recent
years and dismissing opposition claims that the country was in the middle of
a political crisis. Meanwhile, Kocharian’s ally Prime Minister Andranik
Margarian ordered a counteroffensive, sending members of his cabinet to hold
public meetings in the economically hardest-hit towns and villages
previously toured by the opposition.

A recent survey conducted with U.S. funding found that the overall poverty
level in Armenia decreased from 55% in 1996 to just under half of the
population in 2002. The share of “very poor” people decreased from 27 to
13%. The study also found that there was more poverty in urban (53%) than
rural areas (45%) and that there was even stronger disparity between Yerevan
(44%) and smaller towns (62%).

The opposition’s tactic appears to be to mobilize the latent popular
discontent over economic conditions and official corruption into mass street
rallies in Yerevan to mirror last year’s protests in Georgia. One of the
world’s foremost political risk experts, the Economist, predicted last week
that while political tensions in Armenia will remain high, opposition’s
efforts will be frustrated by their own disunity and positive economic
trends. “We therefore expect Mr. Kocharian.. to remain in power through
2005,” it concluded. (Sources: Armenia This Week 2-6, 20; The Economist
Intelligence Unit 3-4; Arminfo 3-10, 11; “Social snapshot and poverty..,”
the National Statistics Service, 2004)

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