A canter through the Caucasus

Telegraph, UK
May 14 2004

A canter through the Caucasus
Rachael Heaton-Armstrong revels in the peace of a country that’s
often in conflict.

Georgia basics

Terror and panic. What with civil wars, assassinated presidents and
ethnic tensions, I suppose most people on holiday in the Caucasus
experience some of that. In my case, though, the terror and panic I
felt shortly after my arrival in Georgia were related to horses.

Horse play: riding in the Caucasus

I spent most of my childhood on horses so, although I hadn’t ridden
for years, the fear that overwhelmed me when I saw some prancing out
of the stables took me by surprise. They were Arab/English/Akhaltekin
crossbreeds, a mixture of recently castrated geldings and young
mares, and somewhere in my nervous mind was the idea that they
wouldn’t understand English.

I was given a three-year-old filly. We greeted each other with mutual
trepidation and within minutes I found that, although she was
sure-footed and could come to a screeching halt if she wanted, both
her steering and brakes were capricious. We set off downhill at a
brisk trot. I clung to the pommel of the saddle – something I had
been forbidden to do as a child – adapted my English style and
ignored my nerves.

We were about to embark on a reconnaissance trip to check out this
idyllic country for a new trek. I was one of five Britons – the
others were a photographer living in Georgia, an actress, an art
dealer and the owner of Ride World Wide. Four Georgians took care of
our every need: a wild reprobate artist, a doctor trained in Vienna,
a taciturn engineer and the owner of the horses – all the soul of
courtesy.

Our introduction to the area had come during the car journey to the
stables when our tank was filled by an ancient babushka who shuffled
out of a roadside hut with a ceramic jug of petrol. A mile farther on
half of this was siphoned off to give to someone else who had run out
of petrol. This is the Georgian way.

We were in the beautiful rolling countryside of southern Georgia, an
hour from the capital, Tbilisi.

The bitter rivalries and tensions that continue to wrack this part of
the world (only this week civil war was narrowly averted in Georgia)
seemed a million miles away.

The Khrami Massif ranges from the gentle slopes of beech woods to
precipitous gorges of scrubby elm, hornbeam and oak that lead down to
fast-flowing rivers rushing towards the Black Sea. Wild boar live
here and show their appreciation by digging up the soft, fertile
ground.

We rode up sheer mountain paths that gradually faded out, testing our
tracking skills and the agility of the horses. On the steepest parts
we led them, their soft noses pressed hard against our backs, to
2,500ft crests where the meadows stretched far, far off to the
snow-capped Caucasus. These are picture book pastures – with
innumerable varieties of sweet-smelling flowers and herbs. The sound
of shepherds cracking their whips mingled with the skylarks’ songs as
swallows, house martins and swifts swooped around us for the feast of
insects the hooves would unearth.

Scores of tiny crumbling churches dot the landscape, hiding in the
woods or perching on hilltops. One of the finest is the 12th-century
Gudarekhi monastery, which sits miles away from any road. A stream
borders the surrounding walnut grove of this little Arcadia where
honeybees bliss out on pollen provided by the thick carpet of tall
flowers. Gudarekhi’s intricately carved arches and faded frescoes are
soon to be restored and the whole complex will be occupied by monks
whose predecessors were chased away by the Russians.

One afternoon, out of the silent dappled woods came an elderly man on
a pony, his burnished face and wide grin overshadowed by a huge furry
hat. Suddenly we were surrounded by his vast flock of goats and sheep
eager to reach their summer pastures.

Glorious days rolled into glorious days. Each started with morning
tea, sweetened with condensed milk, delivered to our tents by one of
our Georgian hosts, and ended 10 long hours later when we rode into
camp, usually well after dark, to be handed a bottle of potent
home-made chacha (Georgia’s answer to vodka).

In between we watched the scenery change every mile. We scrambled up
a five-storey seventh-century lookout tower topped with an eagle’s
nest, heard a bear playing in the river, watched a pine martin for
longer than it would have liked, rode along a railway track, saw
water buffaloes belonging to Azerbaijani nomads pulling carts laden
with wood, and swam in a silent, silky lake.

We picnicked in perfect spots, drank from mineral-rich springs, ate
succulent lamb kebabs and tiny river fish, washed in sparkling
streams and collapsed into exhausted sleep despite the loudest chorus
of frogs I have ever heard.

I soon regained my riding confidence, but after a couple of days I
wanted a change from the unpredictability of youth, so I swapped to a
perfectly mannered older horse that walked instead of pranced and
whose rolling canter was a real joy.

One magical day began with our first sight of Dmanisi, from the
opposite side of a deep gorge. Inhabited since Palaeolithic times,
the citadel stands high above a three-way junction of the east/west
Silk Road and the route south to Armenia. It was here that Professor
Kopaliani, who showed us around, discovered skulls that proved to be
1.7 million year old – the most primitive human remains ever to be
found outside Africa.

When we set off from Dmanisi at 3pm we were assured of a short ride
ahead. We took our time to wander through elegant beech woods, stop
for a lazy cup of tea and enjoy the novel idea of getting to camp
before dark. The track soon became a narrow path and finally even the
animal footprints disappeared. This didn’t seem to matter until we
reached a particularly breathtaking view we had seen well over an
hour before and we realised we were lost. Then we heard a chicken
clucking. Where there’s a chicken there’s a pot and where there’s a
pot there are people. We knew a village must be near.

We galloped up the hill to a clearing where an Asiri nomad summer
settlement was bathed in the setting sun, filtered through the smoke
of evening fires. Children led the procession to greet us with
turkeys, cattle, donkeys, sheep, goats and the helpful chicken
looking on. But with the light fading we had to charge on, straight
into a ferocious, deafening wind that turned everything in its path
horizontal.

In the middle of this hostile, blasted plateau we managed to
rendezvous with a friend who was to guide us through the next part of
the journey. He was laden with manna – hot-from-the-oven khachapuri,
heavenly cheese-filled bread – and led us on his tiny pony down an
endless path of overhanging trees and sudden streams.

It was 11pm by the time we reached the dirt road and a house whose
owners spoke neither Georgian nor Russian. Instinct led us to the
village shop, which had for sale one pair of socks, giant sugar
lumps, Champagne, tinned meat, cheese, sweets, the odd toy and –
mercifully – cold beer. We then set off for the final, unbelievable,
five miles of the journey. We led the exhausted horses along the
moonlit, potholed road and finally collapsed at the gate of the
Bolnisi Sioni churchyard at 1am. Down the darkened path we saw an
ethereal blaze of candlelight flooding through the door of the
church. When the priest appeared in the doorway to welcome us with a
serene, beatific smile it seemed God had rewarded us with a glimpse
of heaven.

An enormous supra – a feast – was laid out in the tiny bell tower
where the priest lives, a gun hidden in his bed. Excellent
home-brewed wine accompanied the toasts of celebration and
thanks-giving that ended the day.

For six days we had seen no cultivation, but now on the home stretch
we meandered through tiny fields where women and men tended plots of
two or three crops sown together – maize and beans and potatoes. Then
up and over an escarpment to a sea of wheat.

We rode on through flowering acacia spinneys humming with bees and
cooled off in the Khrami River. But the rock I clung to – to save me
from being swept away – suddenly disappeared beneath me when the
river rose more than 12 inches in a few minutes and I had to be
pulled ashore.

We returned to Tbilisi shaking with exhilaration and exhaustion, our
spirits filled with the absolute beauty of the country and the charm
of its people. Legend has it that when God was dividing up the world
he kept the best, Georgia, for himself. He chose well.

Georgia basics
Ride World Wide (01837 82544, ) offers an
11-night trip similar to the one taken by Rachael Heaton-Armstrong
for £1,350 per person. This includes all meals and accommodation in
tents, hotels and guesthouses plus all riding and transfers.
International flights can be arranged separately.

Further reading: Stories I Stole from Georgia by Wendell Steavenson
(Atlantic Books, £7.99).

www.rideworldwide.com

Oskanian receives members of German Bundestag parliamentary group

OSKANIAN RECEIVES MEMBERS OF GERMAN BUNDESTAG PARLIAMENTARY GROUP

ArmenPress
May 14 2004

YEREVAN, MAY 14, ARMENPRESS: Armenian foreign minister Vartan Oskanian
received today members of the German Bundestag multi-party South
Caucasus parliamentary group- Kristoff Bergner, Jorg Tauss, Lidia
Westrich and Ulla Heller.

Foreign ministry press services reported, that Oskanian underlined
that the delegation’s visit followed a successful visit by German
foreign minister to Armenia Joschka Fischer. He voiced his hope that
German -Armenian relations will continue developing.

The sides emphasized a decision by the European Commission whereby
Armenia and South Caucasus are included in the EU Wider Europe –
New Neighborhood project.

During the talk, the Bundestag delegation members noted that their
group has contributed to the passing of this decision because they
attach importance to South Caucasus’s integration to the EU.

During the meeting, the sides referred to the present phase of Nagorno
Karabagh conflict regulation. Armenian foreign minister has presented
his impressions from his recent talks with his Azeri counterpart
Mamedyarov in Strasburg.

ASBAREZ ONLINE [05-14-2004]

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1) Putin, Kocharian Discuss Economic Ties
2) Some 1,000 Georgians Eager to Move to Tsalka
3) Pennsylvania House Passes Armenian Genocide Resolution
4) Ferrahian Celebrates 40th Anniversary

1) Putin, Kocharian Discuss Economic Ties

(AP/Itar-Tass)–Boosting trade between the two former Soviet republics topped
the agenda at Friday’s meeting between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and
his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Putin noted that trade has increased 34 percent in recent years. “This is a
record indicator that we are moving in the right direction.”
Kocharian recalled last year’s major agreement that gave Russia financial
control over Armenia’s sole nuclear power plant, in exchange for the
cancellation of $40 million dollar debts to Russian nuclear fuel suppliers.
The start of true economic cooperation came with that “major equity-for-debt
agreement,” Kocharian said. “I would like to say with utmost confidence
that we
started and are moving together on all issues.”
The meeting took place on the second day of Kocharian’s working visit to
Moscow that included meetings with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and
the chief executive of the Gazprom natural gas giant, Aleksei Miller.
Kocharian welcomed the increased bilateral commercial ties of recent years,
saying, “Until recently, we only talked about military cooperation while
mentioning that economic interaction is lagging. Now I can state with full
confidence that we began to move in all directions at a very even pace; it
serves as a very serious impetus to effective cooperation and
diversification.”

2) Some 1,000 Georgians Eager to Move to Tsalka

TBILISI (Armenpress/Civil.GE)–The Georgian ministry of refugees and
resettlement reported that approximately 1000 applications have been submitted
by Georgian families wishing to relocate to Georgia’s Tsalka district.
150-strong unit of Interior Troops were dispatched to the southern
multi-ethnic district of Tsalka on May 11, following clashes between local
ethnic Armenians and Georgians on May 9. Several people were reportedly
injured.
Ethnic Armenians comprise 57% of population of Tsalka district in the Kvemo
Kartli region, which has a population of around 20,000, according to the
Georgian department of statistics; 4,500 ethnic Greeks, 2,500 ethnic
Georgians,
and up to 2,000 Azeris live in the Tsalka district.
Local officials had described the clashes between ethnic Georgians and
Armenians sporadic “communal violence,” which has flared-up in the past
several
years.

3) Pennsylvania House Passes Armenian Genocide Resolution

PITTSBURGH CITY COUNCIL COMMEMORATES FIRST GENOCIDE OF 20TH CENTURY

HARRISBURG (ANC-PA)–The Pennsylvania House of Representatives unanimously
passed a resolution designating April 24, 2004 “Pennsylvania’s Day of
Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923.”
Representative Daylin Leach (D) and 56 co-sponsors introduced Pennsylvania
House Resolution No. 593 (HR593).
“The Armenian National Committee of Pennsylvania thanks Rep. Leach for his
leadership in introducing this resolution. We also commend the House of
Representatives for their unwavering commitment to recognize the Armenian
Genocide and to honor the memories of the victims whose descendants are
citizens of the Commonwealth,” said ANC Pennsylvania co-chairman Dr. Ara
Chalian. “The ANC of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania General Assembly
have an
enduring relationship that spans nearly twenty years. We look forward to
continue working closely with Rep. Leach and others who take an active role in
supporting the issues of the Armenian American community.”
The resolution identifies the Ottoman Empire as the perpetrators of a
genocide
that claimed the lives of one and a half million Armenian men, women, and
children from 1915 to 1923. It also acknowledges that modern Turkey continues
to deny and distort the facts of the Armenian Genocide. Through this
resolution, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reaffirms its commitment to
condemn atrocities, such as the Armenian Genocide, and to prevent similar
crimes against humanity from occurring again.
This is the second consecutive year that the first-term legislator has
introduced an Armenian Genocide resolution. Rep. Leach, whose wife is of
Armenian descent, represents a district which includes a large Armenian
American constituency, two Armenian churches, and the Armenian Sisters
Academy.
“It is important that we never forget the atrocities visited upon the Armenian
People in the last century,” stated Rep. Leach. “It is only by remembering the
past that we can recognize the gathering warning signs of new oppression. As
long as I am in the legislature, I can assure you that no one will forget the
struggle of the Armenian People,” concluded Rep. Leach.
In addition to the Pennsylvania House Resolution, the Pittsburgh City Council
passed a proclamation declaring April 24, 2004 “A Day of Remembrance” for the
victims of the Armenian Genocide. The City Proclamation was introduced and
spearheaded by Councilman Douglas Shields, and was co-sponsored by Council
President Gene Ricciardi and Council members Luke Ravenstahl, Jim Motznik,
William Peduto, Len Bodack, Alan Hertzberg, Twanda Carlisle, and Sala Udin.
“On behalf of the Pittsburgh area Armenian-American community, I would
like to
thank Councilman Doug Shields and the City Council for observing the Armenian
Genocide,” stated ANC activist Rostom Sarkissian, who resides in Pittsburgh.
“This proclamation and others like it not only honor the victims and survivors
of the Armenian Genocide, but they also send a strong message to the Turkish
government that continued denial of this Genocide can no longer be a
state-sponsored policy. Time has come for Turkey to join the international
community in acknowledging the Armenian Genocide for what it wasgenocide,”
concluded Sarkissian.
The ANC-PA urges all Pennsylvania Armenians to contact their State
Representative to thank them for passing HR593 and the Pittsburgh City Council
for their “A Day of Remembrance” Proclamation.

4) Ferrahian Celebrates 40th Anniversary

ENCINO– Over 700 people–alumni, past and present students, parents, and
faculty and staff–gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first
Armenian School in the United States–Holy Martyrs Armenian Elementary and
Ferrahian High School.
The May 2 event served to honor faculty members and teachers who have
dedicated over 15 years to the school for their exceptional contributions.
Former students praised the school not only for the level of education it
provides, but also for preserving and passing on Armenian language, history,
and culture to successive generations. The school’s founder Gabriel Injejikian
delivered a heartfelt address, praising the school’s achievements and
encouraging a continued path toward similar success.

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New UNHCR representative in Armenia

NEW UNHCR REPRESENTATIVE IN ARMENIA

ArmenPress
May 14 2004

YEREVAN, MAY 14, ARMENPRESS: UNHCR issued a press release informing
about the assignment of Mr. Peter Nicolaus as the new UNHCR
Representative in Armenia. He took up office on May 12, 2004.

Mr. Nicolaus holds a Doctorate in Law and has been working with UNHCR
since 1986. Before being appointed in Armenia Mr. Nicolaus was the
UNHCR Chief of Mission in Uzbekistan. He speaks English and German.

Caucasian Four gatherings to resume

CAUCASIAN FOUR GATHERINGS TO RESUME

ArmenPress
May 14 2004

MOSCOW, MAY 14, ARMENPRESS: The chairman of the upper chamber of the
Russian State Duma (parliament), Sergey Mironov, announced today that
the traditional and regular meetings of parliament chairmen of the
so-called Caucasian Four (Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia)
will resume soon.

Speaking to a news briefing Mironov said the meetings, held once in
three months, were stooped pending the end of Georgian parliamentary
elections on March 28.

“Now with the election results announced we can resume our meetings,”
he said, adding that the next gathering will most likely take
place in Tbilisi. According to Armenian parliament chairman, Arthur
Baghdasarian, one of the meeting’s topics will be discussions on ways
to end the Karabagh conflict.

Russian, Armenian leaders note progress in economic cooperation

Russian, Armenian leaders note progress in economic cooperation

Channel One TV, Moscow
14 May 04

[Presenter] A Russian-Armenian summit has taken place in the
Novo-Ogarevo residence outside Moscow. [Russian President] Vladimir
Putin met Armenian President Robert Kocharyan, who is in Moscow on
a three-day working visit.

The Russian president said he was satisfied with economic cooperation
between the two countries. But he said he thought there was room
for improvement.

[Putin, sitting next to Kocharyan] It is necessary to note that this
work is not just intensive but also fruitful. It is reflected mainly
in the pace of our economic cooperation. The trade turnover between
Russia and Armenia last year rose by more than 34 per cent. This is
a record. In my view, this is the best kind of evidence that we are
moving in the right direction.

[Kocharyan, in Russian] I think the impetus was the major
debt-for-property deal. Prior to that, we had only been discussing
the military technology factor in cooperation and had been saying
that the economic factor was lagging behind. I can now say with total
confidence that we have caught up and are now progressing together
in every field at a synchronized rate.

Russian president meets with his Armenian counterpart

Russian president meets with his Armenian counterpart

AP Worldstream
May 14, 2004

Boosting trade between the two former Soviet republics topped the
agenda at Friday’s meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin
and his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian.

Putin said that trade has increased 34 percent in recent years.

“This is a record indicator that we are moving toward the right
direction,” Putin said.

Kocharian recalled the major agreement last year under which
Armenia ceded control over its only nuclear power plant to Russia’s
state-controlled electricity monopoly in exchange for the cancellation
of US$40 million debts to Russian energy suppliers.

The start of true economic cooperation came with that “major agreement
of debt-for-property,” Kocharian said. “I would like to say with utmost
confidence that we started and are moving together on all issues.”

Putin and Kocharian have met frequently in recent years.

Armenian, Russian presidents discuss regional issues

Armenian, Russian presidents discuss regional issues

Public Television of Armenia, Yerevan
14 May 04

[Presenter over video of meeting] The Russian and Armenian presidents
[Vladimir Putin and Robert Kocharyan] met an hour ago in Moscow
today. This is the fifth meeting of Vladimir Putin and Robert Kocharyan
in one year.

The strengthening of trade-economic relations was the main issue the
presidents discussed during the meeting. The volume of the commodity
turnover between the two countries increased by 34.5 per cent last
year.

The presidents also exchanged opinions on the main regional
issues. In this context, they talked about the settlement of the
Karabakh conflict.

Russian, Armenian leaders upbeat on bilateral cooperation

Russian, Armenian leaders upbeat on bilateral cooperation

ITAR-TASS news agency, Moscow
14 May 04

Novo-Ogarevo, 14 May: Armenian President Robert Kocharyan believes
that the “major Russian-Armenian deal to write off debts in exchange
for property” has made it possible to develop not only military and
technical cooperation but also economic collaboration on the whole. He
said this today at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Very interesting events are taking place at present in the economic
sphere, for instance, a major Russian bank, Vneshtorgbank, has launched
its work in Armenia. A very interesting contract in the chemical
sphere has been signed: the chemical industry is being developed on
a major scale in Armenia with the help of Russian investments. There
are many examples of Russian businessmen’s active participation in
construction and other spheres,” the Armenian leader said.

According to Kocharyan, ” a major deal on writing off debts in exchange
for property has served as the starting point”. “We used to discuss
the military and technical components of cooperation all the time
before and outline what sectors of economy were lagging behind,” the
Armenian president said. “I can say with full confidence that there has
begun very synchronized progress regarding all the positions,” he said.

[In an earlier report at 0928 gmt the agency said that Putin was
satisfied with the development of cooperation with Armenia, but at
the same time he believed that there was a great potential for future
developments. “Moscow and Yerevan have many opportunities to work
even better and more efficiently,” the agency quoted Putin as saying.

The agency said in a separate report at 0938 gmt that Putin expressed
his hope the current visit would be useful for both sides. “I don’t
only hope, I am confident that your current working visit will be
beneficial for our collaboration and will help us to intensify our
links,” the agency quoted Putin as saying at the talks with Kocharyan.]

Iran’s presence in region of great importance – Armenian foreign min

Iran’s presence in region of great importance – Armenian foreign minister

Public Television of Armenia, Yerevan
14 May 04

Since the first days of its independence, Armenia has attached great
importance to Iran’s presence in the region, which plays a balancing
role, Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan said during a meeting
with Iranian Oil Minister Bizhan Namdar-Zangeneh in Yerevan.

The Iranian official, who signed an agreement on the construction of
the Iran-Armenian gas pipeline yesterday, noted that this will be a
symbol of strengthening friendship between the countries of the region.

Minister Oskanyan received the Iranian oil minister three hours after
his return from Strasbourg.