A Delicate Georgian Balance

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We have always characterized Armenia’s neighbor, Georgia, as a “friendly foe,” which Armenia has to treat with kid gloves.

Historically the two nations share many traits and experiences; at times, they have been ruled by the same king and at other times, they have both been colonized by the same empires.

Armenians have the propensity to build other countries and Georgia has been one of the major beneficiaries of that trait. Throughout the 19th century, Armenians turned the sleepy Georgian capital of Tbilisi (Tiflis) into a major cosmopolitan cultural hub. With the Bolshevik takeover, the Georgians were all too happy to seize the properties of wealthy Armenians under the guise of a proletarian revolution.

Ever since, they have treated Armenians there as an underclass, even during the Soviet period which preached egalitarianism.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Armenian minority has experienced discrimination and repression in Georgia, despite the fact that the regime aspires to join the European Union and NATO, which require different standards of governance from their members.

Armenia’s major trading partner is Russia and goods and people traveling between Armenia and Russia have to traverse Georgian territory. In addition, any trade with Europe needs  access through Georgian seaports. The Georgian authorities know how to implement subtle methods to stifle the trade, particularly with Russia.

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When Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan assumed power, his first official visit was to Georgia. He also held friendly meetings with Georgian leaders on border towns. During his last visit, Pashinyan reminded his Georgian counterparts that Armenia and Georgia are the only Christian nations to exercise and preserve Christian values in the region. But Georgia’s antagonism toward Russia places the country at odds with Armenia, the latter being a strategic ally of Moscow.

Georgia almost always has voted against Armenia at the United Nations. However, during a recent vote at the UN about Georgian refugee rights to return to their historic habitat, Armenia abstained as a friendly gesture to Georgia. In addition, Armenia has recognized the Crimean annexation by Russia but not the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose independence was recognized by Russia, of course, and also Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Artsakh.

Armenia’s trade and much of its regional politics are affected by Georgian-Armenian relations.

On June 20, massive protest rallies took place in Tbilisi as a result of Russian presence at a parliamentary session. Indeed, a Russian member of parliament, Sergei Gavrilov, took the podium and spoke in Russian at an Orthodox interparliamentary session. That triggered violent protests resulting in 240 injured people, 80 of them police officers.

That is how deep anti-Russian sentiments run in Georgia.

The disturbance also cost the speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, his job, as he was forced to resign.

President Salome Zurabishvili, handpicked by the billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who still controls the levers of power behind the scenes, has blamed the disturbance on Russia, claiming that it is in the interest of Moscow to see these destabilizing developments in Georgia “because Russia is an occupying power and our enemy.”

Russia has not been oblivious to the developments there; President Vladimir Putin, in response to the violent outburst of anti-Russian sentiments, has ordered the cancellation of Russian flights to Georgia.

President Zurabishvili’s anger is equally directed toward Azerbaijan, which supported by Turkey, has laid territorial claims on land in Georgia, however, she has not verbalized that sentiment.

Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian Dream party, is the power behind the throne in Georgia. He has realized that in its drive towards the west and NATO, Tbilisi has yielded too much political influence to Turkey and Azerbaijan, so much so that the friendship between the parties has hurt rather than help his country. Turkey has all but monopolized Georgia’s economy and Azerbaijan now has been raising territorial claims.

The showdown between Georgia and Russia also has benefitted the Turkish-Azeri axis, because they disrupted low-level negotiations between Tbilisi and Moscow. One of the outcomes of those negotiations was to be the resumption of rail traffic between Armenia and Russia over the Abkhazian territory.

As Armenia is beholden to Georgia for its traffic with Russia over the border passage of Lars, the Abkhazian alternative would have loosened the Azeri-Turkish stranglehold over Armenia’s regional trade.

Now the government in Tbilisi is in a bind. Despite the stifling bearhug from the Turkish-Azeri forces, some in the country pushing toward the West still support close relations with the two, despite the obvious damage that the country has suffered thus far.

One such proponent is the foreign minister, David Zalkaliani, who announced recently that the joint military exercises carried out between Georgia and Azerbaijan are in line with the interests of the US, the European Union and Turkey. He has stated that Azerbaijan is Georgia’s strategic partner, adding: “At the moment, when our territories have been occupied by Russia, we cannot jeopardize our relations with our major strategic partner.”

Policy planners in Tbilisi are well aware of Armenia’s predicament and vulnerability, and therefore, they do not expect any dramatic reaction from Armenia.

Last week’s meeting between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Washington, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, did not yield much of a result except for the usual generic statements from both sides to keep the negotiation process going and resolving the conflict through peaceful means.

However, despite those statements, the threat of war is gaining momentum. The Georgians clearly seem to expect a war and have pegged Armenia to be on the losing side, and as weaklings. Last week, they denied an entry visa to an Armenian scholar, Ashod Melkonyan. In the past they have denied entry to Shirak Torossyan, an MP in Armenia. All those provocative actions have gone without any reaction from the Armenian side, as have their repressive measures against Javakhk Armenians.

Responding to a journalist from Aysor.am, an academic specializing in Georgian studies, Alik Eroyantz, stated: “In light of the situation in the Caucasus region and the delicate nature of Armenian-Georgian relations, the military cooperation between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia must serve as a cause for concern. … However, Armenia’s reaction must be a measured one.”

The Armenian government must therefore calibrate its policy towards Georgia with extreme caution, first to secure its trade routes to the outside world open and not to provide any cause or excuse to the Tbilisi government to further veer towards the Turkish-Azeri axis.

With “friends” like Georgia in the region, Armenia does not need any enemies.

 

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