Armenia & Georgia: Resilient Relationship

Armenia & Georgia: Resilient Relationship

Introduction:

Armenia and Georgia are destined by history and geography to exist side by side, for centuries uncomfortably squeezed between huge empires. Not always were their relations cloudless, but mostly were marked by prolonged periods of propinquity and cooperation.

Today, notwithstanding some factors that push the two nations in opposite directions, their relations are essentially good. Besides cultural proximity and long-going tradition of ties and exchanges, it is also political pragmatism and long-term geopolitical considerations that bring on friendly partnership despite external forces driving countries apart. հայերեն

Creator: Piruza Khalapyan, Chai Khana. All rights reserved.

Still, while similar in many ways, as with regard to cultural traditions or socio-economic patterns[1], the small post-Soviet nations differ in a number of important aspects playing an important role in influencing their bilateral relations:

Similarities and differences:

Armenia is a landlocked country, without common border with its main strategic partner – Russia; while Georgia possesses access to the Black Sea, and actually divides Armenia from Russia.

Armenia is a member of military (CSTO) and economic (EEU) blocs led by Russia, which also controls significant chunks of its economy; several Russian military bases are stationed in Armenia, and its southern and western borders are guarded jointly with Russian border guard units; under strong Russian pressure,  Armenia has refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU; Armenia has no diplomatic relations with neighbouring Turkey and Azerbaijan, and is engaged in semi-frozen and sporadically re-escalating conflict with the latter over Karabakh; due to closed borders and blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan, Georgia and Iran provide the Armenia’s only connections to the outside world; Since the war over Karabakh and respective mass migrations, Armenia possesses essentially ethnically homogenous population, while its global diaspora significantly outnumbers the country’s population playing an important economic and political role.

Georgia, in its turn, has experienced a war and cut diplomatic relations with Russia while consistently pursuing integration into western alliances such as EU and NATO; it has lost its conflicts with breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that were supported by Russia, which has recognised their sovereignty, stations military bases there and is step-by-step incorporating them; Georgia maintains friendly relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan and is a party to several transportation projects bypassing Armenia, latest being the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad[2]; Georgia is an essentially multi-ethnic country, with Armenians making the second biggest minority group (ca. 4.5%, while Azeris count about 6.3%); there are several disputed religious sites in Georgia claimed by both Armenians and Georgians...

Armenian-Georgian relations are characterised by certain asymmetry and differing priorities. So, for Armenia, Georgia is seen primarily as a transit country linking it with the world, as almost 75% of all Armenian cargoes pass via it. Georgia is one of favourite destinations for Armenians visiting their relatives in Georgia, or enjoying vacation by the Black Sea. At the same time, Georgia is involved in alternative transport corridors circumventing Armenia.  Armenia in its turn wants to have access to Russia via strategically important railroad passing through Abkhazia, not a welcome perspective for Tbilisi. Armenia is concerned with the possibility of new Georgian-Russian tensions that may endanger Armenian transit, including the disruption of the critical gas pipeline from Russia, and worried by close cooperation of Georgia with Azerbaijan and Turkey seen as a challenge to its security.

There is differing perception of issues related to ethnic Armenians in the Javakheti region of South Georgia. From Armenian perspective local Armenians experience problems with receiving quality education in their native language and encounter discrimination in economic and political spheres. Due to legal prohibition of double citizenship many Armenians relinquish Georgian nationality in search of better opportunities elsewhere, thus downsizing the Georgia’s Armenian minority. There is also an on-going dispute over cultural heritage, namely a number of churches claimed by the Armenian Apostolic Church Diocese in Georgia, while any counter-claims are considered groundless. Sporadic Armenophobic rhetoric by some public figures in Georgia would also attract much unfavourable attention[3].

Georgian perspective is often quite different. While Georgia economically benefits from Armenian freightage, it takes seriously threats emanating from Russia regarding unsolicited transit to Armenia in emergency – that may involve military action and breach of Georgia’s sovereignty. As Russia is seen to constitute a predominant threat to Georgia’s security, Tbilisi is worried by Russian military presence in Armenia and the Armenia’s membership of the Russia-led CSTO, aggravated by limited ability of Yerevan to resist strong Russian pressure.

Compactly living Armenian community in Javakheti is often seen as a source of concern, due to its reluctance to get more integrated into the Georgian society for fear of assimilation. The majority of Javakheti Armenians have been resettled from Turkey by the Russian Empire in the 19th c., hence disputed ownership of some claimed cultural heritage. In addition, until relatively recently some influential Armenian politicians and groups would claim annexation of Javakh as a legitimate political objective[4]. More suspicions were added by political statements like by former Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosyan who in the wake of the Georgian-Russian war accused Georgia of attempted genocide of Ossetians[5]; or by the history of strong military role of Armenians in Abkhazia fighting against Georgians.

The possibility of rekindling of the Karabakh conflict is seen as a serious threat to Georgia’s stability for a number of reasons, such as potential clashes between ethnic Armenians and Azeris living in Georgia; expected Russian military engagement that may ignore Georgian territorial sovereignty; endangering energy security by disruption of pipelines passing through Georgian territory; or, the possibility of a massive refugee influx...

While above-listed concerns on both sides are real and mostly justified, Armenian and Georgian authorities have demonstrated sufficient resilience toward these challenges, steadfastly pursuing policy of cooperation and mutual benevolence. Speaking of outside influences, probably the biggest factor here is Russia. Even while Russian efforts are hardly aimed directly at disrupting Armenian-Georgian relations, the impact of every Russian action influences bilateral relations. Russian pressure on Armenian decision-making and foreign policy circumcises Armenia’s de-facto sovereignty and thus by default affects relations; The same is true regarding the Russian military presence and control of key energy and transportation infrastructure in Armenia (e.g. restricting the capacity of the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline that could potentially contribute to Georgia’s energy security); Russian-controlled media outlets and experts present processes in Georgia in much darker colours than they often deserve, influencing public opinion, particularly among less educated groups easily manipulated by pro-Russian TV channels and other media.

While Russia possesses less leverage over Georgia, its propaganda is equally disruptive, aiming to indoctrinate vulnerable citizens by anti-western rhetoric. Such actions may again have limited direct influence over Georgian-Armenian relations, but the Russian threat, frequent discussions by Russian governmental think-tanks (e.g. Russian Institute for Strategic Studies headed by former prime minister and also director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Mikhail Fradkov) on the desirability and inevitability of Georgia’s eventual collapse and fragmentation enabling common Armenian-Russian border and the illusionary nature of Georgia’s achievements – affect Armenian public attitudes toward Georgia. However, it is certainly not only Russia that enjoys influence over the Georgian foreign policy, as the country’s pro-western orientation naturally conditions its susceptibility to European and US influence; although certainly not focused on the Armenian-Georgian relations it is inevitably influencing Georgia’s actions through soft power, legislative approximation, and trade agreements, among other things. Turkey is one more strong influence, as one of the biggest trade partners, transit destinations, and providers of military assistance, although friendly attitudes towards it are increasingly mixed with a dose of mistrust and caution. In addition, Georgia’s policies are restricted by special attention to maintaining balanced position regarding Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation.

There are numerous internal factors too. Primarily, these comprise public attitudes, expectations and grievances that the two governments take into account. The wider public is mostly concerned with issues related to security-related perceptions, to Javakheti Armenians, and the ownership over cultural heritage, rather than custom tariffs or cargo regulations. It is these sensitive and often securitised issues where the civil society, populist politicians and media exert there influence, sometimes stirring tensions and whipping up mutual mistrust, at other times promoting mutual tolerance and cooperative attitudes. The governments, meanwhile, try to soothe tensions without creating dangerous impression that they are sacrificing national interests.

Armenia and Georgia:

Against all odds, the overall mutual attitude remains quite friendly and cooperative. While geopolitical pressures drive countries in different directions, both societies are essentially oriented toward the European cultural and democratic traditions, and their paths will eventually converge. There are numerous civil society and political groups in both countries promoting pro-European and pro-democracy agenda often supported by Western foundations, in particular groups populated by westernised and educated youth. Such organisations are the most probable mutual partners engaged in joint projects and other forms of cooperation, and they often promote general cooperative attitudes in the bilateral relations. While the situation with pro-western activities is somewhat more ambiguous in Armenia due to stronger Russian influence, there seems to be a general shift in the same pro-Western direction, along with growing concern over excessive Russian clout over Armenian affairs curtailing the country’s sovereignty, while providing too modest benefits in exchange. Such shift has evidently strengthened with Russia selling advanced military armaments to Azerbaijan, obviously led by its interest in keeping the Karabakh conflict as a core of its regional influence; also, in the wake of several scandals linked to the Russian military base in Gyumri; and, due to the Russian meddling in internal economic policies.

Participation of Armenia and Georgia in different economic alliances, while a reason for concern, is increasingly seen also as an opportunity that with smart approach can be exploited, opening two big markets to cooperating businesses from both countries. This approach may lead not just toward the increase in mutual trade (with current modest turnover of ca. 400 USD), but will also increase investment flows and multiplication of joint ventures. Innovative approaches such as creating specialised economic zones, cooperation in international tourism, and development of cross-border trade will bring economically active citizens of both countries together, raise mutual awareness, and strengthen bilateral ties. One of the positive trends is also developing partnerships between regions in the two countries, such as exists between Georgian Ajara and Armenian Lori; In addition, there are attempts to create new coalitions of cooperating states engaging both Armenia and Georgia[6].

Apart from business and trade, there are other areas were collaboration is possible and on the rise, as are the spheres of cultural, educational and scientific exchanges. Civil society organizations are also interested in working together, although there are too few opportunities for funding collaborative projects in such important areas as environment protection, against the background of diminishing biodiversity, erosion and contamination of soil, air pollution, and mutilated landscapes; or, the areas of higher education, research, and cultural exchange. Another key obstacle to stronger cooperation is the strange lack of mutual interest, more pronounced in Georgia due to above-mentioned demographic and geographic factors, and therefore limited knowledge about social and political processes in the neighbouring countries.

Conclusion:

While there are some positive signs of intensifying relations between the two countries, respective efforts are sporadic, lack consistency and strategic vision, and are frequently reactions to emerging problems. A more effective approach at the intergovernmental level would be the developing and implementing a joint strategy for future interstate cooperation that would formulate objectives in different time perspectives, assess prospective venues but also existing challenges and obstacles imposed by the external environment; in parallel, civil society organisations, educational and research institutions, professional and business associations should look for ways to enhance, fund, optimise, and institutionalise cooperation in common areas of interest. Commitment and assistance of Western partners with this ever-important endeavour would be indispensable and much appreciated.

 

[1] Country comparison Armenia vs Georgia. https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/armenia/georgia

[3] Dominic K. Cagara. Unchallenged stereotypes blight Georgian–Armenian relations. Democracy & Freedom Watch, October 15, 2015

[4] ARF wants a sovereign Javakh. A1Plus, 6, 2004. http://en.a1plus.am/1471.html

[5] Ter-Petrosian Blames Georgia For Conflict With Russia. Azatutyun, August 21, 2008.  https://www.azatutyun.am/a/1596952.html

[6] See, e.g: Erik Davtyan. Armenia’s Regional Policy: New Cooperation with Georgia, Iran, and Turkmenistan? FPRI, August 8, 2017. https://www.fpri.org/article/2017/08/armenias-regional-policy-new-cooperation-georgia-iran-turkmenistan/

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