Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023: Georgia

Uncertainty Drives All Actors into Seeking Palliative, One-Time Solutions

Dimitri Moniava, Director of Strategic Communications Center

- With what current processes are Georgia’s threats and opportunities more associated: the Armenian-Azerbaijani post-war processes or Russia’s war against Ukraine? How are these threats and opportunities manifested?

A line must be drawn between the essence of these threats and opportunities and the way they are perceived, especially when the topic is still hot. The early assessment among Georgian political elite and society at large tends to be rather emotional before it would cool down and get more realistic. Nevertheless, this first phase of emotional instability has a significant effect on the formation of public opinion and, then, as a consequence, on policy-making. For instance, after the cessation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh, there was much talk about the opening of transportation routes through the southern regions of Armenia, the alarming publications in media and social networks indicated that the transit of goods and energy carriers would shift to the south and practically strip Georgia of its geopolitical role. At the same time, no one offered insight into statistics, infrastructure, transit capacity or political risks for both sides. Sometime later, seeing that nothing threatened the strategic transit flows through Georgia, the discussions simmered down. As for the risks related to the war in Ukraine, they are perceived much more acutely. There are fears that the war, one way or another, will roll into the territory of Georgia. Regarding the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the perspective of its resolution, the assessments have become more balanced and objective.    

Economy would be a good starting point when discussing opportunities. The significance of the South Caucasus transit of energy carriers into Europe has increased after the war in Ukraine broke out. Moreover, a process of rerouting trade flows, including those from Central Asia is underway now. In this respect, foreign partners are expected to make investment into the expansion of port, pipeline and road infrastructure. There was also an influx of people (some brought their money with them) into the country, a situation well known in Armenia. New business opportunities and trade deals emerged and the economic growth amounted to 10.1%. The increase in transit capacity, in a broad sense, encourages the interest of big players towards the region and creates preconditions for establishing new security guarantees. But there emerge also threats from countries who might find such developments contrary to their interests. Above all else, the Georgian public sees Russia in such a capacity. I would like to emphasize this since Georgian authorities build their policy based on transit determinism in the context of Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict as well. They fear destabilization of Azerbaijan, which is Georgia's key partner in transit projects, as well as deterioration of Azerbaijan's relations with Western partners. The rhetoric has escalated several times - Paris and Baku have exchanged hurtful statements - while France is a key European partner of Georgia. The strengthening of Russia's position in the region is what Tbilisi fears, despite the fact that it has been deteriorating lately. Given that the interests of many players collide around the Karabakh conflict, Kremlin may as well play on contradictions that arise. Almost any escalation poses a potential threat to the interests of Georgia. Tbilisi supports peaceful settlement that would provide additional security guarantees, but there are two caveats. Tbilisi would not like the strengthening of Russian positions as well as a shift towards south of transit routes running east to west. Overall, I do not see objective prerequisites for either.

- Are the Armenian-Azerbaijani contradictions the main obstacle to establishing a lasting regime of cooperation in the South Caucasus? What other impediments may be present?

Apparently, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is the main obstacle in this regard. I do recall the late 90s, when the West was probing whether it was possible to find some prospects for cooperation, to create space outside the context of the Karabakh issue, for example, new trade and economic agreements involving three countries, transit routes, elements of a common market, things to build further opportunities on. It was a phase of exploration, general discussions, conferences, and the issue was discussed in theory, although, I believe, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was aware of these efforts. Back then I decided to write an article, talked to some experts and officials. Here is a remark from one of the ministers of the economic bloc, who literally said “we do welcome it, but it will not work.” The contradictions seemed insurmountable then and even so today, although perhaps, it is worth renewing the dialogue in this regard.

People of our region deserve to see prospects for development, some bright goal ahead, not a mere opportunity for stabilization of the current state of affairs and another frozen conflict. The ambiguity due to the unclear future of the Russian Federation, her role in the region and restoration of territorial integrity of Georgia appears to hider the long-term solutions. There are other factors as well, such as the uncertain position of Iran, the dynamics of USA-Iran relations, the level of Iran's involvement into regional affairs, Iran-Azerbaijan relations and so on.  

- In your opinion, what are the new algorithms of relations in the region, and which countries (Russia, USA, other Western countries, international organizations, Turkey, Iran) are the most active in promoting them? The agendas of which countries are most aligned with that of Georgia?

I am a bit cautious of the term “algorithms” - it is a set of precisely defined rules for solving problems. There are no algorithms nowadays; they are being made along the way. Russia has been playing a definitive role in the region for 200 years, however, today she is not stable, and it is hard to predict how the ongoing war or its end will affect her, what place Russia will assume in the system of international relations and how this, in turn, will affect the EU, China and all neighboring regions, including ours. This uncertainty is driving all actors in the South Caucasus into seeking palliative, one-time solutions, rather than formulas for some kind of comprehensive settlement and development of clear algorithms. Everyone, without exception, is walking on thin ice, therefore, the metaphor of thin ice can be extended to the degree of freezing of the conflict. As for the agenda, the major economic partners of Georgia (I do not mean the trade turnover, but the significant economic projects) are Turkey and Azerbaijan. Economy undoubtedly affects the politics. The key political partner of Georgia is the EU (France and Germany, to be precise). These agendas partly overlap.

- Is it possible in principle to be equidistant from the parties to the Armenian-Azerbaijani and Russian-Ukrainian confrontations? How does that work for Georgia in practice, in terms of both its foreign and domestic policy priorities?

I am afraid keeping absolutely equal distance is impossible. We should not fear asymmetry, it seems scary only in two-dimensional space. International relations are multidimensional, asymmetry in one regard is balanced by something else. For example, it is difficult for us to imagine Armenia being equidistant from Turkey, Iran, the USA and Russia. Georgia has special relations with Azerbaijan, they are apparent - the pipelines, transit, etc. But she also has special relations with Armenia in other spheres. We have a similar political worldview, perspectives on democratization and development, cultural and social ties. This is also a key resource for balance, but it is hard to measure in numbers.

The second connotation of the word “equidistance” implies distancing oneself from regional processes. There is a branch of Georgian politics that adheres to this, seeing Georgia as a European island in Asian region. This alienation gives rise to certain aplomb, arrogance and always contradicts with the desire to find strategic partners and not be left alone, both in terms of geopolitics and regional dynamics. As Rustaveli put it, “He who does not seek a friend is his own enemy.”
Therefore, I would rather suggest using the term “equiproximity” instead of equidistance, since, by definition, Georgia cannot isolate herself from Armenia or Azerbaijan. Thus, feasible contribution to the normalization of relations is required. In hindsight, there is also the negative experience: in the beginning of the 20th century the Mensheviks overestimated the potential of mediation, while the elites, in my view, in the 1990s underestimated it and preferred to keep distance. The situation is entirely different when it comes to Russia and the West. Russia has occupied a part of Georgian territory and has been creating threats that Georgia has to address. In these circumstances equidistance or any talk of rapprochement maneuvers are impossible.    

- What is Georgia’s agenda regarding the currently existing interrelations in the South Caucasus?

Minimization of risks is at the forefront. The way to achieve that both today and 1000 years ago has been to overcome the fear of isolation that has run through Georgian, and, as far as I can see, Armenian history, at least since late feudal period. In a 1495 letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, King of Georgia Constantine II made an astounding statement, “We are left completely alone.” This phrase returns in the memoirs of the leaders of the first republic, and among contemporary authors who write about the events of 90s. This approach stipulates that it is imperative to avoid facing an overwhelming power or threat alone. That is why the Georgian government consciously and purposefully facilitated the involvement of the West in regional affairs, so as to balance the influence of the RF. The region opened up to external players, the influence of the US and the EU has gradually increased. China has shown certain interest in Georgia, and a whole web of interests has emerged: in addition to formal agreements, there are certain informal guarantees, invisible red lines. Georgia should run a test of sorts to check how Moscow's position towards Georgia has changed, and whether Russia is ready to ease the tensions. So far neither the authorities, nor the opposition, nor independent experts see this. The position of the Russian Federation remains the same as it was before the start of the conflict in Ukraine… The interest from outside is growing, and more opportunities arise. This can potentially provide a security boost, but it can also drive the aggressor to attack. It is like an optimist versus a pessimist argument around the glass of water, but this paradigm is viable as it envisages constant movement and search for goals. If you try to freeze some order of things and hide from threats, fetishize some guarantees, then you are likely to come to a complete collapse, and the history of all South Caucasus countries knows such examples.

- The residents of Nagorno-Karabakh have been under a blockade by Azerbaijan for over three months. Azerbaijan exerts other forms of pressure on Armenia and NKR as well. What’s next? What is your and people’s perspective in Georgia on the blockade and possible scenarios for its lifting?

Unfortunately Georgian public lacks proper awareness of the events in Karabakh. It is not a common topic in media or social networks. Closer scrutiny of the matter suggests that at the outset of the conflict Georgian society was mostly exposed to interpretations that were advantageous for Baku. The balance started to shift after the resolutions of European Parliament, statements from US and France. In December, a group of Georgian Armenians held a protest in Tbilisi, calling on the Georgian government to condemn the actions of Azerbaijan. This also helped to draw attention to the topic. Georgian society is influenced by various factors - on the one hand, sympathy for civilians, on the other hand, the desire to see the Russian Federation gain as little as possible from the crisis. Moscow is uncomfortable with their dwindled leverage; the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry said “we leave it to the conscience of the Armenian leadership to make third countries responsible for the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh.” The remark, if not strange, is symptomatic. Judging by what is being discussed behind closed doors, the Georgian government believes that Baku is putting a broader context into this crisis, including the issue of the “Zangezur corridor” so as to rip more benefit and affect the mood of Armenians of Karabakh. Given the current unstable balance of power, the issue of the blockade will persist one way or another until Baku makes headway in the frameworks of Armenian-Azerbaijani or Armenian-Turkish relations. Meanwhile, there is an obvious lack of resources and additional leverage that Yerevan could put on the table. Until this happens, and it is unlikely to happen quickly, palliative measures that would eliminate the suffering of civilians, must be taken. The Georgian government in coordination with foreign partners must certainly contribute to the settlement but also soberly assess its own, largely limited capacities.

Series of interviews "Agendas and New Algorithms of Policies in the South Caucasus - 2023" has been organized within the framework of the Region Research Center's project "New Agendas for Peace and Stability in the South Caucasus after the Karabakh 2020 War". The project is being implemented with the support of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. The opinions expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions and positions of the Black See Trust for Regional Cooperation or its partners.


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