19 October 2021 / 03:25 RU

    Caught in Between: Georgia and the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict

    George Mchedlishvili

    Armenia and Azerbaijan are fighting again. The two South Caucasus nations are formally at war since the late 1980s over the Armenia-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan (had the status of Autonomous Region in Soviet times). The active phase of war that lasted from 1988 to 1994, including all-out hostilities of 1992-1994, resulted in Armenian victory and occupation of almost an entirety of Karabakh, along with several districts connecting the province with Armenia. The human cost of the war was staggering, more than 30,000 dead and upwards of one million IPD and refugees, most of casualties being ethnic Azerbaijanis.

    For over 26 years since the cessation of major hostilities, the situation remains tense, with the months of relative calm periodically interrupted by artillery exchange or ground clashes of varying intensity. The last big flare-up occurred in early April of 2016: referred to by many as “Four-Day War”, it claimed about 200 lives on both sides and minor territorial gains (8 to 20 square kilometers) by Azerbaijan.

    Current conflagration, despite seemingly (but not conclusively, as of July 20) on the wane and of a much lesser scale than that of 2016, is distinct on a number of counts. For one, almost all previous skirmishes and clashes had been occurring along or in the vicinity of the so-called Line of Contact, the de-facto border between the Karabakh and Azerbaijan proper, but this time the theater is located far north, about 100 from the northern tip of the Enclave as the crow flies and roughly 300 km on the automobile road. Importantly, the area where the shooting takes place is only a dozen kilometers from the routes of major oil and gas pipelines that supply Europe as well as Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad.  

    Traditionally, the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, tasked with ensuring peace negotiations - Russia, France and the United States - made their statements calling for peace, followed by the EU and OSCE. The fact that Washington did it later than other co-chairmen was not lost to the parties. In a new twist, Iran has joined those wishing to help the peace process while Turkey was again in dissonance, declaring its unconditional support for Azerbaijan. This position of Turkey has been fairly consistent and came as no surprise, but given historic sensitivities, Armenia reacted nervously.

    Georgia has also been habitually silent, and this does not surprise anyone either, despite the fact that the Georgian state border is only 50 km away from the places where the artillery firefight is taking place. Georgia is a crucial state in the South Caucasus, the only one that has access to sea and arguably stands to win the most from the regional unity, to which the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is the biggest (although by no means the only) impediment. Georgia is home to a sizeable Azerbaijani and Armenian minorities – 6.5% and 5.8% respectively – which are, albeit not fully, integrated into the civic state successive leadership have been trying to build. Apart from two separate areas of compact settlement in the south and south-east of the country, Armenians and Azerbaijanis live, work and befriend each other side by side in the capital of Tbilisi. 

    One might think these circumstances would render Georgia uniquely well-positioned to be an efficient mediator of the conflict settlement between its two close neighbors from its very inception. But as luck would have it, from about the same period of late 80s, Georgia developed its own problems with separatism that was actively spurred on by the Soviet “center”, which was trying to nip in the bud a nascent national liberation movement. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited this toxic divide-and-conquer strategy vis-à-vis the newly independent states. Thus, Russia's perfidies did not allow Georgia to take on the role of an intermediary in the early stages of the conflict, when settlement seemed much easier. 

    So today, despite enjoying overall good relations both with Armenia and Azerbaijan (with the latter even strategic partnership), Georgia is too economically weak and vulnerable, with its own territorial integrity compromised by the Russian occupation, to play any meaningful role in the Karabakh conflict settlement. Furthermore, any escalation between neighbors can immediately and unexpectedly put Georgia in a very precarious situation. And the need to take a side is just the lesser of the problems. All the more since, given its own unlawfully occupied territories, in the international debate of sovereignty vs. self-determination Georgia is firmly in the former camp and fully support territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. This support is evidenced by regularly voting in tandem at the UN General Assembly for resolution on the return of refugees and internally displaced person to their homes in the occupied areas of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

    But IDP and Karabagh issues aside, Georgia has had neighborly ties with Armenia as well. With two longest borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey sealed, Armenia relies primarily on Georgia for international export and import. The 2018 peaceful Revolution in Armenia might give a new impetus to the Tbilisi-Yerevan ties as Armenia’s new leadership tries to democratize and politically modernize the country at great peril of infuriating Moscow given contemporary Russia’s intolerance to attempts at better governance. In 2019, Armenia even abstained from voting at the UN General Assembly on the mentioned resolution regarding Georgia’s IPDs, for the first time since 2008, when it was invariably voting “against”, parroting Moscow.       

    Hence, for Tbilisi abstaining from statements other than calls for peace might be a wise course of action. But making a stark choice whether to be a part of a bigger player’s effort is a wholly different ballgame. Given the unfortunate lack of engagement from the West’s in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict settlement, the two bigger neighboring actors, Russia and Turkey, have a disproportionately high impact on the region’s dynamics. Turkey and Azerbaijan have a special relationship due to cultural and linguistic affinity, along with important energy and transportation projects that Georgia is also part of. As far as Russia is concerned, there is a major Russian military base in Armenia, and the two countries are partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which is essentially a CIS analogue of NATO. But on the other hand, Russia is Azerbaijan’s main arms supplier.

    Given that both Ankara and Moscow have significant stakes in the region as well as resources – particularly in Russia’s case – to influence the course of the conflict, the contingency of the delivery of military aid from Russia and Turkey to Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively may also merit a consideration. And here Georgia may find itself between a rock and a hard place. Russia is capable of help Armenia even without Georgian territory, taking into account the military base and the possibility of shipment by air. But Moscow can also put pressure on Tbilisi and demand the corridor provision for purely political reasons, like testing the limit of Georgia’s resistance or in order to find a pretext for new aggressive steps to punish Georgia for its pro-western course. Several radical Azerbaijani news agencies have already falsely accused Georgia of aiding Armenia by allowing arms from Russia and Serbia transit the country.

    As far as Turkey is concerned, which has only a 9-kilometer land border with Azerbaijan through the distant province of Nakhichevan, the territory of Georgia, as well as the air corridor are potentially a very convenient route for arms delivery. So far, Turkey has been cautious, not willing to irritate Russia and limiting itself to belligerent statements. But if the escalation continues, a more radical scenario may become a reality. And such a scenario and possible demands from stronger neighbors are an absolute nightmare for Georgia. Even in peaceful times, both Baku and Yerevan are suspicious of Tbilisi's ties with "the other neighbor". And if this very contingency comes to pass, ANY decision by Georgia, even made purely from the standpoint of its own security could put Tbilisi on collision course with its close neighbors. Therefore, in case of serious aggravation of the situation between Yerevan and Baku, Georgia might end up the biggest loser.

    Even beyond this immediate challenge of how to behave during a conflagration, the highly charged relations between the neighbors almost oblige Georgia to play a careful balancing act even in calmer times. The episode in early 2019, when the bust of the Georgia-born Armenian who fought on the side of Yerevan in the Karabakh war was installed in his native village and immediately caused universal uproar in Baku, serves an eloquent case in point.

    Such high risks and volatility in the region are caused by the fact that for various reasons the West - the United States and Europe, be it EU, OSCE or individual countries - cannot engage properly with the South Caucasus. Today, this power vacuum is mostly filled by Russia. Given the political nature of today's Russia and the proximity of the Middle East, the West needs to pay far more attention to our region and contribute to the formation of regional unity. That very unity, sorely lacking today, is the key to progress and stability in this crucially strategic geographic location that straddles Europe and Asia.

    George Mchedlishvili

    Professor, expert on regional politics and security in the South Caucasus


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    22 July 2020 / 13:55