Georgian-Armenian relations - what is ahead
In 2022 Georgia and Armenia have marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. These relations saw several ups and downs for this turbulent for both countries period. The past three months have been marked with intensive exchange of high-profile visits between the countries.
The relatively decayed under the previous government Georgian-Armenian relations have been enlivened thanks to the efforts of Nikol Pashinyan and his government. Georgian-Armenian summits in the last December and this October held in Tbilisi and Yerevan entailed significant mutual steps for developing further bilateral trade and economic relations in the best possible way. These summits largely predetermined consecutive proactive bilateral dialogue at the level of the various agencies, which seems particularly important in the backdrop of the complicated geopolitical situation in the region. Currently bilateral trade economic relations are institutionalized through the Intergovernmental Commission on Economic Cooperation between the Republic of Armenia and Georgia.
Cross-border cooperation was also on the table of the recent talks between the parties given the sensitivity of the issue, especially after the second war in Karabakh. Some problems with regard to Georgian-Armenian border remain, despite attempts of the officials not to speak about loudly and publicly. One of the examples is village Khojorni situated on the territory of Georgia, but almost completely surrounded by Armenian territory. However, demarcation and delimitation of Georgian-Armenian border appears to be less problematic for Georgia as compared to the more difficult border dispute with Azerbaijan, largely associated with the David Gareja monastery complex.
Peaceful Neighborhood Initiative in the South Caucasus initiated by Georgian Prime-minister Irakli Garibashvili, which designs a format for a dialogue between the three nations and aims at the mutually-beneficial cooperation, was one of the subject of the high-profile discussions. Georgian party underlined its readiness to facilitate or mediate peace dialogue between Armenia and Azerbaijan. However, it appears that neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan show any significant interest in this initiative in the backdrop of mediation by far influential players such as Russia and European Union.
Nevertheless, both parties underlined aspiration of Yerevan and Tbilisi to give new impetus to the bilateral relations. Armenian officials have repeatedly highlighted that further promoting “special, good-neighborly” relations with Tbilisi is one of the priorities of the Armenian Government’s 2021-2026 action plan. Apart of the issues of regional security, the parties expressed readiness to step up bilateral cooperation in the areas of justice, human rights and public services. Both parties gave due attention to the worsening situation in Karabakh as an integral and important part of the regional security. PM Pashinyan stressed that the existing “high level of political dialogue between Armenia and Georgia” can be a foundation to further expand cooperation.
Meanwhile, Georgia tries to keep sober balance in its relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Before the trip to Yerevan the new foreign minister Ilia Darchiashvili paid a visit to Baku having thereby emphasizing primacy of relations. Attitudes of Georgian citizens to Armenia and Azerbaijan differ respectively. The nationwide poll conducted by International Republican Institute this March, revealed that when answering the question: Which of these countries do you consider the most important political partners for Georgia? Turkey and Azerbaijan were named by 20% of respondents respectively, while only 7% named Armenia.
Despite optimistic public statements by Georgian and Armenian officials about deepening economic cooperation, Armenia tries to secure alternative routes of supply in evasion of the main land route through Georgia. Beginning June 15, the Armenian government plans to launch regular ferry transportation of goods across the Black Sea as an alternative to the only land road through the Upper Lars checkpoint connecting the country with Russia. The road through Upper Lars checkpoint, which connects Armenia with Russia is crucial for the Armenian economy. Armenian cargoes often end up stuck in queues for a long time due to weather conditions and limited capacity of Upper Lars. According to PM Pashinyan, Russian-Ukrainian war exacerbated these problems.
The agreement between Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia about unblocking transport communications in the region after the end of the second war in Karabakh, bred fear in Georgia that the country might be supplanted from the new transport and transit facilities in the region, and downgrade Georgia’s role as a transit country. For obvious reasons Georgia is suspiciously observing the attempts of Armenia and Turkey for comprehensive improvement of bilateral relations. The opening of their long-closed border as well as the restoration of diplomatic ties would have tremendous effects on the geopolitical picture of the region. The opening of the otherwise geographically closed region, which has been mostly dependent on Russia for infrastructure in recent decades, would open up and give Turkey a bigger stake in the region’s fate. The role of Iran cannot be downplayed as well.
Certainly, these perspectives heavily depend on the upcoming changes of the security architecture in the region which is directly linked with the consequences of the war in Ukraine.
Georgian-Armenian relations, war in Ukraine and geopolitics
Along with issues of bilateral cooperation, Georgian and Armenian officials gave due consideration to the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on the security architecture in the South Caucasus. This topic has acquired particular significance for the three South Caucasian states amid the continued accusations from the Ukrainian intelligence bodies that Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are negotiating with Moscow over the reexport of Russian products to international markets in the form of Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani goods.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Armenia and Georgia have tried in different ways to balance the need for good relations with Moscow with a desire to support Ukraine. The conflict in Ukraine directly affects Armenia and Georgia’s behavior toward Russia and the West making them to maintain a careful balance between these two important partners. A clear indication of this effort was that in difference of Georgia, Armenia voted against revoking Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe and abstained in votes suspending Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council and condemning Russia in U.N. At the same time, Armenia wants to maintain ties with the European Union (EU) and the West, but is not eager to support Ukraine because of Kyiv’s past support for Azerbaijan. As a result, Armenia has sought to signal its support for Russia without alienating the West.
Georgia's highly measured stance to the conflict in Ukraine, including refusal to impose sanctions on Russia and open the “second front,” what official Kyiv requests, are slightly different from the challenges, which Armenia and Azerbaijan are facing.
It must also be noted that imposing sanctions against Russia, which is highly likely to include significant restrictions of transportation through the Upper Larsi checkpoint – the sole land route connecting Armenia with Russia, will seriously harm both Georgian and Armenia’s economics, to say nothing about associated political complications. Outcome of the war in Ukraine is still uncertain. Had South Caucasian states entangled somehow in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which increasingly transforms in the standoff between Russia and the West, they can easily find themselves as part of a fast-evolving wider confrontation with all afferent consequences. The Ukraine conflict gives Moscow less incentive to greenlight the normalization processes between Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan since they are pushing back against Russian influence in the area. Despite the key role it played in the 2020 war, Turkey found itself sidelined by Russia in the South Caucasus after the end of the fighting. Improving ties with Armenia represents “a chance to regain a seat at the table in regional trade and transport.
Fate of “3+3” format amid the war in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine has sidelined somehow the much-talked of “3+3 Format” declared as an instrument for establishing a lasting peace in the South Caucasus after the 44-day war in Karabakh. But letting alone the conflict in Ukraine, the format is torn apart by significant contradictions between the declared participants. This is particularly true with regard to Georgia and Armenia who have been reluctant or skeptical towards this format for their own reasons. After the first meeting in the "3+3" format on December 10, 2021 in Moscow attended by representatives of 5 countries: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia, Turkey and Iran except of Georgia, the next meeting has not been scheduled so far. Existing and future contradictions between the participants, including refusal of Georgia to join the "3+3" format, reduces its geostrategic and geopolitical value, making the format heavily dependent on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Consequences of the war in Ukraine will significantly influence on the attitudes of the key players such as Turkey and Russia. In the light of Georgia’s demonstrated aspiration to integrate into European and Euro-Atlantic structures, its participation in the “3 + 3” format, aimed at supplanting the West as a player from the region, appears impossible. To this effect, cooperation between Armenia and Georgia will be important in order to be ready for all possible scenarios. In this regard, the initiative of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev about interaction between Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan in a trilateral format highlighted at the meeting with the Georgian foreign minister Ilia Darchiachvili during his visit in Baku this April, deserves attention. So far, the initiative has not been developed further, most likely because of the new cycle of Armenia-Azerbaijani tensions. When speaking about the future of “3+3” format, some Georgian experts suggested that Armenia and Georgia should come up with the “3+3+2” initiative, where “2” should be the European Union and the United States. Only time will tell whether “3+3” survive as a geopolitical project and how and whether Georgia and Armenia will benefit from it.
All in all, both Georgia and Armenia, which belong to the different blocs, most likely are not under the illusions of overcoming natural barriers caused by this factor. Meanwhile, due to the circumstances caused by the second war in Karabakh, one the one hand, and the ongoing war in Ukraine, on the other, political leadership of both countries are aware of the looming challenges. Therefore, the changed geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus and around, bolster Tbilisi and Yerevan to build the type of relations that would help each party retrieve maximum economic and political benefits. Rapprochement of the attitudes on the divisive issues, creating stable and trusting relationships with a higher degree of predictability, appears to be the result, which both parties could expect in the short and mid-term perspective. Achievement of this result might create a groundwork for propelling the bilateral relations at a new level.
By Zaal Anjaparidze
Zaal Anjaparidze works for International Center on Conflict and Negotiation (www.iccn.ge) as program coordinator for peace dialogue in S. Caucasus. Zeal coordinated engagement of civil society organizations, youth groups and peace journalists of the South Caucasian states in the conflict prevention and confidence building.
In 2017, he was manager of the EU-funded project in the Czech non-governmental organization People in Need (www.pin.ge). During 2005-2016, Zaal worked as senior program manager for civil society development program at Europe Foundation (www.epfound.ge). For 1994-2004, worked for the USAID international projects in Georgia (Сhemonics International, the Urban Institute, Barents Group), the Caucasian Institute for Peace Democracy and Development (www.cippd.org) and editor-in-chief of "GEORGIA TODAY" weekly (www.georgiatoday.ge).
Since 1997 to date, Zaal Anjaparidze has been a Georgian contributor and analyst for Jamestown Foundation (www.jamestown.org). Mr. Anjaparidze writes extensively about major events and trends in Georgia and Caucasus for the various national, regional and international editions and think tanks.