Armenia in a Region of Change
Armenia in a Region of Change


by Aris Ghazinyan

While Armenia's ties to Russia are being pulled tighter, relations with Caucasus neighbor Georgia are slipping on social and political levels, changing the character of a recently solid friendship that has seen historical ups and downs.

When, in January, two Georgian Armenians were arrested on charges of espionage and of assembling an armed group in the predominantly Armenian region of Javakhk, simmering discontent among the Armenians was enflamed, renewing fears of "anti-Armenian" policies by Georgian authorities.

According to the Armenians, Georgian police entered the Javakhk Youth Center and confiscated cell phones and computer files and took books and magazines from the library while arresting the men and taking them to Tbilisi. As of early March the two remained in custody.

Grigol Minasian, the 29-year-old director of the youth center, and Sarkis Hakopjanian, head of a local charity organization, were charged with spying. It was not revealed for whom the two were allegedly spying, but it was presumed that the charges referred to a Russian connection.

"We Armenians have always tried to have good relations with Georgia, but the only thing working in Georgia today is anti-Russian sentiment, and Armenians, Russia's partners in that context, are seen as Georgia's enemies," commented Yerevan-based political analyst Levon Shirinian.

After a visit to the region, National Assembly of Armenia Deputy Shirak Torosian (of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia) told journalists that by arresting the Armenians "Georgia aimed at precluding Armenian national, public and cultural activities in Samtskhe-Javakhk."

It was not, however, merely the arrests of the two community leaders that drew allegations from Armenians that even included charges of ethnic purging by the Georgians. The action of Georgian officials, say the Armenians, reach back to the very first period of independent Georgia and then-president Eduard Shevardnadze's infamous campaign of "Georgia for Georgians."

Outrage was also linked to a perception that official Georgia is more inclined toward policies sympathetic to Azerbaijan and Turkey, than to Armenia.

Doctor of philology Haykazun Alvrtsian, of Yerevan, echoed Torosian's complaints, alleging that the Georgian intent was to instigate an uprising by the Armenian community as an excuse to "clean Javakhk of Armenians," thus allowing Turkey to surround Armenia.

"Let's not forget that Javakhk is the only link connecting Armenia with the Christian world and Europe," he said.

The Diaspora weighed in on the controversy. Commentator Jirair Harutunian, former Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Armenian Assembly of America, wrote: "The motive for these actions is obvious: Georgia lost two ethnic entities by its military misadventure in South Ossetia and fears that other ethnic minorities, namely Armenians in the Javakhk region, might also seek secession from Georgia."

Influencing the debate is the recent history of incidents in which Georgians have been viewed as seeking to re-write history by "Georgianizing" Armenian landmarks, including churches—assimilating them for Georgian Orthodox use—and by the destruction of some Armenian tombstones in the Armenian section of Georgia's pantheon.

While official Yerevan and official Tbilisi maintain stoic resolve that Armenian-Georgian relations are solid and mutually respectful, Georgian-Armenians (totaling about 6 percent of the population) and others outside either country worry whether splinters of ill will might eventually create an irreparable wedge in relations.

History repeated

About a century ago the countries were headed toward unification. It was not to last.

With the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, Armenians and Georgians, together with Tatars, formed a single independent state, endowed with a joint parliament and headed by a government that sat in Tiflis (Tbilisi). That state, known as the Transcaucasian Seim, or Federation, lasted only until May 1918, when it was forced to dissolve in the face of internal discord, acute ethnic tension driven by powerful nationalism, and the complexities of separatist interests.

After the collapse of the Transcaucasian Seim, each of the three nations formed new national governments, in the form of parliamentary republics. But in the face of the competition between much larger powers, these newly independent states became victims of outside influences interested in a "re-division of the Caucasus." That period was marked by not only Armenian-Turkish wars but also by Armenian-Georgian confrontation which, although lasting only a few days in December 1918, was nonetheless fierce and left its mark on the further development of relations between the two nations.

The painful process of shaping the political map of the South Caucasus ended in 1920-1921 when the region became a part of the Soviet Union. The new map of the region was personally drawn by (Georgian) Soviet leader Josef Stalin, based on a policy designed to maintain Soviet rule and subjugation of the countries in the region. From the context of this new regional map, the area allocated to Armenia was three times smaller than that of Azerbaijan and more than two times less than Georgia's share. The new regional division was called "historic"—a word that, in Soviet terminology, was equivalent to "eternal" and "indissoluble."

The crumbling of the Soviet Union resulted in a return to the past, back to the point where everything had actually started – invoking the very same regional issues and "frozen conflicts" that were most significant during the initial stage of the Sovietization of the region. The impression was almost as if Stalin's artificial alterations of the historic borders between the two "brotherly nations" never existed. The 70-year period of two peoples living side by side in the relative fraternal peace of the communal Soviet structure proved to be woefully insufficient to smooth over old contradictions. When the union collapsed, everything toppled with it, suddenly revealing shocking fragility.

The current phase of Armenian-Georgian relations first began to take shape in 1988-1990, against the backdrop of new ethnic movements sweeping through much of the Soviet Union.

When the Nagorno Karabakh conflict erupted in February 1988 in neighboring Azerbaijan, there was a fear within Georgia that the Karabakh conflict could provoke a similar secession wave among Georgia's restive autonomous regions.

The Georgians were rightly concerned, too, whether the Karabakh rebellion might spark similar unrest in Javakhk which, in 1989, was home to some 200,000 Armenians (now less than 100,000). Such concerns were substantiated when Armenians in Javakhk formed an organization called "Javakhk" to solicit military support and food supplies for their compatriots in Karabakh.

In part from these developments, Georgia and Azerbaijan established friendly relations right from the beginning; they both started to actively oppose the idea of national self-determination and supported each other in every possible way. With the eruption of confrontation with central Georgian authority in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgian-Azerbaijani relations only grew closer, becoming elevated to the level of a tactical partnership. Suffice it to say that official Tbilisi consistently follows a policy in support of nearly all Azerbaijani policies related to Nagorno Karabakh and practically always votes in favor of Azerbaijani diplomatic resolutions.

In the process of asserting their new independence in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Georgia and Azerbaijan received a degree of active support from Turkey, which was also strongly opposed to any form of self-determination and supported the rival principle of territorial integrity instead. (Turkey had its own interests to consider, due to separatist threats from its minority Kurdish population.) An additional concern for Turkey in supporting both Georgia and Azerbaijan was its strategic goal to replace Russia as the dominant power in the region and to sideline its traditional rival Iran. Of course, its pan-Turkic identification with Azerbaijan also led it to increase its support, including military aid, to Baku to also affirm its solidarity with the Azerbaijanis during the Karabakh war.

Thus, once the full scope of bilateral relations developed, the foreign policy priorities of Armenia and Georgia diverged to such a degree that bilateral interests became diametrically opposite. In this way, it is also now clear that Armenian-Georgian relations, which were officially established in 1992, remain hostage to different foreign policy vectors.

Lines not drawn

The overall nature of contemporary relations between the two countries is most amply demonstrated by the situation on the border. Despite the presence of three customs points, the border itself has not yet been officially defined, and the relations between Armenia and Georgia are lately as indefinite as that border. And the border is substantial, 206 kilometers, or about five times longer than Armenia's border with Iran. The "administrative border between the two brotherly nations" defined by Josef Stalin has yet to be formally and officially recognized, only adding another level of negative influence on relations.

The bilateral Intergovernmental Commission on Delimitation and Demarcation of the Armenian-Georgian border was formed in 1995 as an official body empowered to resolve the border issue. But the Commission's work was dormant, only becoming engaged in 2003 after Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Georgian counterpart Shevardnadze promised to legally recognize the border "within a few months." Soon thereafter came an announcement that the border was to be divided into four sections: Bavra (Ninotsminda), Guguti, Akhkerpi and Hayrum (Sadakhlo). However, following that announcement, the Commission failed to meet to reach a conclusive decision.

In 2004, reports in the Georgian media alleged that the Armenian side had illegally moved its border posts some 10 kilometers deeper into Georgian territory, in the area near the border village of Akhkerpi. Those allegations sparked a heated response within Georgia, with a strong resonance claiming that "Armenia has occupied and misappropriated Georgian historical lands with an area of 3,812 square kilometers," as reported in the Georgian Times weekly newspaper.

"We have to realize that the real contours of our country reach Gyumri on the south," stated Georgian historian Alexander Manvelashvili. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili tried to moderate the situation, arguing that "during the past 2,000 years, Georgia and Armenia have not made territorial claims towards each other. What will happen in the future? I think everything will remain unchanged."

In late 2006 it was finally stated that "110 kilometers of the border have been agreed upon," meaning that only 96 kilometers were left unresolved. To date, however, the final resolution of the border remains incomplete.

Georgia's geopolitical location is the most important factor affecting the course of Armenian-Georgian relations. For blockaded Armenia, access through the territory of its northern neighbor is of vital importance. This is also reflected in Armenia's official national security doctrine, which states that "under the conditions of Armenia's blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan, Georgia is Armenia's main economic and transportation route to the outside world."

Specifically, the Georgian port of Poti is still of great importance as a transshipment point for Armenian goods. At present 70 percent of freight turnover passes through the territory of Georgia, a fact that gives Tbilisi the power to virtually dictate demands and conditions to Yerevan – for example, pressuring Armenia to not interfere in Javakhk. In recent years, Tbilisi's attitude to Yerevan on this issue has come to be defined by pro-Armenian factions as a "policy of blackmail."

At the same time, Armenian officials have repeatedly protested to Georgian authorities that the blocking of the Abkhazian sector of the Transcaucasian railway unfairly hinders Armenia's railroad link with Russia. In this way, Armenia views the situation as tantamount to Georgian participation in the blockade of Armenia, almost as much as Turkey and Azerbaijan. In 2005, Armenian President Kocharian informed his Georgian counterpart, President Saakashvili, that "the only country in fact damaged by the Abkhazian blockade is Armenia." He also made it clear that the term "Abkhazian blockade" was fiction, for two reasons. First, Abkhazia has its own functional ports; second, it has a railway and highway communications with Russia. "In that case, who is Georgia blocking?" was the Armenian president's rhetorical question.

By such calculation, Georgia is actively involved in supporting the blockade of Armenia and, in that respect, the prospective railway communication with Iran becomes ever more essential due to the fact that it would minimize the role of an unstable and unreliable northern neighbor.

At present, the territory of Georgia hosts several serious regional projects of significance to Armenia, including the Tbilisi-Akhalkalak-Kars railroad, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline. Each of these projects is designed to bypass Armenia. Initially, Armenia was given an opportunity to participate, albeit only by relinquishing its claim on Nagorno Karabakh. The issue then shifted to include the restoration of railroad links with Turkey, through the Gyumri-Kars railway section, and in general, the lifting of the blockade of Armenia and the future promise of routing the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline through Armenian territory.

Armenia's first president Levon Ter-Petrosian took the proposal under consideration. However, all political parties and public opinion in Armenia reacted strongly against conceding Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijan, which eventually contributed to Ter-Petrosian's resignation. Second president Kocharian declared the unacceptability of even considering the offer, supported by Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, who stressed that "Nagorno Karabakh is not a subject for bargain; it's priceless." As would be later played out in 2008's presidential campaign, supporters of the first president now blame Kocharian for contributing to "Armenia's isolation."

The fact that Armenia is excluded from regional infrastructure projects does not, however, mean that it stops playing an important role in the transit structures of the region. Yerevan, as opposed to Tbilisi and Baku, is in a more flexible position, and economists believe Armenia is destined to become the key tier in a new, broader Europe-Russia-Iran axis.

Georgia, on the other hand, is a hostage to its own geographic position. For example, the idea of building the Akhalkalak-Kars railroad is a purely Turkish plan and is aimed not so much against Armenia, but against Georgia. For example, that project contradicts Georgian interests by the fact that it minimizes the importance of the Georgian section of the Europe-Caucasus-Asia transport corridor and transforms it from being a transit country into a pseudo-transit one.

The Georgian Black Sea ports still hold a key role in shipping cargo and goods from the South Caucasus and Central Asia to Europe but may soon lose that role after the construction of the Akhalkalak-Kars railroad, which will handle all the freight to Europe by offering easier and cheaper access through Turkey, bypassing Georgia's sea ports. It is no wonder, then, that Ankara, along with signing an agreement in May 2004 on building the Akhalkalak-Kars railway, is now working on building a transit railway tunnel under the Bosphorus, known as the Marmara project.

Such a perspective can theoretically provoke Georgian authorities to rehabilitate the Abkhazian section of the Transcaucasus railroad in the future, in which case it can become a key corridor on the geographic vector of Europe-Russia-Abkhazia-Georgia-Armenia-Iran-Persian Gulf. Under current circumstances, one thing is assured: only if things take this course can Armenian-Georgian relations enter a new phase, and future historians remember brighter periods of bilateral cooperation.

Aris Ghazinyan is a reporter for online journal and author of 100 Mysteries of Armenia.

Originally published in the May 2009 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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