What do Georgians think of Azerbaijanis

Russia

Belinda Nut

To person

Belinda Nüssel is a graduate of Eastern European Studies (M.A.) with a focus on political sociology at the Free University of Berlin. She works as a research assistant in the Eastern Europe and Eurasia research group at the Science and Politics Foundation. Her academic interests include the European Neighborhood Policy, de facto states in the post-Soviet space and the topics of digital diplomacy and disinformation.

Minna Ålander

To person

Minna Ålander, M.A., studied international relations in Berlin and Tbilisi and works as a research assistant in the EU / Europe research group of the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP). Her research interests include the European Neighborhood Policy with a focus on the South Caucasus, statehood and de facto states in the post-Soviet space.

As the direct neighbors of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is of particular importance for Georgia. In an attempt to ensure regional stability, Georgia emphasizes its neutrality. Commentary by Belinda Nüssel and Minna Ålander.

View of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. (& copy picture-alliance, PIXSELL / Luka Stanzl)

The agreement reached between Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 9th, mediated by Russia, has for the time being led to an end to the fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The conflict, which is now classified as "re-frozen", still has the potential for serious destabilizing consequences in the entire regional context of the South Caucasus, even after the most recent ceasefire. Georgia is in a particularly complex situation here.

As the direct neighbors of Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Georgian leadership is constantly striving not to fall under the wheels of the conflicting parties. Good relations with both neighbors are essential due to Georgia's geopolitical situation. Regional stability and neutrality in the conflict between its neighbors therefore have the highest priority for Georgia. This was recently emphasized by both Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili and the National Security Council. Georgia is not only the most important transport corridor for Armenia, whose borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan have been closed since the 1990s due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Georgia also plays an important role for Azerbaijan as a transport route between Azerbaijan and Turkey. These include the Baku – Tbilisi – Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Baku – Tbilisi – Kars railway route and the South Corridor natural gas pipeline. Azerbaijani direct investment (FDI), in turn, is important to the Georgian economy. In addition, Georgia borders Russia in the north and Turkey in the south - both actors involved in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The latest escalation made it clear Georgia's vital interest in averting further intensification of the conflict, because the conflict hits Georgia at a difficult time in domestic politics. Troubles over the outcome of the October 31 parliamentary elections continue. A potential mobilization of the Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities in Georgia or a spill-over to the "own" conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia could worsen the internal situation. Not least for these reasons, Georgia has offered, for the first time since 1991, to take on an active mediator role instead of passive neutrality. However, the offer was not accepted by the conflicting parties. The reason for this was probably that Georgia lacks both the necessary political weight and the resources. How central and sensitive Georgia's neutrality is to both interstate relations and the country's internal political stability is shown by the disinformation that was spread about Georgia in both Azerbaijan and Armenia via social media and other websites. The falsely circulated reports that Georgia is at least indirectly supporting the Azerbaijani side by allowing arms deliveries from Turkey to Azerbaijan via its territory and illuminating the television tower in Tbilisi in Azerbaijani national colors, led to protests both within the Armenian minority in Georgia and in Armenia itself (https://idfi.ge/en/disinformation-karabakh_conflict, https://civil.ge/archives/374094).

From a Georgian point of view, the agreement on the ceasefire is to be welcomed in principle. Whether the end of the fighting, as announced by President Zurabishvili on Twitter, is actually to be regarded as a new "era" remains questionable. On the one hand, because the conflict has not yet been fundamentally resolved, even with the Moscow nine-point plan. On the other hand, because the regional power constellation is no less complex with the inclusion of Russia and Turkey. The words of the former US ambassador to Georgia, Ian Kelly, give reason to critically reconsider Zurabishivili's statement from a Georgian point of view: "How can a Georgian President congratulate an agreement that locks in another Russian occupation in the Caucasus and locks out the West? " (https://www.interpressnews.ge/en/article/110237-ian-kelly-how-can-a-georgian-president-congratulate-an-agreement-that-locks-in-another-russian-occupation-in -caucasus).

Kelly's assessment that the deployment of Russian peacekeepers should be seen as a new "occupation" should be critically questioned at this point and classified as premature. In fact, however, the Russian presence in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict must be viewed as ambiguous for Georgia. True, the party alliance was Georgian dream as a ruling party has tried to maintain a less conflictual relationship with Russia in recent years. Nevertheless, the mass protests in Tbilisi in 2019 alone show that relations between the countries remain tense. In 2018, 85 percent of respondents to a study in Georgia cited Russia as a political threat (https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/2018-5-29_georgia_poll_presentation.pdf). In view of Georgia's experience with the deployment of Russian (peace) troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, an increased Russian presence in Nagorno-Karabakh should therefore be classified as worrying from a Georgian point of view. In other conflicts (for example in the so-called 5-day war with Georgia in 2008 or in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent conflict in Ukraine) Russia has shown that it never only acts as a neutral mediator in the post-Soviet region, but pursues its own interests. There are signs that Russia's role as the hegemon in the region is increasingly crumbling: Although Russia brokered the ceasefire, Azerbaijan's military success can largely be attributed to Turkey's support. In turn, Armenia, which relied on Russian support, suffered defeat. However, this development does not mean that Russia will give up its already existing interests in the South Caucasus in the near future. The dispatch of the peacekeeping troops marks Russia's claim to remain the central regulatory power in the region. This ultimately also applies to Georgia and was confirmed again by Putin's recent meeting with the President of the Abkhaz de facto regime Aslan Bschania: About two days after signing the nine-point plan, Putin emphasized at the personal meeting that Russia is still " partner number one "for the breakaway republic (https://tass.com/politics/1223101).

For Georgia, the emergence of Turkey as a key player in the South Caucasus means that the dynamics of the region could change significantly. Georgia has solid connectivity and economic relations with Turkey. However, neither new Russian peacekeeping troops in a conflict zone in which Russia previously had no physical presence, nor a battle of strength between two regional powers, between which Georgia inevitably finds itself at least geographically, can be in Georgia's interests.

Georgia's western partners, with whom Turkey is in turn increasingly in conflict, stand out above all for their absence. While the United States lacks a strategic vision for Georgia and the region, and the country was captured domestically by the presidential elections, the core of the EU was primarily rhetorical. Following the announcement of the ceasefire, EU High Representative Josep Borrell Fontelles pledged close to one million euros for humanitarian aid to the victims of the conflict. The EU also emphasized its support for the OSCE Minsk Group, which France is chairing. However, the Minsk Group remained outside the negotiation of the agreement brokered by Russia.

The merely rhetorical involvement of the EU is symptomatic of the lack of a security policy component in the initiatives that the EU is offering to the South Caucasian countries within the framework of the Eastern Partnership (EaP). More than 10 years after the adoption of the PP, the unresolved territorial conflicts are still not given sufficient consideration. Rather, they additionally block Georgia's prospects for accession to the EU due to a lack of territorial integrity. The lack of security support is likely to have disappointed the Georgian side's expectations of the EU, as the conflict has a direct impact on the stability of the entire region.

It is currently unclear to what extent the nine-point plan can make a lasting contribution to conflict resolution. Point nine of the latest agreement provides for the resumption of transport and economic connections in the region (http://kremlin.ru/acts/news/64384). Should Armenia's borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey actually be opened, Georgia could also benefit from the potential that arises for the region in the field of economy and regional cooperation. While the future of the Minsk Group remains uncertain at first, a more active role for the EU in conflict resolution in the region is currently not in sight. The USA is an established strategic partner of Georgia. Nevertheless, even a stronger commitment in the region under the new Biden administration will not be able to offer a panacea for the unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus.

Reading tips

Smolnik, Franziska (2020): The Strategic Partnership between Georgia and the USA: Vision Wanted, Science and Politics Foundation, Study No. 20, October 2020. Available at: https://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents /products/studien/2020S20_georgien_usa.pdf.

De Waal, Thomas / Twickel, Nikolaus von (2020): Beyond Frozen Conflict Scenarios for the Separatist Disputes of Eastern Europe, CEPS, March 4, 2020. Available at: https://www.ceps.eu/ceps-publications/beyond -frozen-conflict /

Sichinava, David (2019): How Far is Too Far? Public Opinion on Conflict Resolution in Georgia, in: Caucasus Analytical Digest, July 2020. Available at: https://www.laender-analysen.de/cad/pdf/CaucasusAnalyticalDigest116.pdf
The Russia analyzes are jointly published by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen, the German Society for Eastern European Studies, the German Poland Institute, the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Research and the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) gGmbH. The bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.