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NEITHER FRIENDS NOR ENEMIES: ARMENIAN-GEORGIAN RELATIONS Armenian News Network / Groong July 7, 2003 By Asbed Kotchikian On June 28, 2003 President Robert Kocharian of Armenia paid his first official state visit after his controversial re-election as president. During the visit Kocharian met with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze as well as with the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Nino Burjanadze and discussed a host of issues relevant to the two countries. At the end of the two-day visit the two presidents signed a series of cooperation agreements mostly in the spheres of economy, education and culture. Political and economic analysts observed this meeting between the presidents of the two neighboring countries carefully, since one of the items on the agenda was the resumption of the rail link between Armenia and Russia, which passes through Georgia and the separatist and self-proclaimed Republic of Abkhazia. This rail link is of paramount importance to Armenia and its economy since it provides a crucial link connecting Armenia with the Black Sea and Russia. CORDIAL BUT NOT INTIMATE RELATIONS Since independence, both Armenia and Georgia have tried to strengthen their respective statehoods and prevent threats to their sovereignty. In the case of Georgia, the first President of the Republic, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, spoke to the hearts of most Georgians with his nationalist rhetoric and the ideology of "Georgia for Georgians". This rhetoric made non-Georgians in the Republic very anxious and uncomfortable. With the coming of Eduard Shevardnadze to power inter-ethnic tension subdued but did not go away. Unlike its northern neighbor, Armenia was able to have a relatively more stable state-making process but the relations between the two countries remained lukewarm at best. Both Armenia and Georgia have been involved in separatist wars since their independence. In the case of Georgia the autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia tried to assert their independence (and in some cases were able to do so) by war and expulsion of the Georgian population in the regions which they control and administer. In the case of Armenia the conflict was not on its own land, a fact that makes it difficult for the two countries to have similar views on the issues of national self-determination and territorial integrity. When it comes to assessing the conflicts in the Caucasus, Georgia, along with Azerbaijan, follows the principle of territorial integrity. Armenia, on the other hand, propagates the idea of national self-determination. The divergence in Armenia's and Georgia's policies on the issue of separatism constitutes one of the main reasons why the two countries have had uneasy relations. Another point of tension between the two countries is the issue of the Armenian minority in Georgia. According to the 1989 Soviet census the Armenian community in Georgia numbered around 430,000 or 8.1 % of the overall population. About 150,000 lived in Tbilisi, 75,000 in Abkhazia and 200,000 in southern Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti (Javakhk in Armenian). The fact that Armenians in Abkhazia decided to remain in the region and side with the Abkhaz separatist is a thorn on the side of Georgian-Armenian relations. One of the resentments that Armenians have towards Georgia is the widely held belief that the Javakheti region, - which borders Armenia - is intentionally neglected by the central authorities in Tbilisi since independence, in a deliberate bid to deteriorate the region's economic, educational and cultural infrastructures. Although these claims might be accepted by a large majority of Armenians (be it in Armenia or in the Diaspora) the truth of the matter is that the Georgian government does not have the ability or the means to invest any money or initiate any reform or restructuring programs in any of its districts (except for the capital and its immediate surroundings). Other towns and regions populated with Georgians such as Kakhetia, Borjomi, Gudauri etc also lack developed socail, economic and trasnportation infrastructures. Moreover, the southern districts of Georgia do not constitute any priority for the country's economy since the volume of trade or the potential for economic cooperation with Armenia is minimal and does not justify the amount of investments in the region. In this respect the accusations by Armenians that Georgia is neglecting the Javakheti region because of its ethnic component is not valid. When it comes to state relations between Armenia and Georgia, one should keep in mind that the two countries have different and even opposite foreign policy orientations, a fact that makes it even more difficult for the two countries to form a "common front". The problem is that while Armenia is strongly "entrenched" in the pro-Russian camp, Georgia sees itself and it's future with the West and with complete independence from Russia. To pursue their respective orientations, both countries have developed ties with countries that the other considers as enemies or at best antagonists. Thus, because of Armenia's Russian orientation, Georgia as well as Azerbaijan, consider Armenia as a Russian fifth column in the region. In the same token Georgia's developing cooperation and ties with Turkey are viewed with alarm by Armenia which considers Turkey as its historic enemy. What the two countries do not realize is that geopolitics, rather than historical events, govern foreign policy and orientation and as such, both countries need to consider each other's motives and needs when pursuing a certain foreign policy. However, over the past several month there seems to be an understanding arising on this issue, the best example of which is the latest NATO military exercises, which took place in Armenia in June 2003, and where representatives from Russia, Turkey and Georgia, along with several dozen other courtiers, took part in unifies command exercises. Although these exercises do not mean that Armenia is willing to accept turkey as an ally or that Georgia is willing to integrate its forces with Russian ones, at least is shows that both Armenia and Georgia are at least willing to understand the constraints of Realpolitik on each other's overall political orientations. CAN THEY COOPERATE? The latest visit of President Kocharian to Georgia aimed primarily at opening the rail link between Armenia and Russia (through Georgia and Abkhazia). The visit also resulted in the signing of numerous economic, cultural and educational treaties between the two countries. The fact that the Armenian delegation included the ministers of transportation and culture (along with foreign affairs and agriculture) suggests that the issue of Javakheti was also discussed in details. President Kocharian's visit can have another implication as well. During the presidential elections in Armenia, Western observers labeled them as unfair and full of irregularities whereas observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) were less judgmental. It was around this time that Kocharian's campaign manager, Serge Sarksian was quoted saying that Armenia' s regional neighbors understand Armenians better than foreigners do. It is no surprise that President Kocharian would make sure that his first official state visit outside of Armenia would take him to a country which would not be critical of the lections and would not question his legitimacy. Another point of interest in this visit is that Georgia is facing parliamentary elections in November and President Shevardnadze is trying to run a publicity stunt showing that he is a masterful politician and can keep a balance between Georgia and its neighbors, at the same time trying to diffuse domestic ethnic tensions. This act becomes even more important when one realizes that recently the groundwork for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline has witnessed some extra activities in Georgia. An example that reinforces the idea that Georgia is eager to appease the Armenian minority in Javakheti were the statements made by the Georgian Speaker of Parliament Nino Burjanadze and President Kocharian, in which both officials stated that they were looking forward to cooperation in the fields of education and culture and in restoring some of Georgia's Armenian schools and monuments. The Armenian government on its part is very keen to reactivate the rail link passing through Georgia and Abkhazia and connecting the land-locked country with Russia. The economic and transport significance of this railway are tremendous since they can provide Armenia with a rail link to the Black Sea and hence decrease transportation charges. However one needs to look at the reopening of this rail link within the context of Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. The suggestion of having a railway between Georgia and Abkhazia is similar to asking for a rail link between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. The war sentiments are just too high between the Georgians and the Abkhaz to allow such a link to be operational anytime soon. Another reason for Georgia not to be enthusiastic about this link is the possibility that it might enable the Russian army to transport personnel through Georgian territory. It is conceivable that Georgia is more interested in developing east-west links, rather than north-south ones. The overall assessment of the visit was positive. It is doubtful that the Armenian side received what it wanted to get out of the meeting, namely a transport corridor with Russia through Georgia however the two countries agreed to cooperate closely in the spheres of information as well as culture and education. The "grande finale" of the meeting was when Presidents Kocharian and Shevardnadze paid joint tribute to the Armenian intellectuals buried in Tbilisi's Armenian Pantheon (Pantheon Medzats) which was recently renovated. The cooperation within the spheres of education and culture can be narrowed down to Armenia's responsibility to provide educational and cultural material to the Armenian community in Georgia. This agreement might only provide a limited venue to let out the frustration of the Armenian community of Javakheti but at the same time such a deal might make the Georgians uncomfortable and their national pride wounded, since this might imply that the Georgian state is unable to care for its own citizens. Regardless of the outcomes of this visit, one thing that needs to be kept in mind is that both countries cannot have overlapping and synchronized priorities in terms of national security or foreign policy. They both have to understand that even though they have shared a long history together, the current realities of politics does put them in different, if not opposing, camps. A true neighborly cooperation can develop only if they both accept and respect each other's priorities. -- Asbed Kotchikian is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Boston University and an instructor at Wheaton College. He spent two years (2000-02) in Armenia and Georgia conducting research and teaching at the local universities. Comments to the author may be be sent to email@example.com.