|Civilitas Perspective / Caucasus|
The Event Daily flights between Tbilisi and Yerevan are to begin March 16. This welcome news in relations between the two countries was followed by a surprisingly public spat between the offices of the two presidents. The verbal exchange is in sharp contrast to the warm talk that took place during the February visit of two senior Georgian officials – Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze and Parliament Speaker Davit Bakradze -- paid official two-day visits to Yerevan late last month. While public statements played up positive trends in bilateral relations, both sides made the point that there are no problems that cannot be resolved jointly through "constructive dialogue" -- a tacit admission that problems do indeed exist, and that past pledges to resolve them may not always have been sincere or systematically implemented.The Background The absence of flights between the capitals Yerevan and Tbilisi has been the most telling indicator of the surprisingly limited interaction and interdependence between the two countries.
Relations between Armenia and Georgia are be devilled by diverging, even conflicting, priorities and needs. The two countries' security and foreign policies could hardly be more different. Georgia is actively seeking NATO membership while Armenia, despite its multi-faceted and high-level cooperation with NATO, is not. Russia is Armenia's strategic ally while Georgia and Russia have no diplomatic relations. Georgia has two secessionist regions and is therefore not a supporter of the principle of self-determination. Armenia, of course, supports the right of the people of Nagorno Karabakh to self-determination. Georgia is home to some 300,000 Armenians, many of whom resent what they perceive as persistent discrimination by the Georgian authorities. Churches, monuments and other signs of Georgia's vast Armenian heritage are not sufficiently protected. At the same time, Armenia is largely dependent on Georgia for overland communication with the outside world, and is therefore vulnerable to political and economic upheaval in that country.
In the aftermath of Russia-Georgia conflict in the late summer of 2008 Yerevan did not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states and President Sargsyan visited Tbilisi in late September and reaffirmed his support for Georgia's territorial integrity.
Sargsyan's one-day working visit yielded an agreement with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to establish a Georgian-Armenian consortium that would seek foreign funding for the construction of a highway from Yerevan via Giumri to the Georgian Black Sea port of Batumi, a route which would shorten by 30 percent travel between Armenia and the Georgian Black Sea coast. The Asian Development Bank immediately signalled its interest in the proposed Yerevan-Batumi highway project, but some Georgian opposition politicians questioned the need.
In early December, Prime Minister Sargsyan, too, visited Georgia and the two sides approved plans for the construction of a second bridge on the main Armenian-Georgian border crossing and measures to speed up customs procedures and passport control.
The Prime Minister's visit was over shadowed by protests from both the Armenian community in Tbilisi and the Armenian Apostolic Church over the 15th century Surb Norashen church, one of six Armenian churches over which the Georgian church refuses to cede control.
Other issues too cloud bilateral relations, the most serious being the plight of the Armenian population of Djavakhk. An umbrella group uniting regional NGOs has addressed two appeals to the Georgian leadership on this issue, the second immediately after the war over South Ossetia and shortly before Moscow's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. The NGOs argued that federalism is the only way to restore Georgia's territorial integrity.
In July 2008, the Georgian authorities detained several of the most prominent local Armenian activists, two of whom are currently on trial on charges of illegal possession of weapons. One of them, Vahagn Chakhalian, issued a statement in late January in which he again accused the Georgian authorities of unwarranted persecution of those who seek to defend the rights ofDjavakhk's Armenian population. He demanded measures to address the Armenians' socio-economic grievances and to promote the use locally of the Armenian language, and the registration of the Armenian Apostolic church and the return to its jurisdiction of church buildings appropriated during the Soviet era.
Analysis After the Georgia-Russia conflict of August, direct flights between Tbilisi and Moscow ceased to operate. The new Yerevan-Tbilisi route will serve as transit for that traffic, but will be a huge boon to bilateral relations, too.
In talks with Georgian officials, the Armenian government has generally avoided making an issue of Djavakhk, at least in public statements. During the February visits, however, the Supreme Patriarch of the ArmenianApostolic Church bluntly addressed the church issue and its potential consequences, explaining that a solution is good for both Armenia and Georgia.
This followed earlier comments by the Georgian Foreign Minister dismissing any suggestion that the Armenians of Djavakhk are in any way disadvantaged in comparison with residents of other Georgian regions. "There is no problem of Javakheti, there is a socioeconomic problem in Javakheti, as well as other regions of Georgia," Vashadze said.
Although the Georgian authorities have taken some steps towards addressing the Djavakhk Armenians' grievances -- in late February, construction began on a new gas main to provide natural gas to the town of Akhaltsikhe and outlying villages -- those measures are offset by the hostility and suspicion with which many Georgians, even those occupying senior positions, regard the Armenian minority. The back-pedalling on the Batumi road was reminiscent of earlier periods when such projects failed precisely because those underdeveloped areas are populated by Armenians.
Georgia has everything to gain and little to lose by taking bold and comprehensive measures to address the grievances not only of the Armenians of Djavakhk, but of its 500,000-strong Azeri minority as well. Indeed such improved relations with its two large minorities will make Georgia’s position on S. Ossetia and Abkhazia more credible.
Yet now is the most unlikely moment for doing so, because of financial constraints resulting from the August war and the ongoing global economic crisis, and domestic political pressure by two emerging strong opposition factions. This was borne out by unusually harsh and disparaging statements by Georgian President Saakashvili about “Armenia’s economy being devastated because of its unusually close relations with Russia.” The Armenian president’s office esponded with a lesson in proper protocol between officials of neighboring countries. The exchange simply reinforced the widespread suspicion on both sides about the other’s neighborly reliability.
Outlook The Djavakhk Armenians' proposal to transform Georgia into a federation is both moderate and logical. On paper, there is no reason why a federal state (like the US, Germany and Switzerland) should prove inherently less stable than a unitary state. But for states with restive ethnic minorities, the very concept of federalism is frequently regarded by the national government with misgivings, insofar as federal divisions that coincide with regions largely populated by such minorities are perceived as fault-lines along which, sooner or later, the state is doomed to break up -- despite all efforts to the contrary. And for Saakashvili, who repeatedly offered the South Ossetians and Abkhaz "the broadest autonomy imaginable," to make such an offer now, after losing those two territories, is unthinkable. By contrast, former Georgian ambassador to the UN and potential Georgian presidential candidate Irakli Alasania, who served as Saakashvili's point man for negotiations with the Abkhaz leadership in 2005-2006, might well acknowledge the logic of such a move. The EU could pave the way for that transformation by insisting during the imminent Eastern Partnership negotiations that regional inequalities within Georgia are addressed and timely and credible measures implemented to resolve them. The new US administration, too, in resetting its relations in the region, with both Russia and Georgia, can insist and encourage a more enlightened and regionally beneficial Georgian policy towards more diversification of transport routes and regional cooperation.