Longtime football fans may remember the article with this headline published in the Georgian sports daily Lelo on 15 September 1971. The article was reporting the result of a significant Soviet Top Leagu football match of the previous day between Dinamo Tbilisi and Ararat Yerevan that took place in the capital of Armenia. The game’s only goal, scored by Manuchar Machaidze of Dinamo Tbilisi, came as a disappointment to the 70,000 Armenian fans gathered at the newly-opened Hrazdan Stadium. Ararat Yerevan, the most popular team in Armenia, experienced its first home defeat of the season. Earlier in the season, Ararat had defeated Dinamo in Tbilisi so the win in Yerevan gave Tbilisi their revenge. Forty-one years and four months later, a purportedly protocolar visit of the new Georgian government to Armenia has unexpectedly proved to be a failure. In contrast to football, diplomatic and political failures can entail grave consequences – among the most alarming signs of which are the altered foreign policy signals the Georgian government communicated from Yerevan.
I will start with these new signals and then move on to discuss Georgia-Armenia bilateral relations.
Let’s conduct a test: you, an average Georgian citizen, are offered a choice between two models of state development. What these models have in common is that they are both followed by countries with a past similar to our own. Aside from this, the models differ in many other ways.
A country which follows the first model:
• Is a member state of the European Union;
• Is a NATO member state;
• Has moderate relations with Russia and friendly relations with all other neighbors;
• Actively participates in regional economic, transportation or energy projects.
A country which follows the second model:
• Does not aspire towards NATO integration;
• Has closed borders and no political or diplomatic relations with two out of the four neighboring countries with which it shares a land border;
• Does not participate in regional transportation and energy projects;
• Hosts a Russian military base in its territory;
• Is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – the military-political union led by Russia;
• Guests arriving in the airport of its capital are met by Russian alongside with local border guards.
Surprised about this test, you may well ask: Is not it clear that we must choose the first model of development? Thus far we have sincerely believed that the model to follow was the first model of development – that undertaken by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. That is what the absolute majority of Georgians believed and, moreover, what was officially declared through a 2008 referendum on the issue.
The recent statement made by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili that Armenia’s good relations with Russia and the West must serve as an “example” for Georgia is a result of ignoring historical and geographic factors. If we analyze what determined Armenia’s dependence on Russia as its security guarantor, we will see that it came from a unique combination of historical and geographic factors which by no means can serve as an “example” for Georgia.
Let’s start with the geographic factors: out of the 17 countries of the Greater Middle East region only two are landlocked. Considering that the Caspian Sea partially compensates this deficiency for Azerbaijan, the only country in this region totally lacking a coastline is Armenia, which is landlocked between Turkey from the West and Azerbaijan from the East. This geography explains Armenia’s historical drive to have access to the Black Sea ports and land communication with Russia. This is the only way Armenia can escape its position of being geopolitically sandwiched between Turkey and Azerbaijan.
As for the historical factors, they are: 1) the heavy trauma of the early 20th century which connects Armenia with the Ottoman Empire and, consequently, Turkey; and 2) the 25-year-long unsettled conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
It is largely because of the combination of these factors that Armenia has “good relations” with Russia. The reality of this situation is that Russia indeed ensures Armenia’s security, but, on the other hand, Armenia fails to sort out its relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan, has not been able to participate in regional transportation and energy projects, is a member of the CSTO (which mutually excludes NATO membership), and hosts a large Russian military base.
Looking at Armenia’s relations with the United States, we are again dealing with an absolutely concrete factor which is virtually impossible for Georgia to replicate. That factor is the numerous, well organized, and politically influential Armenian Diaspora.
Armenia and Armenians possess multiple exemplary qualities which many nations, including Georgia, would find very beneficial to have: diligence, sense of solidarity, entrepreneurial spirit, commercial talent, and strong diasporas – to name just a few. But what cannot be followed or imitated is Armenia’s geography and history.
Georgian diplomacy deserves credit for brilliantly managing its relations with Turkey despite of the troubled past relations that we had with the Ottoman Empire. Today, Turkey is our top trade and economic partner and a most consistent supporter of Georgia’s integration into NATO. Perhaps it’s Armenia who wishes to follow our lead here, who knows?
The Prime Minister only added to the controversy of his foreign policy signals by claiming that “our strategy in the short-term perspective is Euro-Atlantic integration,” however “societies change and develop and strategy may also change.”
Let’s be clear that we are not in position to judge Armenia’s development strategy. That is for Armenia solely to decide, including on the kind of relations it wants to have with Russia.
However, there a dimension of Armenia-Russia relations that is of particular concern for Georgia, and here we start moving onto an analysis of Georgia-Armenia bilateral relations. That is the activity of the Russian military base in Gyumri, especially given that by December 2012 the number of Russian military personnel stationed there was doubled to 10,000 men. For Georgia to have raised this issue during the talks in Yerevan would have been an absolutely legitimate move. The military base is situated just 50 kilometers away from the Georgian border and we could have sought an explanation from Armenia for the dramatic increase in the weaponry and military personnel and obtained official confirmation that this increase is not directed against us.
That did not happen. Instead, only issues concerning Armenia’s interests were discussed during the visit. An incomplete list of these issues include opening the Moscow-Yerevan railway, blurring Georgia’s position towards the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and teaching the history of Armenia in Georgian schools.
The hosts unexpectedly received positive answers on almost every issue they raised with their Georgian counterparts, which was even more surprising as these were given without any reciprocity being requested.
The nuances of opening the Moscow-Yerevan railway are a subject for separate discussion. Here we will limit ourselves to noting that the benefits from this project to Russia and Armenia look much more tangible than they do for Georgia, especially considering that the humanitarian problem of the return of internally displaced persons to their homes in Abkhazia (where the railway would pass through) was entirely neglected. This initiative appears even more alarming in view of the Prime Minister’s recent criticism of the Baku-Kars-Akhalkalaki railway project as being “economically disadvantageous” for Georgia. If the latter pursues the aim of putting an end to Russia’s railway monopoly in the South Caucasus, the former portends a heavier dependence of all three South Caucasian states on Russia.
Georgia’s position on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict has historically been clear-cut and rested on four principles: 1) we support the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and Armenia within the internationally recognized borders; 2) we support the right of internally displaced persons to return to Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent regions; 3) we respect the rights of the ethnic Armenian population of the region; and 4) we support the efforts of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group to find a formula for peaceful resolution acceptable to all parties to the conflict. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia has consistently refused to recognize so-called “local,” “parliamentary” and “presidential elections” held in Nagorno-Karabakh, while the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs has reciprocally refused to recognize “elections” held in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region. During the visit to Yerevan, this position unexpectedly lost its clarity. Vagueness in our position towards the principle of territorial integrity may result in backlash.
“During his visit to Yerevan, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili promised the head of Holy Armenian Apostolic Church Catholicos Karekin II that the history of Armenia will become an integral part of the Georgian national curriculum,” the Armenian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on 18 January. The interpretation and teaching of Armenia’s history at Armenian language schools in Georgia has its own long and difficult history. The views of Armenian and Georgian historians about the centuries-long relationship between the two countries do not coincide with each other. There is nothing tragic is such a controversy – a similar situation can be seen in the relations between many neighboring countries. Georgia’s stance on this issue over the past few years has been to teach ethnic Armenian students in Georgia the history of their homeland in the context of regional and world history. We created and improved new national curriculum and, when needed, our experts consulted their Armenian colleagues within the format of a joint commission. Naturally, absolute sovereignty over what our curriculum would contain rested with us. The question arises: are we ceding that part of our sovereignty?
The time limit for Georgia’s new government being able to explain its failures by citing inexperience has come to an end. The government will have to make much more effort to overcome the failures it has had in bilateral relations. It will be much more difficult to fix the deviation from the state’s strategic course.
As we have seen, history is prone to revenge.