As turmoil buffets Central Asia and the Caucasus, Armenia and Georgia have succeeded in reducing bilateral tension. During a recent visit to Armenia, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze addressed a variety of Armenian political and economic security concerns, allowing Tbilisi and Yerevan to focus their resources on other pressing strategic issues.
Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, Armenia and Georgia had seemingly been on a collision course. Both countries, for example, pursued different approaches to ethnic conflict-related issues. While Yerevan supported the separatist aspirations of ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia struggled to contain separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the same time, Armenia maintained close strategic links with Russia, while Georgia sought closer ties to Western organizations, including NATO.
Other sources of tension had arisen in recent years. Yerevan was cautious about Georgia's participation in efforts to build a pipeline, known as Baku-Ceyhan, that would link Azerbaijan to Turkey, which are both traditional enemies of Armenia. Yerevan also was concerned about perceived discrimination against the estimated 300,000 ethnic Armenians in Georgia.
During his October 23-24 visit, Shevardnadze and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian signed a modified version of the 1996 friendship treaty, in which both sides pledged not to enter into an alliance that is considered by the other to be hostile. For Armenia, which fears encirclement by Turkey and Azerbaijan, securing a Georgian non-alignment commitment can be considered a major diplomatic success. It also can potentially allow Kocharian's administration to devote a greater amount of time to economic development issues.
In seeking to allay Armenian concerns about potential consequences for Yerevan of Georgian-Turkish cooperation, Shevardnadze stated: "Georgia will never participate in any project capable of establishing a 'Berlin Wall' in the South Caucasus." If these promises prove true, political observers in Yerevan believe that Georgia may become a supporter of the Armenian concept of "complementarism." The geopolitical framework promoted by Yerevan seeks to create conditions in the Caucasus in which the interests of Russia and the West overlap, rather than contradict.
Armenia and Georgia have moved swiftly to bolster relations since Shevardnadze's visit. After making a follow-up trip to Georgia, Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisyan announced October 28 the establishment of a joint working group to develop military cooperation.
For Georgia, the need for improved relations is clear. At present, Georgia is hard pressed to cope with renewed fighting in Abkhazia, a diplomatic row with Russia over the ongoing presence of Russian troops in Georgia and its ongoing economic difficulties. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Shevardnadze's government can ill afford to assume a new diplomatic or economic burden.
To a large extent, the future course of Georgian-Russian relations will exert significant influence over the development of ties between Tbilisi and Yerevan. Georgian-Russian relations remain tense and in a state of flux. Tbilisi has accused Russia of supporting Abkhaz separatists, while Moscow says Georgia provides Chechen rebels with a safe haven. Prospects for improved ties appeared to take a turn for the better on October 27, when Georgian Parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania said Tbilisi was no longer considering a withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Independent States. However, Shevardnadze lambasted Russia on October 29, accusing Moscow of carrying out a bombing raid in northwestern Georgia the previous day.
The issue of ethnic Armenians in Georgia also could prove an obstacle to improved relations. Armenians in Georgia have complained about a lack of access to Armenian-language schools and a lack of representation in local government bodies. Problems are perceived to be especially acute in Javakhetia, a region of southern Georgia in which Armenians comprise a majority of the population. Another important factor is that many Armenians in Javakhetia are dependent on a Russian military base either for employment or for commerce, and they are concerned about Georgian efforts to secure the withdrawal of Russian forces.
A sizable Armenian community also is found in Abkhazia, and many have supported separatist leaders there. Local Armenian residents reportedly were killed during the recent clashes between Abkhaz forces and guerrilla bands of Georgians and Chechens. Some Armenian observers express hope that the Armenian-Georgian rapprochement can accelerate efforts to find a political settlement to the Abkhaz conflict.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.