When the Georgian village of Bughasheni, located in the Armenian-dominated region of Samtkhe-Javakheti, ceremoniously unveiled a bust to its native son Mikhail Avagyan, few in the rest of Georgia took notice. But in neighboring Azerbaijan, it made national news.
An ethnic Armenian born in Georgia, Avagyan died in the early 1990s fighting on the side of Armenians in their war with the Azerbaijanis over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. To Armenians, Avagyan is a war hero; to Azerbaijanis, he is a war criminal. To Georgians, he is now a headache.
The Karabakh war, the bloodiest conflict in the recent history of the South Caucasus, left open wounds on both sides and a bitter enmity that shows few signs of abating. Although it is home to many ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Georgia managed to stay out of that war and fought its own battles with separatists in the troubled 1990s.
But in the region where nobody is happy with the current national borders and potentially has a bone to pick with every neighbor, any diplomatic misstep could be explosive. Now Tbilisi finds itself a no-win situation as it faces an outpouring of anger from Azerbaijan.
Baku has demanded an explanation from Georgia’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijan’s ambassador to Georgia delivered a protest note to Tbilisi. The monument “will not add any cordiality to relations between Azerbaijan and Georgia,” said Azerbaijani member of parliament Rasim Musabekov. He added that Tbilisi must make its position known on the monument, which would unavoidably mean picking a side in the Armenian-Azerbaijani feud.
The Azerbaijanis were particularly aggravated by the fact that the Avagyan monument was unveiled on January 20, one of the most solemn days on the Azerbaijani calendar. On that date in 1990, following days of pogroms against Baku’s Armenians, Soviet troops violently cracked down on civilian demonstrators in Baku, killing more than 200. The day is now marked as “Black January” in Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijanis also were aggrieved that Avagyan had reportedly taken part in one of the bloodiest episodes of the war, the massacre of several hundred Azerbaijani civilians in the village of Khojaly. “Georgia opened a monument to the butcher of Khojaly,” went one headline in the Azerbaijani press.
Tbilisi has tried to distance itself from the monument, saying it did not give its blessing to what was an initiative of local residents. A relative of Avagyan’s, Gagik Avagyan, appears to have sponsored the raising of the bust in the town. Some local media reported that an earlier version of Avagyan’s bust had stood on the premises of a local school.
But many Azerbaijanis are not satisfied with the Georgian response. The hawkish Azerbaijani news service Haqqin.az ran a piece pointing out that two lawmakers from the ruling Georgian Dream party, as well as the Armenian ambassador to Tbilisi, took part in the inauguration of the bust. “Would the Georgian authorities be as open to the creation of a monument to an Azerbaijani hero of the Karabakh war in, say, the region of Borchali, that is dominated by Azerbaijanis?” the author of the piece, foreign policy expert Farhad Mamedov, inquired rhetorically.
Some Georgian observers blamed the central authorities for leaving Samtkhe-Javakheti to its own devices and thus putting the country in a diplomatic predicament that has no graceful solution. Pulling down a monument to appease Azerbaijan, the biggest investor and energy supplier to Georgia, is hardly an option as it would aggravate the other neighbor, Armenia, as well as the ethnic Armenians of Samtkhe-Javakheti region.
“Chaos and ignorance reign in the Georgian government now,” Tornike Sharashenidze, an international relations scholar, told Jamnews. “The authorities failed or did not care to appreciate what sort of consequences [the] opening of this monument would entail.”
Georgian officials, both from the foreign ministry and the parliament, appear to be parroting the same bland line about Azerbaijan being “a strategic partner” and that Tbilisi and Baku have no subjects they can’t discuss “at all levels,” Jamnews reported.
Indeed, based on the stream of grievances Georgia is receiving from Azerbaijan’s government-controlled news, Tbilisi can look forward to many more such multi-level discussions.