Yerevan bids for closer ties with Tbilisi: will that work?

Tornike Zurabashvili

Tornike Zurabashvili

is the analytical editor of Civil.ge and a fellow at the Eurasia Democratic Security Network (EDSN).

The new Armenian government under Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan seeks to advance political and economic cooperation with Georgia, but conflicting foreign policy priorities will limit the possibility of any dramatic overhaul in the bilateral relations.

On June 26, the Armenian and Georgian delegations, led by Deputy Prime Ministers Tigran Avinyan and Maia Tskitishvili, convened in Yerevan for the tenth session of the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation. A day later, the northern Armenian town of Dilijan hosted a joint business forum gathering around 200 entrepreneurs from both countries.

According to the Armenian government, these “landmark” events demonstrated “multifaceted and constructive” partnership between the two countries, including in the fields of energy, transport, agriculture, tourism and other sectors. The Georgian side echoed the message with kindred optimism, with Maia Tskitishvili saying the delegations covered a range of “important topics” and identified specific areas for advancing the bilateral cooperation.

The significance of the events, however, goes far beyond the diplomatic jargon of the two state officials. Not only did they mark the resumption of the work of the intergovernmental commission following almost a decade-long interlude, this was also a continuation of series of high-level meetings that followed the Armenian revolution of April 2018.

In the year following the protest wave that unseated a corrupt and unpopular regime of President Serzh Sargsyan, the new Armenian government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has consistently sought to expand its ties with Georgia. Four prime ministerial meetings have taken part since then – two official visits to respective capitals and two informal encounters in the borderline regions of Tavush and Bolnisi

While Georgia and Armenia have always enjoyed cordial relations and exchange of high-level visits has been a routine happening, the intensity of such meetings has never been as high as in the last thirteen months. This begs the question of where the two governments want to take their partnership and whether the countries will be successful in their pursuit of closer political and economic cooperation?

Georgian-Armenian relations in the larger context

Georgia and Armenia share a long history of close cultural and economic cohabitation, but their inter-state cooperation in the last three decades has developed under the shadow of the Russo-Georgian conflict and the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute over the Nagorno Karabakh issue. Tbilisi’s support for the principle of territorial integrity regarding its Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, has naturally pitted the country against Armenia’s preferences, which touts the principle of self-determination in its Karabakhi policy.

Contrasting foreign policy trajectories have put the two countries further apart; while Georgia has invested heavily in political, economic and defense cooperation with the United States, Turkey and Azerbaijan, Yerevan has prioritized close alliance with the Russian Federation, its main trade partner and a security provider. As a result, the two countries have found themselves on the opposing camps and have had to walk a tight rope to maintain friendly relations with each other on the one hand, and to avoid antagonizing their principal partners – on the other.

This, coupled with Tbilisi’s fears of possible complications in the Armenian majority region of Samtkhe-Javakheti, has added another layer of complexity to the already complex web of inter-state relations.

Despite these difficulties, however, successive Armenian and Georgian governments have managed to minimize the influence of third party actors in their bilateral relations and even in the most difficult times, found ways to downplay mutual suspicions and concentrate on the must-dos. In practice, this has meant that the countries acknowledge each others’ security and economic interests at all times, while at the same time, pursuing their bilateral agendas independently of their outside commitments.

President Armen Sarkissian and Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, Yerevan September 10, 2018. Photo: facebook.com/GeorgianGovernment

Georgia’s role as a transit corridor is a good illustration of this. The country is actively taking part in the Azerbaijani-led energy transportation projects and is viewing it as an important pillar for its physical and economic security, while at the same time, serving as a gateway for the Armenian economy, offering its highways, ports and airspace for its exports to Russia, Europe and elsewhere.

This status quo has prevailed for nearly three decades and despite occasional downturns, has delivered tangible results. The bilateral trade, for instance, has been steadily on the rise, with trade turnove

r standing at USD 613 in 2018, according to the Georgian State Statistics Office (up from 490 million in 2017). The number of inter-state visits has been growing as well; in 2018, 1.2 million Armenian visitors traveled to Georgia.

But this status quo has come at a cost as well. Effective ‘compartmentalization’ of the Georgian-Armenian relations into areas of cooperation and disagreement, has tied the hands of the authorities and has effectively narrowed down the inter-state relations to mere two-party interaction, emptying it from the regional context and many of the potentially beneficial areas of cooperation. It has also left the spoilers unaddressed, ranging from Tbilisi’s concerns over the contacts of Nagorno Karabakhi officials with Tskhinvali and Sokhumi authorities to Yerevan’s efforts for securing direct rail connection with Russia through the Tbilisi-Sokhumi railway.

The way forward

The Armenian Prime Minister’s first year in office has given a promising outlook to the Georgian-Armenian relations; the PM’s first ever foreign trip to Tbilisi and the more recent decision to skip the UNGA vote on Georgia’s IDP resolution have sent positive signals to Tbilisi that Armenia is ready to deepen its ties with Georgia.

PM Pashinyan’s advances are important on other accounts as well. Not only did it shake the widely held assumption that Armenia is overly submissive to Russian preferences, it also signaled to the outer world that a popularly elected government in Yerevan might be much bolder in asserting its foreign policy agenda.

Whether this will hold true in the long run remains to be seen, but one thing is already clear for now – that no major breakthrough should be expected vis-à-vis Georgia. And the reason for that is rather simple – the differences in the security preferences of Georgia and Armenia are just too big to bridge with cosmetic interventions.

Hence, the objective for the two governments should be to enhance their cooperation in areas outside the hard security nexus. One field of untapped opportunities is the economic exchange. The pledge to increase the trade turnover to USD 1 billion, voiced at the meeting of the two prime ministers in September 2018, is a important benchmark for the bilateral relations and an area worth investing further efforts by the two governments.

Another area of potential cooperation is the EU integration. The two countries may well be worlds apart in their choice of the security alliances, but one thing they both share is the willingness to deepen political and economic approximation with the European Union. Georgia, with its experience of successful implementation of EU’s technical requirements, should assist the Armenian government in implementing the Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement and the visa-liberalization dialogue.

The two countries also need to have a frank discussion on their disagreements. One tangible result here could be the finalization of the border delimitation talks – a process that has been stalled for years (only part of the 224-kilometer long border has been agreed). On another thorny issue – grievances of the ethnic Armenian community in Samtskhe-Javakheti region – Tbilisi has to continue its efforts to integrate the residents into the wide Georgian society, while Yerevan has to continue a well-established practice of reassuring the locals to do so.

Armenia and Georgia may be locked in a complex web of domestic and external issues that crisscross the wider Black Sea region, but their cooperation has been a success and has to be further enhanced. Despite their contrasting security preferences, the two countries share a mutual interest in diversifying political and economic cooperation and balancing asymmetric relations with their primary partners. Therefore, their vision for partnership, above all, has to rest on the conviction that stronger bilateral cooperation is in the inherent interest of both countries.

This publication was prepared with the support of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting within the framework of the “Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes” Project. The views and opinions expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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