Is Georgia changing its position on the Karabakh conflict?
Since the beginning of 2019, several events have attracted the attention of Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian observers concerning the prospect of resolving the Karabakh conflict:
• The unveiling of a monument of an Armenian combatant in the Karabakh war in an Armenian-inhabited village of Georgia. Many on Azerbaijani and Georgian social media were outraged, and pundits said that Georgia had violated the principle of neutrality regarding the Karabakh conflict.
• A provocative speech made by a Georgian MP on the rights of Georgians in Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis in Georgia. Human rights activists accused the deputy of ‘ethnically segregating’ Georgian citizens.
• Statements made by Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili during her visits to Baku on 27 February and to Yerevan on 13 March, when she compared the Georgian-Abkhaz and Karabakh conflicts and said that both are based on occupation: a discussion again arose that Georgia had violated its neutrality towards Armenia and Azerbaijan as parties to the Karabakh conflict.
Is Georgia’s position on the Karabakh conflict changing? We asked this question to political observers in Baku, Yerevan and Tbilisi.
Elkhan Shahinoglu, Director of Atlas Research Centre:
“Salome Zurabishvili stated in Armenia that Georgia is interested in peace between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Georgia. These words of Zurabishvili should be understood in the context of: in the event of a new war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, there will most probably be tension between Azerbaijanis and Armenians in Georgia. Georgia will not be able to stand aside in the event of a new war.
“Unfortunately, in Yerevan, Zurabishvili did not repeat what she said in Baku – that conflicts should be resolved on the basis of the principle of territorial integrity. That is, she said one thing in Baku, and another in Yerevan.”
Shahin Rzayev, JAMnews political observer:
“The Georgian president is a nominal figure. The Georgian Dream party is still in power. Therefore, there is no need to talk about any change in Georgia’s foreign policy.
“The coming to power of the Georgian Dream party in 2012 brought Azerbaijan closer to Georgia. The previous leadership of Georgia was more pro-Western, and therefore it was like an eyesore for the authoritarian rulers of Azerbaijan and Armenia. After 2012, it became easier to negotiate with Georgia, even on a personal level.
“For example, the abduction of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli would have been much harder to imagine during the time of Saakashvili [ed. former president of Georgia].
“The incident in the Javakheti region – the unveiling of the monument to the Armenian combatant – was a serious test of relations for Georgia and its neighbors, and the ceremony was attended by Georgian officials.
“There were different accounts of how this could happen: it was said, among other things, that it was a ‘third’ country that came up with a plan to destabilize the situation in Georgia by inciting ethnic hatred.
“In my opinion, things are more simple, as they are in the saying: ‘You shouldn’t look for deep meaning when you can explain everything with banal stupidity’.
“As for the other statements of the Georgian president – such as, for example, about the ‘occupation’, it is worth remembering that Salome Zurabishvili has made similar mistakes before. There are no changes in Georgian-Azerbaijani relations, especially in relation to the Karabakh conflict.”
Hakop Badalyan, political observer:
“Azerbaijan is trying to look at Georgia as a springboard for placing pressure on Armenia, using excuses such as that of the erection of the monument. The key role here is played by the position of Tbilisi. Tbilisi should not allow this, because it is a question of the sovereignty of Georgia. Should it, Azerbaijan will be able to dictate Georgia’s foreign policy course to Tbilisi.
“The statement of Salome Zurabishvili in Baku concerning respect for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan is not unprecedented. Such statements were made earlier by other countries, but, by and large, these statements have no direct relation to Karabakh.
“What was unprecedented was the comparison of the Karabakh conflict with the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts. No high-ranking official in Georgia has ever equated these conflicts. Not even a single international structure has ever equated them. Karabakh was not equated with anything at all, given its nuances.
“From this point of view, Salome Zurabishvili made a great diplomatic and political blunder. First of all, this statement doesn’t work to Georgia’s interests. At the same time, we understand that [the office of the president has limited powers] – this too is important. Yerevan has never allowed Tbilisi to doubt its policy towards Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
“Armenian-Georgian relations are key to the security of the entire Caucasus as a whole. Armenia and Georgia, regardless of their different foreign policy vectors, are, in the strategic sense, in the same ship when it comes to security and interests.
“In a broad sense, Georgia, with its Euro-Atlantic vector and the desire to deepen relations with NATO, can play a very important deterrent role in the security throughout the Caucasus — which can also affect the resolution of the Karabakh conflict, if only to maintain stability.”
Johnny Melikyan, political scientist, Centre for Regional Studies:
“It is important to note that the monument was erected in the 1990s, it was just recently restored. The Georgian authorities controlled the situation and did not allow for an ethnic conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis on their territory. In the future they will do everything they can so that this conflict does not enter their territory.
“Regarding the statements of Salome Zurabishvili in Baku: since the 1990s, there has been a sort of gentlemen’s agreement between Armenia and Georgia – not to raise and not to vote at various [international] venues and platforms against each other, thereby bypassing the unpleasant situation for both parties. It turns out, unfortunately, that this agreement is no longer valid.
“During the meeting between Salome Zurabishvili and the speaker of the Armenian parliament, Ararat Mirzoyan, it was mentioned that Yerevan had ambiguously perceived of the statement of the President of Georgia in Baku “on the occupation of the territories”. This was a message of sorts to Tbilisi – that it should not forget that Armenia recognizes the territorial integrity of Georgia.
“Mirzoyan also stressed that Tbilisi should adhere to its previous approach to the peaceful settlement of the conflict – that is, based on international principles, of which there are several. The OSCE Minsk Group plays a major role in resolving the Karabakh conflict, and Georgia is a member of this organization, so it must support all principles, namely, the non-use of force, the right of nations to self-determination and territorial integrity.”
Tornike Sharashenidze, professor of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA):
“I do not see any political context here in the actions and statements of the President of Georgia. She just goes wherever she can — and nothing more. There is clearly no strategy in the fact that she went first to Azerbaijan and then to Armenia. What she said in Baku, calling Karabakh an occupied territory, and then went to Yerevan, is unbelievable in general.
“All this means that she does not understand anything at all in Georgian politics. Any newcomer who is interested in Georgia’s foreign policy knows that Georgia maintains strict neutrality on the issue of Karabakh. I cannot remember a single high-ranking official, especially a president, who would make such statements and take the side of either Armenia or Azerbaijan.
“Zurabishvili’s statements should not be taken seriously. For her, all these visits are just ‘trips’.
“God forbid her statements become a part of government policy. But of course, her statements to some extent spoil the image of the country.
“Regarding the role of Georgia in the settlement of the Karabakh conflict: in order to play an important role, Georgia must have serious influence in the region and must have authoritative leaders that will be listened to. Georgia has neither the one nor the other. There are much stronger countries that moderate the process and even they are failing.
“Nor should we forget the Russian factor. Russia is influential – and it is not interested in resolving conflicts in the Caucasus.
“The only thing Georgia can do at this moment is to maintain neutrality in this conflict and to prevent the resumption of the conflict. And this also applies to the story of the erection of the monument in Javakheti. Everything that happened there is the result of the chaos that prevails in the country in general.”