Published in Analytical Articles
By Svante E. Cornell–July 30, 2019, the CACI Analyst
Azerbaijan and Georgia have enjoyed almost three decades of a strategic partnership that has shaped the geopolitical landscape of the whole greater Eurasia. Yet Azerbaijani-Georgian relations `have recently witnessed an unparalleled level of tensions. Ostensibly about a border demarcation issue, the slump in the relationship nevertheless derives in part from the effort of foreign powers to separate the two partners from each – willfully in the case of Russia, and inadvertently in the case of the West. It is time for both countries and their partners to pay attention to this crucial relationship.
BACKGROUND: On July 14, a group of Georgian villagers and activists clashed with Azerbaijani border troops and tried to disarm them in the area of the David Gareji monastery complex, an expansive religious site that sprawls across the boundary between Georgia’s Kakheti region and Azerbaijan’s Agstafa region. Thanks to restraint shown by Azerbaijani border troops, no shots were fired and nobody was injured. This confrontation followed on several months of growing tensions over David Gareji, known as Keshigchidag in Azerbaijani. The dispute itself is not new: the complex had been divided between the two republics already in Soviet times, a boundary that gained significance with the emergence of independent Azerbaijan and Georgia in 1991. Soviet topographic maps put the site partially within Azerbaijani SSR’s borders, and in 1963 these maps had been approved by the Georgian Supreme Soviet. But Georgians see the complex as an important part of Georgia’s religious heritage. Azerbaijani historians, by contrast, consider the site as a heritage of both the Georgian Orthodox and the Ancient Caucasian Albanian church. Azerbaijan considers itself a successor state to ancient Caucasian Albania, which ceased to exist in the eighth century CE.
While a portion of the religious site is located within Azerbaijan, an informal agreement dating back to the 1990s permit pilgrims and tourists to freely visit the site from Georgia. Azerbaijani border troops are present on the site. Demarcation of the border has never been a priority for Baku or Tbilisi: both have been preoccupied with separatist conflicts, and in any case have sided with each other on these matters, while the warm relations between their respective leadership has taken away the urgency of a resolution. A border demarcation committee has existed for years, and Georgian officials have offered to resolve the issue by a land swap – essentially, offering Azerbaijan similarly sized territory elsewhere along the border in exchange for sovereignty over the David Gareji complex. Baku has been reluctant to accept this option – for at least three reasons. First, the loss of a sixth of the country’s territory in war has made the government uneasy about territorial concessions even to a friendly power. Second, part of Azerbaijan’s historical case for sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh rests on its argument that it is a successor state to Caucasian Albania. That argument would be weakened if it compromised over sites it considers linked to Caucasian Albania. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the complex occupies high strategic ground that is of considerable importance in this sensitive area. The site is only 30 miles distant from the two countries’ border with Armenia. During the 1992-94 war, Azerbaijani forces mined part of its border with Georgia to prevent Armenian forces from accessing Azerbaijan through Georgia. As a result, the interim solution has been not to force a resolution to the problem.
None of this, however, explains why the issue has emerged at this juncture. During a generally well-received visit to Baku in March, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili raised the issue of the border delimitation commission while also appearing to side with Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. But on April 20, she appeared at the David Gareji complex, and standing in what Azerbaijan considers Azerbaijani territory, publicly called for the need to reach an agreement on the border as soon as possible. While Baku reacted in a reserved manner to this visit and statement, Zurabshvili’s visit appeared not to have been coordinated with Baku, and to have taken the Azerbaijani government by surprise. Given the attention Azerbaijani officials pay to correct protocol in relations with foreign partners, Zurabishvili’s actions were a serious diplomatic faux pas – something, of course, that Zurabishvili has always been prone to.
Several days later, Azerbaijani border forces beefed up their presence at the site, and reportedly restricted access to some parts of the complex. This impasse was resolved by direct communication between the two countries’ foreign ministers, but during May and June, various forces in Georgia began to mobilize on the matter. Leading among these were the Union of Patriots of Georgia, an anti-Western and pro-Russian political party led by Irma Inashvili, which gained representation in parliament by the smallest of margins in the 2016 elections. On June 15, The Union of Patriots held a rally in downtown Tbilisi under the title “David Gareji is Georgia,” which gathered some 10,000 people. Inashvili called on Azerbaijan to cede the territory to Georgia, and urged President Ilham Aliyev to understand that “the Georgian people are not going to give up David Gareji.” Another party leader, David Tarkhan-Mouravi, called for the investigation and punishment of the former government of Mikheil Saakashvili, whom he claimed had “sold David Gareji.” But reliable sources in Tbilisi indicate that the Patriots’ efforts did not stay at rallies: going further, they appear to have pressured allies in the Georgian Orthodox Church to speak out on the matter.
IMPLICATIONS: The row over David Gareji is not occurring in a vacuum: it is happening at a time when the country appears, once again, to be in Vladimir Putin’s crosshairs. In June 2019, following a staged provocation in the Georgian parliament by Russian lawmakers invited to a meeting of Orthodox countries, mass protests erupted against the government’s laxity in allowing a Russian parliamentarian to occupy the chair of the Georgian parliament speaker. As protests turned violent, a government crackdown led to 200 persons being injured, including numerous police officers. The speaker of parliament was forced to resign as a result. This led Vladimir Putin to go on a well-rehearsed rant against Georgia. Meanwhile, the Georgian Orthodox Church is preparing for a transition of power: the 86-year old Patriarch Ilia II, installed in 1977, has recently moved to anoint a heir apparent, the Metropolitan of Senaki and Ckhorotsku, as Locum Tenens, or guardian of the patriarchal throne. The Georgian Church is known to be one of the areas Moscow has focused on for influence in Georgia, relying on the Russian education of most Georgian Orthodox priests, and appealing to conservative values in opposition to purported western efforts to liberalize Georgia.
The strategic partnership between Azerbaijan and Georgia did not emerge by default. In fact, during the transition to independence, Georgian nationalists harbored considerable anti-Muslim and anti-Azerbaijani feelings, which led to several violent incidents in southeastern Georgia, which is heavily populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis. It was the visionary leadership of Presidents Heydar Aliyev and Eduard Shevardnadze that transformed a historically complex relationship into a strategic partnership. Both presidents understood that the security of Georgia and Azerbaijan is indivisible: they form the east-west axis connecting the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, and therefore the lynchpin of the east-west corridor connecting NATO to Central Asia and Afghanistan. As Vladimir Socor has pointed out, if one falls, so does the other. Large infrastructural projects have cemented this relationship: the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad. Following a brief period of mutual suspicion following Georgia’s Rose Revolution, which some activists tried to export to Azerbaijan, Presidents Mikheil Saakashvili and Ilham Aliyev developed a close personal relationship that further strengthened the strategic relationship between the two countries.
As in any relationship, there are tensions: aside from David Gareji, Georgians often complain of the allegedly heavy-handed behavior of the Azerbaijani State Oil Company, which is Georgia’s largest taxpayer. And Azerbaijanis complain of the instability and unreliability of Georgian politics. But the main challenges to this relationship have been external. And unfortunately, Russia and the West are equally to blame for this.
In Russia’s case, the logic is obvious: control over Georgia and Azerbaijan means control over the east-west corridor. This is why Moscow, in the 1990s, supported both ethnic separatism and coup attempts against independent-minded governments. This nevertheless backfired, as Azerbaijan and Georgia survived, and Moscow’s actions led to an even stronger urge for independence among the leaders and population of Azerbaijan and Georgia alike. Because Georgia has a less centralized political system and greater vulnerabilities, it was always perceived as the weakest link in the chain – and thus the easiest for Russia to manipulate. So while Moscow has not shied away from pressuring Azerbaijan in various ways, it has perceived the cost-benefit ratio of doing so to be more beneficial in Georgia. This is, undoubtedly, why Russian “Hybrid Tactics” are more frequently deployed in Georgia than in Azerbaijan. And if these can be used to sow discord between Tbilisi and Baku, all the better.
But the West, too, has played a significant role in weakening the strategic partnership between the two neighbors by its tendency to play favorites. Both Europe and the U.S. have tended to view assistance as a reward for good behavior rather than an investment in countries deemed of strategic importance. The EU explicitly defines this approach as the “more for more” principle, in which the EU “will develop stronger partnerships with those neighbours that make more progress towards democratic reform.” As a result, the West has often used directly divisive language: in 2013, the EU singled out Armenia, Moldova and Georgia as countries that “were rewarded for their efforts in democratic transition.”
In other words, Western powers explicitly divide regional states into better and worse categories. While this may have been intended as a form of carrot-and stick approach that would lead other countries to follow suit, there is no evidence this has worked. In fact, the main effect has been to alienate those countries not found worthy of “rewards”. Inadvertently, the American and European approach has contributed to exacerbating differences and deepening the gulf between these states. Instead of nurturing and supporting the strategic link between Baku and Tbilisi, as they did in the 1990s, Western powers have gone so far as to informally challenge Tbilisi over its close ties to Baku, which they consider less democratic and therefore less deserving of support. Reciprocating, many Georgians have felt that their connection to Azerbaijan is a liability in their effort to be accepted into western institutions.
CONCLUSIONS: The Azerbaijani-Georgian strategic partnership is crucial for the continued independence of Central Asia and the Caucasus, and for western access to Central Asia. Similarly, it is becoming increasingly important for the East-West continental trade route connecting Europe and Asia, meaning China increasingly has a stake in its stability. The current troubles between Baku and Tbilisi do not, at present, on their own jeopardize the strategic relationship between the two states. But it shows how, if left unattended, a relationship believed to be stable and secure could be vulnerable to populist forces and external manipulation.
Western powers must realize how crucial this relationship is to broader western interests in Eurasia, and work to support and strengthen it. Most of all, both Azerbaijanis and Georgians, as well as their western partners must remember that the security of the South Caucasus and ultimately, the future of all western interests there, are tightly connected to this strategic tie. This means moving decisively to counter all forces that seek to undermine the relationship, and working to restore, wherever necessary, the level of dialogue and consultation that existed in the 1990s and 2000s.
Svante E. Cornell is Editor-in-Chief of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, and the Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.