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Pragmatic Georgia, stagnating Azerbaijan and safe Armenia: South Caucasus in 2016

2015 for the South Caucasus was a year when trends deriving from the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 were actively developing. That five-day war resulted in the loss of Mikheil Saakashvili’s pro-American United National Movement in the parliamentary elections of 2012. The Georgians refused to forgive him his fruitless provocations and shameful loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 2012 opened a new page in Georgia’s history. That country ceased to be the United States’ puppet and seems to be tending towards Germany in hope that the Germans will be able to reconcile them with the Russians, while preserving Georgia’s national interests and paving the way for its economic development.

In early 2013, the leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party Bidzina Ivanishvili said that the policy of Georgia’s neighbor Armenia was exemplary for his country. He complimented the Armenians for their efficient foreign policy and ability to build good relations with both Russia and the West. Ivanishvili also said that the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway project was not good for Georgia as it would become a rival to the country’s seaports. Later, Ivanishvili was forced to correct some of his words as the Azerbaijanis were displeased and threatened to stop supplying gas to Georgia.

After that, Georgia began to be very careful in its foreign policy but was no less active. In his time, following the Americans’ interests, Saakashvili drew a dividing line between his country and Russia and offered wide opportunities and privileges to Azerbaijan and Turkey. As a result, the Azerbaijanis and the Turks gained high influence in Georgia, especially in Adjara and Kvemo-Kartli. That was very bad for Armenia – as that put the country into a “Turkish circle.”

Later, the predictions that Georgia would not develop if it continued acting as an energy and transport corridor between Azerbaijan and Turkey came true.

Growing instability in Ukraine and the Middle East is pressing the South Caucasian elites to hurry with their decisions. All the three economies are facing serious problems, with the only country that can really be complementary being Georgia.

For blockaded Armenia, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) are the only way to be safe. Today, it can no longer safely float between Russia and the West.

Officially neutral, Azerbaijan is now facing challenges likes falling oil prices and the Russian-Turkish conflict. Being mostly Muslim, Azerbaijan is more vulnerable to radical Islamic influences than Christian Armenia or Georgia are.

Today, Georgia is gradually turning into a transit country for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Now that the Turkish-Russian relations are spoiled, the situation in Turkey’s mostly Kurdish eastern provinces is very unstable. If the Turkish army undertakes large-scales anti-Kurdish attacks near the Armenian border, Georgia will become a road of life for the Armenians.

For Georgia, the best way now is to diversify its opportunities so as not to become a target for either the Turkish-Azerbaijani or the Russian-Armenian tandems.

And this process has already started: in early 2016 the Georgians announced plans to build energy ties with Iran, Armenia and Russia. Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze seems to be committed to turn his country from an energy and transport corridor between Azerbaijan and Turkey into a regional energy hub.

As was reported in early 2016, Georgia is going to get gas not only from Russia but also from Iran – using an Armenia-based gas pipeline owned by Gazprom’s subsidiary, ArmRusgazprom. So, according to Kaladze, Georgia will have to sign an official deal with the Russian holding. He added that the Georgians wanted to revise their transit deal with Gazprom and to get money for the transit of Russian gas to Armenia instead of 10% of the gas.

In the meantime, Armenia has long exchanged electricity for gas with Iran. On Dec 23, the Armenian, Iranian, Georgian and Russian energy ministers met in Yerevan to sign a memorandum on efforts to better control electric power flows and to improve the efficiency and the safety of their energy networks. Armenian Energy Minister Yervand Zakharyan said that by 2018 Armenia was planning to launch a 400/500 KW power transmission line with Georgia and also a 400 KW line with Iran.

In fact, this means the opening of a North-South energy corridor in the South Caucasus – a line that will connect Iran through Armenia and Georgia with Russia. According to Georgian expert Soso Tsiskarishvili, Georgia is going to replace 50% of Azerbaijani gas with gas from Russia and may even lay other terms for Azerbaijani gas transit to Turkey.

But this time Azerbaijan is not so angry – even though this will be good for both Russia and Armenia. Simply, today, the Azerbaijanis can no longer impose its will on the Georgians. Today, they are facing a crisis as falling oil prices have affected their trade and revenues and have pushed down their national currency. And now that the Georgians can buy gas from Russia, they have no more levers for pressuring them.

Today, Georgia enjoys the status of the EU’s associate partner and is looking forward to enjoying visa free regimes with both Europe and Russia.

On the other hand, there is Armenia, who, despite its accession to the EEU, continues association talks with the EU. Now that Russian-Turkish relations are spoiled, Armenia is improving its chances to be an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and a partner for the West, at one and the same time. And this is due mostly to Serzh Sargsyan’s wise foreign policy.

So, in future the South Caucasus may become a small model of the EEU-EU relationship. Both Georgia and Armenia are looking forward to such future. As far as Azerbaijan is concerned, if it continues to stick to Turkey, it may face isolation. Haqqin.az quotes a poll saying that for most of the Azerbaijanis the key allies are Turkey, Pakistan, Georgia, the United States and Saudi Arabia. In this list, Georgia is just a bridge connecting Azerbaijan with Turkey.

Without Georgia, this list looks quite problematic for not only Russia and Armenia but also Iran. Without Georgia, Azerbaijan will have no direct communications with Turkey and will become dependent on Russia and Iran. This is why the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway is so important for Azerbaijan – just like the Abkhazian railway is for Armenia. The best way for the South Caucasus is if both projects are carried out as this would make the region safer.

And the last point. Post-Saakashvili Georgia may become a role-model for Ukraine. Once the Georgians got rid of the Americans’ control, they started building well-balanced relations with the Russians and the Europeans. The Russians’ response disproved the myth that they are against Georgia’s relations with the European Union. Quite the opposite, the Russians want Georgia and Ukraine to be prosperous as it is good to have prosperous neighbors. But this is contrary to the interests of the Americans. The war of 2008 and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine have shown what the Americans want. So, the only way for Georgia and Ukraine to recover is to oust “Saakashvili” as a promoter of the United States’ adventurous geopolitical interest.

Vigen Akopyan, chief editor of EADaily

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