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Irakli Chkheidze: Smoldering embers in Georgian-Azerbaijani relations

Eduard Shevardnadze and Heydar Aliyev. Photo: biznesinfo.az

The relations between Georgia and Azerbaijan are considered today as an example of friendship and good-neighborliness. Being formed at the dawn of gaining independence by the former Soviet republics, they were, nevertheless, largely determined by close personal contacts between Eduard Shevardnadze and Heydar Aliyev. Both at one time were major Kremlin functionaries and both after the collapse of the USSR moved to the offices of the leaders of now independent states. Perfectly understanding the new trends and realizing the dominant role of the West, they were taking their cue from it, beginning not just to be friends with one another, but, which is especially advantageous, to be friends against someone. Thus, for many decades, an idea of developing a transport corridor emerged, according to which the hydrocarbons of the Caspian Sea would flow to the West bypassing the Russian Federation.

The graduates from the old Kremlin school had the presence of mind and political experience not to go to direct confrontation with a mighty northern neighbor, no matter how senile and weakened it was portrayed in the West. Shevardnadze's successors had neither special intelligence nor political experience, and therefore the relations with the Russian Federation permanently deteriorated. At the same time, Georgia inevitably came closer to Turkey and Azerbaijan, gradually turning from partner to ally. The question of how much such a strategic line is positive in the long run cares the wider Georgian public so far, becoming the subject of heated discussions. The political elite, unlike the general public, tries to ignore these issues as much as possible, but that’s the thing that perhaps this is not always possible - there are too many smoldering embers under the foundation of Georgian-Azerbaijani relations.

So, the next Georgian-Azerbaijani meeting on the delimitation and demarcation of the Azerbaijani-Georgian border is scheduled for the first quarter of 2018. This is a rather complex problem, which includes many controversial issues.

A little distracting from the topic, I want to draw attention to the fact that in recent decades, all Georgian authorities have made great efforts to get rid of Russian influence, not to depend on Russia in the field of supplying strategic materials. In the wake of an increasingly intensified Russophobia, the replacement of Russian fuel and gas with the Azeri one was heartily welcomed. All of the above and increased levels of Turkish and Azerbaijani investments in the Georgian economy really led to the fact that Georgia gradually has evolved from an equal partner to a subordinate of Turkic tandem. Since then, the voices of those who warned that energy and economic independence does not emerge from the fact that one subject is being replaced by another have been drowned in the general joyful chorus. If you previously depended on the first one, now you depend on the second one. That's the whole difference!

All these talks become particularly relevant in the light of problems with the famous David Gareja monastery complex. David Garedja is one of the so-called "Syrian fathers" who together with his brothers played a major role in the Christianization of Georgia, the foundation of monastic centers. Here is one of such monastic complexes that became a kind of bone contention between Georgia and Azerbaijan. The border between the two countries runs right through the territory of the complex. One may think what has Muslim Azerbaijan to do with the Christian monastery, but Baku believes that this monastery is a monument of Albanian culture and calls it Keşikçidag.

This is no longer a surprise in Georgia. We already wrote about history textbooks published in Azerbaijan, in which Tbilisi is called an Azerbaijani city, and current President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev publicly stated that not only Yerevan, but the whole Armenian state is on Azerbaijani lands. It is obviously useless to argue with like to prove someone that the sun shines in the daytime and the moon at night. Only "deeply scientific fact" about how the "Great Ukrainians" dug out the Black Sea can be added to this "historical" information. Fun is fun, but the problem with David Garedja exists, since Azerbaijani border guards occupied part of the complex in May 2012 and blocked access to it for Georgian clergy, pilgrims and politicians.

The state border between Georgia and Azerbaijan is generally full of miracles. Its length from Georgia is 446 km, and from Azerbaijan 480. No one knows how modern geometry will deal with this. In the 1970s, the border between the Georgian SSR and AzSSR passed along the Alazani River, which has changed its course towards Georgia. Thus, part of the territory of Georgia remained on the other shore, and in the late 80s Georgia built the village of Erisimedi here and refugees from Adjara and Chechen Kists from the Pankisi Gorge settled there. Today, the nationality of this village is a subject of bitter quarrels. In addition, Georgia is also believed that part of its historical territory of the Hereti called Saingilo is now part of Azerbaijan. These are the cities of Zagatala, Kakha, Belakani, and the Ingiloyans themselves are considered to be forcibly Islamized Georgians.

Azerbaijan, in turn, makes claims to the Georgian region of Kvemo Kartli, where the Azerbaijani population lives compactly. They note that several centuries ago, the ruler of Iran, Nadir Shah, moved here the Turkic tribe Borchali, and during the Soviet Union the Georgian authorities replaced the Azerbaijani toponyms with Georgian ones. Protest activity of Azerbaijanis in Georgia on this issue always finds patriotic response and support in Azerbaijan. Against this background, the statements of the professor of Western University, political analyst Fikret Sadikhov, who does not consider delimitation a key and burning issue, are of great interest, since both countries are involved in strategic projects, and this should be well understood in Georgia.

"The Georgian side in this situation, if it, of course, wants to continue close relations with Azerbaijan, which to some extent ensures the energy security of the Georgian people, should look a little bit wider at the problem of delimitation of the state border. I believe that one should not get hung up on a certain section in the issue of delimitation, but simply compromise with Azerbaijan. Georgia can make certain concessions, because close friendly cooperation has already been established between our countries, we must not allow questions between us to remain that could lead to a conflict," Fikret Sadikhov said in an interview with the Azerbaijani Echo social and political newspaper.

It seems that someone in Tbilisi forgot that nothing costs more than something that's free. It seems that in the future Georgia will have to make "unilateral compromises" in relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. And it will not end any good for Georgia itself. The best proof of this can be the cries and threats from Baku in response to Georgian politicians' statements that the through railway communication between Azerbaijan and Turkey across Georgia reduces the competitive advantages of the Georgian ports of Poti and Batumi, or the assumptions associated with the unlocking of the Abkhazian railroad. Or scandalous stories with the kidnapping of Azerbaijani opposition journalist Afgan Mukhtarly from Georgia and the extradition process of teacher Emre Çabuk at the request of Turkey.

Irakli Chkheidze (Tbilisi), specially for EADaily

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