The recent escalation of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has once again shown that a frozen conflict can reach its melting point rapidly.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has the potential to destabilise the entire South Caucasus region. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, conflict between Georgia’s neighbours is particularly alarming for Tbilisi, which has a tough task striking a diplomatic balance.
While Russia has historically provided political and military support to Armenia and maintains military bases on Armenian soil, the Kremlin has also kept Azerbaijan close by supplying Baku with weapons. According to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, in 2018, his country purchased Russian military-technical products worth more than $5 billion. Another regional power, Turkey, has been openly supporting Azerbaijan as demonstrated by the six-fold increase in military exports to Baku in 2020, including the sale of drones which have been extensively used during the current conflict. Georgia has maintained close ties and neighbourly relations with both countries, keeping a neutral position when it comes to military escalation.
The Georgian government does not have a myriad of options when it comes to manoeuvring in the conflict. Relations are tense with Russia, which is illegally occupying 20% of Georgia’s territory, which makes keeping peaceful relations with its other neighbours of vital importance, both from geopolitical and economic standpoints. Yet, instead of just keeping quiet, Tbilisi decided on a more proactive approach by signalling to its neighbours its willingness to become a mediator in the ongoing conflict. On 30 September, Prime Minister of Georgia Giorgi Gakharia issued a statement regarding Georgia’s readiness to facilitate the peace process and hold talks in Tbilisi.
On 3 October, the National Security Council of Georgia (NSC) held a meeting regarding the conflict escalation. The NSC’s official statement stressed that Georgia has always prided itself on peaceful coexistence with ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians on its soil and aims to strengthen its relations with the respective countries. Furthermore, in his recent address at RUSI, Gakharia highlighted that it is in Georgia’s interest to have peace in the South Caucasus region and stressed that support from Western partners would be vital in conflict resolution.
While Tbilisi’s offer to play the role of a mediator has not been taken up by the conflicting sides, the approach is the wisest option in Georgia’s playbook, notwithstanding the fact that Georgia has already been a target of disinformation campaigns aimed at discrediting the role of Tbilisi as a neutral broker. Both Azerbaijani and Armenian sources have spread fake news, portraying Georgia as a supporter of one or another side. The fake photos of Tbilisi TV Tower and Liberty bridge lighted in the colours of the Azerbaijani flag have been circulating in the Azerbaijani media, while reports in Armenia have alleged that Georgia allowed the passage of Syrian militants from Turkey to Azerbaijan and that Tbilisi has also permitted the transfer of military cargo through its territory.
In fact, Georgian officials promptly denounced the allegations and the NSC statement has clearly specified that since the beginning of the military escalation, Tbilisi has suspended the issuance of permits for military cargo transit by air or land through its territory to both countries. This is a timely, sensible and balanced move in light of the high sensitivity of the conflict and potential for hostile actors to drag Tbilisi into the conflict, as proven by the disinformation campaign. Any unbalanced move, implying favouritism for one side or another may permanently damage Tbilisi’s relationship with one of its neighbours.
The Long-Term Challenge
The conflict posed a variety of challenges for Georgia. If Russia decided to get involved by, for instance, invoking the provisions of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation protocols and directly intervened in the conflict by backing Armenia, Moscow would have most likely requested to open a direct land/air corridor from Tbilisi to allow the supply of weapons to Yerevan and move its troops to Armenia through Georgian territories. Such a scenario may have had devastating consequences for Tbilisi.
In addition, Georgia is home to sizable ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities, who have so far peacefully cohabitated on Georgian soil. Yet, current tensions have the potential to radicalise ethnic minorities and cause clashes. This places Russia in a favourable position, as historically the Kremlin has been effective at taking advantage of ethnic tensions. This time, in the midst of chaos in the Caucasus, ethnic divisions may be yet another opportunity to destabilise the internal political situation in Georgia.
Further escalation of the conflict may have very costly economic effects and cause serious damage to critical infrastructure and strategic projects, such as the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan oil pipeline, Baku–Tbilisi–Kars railway and Southern Gas Corridor. In the middle of the coronavirus crisis, the South Caucasus countries have already been struggling with economic hardship, yet the military conflict elevates economic concerns to a whole new level.
From an economic point of view, Georgia’s transit potential will be heavily affected by the conflict. Tbilisi enjoys close trade and economic ties with Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are key contributors to the Georgian tourism sector. Between January and June 2020, Azerbaijan was Tbilisi’s second largest trade partner in exports. The ongoing conflict will reduce the flow of foreign direct investment to the region, which plays a critical role in ensuring sustainable economic growth.
Georgia is currently undergoing a tough test by fighting coronavirus while parliamentary elections are only a few days away. Striking a perfect balance between the conflicting sides in its neighbourhood is not easy. So far, however, it has been doing a decent job.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.