Georgia’s Karabakh conundrum

By Alexander Scrivener

As the death toll mounts among both Armenians and Azeris in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the situation in nearby Georgia feels a million miles away. In the throes of both a parliamentary election and a growing Covid-19 epidemic, the fact that what is now a full-blown war is happening next door has barely registered in the country outside of foreign policy circles.

That may be about to change.

As Azerbaijani troops capture more of region surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh and approach the borders of Armenia proper, the possibility of the three-week old war turning into a broader regional conflagration that draws in more direct involvement from Turkey and Georgia’s old adversary Russia, can no longer be discounted.

The geography of the region is not favourable to Georgia in the context of this conflict. Azerbaijan is backed militarily and politically by Turkey and Armenia is aligned, through the Collective Security Treat Organisation (CSTO), to Russia which also maintains a military base in Armenia’s second city Gyumri. What both alliances have in common is that their supply lines cross Georgian territory. Georgia stands between both Russia and Armenia as well as between Turkey and the bulk of Azerbaijan. If the conflict further escalates to the extent that Russia intervenes directly on the side of Armenia, its military would need to transit Georgia to reach the conflict zone.

The sight of Russian tanks rolling through Georgia in 2008 is a recent memory that no-one wants repeated. But, like it or not, the Georgian government would be faced with the terrible choice of effectively trying to block a Russian invasion or allowing it free transit through, which would be both humiliating for Georgia and risk angering Turkey and Azerbaijan which are more important economically to Tbilisi than Armenia. In the very worst-case scenario, Georgia could become a battleground itself with clashes involving both foreign forces and its own ethnic Armenian and Azeri minorities, who have coexisted peacefully until now.

While that sort of nightmare scenario is still unlikely, it is now sufficiently imaginable that Georgia quickly needs to consider what its policy should be in these dangerous times.

Georgia’s longstanding policy on the Karabakh conflict has been one that can best be described as passive neutrality. It has sought to maintain good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan but has not attempted to play a major role in conflict resolution. This is for good reason. The risk to Georgia of being dragged into one of the few regional conflicts it is not a party to has historically far outweighed any theoretical benefit of a more activist stance. Georgia would also not want to be seen as undermining the official OCSE Minsk Group peace process.

However well this policy may have served Georgia in the past, events are changing fast in the region. For one, the OCSE process has clearly failed and any alternative arrangements will almost certainly involve an even more lopsided role for Russia, which is hardly in Georgia’s interests. Furthermore, Tbilisi may not be able to avoid having a clearer policy on Karabakh in any new reality that emerges as the conflict turns into a full-blown war.

The difficulty Georgia increasingly faces in maintaining perceptions of its neutrality in this new situation was illustrated clearly last week when Russia’s military intelligence agency GRU disseminated information alleging that Georgia allowed Turkish weapons to be provided to Azerbaijan through its airspace despite Tbilisi’s clear policy of banning such transits to either side. While these allegations are likely false, they illustrate the danger that Russia may try and portray Georgia as aligned to Azerbaijan in order to later justify hostile military intervention to a secure transit corridor of its own to Armenia.

Georgia does not have many options to mitigate what is an unenviable strategic position. But it does have some.

First of all, it can decide to shift away from passive neutrality and adopt a policy of active neutrality towards the Karabakh conflict. One manifestation of this would be offering to be an additional mediator between the sides, which it has done already.

While Georgia will never and should not replace Russia or other major powers in this role, and it should avoid being involved in any direct peacekeeping mandate, it could augment existing channels by facilitating lower-level technical or less formal discussions between the sides. The one advantage Georgia does have over Russia is that it is the closest thing to a truly neutral actor in the region. While it’s strategic interests in terms of pipeline politics and geopolitical alignment are closer to the Ankara-Baku axis, this is balanced by Georgia’ overriding interest in an end to the war as quickly as possible which, given current military realities, is closer to Armenia’s current interests. While it is unlikely these offers of mediation will be taken up now, the more loudly and credibly Georgia makes them, the better position it will be in to avoid being caricatured as an ally of Azerbaijan by Russia.

While strong public stances, even neutral ones, remain a risky proposition for Georgia and should be avoided, another manifestation of a more active neutrality would be intensifying behind the scenes bilateral diplomatic activity with both sides.

Georgia needs to engage both Baku and Yerevan and go beyond the well-worn niceties that Georgian diplomats usually resort to when talking to their southern neighbours.

To Armenia, Georgia needs to give solid guarantees that it will not allow weapons transit to Azerbaijan and offer humanitarian assistance. But it should also advise against official recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as, for all the emotional succour that would give Armenians, recognition would make it more difficult for Georgia to maintain neutrality and doesn’t provide any material benefit to Armenia.

To Azerbaijan, Georgia needs to privately press that while Tbilisi wholeheartedly recognises the country’s territorial integrity, this support does not extend to any ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh or incursions into Armenia proper that would trigger direct Russian intervention, perhaps hinting that the extent to which Georgia will be able to resist a Russian push to use its territory to supply Armenia may depend on the Azeris adhering to these principles.

Georgia also needs to draw up clear policies and contingencies for possible future developments. It has already been very clear about its policy of not allowing Georgia to be used as a military supply corridor to either side. This is welcome. It could also allow a corridor for the supply of non-dual use humanitarian aid to both sides.

Behind closed doors, Georgia needs to draw up plans for what it would do in case Russia or Turkey engages directly in the conflict. Indeed, there are extreme contingencies in which it might even be morally incumbent on Georgia to abandon its blanket ban on military supply transit – for example if the very existence of Armenia were to be threatened or in case of catastrophic human rights abuses.

Finally, Georgia can highlight and strengthen its long-running role as a venue for people-to-people reconciliation between Azeris and Armenians. Uniquely in the region, both ethnicities coexist peacefully in Georgia, sometimes even in the same villages. But this is a role that has been led by (mostly foreign) NGOs and not directly supported by the Georgian government anywhere near enough. It is also in Georgia’s interest for the relative harmony between its own Armenian and Azeri minorities to be strengthened using similar programmes.

None of these ideas are a panacea and Georgia remains uniquely vulnerable to some of the more negative outcomes of renewed Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But it is high time for Georgians to recognise that what is taking place to their immediate south may be far more important for their security and prosperity than the election at the end of the month that is taking up most of the domestic political oxygen. And while Tbilisi’s influence over the sides is severely limited, that is not the same as no influence. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan need Georgia both economically and politically. This may be sufficient for quiet but sharp diplomacy to make a difference in the margins to the possibility of peace. Given the huge stakes for Georgia if the conflict becomes regionalised, it needs to use all of what limited tools it has available to help prevent that outcome.

The article was originally published by BNE Intellinews.

Alexander Scrivener was a 2019-2020 EDSN fellow and an independent analyst focusing on Georgia, the South Caucasus, and European politics. EDSN is an international research fellowship project of the Center of Social Sciences, Tbilisi, and made possible with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.