Last week (December 11), Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan paid an official two-day visit to Georgia (Newsday.ge, December 11). The head of the Armenian government held intensive talks with his Georgian counterpart, Irakli Garibashvili, on the entire spectrum of the bilateral agenda. This agenda, however, has grown significantly complicated after Armenia was welcomed to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, as of the EEU’s establishment on January 1, 2015. The EEU is growing out of the pre-established Eurasian Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, which Armenia had previously pledged to join.
As has been demonstrated in Ukraine over this past year, Moscow clearly divides the post-Soviet republics into those that are “friendly” to the idea of “Eurasian integration” and those that are “hostile” to the project. Therefore, Armenia’s imminent accession into the Eurasian Union may have a negative impact on its relations with Georgia, which has just signed the Association Agreement with the European Union, thereby choosing a development and integrationist vector quite opposite to that of Armenia’s.
Armenia does not have a land border with Russia or the other members of the Customs Union–soon-to-be Eurasian Union. Talks on the opening of the Abkhazian section of a currently unused railway that used to connect Russia to the South Caucasus have stalled. And this is despite the notable statement in support of the railway, made by President Vladimir Putin immediately after the signing of the new Russian-Abkhazian Treaty of Alliance and Strategic Partnership (see EDM, December 2, 11).
Armenia favors the restoration of the railway link via Abkhazia or constructing a new highway that would connect an eastern province of Georgia, Kakheti, to Russian Dagestan (see EDM, December 15). However, during his joint press conference with Garibashvili, Prime Minster Abrahamyan only said that Yerevan is quite content with the stable functioning of the so-called Georgian Military Road—currently, the only overland connection between Armenia and Russia (Reportiori.ge, December 12).
During his visit, Abrahamyan signaled that Yerevan is prepared to accept the current political realities in the region. In particular, given Georgian-Abkhazian tensions and Tbilisi’s persistent problems in its relations with Moscow, the aforementioned railway project is highly unlikely in the near future, he conceded. And the highway from Kakheti to Dagestan, which Armenia could also feasibly use to trade with Russia and the EEU, is also encountering serious challenges. Last week, local Dagestanis residing in the border region between Russia and the Georgian Kvareli district rallied in support of constructing the road. But Georgian non-governmental organizations (NGO), consider this transportation project to be both harmful and dangerous from a security standpoint (Interpressnews.ge, December 11). “The Avaro-Kakhetian highway cuts across areas where the influence of Islamic radicals, the Salafis, is high,” an expert on Caucasus affairs, Mamuka Areshidze, told Jamestown (Author’s interview, December 13).
According to the two sides’ official statements during Abrahamyan’s visit, Yerevan and Tbilisi regard steady and constructive bilateral relations as their highest priority despite the two Christian South Caucasus countries’ divergent geopolitical orientations. And Georgian Prime Minister of Georgia Garibashvili added that he regarded “the retaining of a normal trade regime between the two countries” as the key to future cooperation (Reportiori.ge, December 12). Indeed, according to this author’s sources in the Georgian government, the Armenian prime minister strongly suggested during his visit that Yerevan was interested in the Georgian Black Sea ports of Poti and Batumi and the new deep-water port in Anaklia. The construction of the Anaklia seaport should start next year.
However, independent experts doubt the success of this strategy in the future. “The Customs Union and the European Union are two different trade associations. Georgia signed the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU, while Armenia joined the Customs Union [sic],” the columnist Zurab Gogoberidze, of the weekly newspaper Premier, told Jamestown on December 13. And these competing trade bloc loyalties will most likely challenge Georgia and Armenia’s ability to maintain their bilateral economic relations, he argued.
Nonetheless, Abrahamyan openly expressed hope that trade links between the two countries will not change, and he emphasized the importance of maintaining the north-south road across Georgia via Upper Lars (historically known as the Georgian Military Road). The Armenian prime minister also announced the construction of a new 400-kilowatt power line that will connect the Armenian and Georgian electrical grids. Finally, he mentioned the necessity of cooperating on issues of cultural heritage, apparently alluding to the fate of several non-functioning Armenian churches in the central part of Tbilisi (Reportiori.ge, December 12; see EDM, August 8).
The protection of the rights of ethnic Armenians living in the Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti is another important aspect of bilateral relations. Yerevan closely monitors the situation in this region, and several times it intervened in order to prevent an escalation in local tensions. Contentious issues in this area include the ownership of churches, the language of administration, schools, immigration and the return of Meskhetian Turks, who were cleansed from the area by Joseph Stalin’s regime in 1944.
Georgian authorities are implementing programs for integrating the Javakheti Armenians into Georgian civil society. And the Georgian government’s approach is guided by “European standards, financed by European sponsors and receives a welcoming response among the Armenian community of Javakheti, especially, among the youth,” Tbilisi State University professor Kakha Gabunia noted in an interview with Jamestown on December 13. Professor Gabunia also serves as Georgia’s coordinator of European programs on state language instruction of ethnic minorities.
Over the past few years, Georgia and Armenia have taken comprehensive, opposing steps in favor of two divergent, political-economic blocs. But it remains to be seen whether the constructive approach of the political elites of the two countries will help to resolve these large-scale contradictions, especially following Armenia’s accession to the Eurasian Union at the start of 2015. Although both Yerevan and Tbilisi pledge to maintain their bilateral cooperation, this relationship will be difficult to preserve as both countries start to actually implement the agreements they signed on the two incompatible integrationist projects.