After Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili met with his Armenian counterpart, Karen Karapetyan, in Tbilisi, on February 23–24, the initial reports in the Georgian media were vague. Kvirikashvili provided general statements on the meeting’s purpose: “Armenia is a country with which we share centuries-old good-neighborly traditions,” adding words about an “interesting suggestion on tapping the common market potential in various sectors” and a “readiness to work actively in this area” of “regional cooperation” (Civil Georgia, February 24). The hidden elephant in the room was disclosed by foreign reports. They made clear that the two sides, in fact, agreed on developing new transit routes linking Russia and Armenia, and going through Georgia (Azatutyun.am, February 24).
The largest portion of trade traffic between Russia and Armenia operates through the single crossing point at Zemo Larsi, on the Russian-Georgian border. This mountainous road is frequently blocked in the snow-heavy winter months. In early February, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin met in Prague, Czech Republic, with Zurab Abashidze, the Georgian prime minister’s special representative for relations with Moscow (Kommersant.ru, February 7). Citing the regular blockages of the road, the two sides agreed to expand transport corridors between Russia and Georgia by adding two new routes passing through the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The first—a railroad via Abhkazia—will begin close to Sochi (Russia) and end in Zugdidi (Georgia); the second will start in the North Ossetian town of Nar, go through South Ossetia, and terminate in Gori (Georgia).
Karasin and Abashidze referred to the November 9, 2011, “Agreement Between the Governments of the Russian Federation and Georgia Concerning the Main Principles of Customs Administration and Monitoring of Trading Goods” as the basis for developing the above-cited transit routes (Kommersant, February 7). This document originates from the complicated negotiations regarding Russia’s admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO). At that time, Russia’s entry was blocked by the Georgian government of then-president Mikheil Saakashvili. But ultimately, Georgia agreed to reverse its veto if the Swiss government, as an impartial party, took over control and registration of the flow of goods along new trade corridors to be introduced between Russia and Georgia, via Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such a system would have sidestepped the sensitive questions of customs registration at the border or of explicitly acknowledging the trade as occurring between Russia and Georgia. Moreover, Moscow would be spared formally recognizing the breakaway territories as part of sovereign Georgia. In the end, however, the agreement fell through.
Elements of that plan have apparently now been revived during Karasin’s meeting with Abashidze; the two officials announced their intention “to act by a method of small steps.” While subsequent negotiations between Kvirikashvili and Karapetyan have evidently culminated in extending these routes through to Armenia. The Armenian prime minister stated: “If you are interested in whether there will be an alternative to the Lars road, then I can assure you that yes, there will be” (Azatutyun.am, February 24). “We reached agreements on both the Lars issue and the energy corridor,” Karapetyan added. The latter must relate to the “offer to the Georgian side to use Armenia as platform to enter the markets of Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union.” These measures are part of an overall strategy for Armenia and Georgia to “appear as a joint market vis-à-vis the outside world,” Karapetyan said (Accent.com, March 1), which would sideline Azerbaijan.
The Georgian opposition United National Movement (UNM) denounced the plan, stating that the reopening of the railroad connection across Abkhazia is “completely unacceptable.” (Civil.ge, February 27). “This will be disastrous for the country’s territorial integrity,” UNM’s Nika Rurua underscored. “The reopening of the Abkhazia railway is an overt betrayal of [Georgia’s] national interests […], an adversarial step, which will benefit the Russians and the separatists only,” Rurua stressed. It “will worsen” Georgia’s economic standing and “exacerbate” relations with Azerbaijan. Indeed, an “Agreement” not implemented in 2011 appears more questionable in 2017. During these past six years, particularly through its actions in Ukraine, Russia has demonstrated aggressive and expansionist policies along its western and southwestern borders. Simultaneously, Russia continues to significantly increase its permanent troop deployments there (Militarynews.ru, February 22).
Sergi Kapanadze, of the Movement for Liberty–European Georgia, added that the ruling party’s behind-the-scenes negotiations with Russia come on the heels of the government’s recent deal with Gazprom (Civil Georgia, February 27; see EDM, January 19). Those talks were similarly opaque for the Georgian public and opposition parties, and the resulting agreement was condemned as detrimental to national interests. Such clandestine dealing by the ruling Georgian Dream–Democratic Georgia seems to fit a pattern. It also plays into Russia’s hands as Moscow seeks to improve the links among its military bases in Crimea, South Ossetia and Armenia (see EDM, February 1). Furthermore, the danger of escalation in Armenia and Azerbaijan’s conflict over Karabakh is ongoing. On February 26, Azerbaijan reported the death of five soldiers, and exchanges of fire continued over the following days (Militarynews.ru, February 27, March 1). In case of a full-scale war, Russia’s involvement in this conflict as a mediator, including militarily, would be more than likely. And if Georgia opens new transit corridors—especially railways—to Russia, the latter will almost certainly seek to use them to transport military supplies and, possibly, troops.
This would draw Georgia tighter into the Russia-Armenia-Iran axis and away from its transregional allies—the United States, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Israel. Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze’s recent meetings, in Washington, DC, with members of Donald Trump’s administration, as well as Defense Minister Levan Izoria’s talks with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officials, in Brussels and at the Munich Security Conference, yielded no publicly apparent breakthroughs. Georgia did not announce its involvement in NATO drills in the Black Sea region, nor did it actively commit itself to join the US’s new Iran sanctions. Tbilisi also has not pledged any military assets to US-led anti–Islamic State coalition efforts (Civil Georgia, February 16). Rather, the ruling party, citing some experts who keep claiming that the US is itself purportedly befriending Russia, justifies carrying on with a “balanced approach” of both pro-Western integration and “normalization” with Russia, now including Iran (Accent.ge, February 14). Yet, the presumed equidistance—Georgia’s foreign policy course since 2012—has instead become Tbilisi’s own rapprochement with Moscow and Tehran. The US, especially in light of Ukraine and Syria, continues to regard Russia as an adversary. If Georgia does not clearly set its foreign policy priorities on the side of the US and its allies, it leaves room for a growth of Russian influence in Georgia. Aided by the undisclosed plan to reopen transit routes linking the two countries, Russia’s actions may have a disproportionately more powerful effect on Georgia. The country may increasingly find itself being pulled deeper into the Russia-Iran orbit.