Tbilisi’s Goals in Strategic Partnership With Yerevan Remain Unclear

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 14

(Source: Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia)

Executive Summary:

  • On January 26, Armenia and Georgia signed a joint agreement establishing a strategic partnership between the two countries.
  • Armenia seeks to reduce its dependency on Russia with the new declaration and become more active in regional transit activities, while Georgia may hope to strengthen its position as a potential mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
  • Some speculation points to a possible agreement between Tbilisi and Yerevan to build a railway connection between Georgia and Russia that would run through Abkhazia as the impetus for formalizing their strategic partnership.  

On January 26, during Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s visit to Tbilisi, Georgia and Armenia officially signed a joint declaration establishing a strategic partnership between the two countries (Gov.ge, January 26). Georgia’s motivations for formalizing this partnership are unclear. Before now, both sides have carried out mutually beneficial economic projects without any “strategic” documents. Strategic relations usually imply not only economic coordination but also defense and security cooperation, though nothing is said on this matter in the declaration. Tbilisi’s decision to sign the agreement may reflect the Georgian government’s desire to become more of a regional leader and a possible mediator between Azerbaijan and Armenia (see EDM, October 25, November 13, 2023). For Yerevan, the declaration underscores efforts to solidify alternative partners after its falling out with Moscow over Karabakh (see EDM, February 9, September 19, 2023, January 25). 

Tbilisi and Yerevan have traditionally had very different approaches to foreign policy. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Georgia pursued integration with the West, and Armenia became an ally of Russia. More recently, Georgia became an EU candidate country, while Armenia remains a member of the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States and Collective Security Treaty Organization (see EDM, November 14, 2023, January 8). When the Georgian Dream party came to power in 2012, party leader and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili expressed sympathy for Armenia’s pro-Russian foreign policy (Tabula.ge, January 18, 2013). While serving as prime minister, Ivanishvili visited Yerevan in 2013 and relayed a desire to “build a common market” with the Armenian government It never came to fruition, however, due to Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (Radiotavisupleba.ge, January 17, 2013).

Over the years, the Georgian Dream government has grown increasingly closer to Armenia. According to official statistics, bilateral trade turnover in 2023 exceeded $1 billion. Armenia has become the sixth-largest trading partner for Georgia, while Armenia ranks as the second-largest destination for Georgian exports. In addition, tourism is alive and well between the two countries, with about one million Armenian tourists traveling to Georgia in 2023 (Facebook.com/GaribashviliOfficial, January 26).

The partnership has run into some difficulties in recent months. For example, at the beginning of this year, ferry services between Georgian and Russian seaports on the Black Sea were stopped (Ekhokavkaza.com, January 9). These services had originally been established to facilitate Armenian goods going to Russia. Yerevan had subsidized the project but failed to arouse sufficient interest among importers and exporters to sustain the arrangement. 

Georgia and Armenia’s expanding partnership will have an immediate impact on Tbilisi’s relations with Baku. Georgian-Azerbaijani strategic cooperation dates back to the 1990s, when then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and then-Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev laid the foundation for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline as well as the Baku-Sufsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipelines (Parliament.ge, May 25, 2023). These projects significantly strengthened the statehood of Georgia and Azerbaijan and established the Georgian-Azerbaijani-Turkish axis. Since then, Tbilisi, Baku, and Ankara have established close military and political ties.

Armenia’s strategic partnership with Georgia gives Yerevan more space to diversify its economic projects and reduce its dependency on Russia. During his January 26 visit, Pashinyan expressed interest in the underwater transmission line being constructed along the bottom of the Black Sea, which was initiated by Georgia and is supported by the European Union (Gov.ge, January 26). Yerevan hopes to use the cable to sell electricity to European markets. The Armenian government also hopes to become more active in regional transit projects. To this end, Pashinyan unveiled his “Crossroads for Peace” project at last year’s Silk Road Forum in Tbilisi (Apsny.ge, October 26, 2023). The plan aims to transform Armenia into a transit hub, though Azerbaijan and Georgia claim that status. In essence, Yerevan has become a competitor to Tbilisi and Baku in trying to become the central player for regional transit. Yet, even if relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey are normalized, landlocked Armenia has little chance of becoming a transit hub without access to the sea.

Georgia’s goals in its strategic partnership with Armenia remain unclear. The Georgian Dream government may be promoting this move to underscore its foreign policy approach based on peace with its neighbors in the South Caucasus. This would also explain Tbilisi’s attempts to serve as a mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan (see EDM, November 13, 2023). Azerbaijan’s approach to the peace negotiations has emphasized “regional solution to regional problems,” while Armenia has sought the involvement of Western actors (see EDM, October 25, 2023). As a result, Baku has welcomed Tbilisi’s mediation, with Yerevan politely refusing.

Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the opposition Labor Party in Georgia, expressed his assumptions about the true purpose of the Armenian premier’s visit to Tbilisi. Natelashvili claims that Pashinyan secretly met with Ivanishvili, the “informal leader” of the country, to persuade the Georgian government to open a railway connection between Georgia and Russia running through the Russian-occupied territory in Abkhazia (Facebook.com/natelashvilishalva, January 28). Few other sources have commented on the veracity of these allegations. Back in 2012, Ivanishvili had emphasized the usefulness of resuming railway traffic through Abkhazia during his first pre-election campaign and may be returning to that mission (Civil.ge, September 22, 2012).

The Georgian Dream government has become so carried away with establishing “symbolic” partnerships with various countries that truly strategic partners, such as the United States, have receded to the background. Nikoloz Samkharadze, head of the Georgian Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, justified the signing of a similar partnership agreement with China last year. He claimed that “the more strategic partnership agreements Georgia has with different states, the better it will be for protecting our national interests” (Parliament.ge, October 20, 2023). For the ruling elite of Georgia, the establishment of strategic relations with different countries has turned into a permanent routine, though still a gamble at times. For example, in 2022, Georgia signed a strategic partnership agreement with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is a close friend of former (recently resigned) Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (Civil.ge, October 27, 2022). Orbán has become a pariah of sorts within the European Union, and Tbilisi’s close ties with Budapest could hurt its prospects for EU membership.

Such partnerships undermine Georgia’s national interests. Other countries are skillfully trying to exploit the Georgian Dream’s government’s “strategic weaknesses” in signing partnership agreements that achieve their own interests. If Tbilisi continues along this path, it will leave Georgia increasingly vulnerable to outside interference that could destabilize the country.