History repeats itself. This popular maxim also rings very true today. Many episodes of the Crimean War are still fresh on the memory of Russians, French and the British. Disregarding the sanctions and “annexation,” Britons and French nationals keep coming to Sevastopol to take part in a historical festival, donning period costumes and engaging in mock battles.
And yet, the distant successors of those who fought Russia during that war still remember, on a genetic level, how Russian soldiers kept fighting on against the tallest of odds (during one of the battles fought in Sevastopol, mortally wounded and bleeding members of a Russian regiment still refused to plead for mercy and, instead, continued fighting the enemy with their bayonets) even at lunch, after five in the evening, and, most unpleasantly, at night. The war fought not by the book, the freezing cold of the Crimean winter and the well-known “balaclava” headdress is something Russia’s foreign guests will never forget.
It still looks like the lessons of history have been lost on some representatives of the British elite. In December 2018, Britain’s Defense Minister Gavin Williamson arrived in Odessa in southern Ukraine to vent his outrage about the detention by Russia’s Coast Guards of three Ukrainian boats at the approaches to the Kerch Strait, and express London’s support for a second Ukrainian naval foray into the Sea of Azov. It was not Williamson’s first visit to Ukraine though – in September 2018, he bravely spent a whole 20 minutes on the line of disengagement in Donbass.
London is backing up its military-diplomatic efforts with real action.
“At 20:30 local time, on December 17, 2018, the Royal hydrographic survey ship HMS Echo sailed into the Black Sea via the Bosporus Strait. This modern reconnaissance ship is designed to conduct operations in support of submarines and amphibious operations. It can share adapted information almost in real time. (…) This is the first NATO warship to enter the Black Sea in the wake of the Azov crisis to demonstrate the UK’s support for ensuring freedom of navigation in the region,” Ukrainian expert Andrei Klimenko happily wrote.
In the mid-19th century, Britain regarded Russia as an enemy in the Big Game, and opposed it using political and economic means available to it. Simultaneously, it was the case of an empire facing off against another empire – in the Balkans, in the Caucasus and over the straits (Bosporus and Dardanelles). Britain no longer rules the seas, but its keen interest in strategic straits, such the Kerch Strait, is still very much alive.
London’s strategy, being implemented as part of the anti-Russian bloc, can best be described as “I’m doing all I can.” However, the former empire is playing an ever increasing role now that Ukraine is not being viewed by US President Donald Trump as an object worth of any effort. Still, there are powerful anti-Russian forces out there, which will not just sit and watch the presidential elections in Ukraine and, even though they have lost their patron in the person of the US president, they remain hell-bent on making Ukraine instrumental in their efforts to ramp up the conflict with Moscow.
Washington is reviewing international agreements and withdrawing its forces from Syria focusing instead on playing spy games, but now on its own territory, to fight the “Russian threat,” “Russian aggression,” and most importantly – “Russian intervention.” The central events and characters here are the Mueller investigation, the case of Maria Butina, and the recent detention in Moscow of a former US Marine, Paul Whelan, on charges of espionage.
But this is not enough, so you need something else, more dramatic and attention-grabbing, preferably done by someone else.
No matter how opposed to Trump’s policies some top officials in the US government may be, they still can’t afford to openly defy the president and thus destroy the country’s power institutions. And here political analysts come up with a very interesting version: “Therefore, England takes the burden of orchestrating the Ukrainian-Russian war in its own hands. Well, not England as such, but, rather, the real masters of both England and the United States (…) Poroshenko may not venture a provocation, and to make sure that he gets no ideas about giving up on the war, the British defense minister arrived in Ukraine. (…) Britain is bringing pressure to bear on Kiev to go to war with Russia in the coming week, period.”
Although a second foray into the Kerch Strait planned for the coming week never happened, the plan itself hasn’t gone anywhere. A follow-up to the provocation in the Kerch Strait has gone beyond the time frame outlined by the martial law President Poroshenko imposed ahead of the presidential election, but the threat of new provocations fraught with a confrontation lingers on nonetheless.
The law “On the adjacent zone of Ukraine,” signed by Petro Poroshenko in December 2018, provides a legal basis for actions by the Ukrainian military and diplomats by expanding Kiev’s border and customs control in the Black Sea.
“In the adjacent zone, the State Border Service of Ukraine will prevent violations of national immigration and sanitary legislation. Border guards will be able to stop vessels, inspect them, detain or seize vessels or their crew members, with the exception of warships and other state ships used for non-commercial purposes.”
The new law sets the stage for further provocations against Russia by portraying it as “an aggressor and invader,” backing this up with “irrefutable evidence” and showing it on TV.
The coordinated nature of the actions and intentions by the “friends” of Russia in ensuring “free navigation in international waters” is too obvious to ignore. Following the provocation in the Kerch Strait, the US guided-missile destroyer McCampbell was allegedly spotted in the vicinity of a Russian naval base in Vladivostok.
US Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr said that the ship had carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation.
“The USS McCampbell sailed in the vicinity of Peter the Great Bay to challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other Nations,” McMarr told CNN.
She emphasized that “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”
Britain’s policy of the past few years has been pretty strange. Execution-wise, its actions are perceived as a farce and essentially as a tragedy for the country’s political elite. London is taking cue from Kiev, with its actions and “projects” (the Skripal case and the Salisbury subproject) very much resembling Ukrainian projects. London came up with the “Skripal poisoning,” and Kiev – with the day-long “Babchenko’s murder” circus.
Sadly, this anti-Russian trend translates into a real policy based on farce and fakes, which does not change the essence of London’s foreign policy projects based on fakes.
Ukraine, for its part, continues its attempts at “coercion to conflict,” which may bring about a clash of civilizations, since this is an attempt to influence the decisions of the “core states of civilization (Samuel Huntington). However, the conflicts that Ukraine has been involved in and has initiated are the result of outside bidding and made possible thanks to the support from and sanctions by external forces.
Ukraine’s foreign policy is by and large determined by the logic of its policy at home. Ending up as a zone of inter-civilization conflict, Kiev is willy-nilly trying to rebuild the cultural foundations of the Ukrainian state and society.
The West appears all set to extract Ukraine from the sphere of the political, economic and socio-cultural influence of Russia. It is within this framework that Kiev and all sorts of other actors are working as they try to achieve their domestic goals thus stoking up tensions and radicalizing both the country’s political forces and some elements of the Ukrainian society.
All this farce and grandstanding by European and overseas leaders and politicians still fails to smokescreen the potential threats to the security of the Russian Federation. In this sense, the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait should be viewed as a place where the West may attempt a series of “tests” similar to the November 2018 attempt by Ukrainian naval boats to break into the Sea of Azov. The recent “heroic” cruise by US naval ships 100 kilometers off Vladivostok, presumably to “challenge Russia’s excessive maritime claims and uphold the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea enjoyed by the United States and other nations,” could be repeated also in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, along the Northern Sea Route, in the Arctic and the Baltic Sea.
The Black Sea region thus becomes a model of counteracting the “sea claims of Russia.” Indeed, it is a really volatile region with an unstable Ukraine ready for any provocations, Crimea, reunited with Russia (plus the Crimean Bridge), a high-handed NATO member, Turkey, which maintains close contacts with both Russia and the West, and the Caucasus region. It poses a problem for Russia due to the flurry of potential and real threats existing there, but it is also a problem for Russia’s “friends,” because of the high degree of security of the Crimean border and other borders of the Russian Federation. This combination of security and threats makes the Black Sea region an ideal place for all sorts of provocations and endurance tests.
Well aware of Russia’s strength, the West is trying to test Moscow’s determination with small, albeit significant, provocations, such as the Ukrainian naval ships’ attempt to enter the Sea of Azov on November 25, 2018. The West is equally aware of Russia’s response to such provocations by Kiev. What is not so clear to the West, however, and London’s activity attests to this, is how Russia will respond to similar passages by multinational flotillas. This uncertainty could only stem from a desire to trigger a conflict or from misguided thoughts about Russia’s indecisiveness to enter into a serious confrontation with the West.
Whatever grounds London or Washington may have for organizing a second cruise to the Crimean Bridge, no matter how many ships will take part and the flags they will sail under, Russia will do all it takes to protect its territory, border, water area, and important infrastructure.
The question London has to answer now is how will the former empire get out of this situation? There are only two options available: either to stage ever new provocations or continue grandstanding and firing verbal broadsides.
First published in our partner International Affairs
Zelensky’s Presidency is Unlikely to Change Ukraine’s Foreign Policy
The polls after the second round of presidential elections in Ukraine gave Volodymyr Zelenskiy more than 70% of the public’s support. Zelensky, 41, challenged the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, who has already admitted his defeat.
Questions which occupied analysts around the world were two-fold: how possible is it that a new president would be able to change the internal situation (battle with corruption, etc.) in the country; second, what will happen to Ukraine’s foreign policy?
The situation inside Ukraine will require meticulous work on behalf of the new president. The elites might be unwilling to accept his propositions and policy moves, which could create tensions. What is clear, though, is that the ordinary population would be supportive of even radical moves to clear the country of corruption and ineffective governance.
On the foreign policy front, Ukraine’s major issue will be the war in Donbas and relations with Russia. There have been fears that with Zelensky at the helm, Ukraine’s foreign policy would radically change in favor of Russia. In fact, it will be very difficult for him to do this, as in the last five years since the Ukraine crisis broke out following the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine has ratified the Association Agreement with the European Union, the non-signing of which actually deposed the former president Viktor Yanukovych, and has received visa-free access for its citizens to the EU (except for the UK and Ireland) and four other Schengen-associated countries.
Moreover, Kiev has reinforced the Ukrainian army amid the ongoing conflict and contained the conflict with Russia to eastern Ukraine and the Azov Sea.
On a cultural level, recently, Ukraine’s Orthodox Church gained autocephaly (independence) from the Russian Church. On the economic front, too, there have been changes, as Ukraine’s trade has been redirected to Europe rather being mostly dependent on Russia, as was the case before 2014.
Thus, it is highly unlikely that Ukraine’s foreign policy will change under Zelensky: there are simply too many economic, military and ideological moves made that connect the country to the West.
Zelensky may indeed meet Putin and even soften his rhetoric towards Russia, but on a grander level of state politics, he will not change Ukraine’s view of Crimea and the conflict in Donbas. A recent spectacular rise of national self-consciousness among ordinary Ukrainians will not tolerate any U-turn to the country’s foreign policy. A democratically elected Zelensky is also a hostage of Ukrainian public opinion.
The Russian public is watching the peaceful changes in Ukraine with great interest and even hopes for a similar process inside Russia. The large neighboring Slavic country, Ukraine, will have a greater influence on the Russians than, for example, Georgia’s path to democratization. Georgia’s successes have been small due to the country’s size as well as cultural differences. Moscow, therefore, could easily bend the narrative and argue that Georgia’s recent successes are minimal and contemptuous.
With Ukraine it is different. While the Russians have been arguing since the 2014 that Ukraine’s problems were the result of a “divorce” with Moscow, now they see real results of the democratic changes in Kiev. Public debates, peaceful co-existence of rival candidates and, most importantly, presidential changes; all this is deeply hoped for and expected at least in some sections of the Russian population.
Zelensky’s win also shows that among post-Soviet Slavic states, Ukraine is in fact the only one which has regularly changed heads of the state. Thus, this development might also have an influence on Belarus where eventually the time will come when long-ruling Alexander Lukashenka will have to make a choice between an independent Belarussian successor or Belarus integrated into Russia (and talks about this latter development have become common in media resources of late).
Zelensky’s presidency and the way he was chosen undermines Russia’s narrative, where the success of Ukraine would be against a common cultural, even geopolitical, perception among the Russian elites that Kiev has historically been unable to achieve anything without Moscow’s support.
Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today
Moldova: Time to Overwrite the Mind Traps
Moldova is usually assigned the title of the poorest country in Europe mired in financial and corruption scandals. The ’frozen’ Transnistrian conflict is said to further divide the country between chimeric pro-Russian and pro-Western camps. Oligarchs are blamed for having captured the state and preventing democracy to flourish; and so goes on the litany of reputational prejudices about Moldova.
Although these clichés hold some water, they have generated mind traps and have prevented any alternative reading of Moldova. Caught in a thug of war between Brussels and Moscow, Europe has three options on how to approach Moldova: oppose Moscow on Moldovan territory; scale back its engagement; or honour its commitment to strengthen the rule of law and deepen economic cooperation with Chisinau. The last option requires the political maturity to accept that Chisinau can be a partner of both Brussels and Moscow.
The Bright Side of Scandals
Moldova made headlines in 2014 when the banking sector was defrauded of one billion dollars. Courtesy of the testimony of one oligarch, Ilan Shor, who himself has been convicted of involvement in the fraud, the former Prime Minister Vlad Filat was convicted and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. Despite his own conviction, Ilan Shoris now the mayor of the small town of Orhei, heads the Shor party and recently won a seat in the parliament. For many, this was a typical “à la moldave” scenario where most of the thieves got off scot-free whilst only one sits behind bars. Taken from another angle, even though Ilan Shor has been granted some form of witness protection and has escaped punishment himself, at least some part of the truth has been divulged and justice has been partly served. Following Shor’s revelations about the scandal, people took the streets and a citizen movement emerged under the name of Dignity and Truth, now a political party headed by politician Andrei Nastase.
The one-billion theft has understandably attracted a lot of public attention, as did the role of Moldova in the Russian Laundromat, a scheme that laundered tens of USD billions from Russia between 2010 and 2014, involving over one hundred countries. Following these two scandals, Moldova launched a large package of reforms of its banking and judiciary systems, and put in place a National Integrity and Anti-Corruption Strategy for 2017-2020. These improvements have not gone unnoticed: the World Bank extolled the efforts of the National Bank of Moldova and the country’s economic progress, which should boost investors’ trust. Furthermore, criminal activities, such as smuggling, have been curtailed thanks to international cooperation, but the grey zone of Transnistria remains a thorn in Moldovan development.
Transnistria – A Peaceful Frozen Conflict
The active phase of the short 1992conflict lasted four months and left a thousand people dead. Due to the prolonged absence of military engagement, the situation was branded as a frozen conflict – thisvague concept was coined to qualify the blurry simmering situations of violence that followedthe several wars in various post soviet republics. As time passed, the term conflict has become redundant in the context of Transnistria; not much is frozen: population travels freely, students from Transnistria study in Chisinau and Transnistrians voted for the first time in the most recent February elections. There is a need to rethink our reading of this so called frozen conflict in Transnistria – violence is unlikely to resume between Tiraspol and Chisinau as long as escalating tensions between Moscow and Brussels do not boil over.
Former Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Osmochescu, asserts that the settlement was on right track with the 1992 Settlement Agreement, although he questions the decision to include Transnistrian representatives in the joint commission as it eventually gave Russia – allied with Tiraspol – the upper hand. The former diplomat is convinced that settlement dialogue should only include Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Moldova, excluding Tiraspol authorities that continue to insist on international recognition as a state. It is highly unlikely that European countries will recognize Transnistria owing to the fact that the EU Council has adopted restriction measures against the leadership of Transnistria for stalling progress of the political settlement.
Thecurrent process is a 5+2 settlement format, named after its composition including 5 negotiators (Russia, Ukraine, OSCE, Moldova and Transnistria) + 2 observers (EU and US). Unfortunately it has not yielded any meaningful results with the tensions between Russia and the West increasingly running counter-productive to the intent of the mechanism. During the recent conference on Transnistria, Russian academic Natalia Kharitonova underlined the unprecedented situation whereby relations between the external participants to the settlement process are far worse than between the parties to the conflict.
Today, some observers claim that a new conflict is poised because of Russian troops’ presence in Transnistria and in 2018 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution introduced by Moldova on the withdrawal of foreign troops, specifically targeting Russian troop and armament presence. These elements demonstrate that Transnistria is being utilised by both the West and Russia in pursuit of their own strategic objectives and, arguably, Transnistria is more an international affair than an internal one.
An Unhelpful International Involvement
For decades the presence of Russian troops in Transnistria has been a major concern for NATO, which has been amplified by the situation in Ukraine; and in its efforts to counter Russia, NATO opened an Information Office in Chisinau in December 2017. In view of the militarisation of the region and the recent collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF),the NATO-Russia confrontation directly affects Moldovan sovereignty and security. The Foreign Policy Advisor to the President, Mr Ciocoi, acknowledged that his country is trapped between a rock and a hard place:‘as a constitutionally neutral country, we are not pleased with the presence of Russian troops or NATO on our soil. It is a legacy of the past and a consequence of today’s geopolitical realities. We have to deal with it.’
With most international efforts focusing on security issues and more recently on the fight against so-called Russian propaganda, little effort has been comparatively made to promote sustainable economic development and the rule of law in Moldova. Moldovans’ daily concern is about making ends meet and employment, whilst Brussels and Moscow use the carrot and stick approach to promote their policies. Using economic incentives and sanctions, Brussels and Moscow are forcing Chisinau to choose between the West and the East. This dilemma is leading nowhere as Moldova is both West and East with the country depending on Russia for its energy and the EU market to export its goods. No reasonable politician or businessman in Moldova today embraces a west or east approach, but all favour a mixed approach. It is thus misleading to label President Dodon as a pro-Russian or the tycoon Plahotniuc as a pro-Western.
Blame it on the Rich
An oligarch turned politician, Vlad Plahotniuc presides over the Democratic Party, which won 30 seats at the recent parliamentary elections. Often described as the puppet-master who captured the state, most people blame him for all wrongs in the country and believe that he pulls the strings of the country including the judiciary system.
In a recent discussion with Vitali Garmurari, the Spokesperson for the Democratic Party said that the accusations against Vlad Plahotniuc need to be substantiated. Only a court can rule over the guilt of a person and so far, Mr Plahotniuc has not been sentenced, he added. Recently, Interpol rejected the request of Russia to place Mr Plahotniuc on their wanted list for alleged involvement in the attempt on the life of German Goruntsov, a Russian banker. For Vlad Plahotniuc’s detractors, the absence of condemnation is not a proof of his innocence but evidence of his control over the judiciary.
In Moldova and abroad, rumours flourish about this man who has unquestionable power thanks to his key role in the energy sector. As a veteran in the oil and gas business, he has forged strong connections in the US, who are obsessed with replacing Russia as the leading gas exporter to Europe. The situation though is not as straightforward as it seems. Moldova relies completely on Transnistria for its energy and the region acts as a small hub for Russian gas to the Balkans. Moldovagaz – a joint venture between the Ministry of Industry of Transnistria, the Moldova Government and the Russian giant Gazprom – has the monopoly over gas transactions. One of the issues is that Moldova has committed to the European Third Energy Package that calls for the unbundling and opening of the energy market. As part of its commitment Moldova must strip Moldovagaz of its privileged position and, given the complexities at play, Chisinau was granted an exceptional delay until 1 January 2020. This European requirement corners Moldova as the country is totally dependent on Russian gas and Gazprom holds 50% of Moldovagaz shares and, de facto, the 13% nominally held by Transnistria. The situation gets even more complicated as the contract between Gazprom and Moldovgaz are valid until the end of 2019and Moldova does not have a meaningful gas alternative in place. Mr Plahotniuc understands perfectly the gains to be by playing Russian, the US and European against each other in the energy sector. In 2017,his close ally Vasile Botnari was appointed as the new head of Moldovagaz.
The ruthless energy competition between Russia and the United States for the European market is driving their political and security agendas. The year 2019 will be pivotal in the Moldovan energy market and, as this deadline approaches, the manoeuvrings of those invested parties both within Moldova and externally will be a riveting game to observe.
An Oligarchy on the Way to Democracy?
In the meantime, the Moldovan constitutional court has validated the result of the 24 February elections and Plahotniuc’s Democratic Party has emerged as the party with second largest number of seats. Alongside the Democratic Party with 30 out of 101 seats, the Socialists gained 35 seats, the ACUM group gained 26 and the remaining 10 seats were shared between the Shor party and independents.
One of the features of the Moldovan political landscape is the fact that oligarchs head several parties: Vlad Plahotniuc heads the Democrats, Ilan Shor has his eponymous party and Renato Usatii is the president of Our Party. According to popular narratives, oligarchs are involved in politics to further their own profit and wealth; however their involvement does not necessarily pose a barrier to democracy. Commenting on the recent elections and the political landscape, Professor Osmochescu sees the emergence of these parties as a genuine mirror of the diverse opinions held by the population. Looking back at the political developments over the past thirty years, Professor Osmochescu recalls the evolution from an early enthusiasm with plethora of parties, the uncertainties around the future and the disillusion with both Russia and Europe. Today, he is hopeful that the leading parties will observe democratic principles and contribute to a new political paradigm.
The OSCE statement on the recent elections echoes the same opinion: although violations were recorded, fundamental rights have been generally respected, says the preliminary report. Taken as a whole, Moldova is transitioning and some are definitely looking at the cup half full rather than focusing on shortcomings.
It’s All About the Money
Conflict specialist Iulia Cozenco has worked on various projects in Transnistria over the past decade and today she has one message: efforts should be directed towards social inclusion, and not only in Transnistria. Due to all the challenges Moldova has gone through over the past three decades, the population has become increasingly vulnerable and the country lacks a social protection system capable of responding to all the problems. She concludes that international assistance should be directed at broader social inclusion and protection initiatives rather than narrow Tiraspol-Chisinau confidence-building projects.
Commenting on the situation in Transnistria, Dumitru Budianschi, an economist at the Moldovan ExpertGrup,has observed that, the lack of a political settlement between Tiraspol and Chisinau does not prevent economics agreements from forging on. These agreements cover energy and mobile communications, however Mr Budianschi has raised the concern that these agreements lack transparency and have been extremely profitable to a select few people on both sides of the river. Unsurprisingly, the lack of settlement is perversely convenient for such shady deals. According to Mr Budianschi, the international policy of small steps in Transnistria will not pay off and a crackdown on the criminal activities in the region is needed in order to give any settlement a chance of succeeding. The growing trade with Europe, Moldova’s first export partner, is a positive development that can no longer accommodate the black holes around Transnistria.
International involvement in Moldova is both a part of the problem and the solution. Should involvement take the shape of interference advancing eastern or western interests, it will only serve to polarise and destabilise Moldova and will ultimately backlash on European security. Disengagement would be equally damaging as Moldova today relies on both Brussels and Moscow and wishes to maintain relations with both partners. At this point in time, Chisinau needs international cooperation with Moscow and Brussels to assert itself as a solid partner to both the West and the East.
Georgia Stands With Azerbaijan: Strategic Partnership In The South Caucasus
Authors: Aliyar Azimov and Aynur Azimzade*
South Caucasus has always been a focus of geopolitical competitions for centuries with its geo-strategic location and natural resources. The transportation and energy projects, which implemented in the region, have further increased strategic importance of South Caucasus due to being in the junction West and East in the globalized 21st century. After the dissolution of USSR two major processes occurred: 1) regional cooperation between independent states in terms of common threats and economic-political projects; 2) geopolitical interests and competition among the regional powers (Russia, Iran, Turkey) and the US and the EU.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the three South Caucasus countries found themselves in a new geopolitical vacuum, which resulted in serious events also (territorial conflicts and separatism). On the other hand, this vacuum enabled two of the newly independent South Caucasus countries – Azerbaijan and Georgia – to build and maintain good neighboring relationships, to jointly implement major and strategic regional oil and gas projects (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline) without any intervention of Russia. Until 2008, Russia was a major gas supplier to Georgia. However, the August War in 2008 ended with cut off relations between Russia and Georgia. Starting from 2007, Azerbaijan has steadily been supplying the majority of Georgia’s oil and gas demand, especially after the August War Azerbaijan provided more energy flow by completely meeting its strategic ally’s energy needs.
The development of east-west energy corridor in the South Caucasus allowed Azerbaijan and Georgia to involve in the projects as the main partners and to promote the development of the infrastructure by improving the macro-economic environment and international integration. Turkey also gives support to the international projects in the region and deepening the multilateral relations between Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey also promotes and intra-regional cooperation and diplomatic resolutions of regional problems. This cooperation is the most functional; it is built on interdependence by trade and transportation relations.
Since 1992, political relations between Azerbaijan and Georgia has reached a high level, cooperation in all fields has become more strategic year by year, and neighborship relations are based on the principles of the strong friendship and mutual respect. Because of this, all officials in Georgia have always firstly visited Azerbaijan in their terms.
Why Georgia needs Azerbaijan?
The East-West strategic energy cooperation helped to strengthen the state independence of Georgia and Azerbaijan. The projects, which implemented and proposed to be realized, are the basis of a strong foundation for economic stability and prosperity for both countries, even for South Caucasus. Considering this fact, in 2009 Georgia was not affected by the energy crisis thanks to Azerbaijan and energy contracts for the supply of gas and oil. Georgia is especially interested in energy transportation from Azerbaijan because since the gaining independence Georgia has had a permanent and stable supply of energy which allowed industries to operate smoothly and contributed the economy of Georgia significantly by making it as a transit country.
Azerbaijan also plays a vital role in the transformation of Georgia into the EU and the development of EU-Georgia relations. The lack of stability in the Middle East increases the role of Caspian Basin not only as a significant energy source but also more secure and shortest supply route for both countries as well as for the EU. Azerbaijan-Georgia good neighborhood relations are vital for the EU in the context of east-west energy cooperation. As the EU is more interested in ensuring a reliable flow of energy resources to the Member States and cooperates with Azerbaijan and Georgia, it makes both countries to be a significant player in the projects and economically and politically powerful in the South Caucasus region.
Salome Zourabichvili’s first official visit to Azerbaijan
On 27 February 2019, newly elected Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili made her first official visit to Azerbaijan. It was a signal of Georgian administration’s desire to continue its strategic partnership with Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is one of the biggest investors to the Georgian economy and considering large regional projects between both countries, her first official visit to Azerbaijan in the region was not surprising.
In the recent past, there was a tension between Azerbaijan and Georgia due to:
- The monument of an Armenian separatist, who fought against Azerbaijan during the occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh territory of Azerbaijan by Armenian military, in the Akhalkalaki region of Georgia, where ethnic Armenians live, and the participation of Georgian administration in the opening ceremony of this monument,
- In the response of this event, protest of Baku against the unveiling of a monument to a separatist in Georgia.
For this reason, the Georgian President’s visit to Azerbaijan was of particular importance. The Georgian President knew well that Azerbaijan plays a crucial role in the energy supply and settlement of the problems in the region. At the same time, because its energy sector is dependent on Baku-Supsa, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines and Southern Gas Corridor, Georgia does not want to lose Azerbaijan as a strategic partner. Georgian President’s visit to Azerbaijan also showed that some provocations could not affect the relations between the two countries. Zourabichvili’s speech in Baku once again confirmed that Georgia always stands together with Azerbaijan on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh by stating, “Conflicts and violation of territorial integrity are tragedies for both countries. We still fight together to restore and recognize our territorial integrity in international organizations.” The Armenian media expressed assurance that Zourabichvili would change her statement during her visit to Armenia on March 13-14.However, Georgian President protested visit to Abkhazia and South Ossetia paid by Nagorno-Karabakh separatists by stating “It is very unfortunate when delegations from Nagorno-Karabakh visit Abkhazia and South Ossetia and discuss these two conflicts as of the same type. This is very sad and painful for us. These conflicts impede the development of our region. Georgia has two occupied territories, and if we talk about the country’s interests, then one single concern for us is recognition of our sovereignty in deeds than in words.” After the meeting, the Russian newspaper “Kommersant” mentioned about the Georgian president’s visit in its article by stating, “These statements by President Zurabishvili were not seen in the Georgian post-Soviet history, because Georgia has pursued an impartial policy in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict till now.”
Armenia has tried to position itself as a bridge between Iran and Georgia to transport Iranian energy resources to Europe. However, in 2008, its position in the Russian-Georgian war strained relations between Georgia and Armenia. Armenia was interested in North-South cooperation in order to escape from regional isolation and to revive its economic condition. Nevertheless, newly elected Georgian President’s visit to both countries and her statements declared that relations with Azerbaijan are a high priority for Georgia and for being leading countries in East-West cooperation, Georgia has extensive interests in establishing strong friendship relations.
Azerbaijan and Georgia have been cooperating in several political and economic projects since the early years of independence. Several factors influence the dynamics of the Georgian-Azerbaijani relations in a positive way. Firstly, cooperation in transportation, energy, and economics is interdependent. Georgia’s location makes it more essential for Azerbaijan in terms of to reach European and World markets. On the other hand, Georgia has increased its economic prosperity by participating in regional projects. In 2018, Azerbaijan was a third-largest direct foreign investor (33 million dollars) to the Georgian economy, second in Georgian imports (14.4%) and third in Georgian exports (10.7%).
Another key factor in the Azerbaijani-Georgian relations is that Azerbaijan and Georgia support eachother’s positions on important issues in the international arena. Georgian officials always stress all the official statements that the solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which occurred as a result of the occupation of Azerbaijani lands by Armenia, within the framework of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity.
When it comes to energy cooperation, Azerbaijani oil-gas company SOCAR is the main supplier of gas to Georgia as a reliable energy partner. Despite the gas agreement signed between Georgia and Russia in 2017, SOCAR has a large share in the Georgian energy sector. In 2018, gas transportation volume was 2.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Georgia. High dependence on Azerbaijani gas arose the concerns about national security, but in fact, Azerbaijan never used energy shipments as a political pressure tool. Even Azerbaijan have supplied more energy to Georgia in order to resolve energy shortages during difficult times.
S. Zourabichvili’s recent visit to Baku declared that Georgia does not want to lose its strategic ally. Because political and economic support by Azerbaijan is essential for Georgia in terms of its integration to the West. Also, because of Georgia plays a transit role between Azerbaijan and the West in the field of transportation and energy, losing this position is unacceptable for the Georgian administration.
*Aynur Azimzade is research fellow at the Institute of Caucasus studies of Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences
Sudan puts Saudi-UAE religious and cheque book diplomacy to the test
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