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Deciphering the Geopolitics of the South Caucasus: Georgia (III)

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Deciphering the Geopolitics of the South Caucasus: Georgia (III)

Deciphering the Geopolitics of the South Caucasus: Georgia (III)

Abel Riu Asia, Russia and Central Asia 16/02/2018 Comments

The following analysis is the third and last part of the trilogy focused on Armenia (available here), Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The aim of the analysis is to review the current situation regarding the different conflicts, the regional division and existing political disagreements, alliances, and balances with the external powers that take place in the South Caucasus region.

GEORGIA: LOOKING WESTWARD WITH FEET IN EURASIA

Georgia is in the front line of the post-Soviet states in terms of willingness to integrate into the West (EU and NATO) and to engage in its political, economic and military dimensions. This approach is the result of historical and cultural reasons (Georgia perceives itself as an European country), as well as of its conflicting relations with Russia, a State that supports and recognizes the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and is also their main military and economic guarantor.

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Therefore, it is not surprising that Georgia is the only country in the South Caucasus that has formally requested membership in NATO through the Membership Action Plan (MAP). In fact, in the framework of the Bucharest Summit 2008, the member states of the Alliance committed themselves with Tbilisi to take into account this option, though in the long term and without a specific agenda and deadline, especially bearing in mind Germany’s and other European countries’ fear regarding a possible escalation of the tensions with the Kremlin. Besides, Georgia-Russia War in August 2008 distanced further that possibility, especially considering that the Atlantic Alliance does not accept new members with ongoing internal territorial conflicts.

Despite this refusal, in recent years the Georgian government has increased its efforts to gain prominence and to show itself as a reliable strategic partner for NATO member states, contributing substantially with human and material resources in its military missions in Afghanistan and, at the same time, in other theater of operations like Iraq, led by the United States (USA) and some of its allies. In this regard, the Georgian military contingent is among the largest of all the states involved in these missions. In addition, in August 2015 the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center was opened at the military base in Krtsanisi, at the outskirts of Tbilisi. These initiatives are carried out in order to increase Georgia’s chances to get access to a MAP that could open the doors to NATO membership. This scenario, albeit, has moved away since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014 and the worsening of relations between Russia and the West.

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At present, the possibility of an integration of Georgia as a full member of the European Union (EU) is a distant possibility. Georgia is not even on the current list of potential candidates for accession. However, together with Moldova and Ukraine, Georgia is the only State of the six members of the Eastern Partnership that signed the Association Agreement with the EU in July 2014. This agreement sets up a free trade zone with EU Member States (EU MS) and a significant expansion of cooperation at the institutional and governance levels. In parallel, since 2016, there is a free visa regime for Georgian citizens traveling to the EU countries. On the other hand, in October 2008 the EU established a monitoring mission in the Georgian territory to ensure that there are no further escalations of violence, and also in order to facilitate the resumption of a safe and normal life for the local communities living in the areas adjacent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as to build confidence among conflict parties.

Regarding the relations with the U.S., Tbilisi-Washington links have been and continue to be very close and stable for the last two decades. The U.S. became the main donor of humanitarian and military aid to Georgia in the late 90s, and holds a Defense Cooperation Office in Georgian territory, which manages a military training program for servicemen of the Georgian Armed Forces.

At the end of 2017, both sides announced the launch of the Georgia Defense Readiness Programme during the spring of 2018, through which the U.S. Army would have trained Georgian troops to improve the national defense in a scenario of a potential invasion (until now, almost all training programme was focused on the participation in international operations, such as the one in Afghanistan). At the same time, in December of 2017, the U.S. Congress approved the delivery of the anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) Javelin to Georgia worth of 75 million dollars. The purchase of this ATGM had been requested by Tbilisi many times during the last years. The intensity of the U.S-Georgia military cooperation causes concern in Moscow, being Georgia –together with the Baltic countries and Ukraine- the country with the most intense American military activity in what Russia’s perceives as its “near abroad”.

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Despite all these factors and the intensity of the bilateral relation, the aim of the Georgian government is to obtain security guarantees from the U.S. administration, either through a mutual protection agreement or with the presence of U.S. troops in the Georgian territory. At present, this scenario is ruled out by Washington.

As a result, the unsuccessful attempts of Georgia to access to NATO and the EU as a full member and to obtain full security guarantees, have prompted frustration in the Georgian side regarding its commitment to the West. This is one of the reasons why Georgia has step by step promoted and consolidated its bilateral and multilateral alliances in the Eurasian territory, and has put the focus of its foreign and security policy on that region.

In practice, Georgia has deepened its economic and security ties, firstly, with Turkey and Azerbaijan. These two states are key partners for Georgia in the framework of a strategy to maximize its role as an east-west hub for transcontinental transit and trade, especially in relation to energy transport infrastructures. The government of Tbilisi seeks to take full advantage of its geographical situation of the halfway between the oil and gas of the South Caucasus, on the one hand, and the Black Sea, Turkey and the EU MS, on the other hand.

In this regard, the key infrastructures of interest are the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline that transports Azeri oil to the Black Sea through Georgian territory, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that transports oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, from where it is sent by maritime transport, essentially, towards the EU and Israel.

Likewise, Georgia is a key partner within the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) for the supply of natural gas from the Caspian area to the EU MS, which is expected to be fully operative in 2020. SGC main aim will be to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas by diversifying its imports. In this sense, Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (BTE), one of the three gas pipelines of the Southern Gas Corridor, transports gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey crossing Georgian territory.

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The growing links between Baku, Tbilisi and Ankara governments regarding energy transport infrastructure have served to establish the basis to set a trilateral cooperation in security matters. Therefore, in 2012 these three states signed the Trabzon Declaration in order to guarantee the respect of their sovereignty and territorial integrity, among other points. For Tbilisi, this alliance becomes one of the main pillars in its economic and regional security policies, including the trilateral cooperation of the intelligence services and the organization of joint military drills, which have been held almost every year since 2013. According to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey authorities, the scope of this cooperation is limited to ensure the protection of the energy infrastructure and, in no case, is directed against other countries.

In addition, the growing trilateral cooperation has given other outcomes such as the railway connection Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) opened in autumn 2017. This infrastructure for rail transport of passengers and goods is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) promoted by China in order to improve transport connections between the Eurasian states, especially, those from People’s Republic of China outwards. In this way, the BTK seeks to expand and improve the land connection between the countries of Central Asia and Europe.

The bilateral relations of Georgia with Baku and Ankara governments are also essential for Tbilisi. Georgia imports more than 80% of its gas and oil from Azerbaijan oil company SOCAR with an agreement according to which a considerable discount is applied. On the other hand, in recent years Turkey has become Georgia’s main trading partner and one of the main sources of direct investment. However, some friction arose between Georgia and Turkey as a result of the growing Turkish trade links with the de facto independent region of Abkhazia. This is a factor that does not put at risk the strategic relations between both states.

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Contrary to what it might seem, good bilateral relations between Georgia on one side and Ankara and Baku on the other have not substantially affected Tbilisi’s friendship ties with Armenia. In fact, about 80% of Armenian imports, including gas and oil from Russia, pass through Georgian territory. On the other hand, Armenia is the sixth largest destination of Georgian exports, while Armenian exports to Georgia have grown by 300% between 2012 and 2016. However, the Armenian minority living in the Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti provokes small pockets of instability from time to time, even though that does not affect the relations between Tbilisi and Yerevan. Essentially, neither Georgia nor Armenia can afford more conflicts in their neighborhood beyond those that already exist. The first official visit that Armenian new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan paid abroad was to Tbilisi, just a few days after his nomination, a fact that shows the growing importance of Georgian-Armenian relations.

In relation to Russia, since Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s “Georgian Dream” party won the 2012 parliamentary elections and came to power, Tbilisi has followed to a certain extent a de-escalation policy towards the Kremlin. This was a substantial change in comparison to the more aggressive approach of the former President Mikhail Saakashvili, who lost his post in November 2013. This new approach has the aim to reduce the level of open confrontation with Moscow without renouncing to its closer relations with the West. The implementation of this strategy is based on the separation of security and economic issues and the improvement of Georgia’s commercial relations through bilateral agreements. These allow Georgia to have access and export its agricultural products to the Russian market, a crucial one for Georgian producers.

Concerning Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as a result of August 2008 Georgia-Russia War, a new statu quo was established in the region, in which Moscow formally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, a move followed by Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, and more recently, Syria (Vanuatu and Tuvalu withdrew their recognitions in 2013 and 2014, respectively). Despite having their own security forces, the de facto borders of these two territories have been guarded by Russia’s border service since then. In this regard, Russia established three military bases with about 3,500 troops in South Ossetia and 4,500 more in Abkhazia, becoming, together with Armenia, the main basis of Russian military influence and control in the South Caucasus. Likewise, only 8% of South Ossetia budget for 2016 came from its own resources. That means Ossetians depend almost exclusively on Russian funding. On the other hand, the bilateral agreement signed in March of 2015 gives all the necessary instruments to Moscow to keep its influence on this territory.

On the contrary, despite Abkhazia’s strong dependence on Russia, Sukhumi maintains a relatively high level of independence in its domestic policy, and bilateral relations are often more complicated than it may appear. While Moscow’s military influence in the region is undeniable, a relevant geostrategic position makes this unrecognized territory far more independent from Moscow than South Ossetia.

At the same time, since 2008, Russia has been carrying out a “border” policy along demarcation lines between South Ossetia and Georgia that were established in the ceasefire agreement. With this policy, Russia is pushing increasingly into Georgian territory, and this is the main factor that currently provokes more tension between the two states. However, with the permanent renunciation to use military force to recover these territories, Tbilisi focuses its efforts on the internationalization of this conflict through the United Nations, the OSCE and the Council of Europe, among others.

Due to Georgia-Russia War in 2008, Georgian authorities also designed a strategy to increment regional partnerships in order promote its economic and regional security position. Within this strategy, Georgia has sought to foster relations with Iran by signing several agreements in order to significantly increase trade and bilateral exchanges. Some Western countries were concerned by this approach. For this reason, in 2013 Washington forced the cancellation of the free visa agreement between Tbilisi and Tehran signed in 2010.

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Finally, China has become Tbilisi’s biggest target when it comes to the diversification of its relations. In the strategic plan “Georgia 2020”, launched in 2014, one of the main aims set is to strengthen the geographical position of the country as an international trade and transportation hub. In this sense, Tbilisi perceives China as a strategic partner to fund infrastructure projects in Georgian territory, being included in the BRI, which promotes Eurasian connectivity.

In particular, many Chinese companies have settled in the Georgian territory during last years, and China has increased substantially its investment in Georgia, with a special focus on infrastructures such as tunnels, hydroelectric plants, roads, ports and railways. Among them, it should be pointed out the investment of 1,500 million euros for the port of Anaklia, or the acquisition and expansion of a part of the port of Poti in order to improve their capacities and connectivity with other Black Sea ports. An ambitious but, at the same time, risky approach from a Georgian point of view, as it could generate an excessive dependency on Chinese capital, investments and interests in the long term.

In sum, despite its pro-Western orientation and existing hostility with Russia regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to a great extent Georgia pursues a multi-vector and balanced foreign policy. The country’s position, at the heart of the Caucasus region, plays a key role in maximizing Georgia’s potential with regard to its closest neighbors such as Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as Eurasian powers such as China and Iran.

Abel Riu

Author’s note: some updates were introduced in this analysis regarding the original one wrote in Catalan language.


Photo 1: Georgia-South Ossetia border, 2016 (Source: Larry Luxner / Global Atlanta).

Photo 2: Map of the South Caucasus (Source: www.mappery.com).

Photo 3: The NATO-Georgia Joint Trainning and Evaluation Center at the military base of Krtsanisi, close to Tbilisi, Georgia, 2017 (Source: Torbjorn Kjosvold / Norwegian Armed Forces website).

Photo 4: Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili (L) and US Vice President Mike Pence (R) in Tbilisi, 01/08/2017 (Source: Georgian Journal).

Photo 5: Gas pipelines that should link the South Caucasus and the EU (Source: www.1derrick.com).

Photo 6: Meeting between the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev (L), and the President of Georgia (R), Giorgi Margvelashvili, in Baku, Azerbaijan, 05/11/2015 (Source: Trend News Agency).

Photo 7: Georgian port of Poti in the Black Sea (Source: Port Technology).