On November 9th, Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the support of the Russian Federation, signed a ceasefire agreement which marks the umpteenth stop in a conflict that lasts since 1992. The situation is now calm, but not peaceful and this patch of Caucasian land shows now one of the World’s highest density of troops, from four different countries. An escalation in Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict risks to overflow and jeopardize the already stressed Caucasian situation. The recent short but intense conflict risks to produce unexpected consequences in all the area, emphasizing new and old problems.
Georgia has always maintained an extremely balanced approach with the two other Caucasian republics. On one side, Azerbaijan is a strategic economic partner, in particular as a consequence of the hydrocarbons flow from the Caspian wells to Europe, passing through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (oil) and the South Caucasus Pipeline (natural gas); several state-owned Azerbaijani companies are deeply rooted in Georgian economy, first of all SOCAR (the Azerbaijani state oil company).
On the other side, Georgia and Armenia share several cultural and political common elements, like the fact that both tend to consider themselves asEuropean peoples, despite geographically they are in the Asian Continent. Besides, Georgia and Armenia share, even if with different level of engagement, a common ambition in deepening their relations with the European Union, even wandering about the idea to became candidate countries for future enlargements. Moreover, they have a common religious history, made even more heartfelt by the contrast of historical surrounding of Muslim peoples.
A bet on stability
In the last decade, Georgia has been the fastest growing economy amongst post-soviet republics, showing a significant increase in term of GDP and Human Development Index, being recognized by the effort to promote market reforms and fight endemic corruption. This made of Georgia a place to be for investors, attracting capitals from all the World. Georgian economic empowerment has been based on an unspoken bet on stability in Caucasus: if the war situation may last longer, Georgian economic forecast will be for sure affected, undermining internal social a political stability.
Besides the economy, there are two main reasons of concern. First, Georgian public opinion is very sensible to the topic of territorial integrity, seen the situation of Russian occupation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These new facts from Nagorno Karabakh may arouse the never faded nationalistic and territorial sentiments, also thanks to the activism of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) unions representing Georgians who want to return to their occupied lands. These sentiment risks being instrumentalized by some political parties and leaders, triggering political escalations with Russia.
Armenian and Azerbaijani pressure to Georgia
Georgia has always showed a neutrality on this conflict, but this approach risks not to hold, facing the high level of tensions and a situation which evolves too quickly. In the small and interlined territory of Caucasus Georgia cannot physically take the distance from this conflict.
Since this summer, with the rise up of the conflict, Georgian diplomacy tried to promote a mediation, which was never taken in serious consideration by the countries. On September 30th, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia affirmed that: “Georgia is ready support the peace process in any way possible, including hosting a meeting of the parties to the conflict in Tbilisi to hold a dialogue”. But, at the time, Baku was already convinced of its good chance on the ground and preferred to pursue its strategy.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijani governments have accused Tbilisi to allow the transit of military supplies on its territory in favor of the enemy. On its side, Georgia denounced several violations of its airspace by Russia and Turkish forces. Being realistic, Georgia is the natural way of transit of Russian aids to Armenia and Turkish ones to Azerbaijan and there are no means to stop all this. Tbilisi cannot afford to damage its good relations with Ankara or risk unilateral Russian military expeditions on its territory.
Besides diplomatic relations, another major concern comes from Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities in Georgia. They represent respectively the 4,5% and the 6,3% of the population and they are concentrated on the borders. Historically quite isolated, they show a very low level of integration in the Georgian cultural and political life, feeling more linked to their nations than to Tbilisi. On September 28th, the Georgian police had to stop on the border several lorries part of an aid convoy of Georgian Armenians. The same day, in the cities of Ninotsminda and Akhalkalak, groups of volunteers were signing to be enrolled in Nagorno Karabakh army. As answer to Armenian activity in the country, Azerbaijani groups organized a rally in Tbilisi marching up to the Azerbaijani Embassy, to show support to the army, asking for an Azerbaijani Nagorno Karabakh.
Georgian authorities and international observers have always pointed out how the exposure to foreign countries broadcasts was a problem of national security, seen that Russian and Turkish speaking minorities are used to listen almost only to foreign media which may be used as propaganda tools against Georgian government. Nowadays, due to the war, the situation has even worsened. Russian-Armenian and Turkish-Azerbaijani media are broadcasting pounding propaganda messages to keep high the attention of minorities on the conflict.
International media has already understood the weight of social media propaganda in this conflict. In the first days, we all have seen videos and images published by Facebook and Twitter official profiles of Armenian and Azerbaijani armies, with a very high level of engagement. Taking in consideration Georgian social media bubble and surfing on news outlets’ profiles, it is evident how each news related to Nagorno-Karabakh war attracts a lot of comments, involving a lot of Armenian and Azerbaijani profiles. Users are disputing and supporting their side, reposting articles and analysis, almost as if they were talking about any other topic. But they often contribute reposting propaganda materials which stuffed of nationalist message and fake news from both sides: Azerbaijan media re-employed videos of the Armenian strikes on Ganja to describe at least other two bombings which, one of which never happened, pretended that stock images of sinkholes were evidence of Armenian attacks, and showed photos of blessed children taken in Aleppo during the siege. Armenia, on its side, pushed the news of Pakistan mercenaries displaced in Nagorno Karabakh even if the news was already debunked (while the presence of Syrian ones is now confirmed), promoting a rhetoric of “faith war” against Islam, even if religion has almost no business in this conflict.
Something to lose
Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is the result of decades of propaganda, based on nationalism and ethnic self-glorification. The two countries engaged on the field are fighting not only for the control of a piece of land, but for the greatness of their peoples. These reasons are not fully rational, and they justify, even if in smaller scale, an all-out war. Now, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have more to gain than to lose, and it is most likely that they will not miss any opportunity to take advantage on the enemy.
Georgia, on the contrary, after the 2008 war with Russia, stepped back from any military unilateral move, investing on a long-term multilateral strategy. A totally different approach. As said before, Georgia betted on stability and it has much more to lose from instability than its Caucasian neighbors.
As time will go by, We can expect of course the worsening of economic forecasts, but also a growing instability at social and political level, which can jeopardize years of modernizing effort. For sure, it will be day-by-day more difficult for Georgian government to keep a balanced approach on the conflict, if major external actors, like Russia and Turkey, will use their geopolitical levers to influence Georgian attitude.