By Erik Davtyan (09/17/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On August 21, Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili paid a two-day official visit to Armenia. Accepting the official invitation from the Armenian side, Garibashvili had meetings with his counterpart Hovik Abrahamyan, discussing a wide range of issues in the fields of trade relations, infrastructure, education and culture. The Georgian PM was also received by Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan. The interlocutors discussed some aspects of Armenian-Georgian relations, as well as the agreements reached by the two states during Sargsyan’s official visit to Georgia on June 18, 2014.
The August meetings were Garibashvili’s first visit to Yerevan as Georgia’s PM, therefore there were some expectations in Armenia from the official visit. After the “Georgian Dream” coalition’s victory in Georgia’s 2012 parliamentary elections, Garibashvili’s visit became the second by a Georgian chief executive after Bidzina Ivanishvili’s visit in 2013.
Armenia is dependent on Georgia for communication with the outer world, and Georgia serves as a transit corridor for export and import. Since Georgia has recalibrated its foreign policy toward promoting trilateral comprehensive cooperation with Turkey and Azerbaijan, many in Armenia pay close attention to developments in Georgia’s foreign affairs and its attitude towards Armenia and Armenian-Georgian relations. In this context, the outcomes of Garibashvili’s visit and the high-level meetings potentially have significant implications for Armenia’s geopolitical situation.
Another matter of concern for Armenia is the future of bilateral relations with Georgia in light of the different paths of regional integration the two countries have chosen. After signing an Association Agreement with the EU on June 27, Georgia has considerably deepened its integration process with the EU. Meanwhile, Armenia continues its route towards membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. The possibility that these divergent integration processes may damage relations between Armenia and Georgia is nevertheless officially downplayed by both sides. During the meeting, Abrahamyan stressed that “Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union will not affect the existing economic relations with Georgia”, and added that “Armenia and Georgia could benefit from adhering to different integration units”. Garibashvili reaffirmed his counterpart’s assessment and added that it “might set a good example for the international community.” However, these viewpoints were criticized by some observers. Tatul Hakobyan, an analyst of the Civilitas foundation, stated that the different directions of integration will damage both Armenian-Iranian and Armenian-Georgian relations, “leading Armenia to economic, political and regional isolation”.
Aside from economic issues, the visit was also important in the context of national security and military affairs. A problematic development from Armenia’s perspective is that the defense ministers of Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan held trilateral meetings on August 18 in the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic shortly before Garibashvili’s official visit to Yerevan. During the visit, the three states decided to develop their defense cooperation, and especially the prospect of increased Georgian-Azerbaijani military cooperation caused concern in Armenia. The trilateral meeting was perceived in some circles as a step toward creating a trilateral alliance against Armenia. However, Johnny Melikyan, an expert on Georgian affairs, downplayed the importance of the Nakhchivan meeting, stating that its agenda did not go beyond that of a series of similar meetings that have periodically been organized between Georgia, Turkey and Azerbaijan since 2011, and does not have any specific importance for Armenian-Georgian relations. According to Melikyan, Georgia is interested in sustaining the balance in the South Caucasus, not in undermining Armenia’s national security.
Other analysts expressed disappointment regarding the lack of output from Garibashvili’s visit. Arnold Stepanyan, leader of the civil initiative Multinational Georgia, stated that “Garibashvili’s visit to Armenia was perceived as an ordinary visit, as another meeting: nothing special was said or written.” Stepanyan thinks the state-level discussion of bilateral relations delivered less than expected and the lack of new agreements mark limited progress in broadening bilateral relations.
According to bestnews.am, “Garibashvili paid ‘a get-to-know-you visit’ to Armenia,” based on which increasing cooperation can evolve between Garibashvili’s and Abrahamyan’s cabinets. Despite the variety in opinions, the visit of the Georgian Prime Minister was generally perceived as a positive step towards an intensification of Armenian-Georgian relations.