Wednesday, 26 January 2005

AZERBAIJAN-GEORGIA RELATIONS PUT TO THE TEST

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By Anar Valiyev and Yusuf Valiyev (1/26/2005 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union, the relations between Azerbaijan and Georgia have been continually cordial. Both countries shared similar problems including ethnic separatism, an aggressive Russian policy in the South Caucasus, the rapid polarization and marginalization of both societies, as well as weak democratic institutions. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project gave an impetus to the strengthening and deepening of economic, political, and cultural ties.
BACKGROUND: Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union, the relations between Azerbaijan and Georgia have been continually cordial. Both countries shared similar problems including ethnic separatism, an aggressive Russian policy in the South Caucasus, the rapid polarization and marginalization of both societies, as well as weak democratic institutions. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project gave an impetus to the strengthening and deepening of economic, political, and cultural ties. Relations improved greatly during the presidencies of Eduard Shevardnadze and Heydar Aliyev. Shevardnadze eagerly supported Ilham Aliyev in his quest for the presidency. During the political stalemate in Georgia, Aliyev junior officially supported Shevarnadze. Mikheil Saakashvili’s rise to power was an embarrassment for Aliyev’s government, but Baku was the third capital after Washington and Moscow that President Saakashvili visited. As the Georgian President said, “This shows that Azerbaijan is a close and strategic partner of Georgia.\" During the talks, issues discussed included the BTC pipeline construction, problems of aggressive separatism, and economic relations. However, the presidents did not dwell on the problems of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia. Since spring 2004, Georgian Azerbaijanis protested against an ‘ongoing campaign of repression’ by Kvemo Kartli’s governor Soso Mazmishvili, who is a member of Saakashvili’s ruling National Movement bloc. They claimed the Georgian government was favoring ethnic Georgians in matters of land privatization leaving ethnic Azerbaijanis without land, or forced them to rent acres from Georgian farmers at high prices. The problem was ignored, leading to bloodshed. On December 3, an elderly ethnic Azerbaijani woman got killed and several others injured as a result of a clash between Azerbaijani villagers and a security guard on a horse farm in the Marneuli district of the Kvemo Kartli region. The clash was caused by a dispute over land ownership rights. Preventing an escalation of the conflict, the Georgian President dismissed his representative in Kvemo Kartli. Simultaneously, a ‘transport war’ suddenly erupted between Georgia and Azerbaijan. By the end of November, Azerbaijani authorities introduced a limit on cargo transits to Georgia via Azerbaijan. The decision was motivated by the fact that a part of the cargoes were transported through Georgia to Armenia. In early December, as many as 900 carriages were detained on the Azeri-Georgian border. President Aliyev stated that the isssue would be settled only after Baku was satisfied the cargos were not heading to Armenia. At the same time Badri Bitzadze, the Chairman of the State Border Guards Department, visited Baku in early December. During a meeting with President Aliyev both sides pointed to the absence of any serious problems. Yet some issues do require urgent intervention.

IMPLICATIONS: There is an erroneous perception among Azerbaijanis that the problems of the Azerbaijani minority in Georgia emerged with the Saakashvili presidency. In fact, Azerbaijanis have been experiencing the same problems since the times of Gamsakhurdia. Azerbaijan and Georgia preferred, however, to shut their eyes to the problem. During the Shevardnadze regime, the rights and civil liberties of Azerbaijanis were limited. Fear of repression from the central government as well as the Aliyev government’s ignorance of their interests hardly allowed ethnic Azerbaijanis to exercise their civil rights. The wind of change brought by Saakashvili and his pledges to enhance the lives of minorities incited hope among Georgian Azerbaijanis. Saakashvili’s willingness to sack the governor of Kvemo Kartli because of the deadly incidents showed that the current Georgian government is building a real civil society in their country. In contrast to Shevardnadze, Saakashvili show a willingness to not hide or suppress but to resolve the issue. Importantly, Georgian Azerbaijanis feel comfortable with the new regime since the new government is not afraid to address problems openly while at the same time trying to come to terms with them by democratic means. The increased number of protests does not hint to an equally increased problem. Instead, it shows Georgia’s Azerbaijanis are finally given a voice. Azerbaijanis do not see the need to conceal real issues for the sake of the Aliyev-Saakashvili friendship. Still, the main problem of Georgian Azerbaijanis is their low level of integration into Georgian society. Despite the arrests of several Azerbaijanis, the anti-corruption campaign that has been carried out in Kvemo Kartli was not directed against the Azerbaijani minority. The Georgian central government in the past decade ignored cross-border smuggling, which benefited close relatives of ex-president Shevardnadze. Meanwhile, a high percentage of smugglers are Georgian Azerbaijanis, who end up on the wrong side of the law due to hard socio-economic conditions. The anti-corruption campaign also hurt certain political circles that now try to argue a supposed discrimination of Georgian Azerbaijanis to discredit the Saakashvili government. As for the ‘transport war’, there may be several explanations. First, president Aliyev is trying to impress the public with his consistency and steadiness in his policy toward Armenia. Secondly, the recent transportation crisis in the North Caucasus after the Beslan tragedy almost paralyzed Armenia’s economy. It illustrated Armenia’s vulnerability from a geographical standpoint. By diminishing Armenia’s access to necessary goods, Azerbaijan exerts pressure on Armenia in order to achieve a favorable resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is worth mentioning that both the United States and the European Union pay specific attention to the TRACECA transport corridor from Central Asia to Europe. Yet the ‘transport war’ could jeopardize the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. It should also be noted that neither the U.S. nor the E.U. castigated Azerbaijan’s actions in relation to the transport crisis, raising the question whether Azerbaijan informed or coordinated its actions with external powers.

CONCLUSIONS: The recent tensions between Azerbaijan and Georgia will not have the power to undermine the relations of the two countries. The exposure of issues related to the Azerbaijani minority in Georgia followed by their gradual resolution will allow Azerbaijanis to fully integrate into Georgian society, which is getting increasingly democratic. The transport crisis, however, significantly hurt Azerbaijan and Georgia. Financially, both sides did not incur excessive deficits. But the crisis indicated to other countries that the transport corridor through Azerbaijan and Georgia to Europe may not be reliable. Both countries will need to work hard to get that confidence back and to make the corridor attractive again.

AUTHORS’ BIOS: Anar Valiyev is a Ph.D. student at the University of Louisville, School of Urban and Public Affairs. He holds an MA in history from Baku State University and an MPA from Indiana University Bloomington. Yusif Valiyev is a Ph.D. student at the George Mason University, School of Public Affairs. He holds an MA in history from St. Petersburg University and an MPA from Indiana University, Bloomington.

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