Georgian PM visits Armenia, pledges "exemplary" bilateral relations

Global Insight
January 18, 2013

Georgian PM visits Armenia, pledges “exemplary” bilateral relations

by Lilit Gevorgyan

During his first official visit to Armenia, Georgian prime minister
Bidzina Ivanishvili gave his personal assurance to his Armenian
counterpart that he would revamp bilateral relations and particularly
deal with the long-standing tensions between the central Georgian
government and the sizeable ethnic Armenian opposition in southern
Georgia.

Far from “ideal” relations

Georgia’s prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili said that the relations
with Armenia were normal but promised to build “ideal and exemplary”
ties, during his official visit to the Armenian capital Yerevan on 17
January. Ivanishvili’s pledge involved the three main problematic
issues, of which the treatment of the Georgia’s ethnic Armenian
community is the prominent one.

The two neighbouring nations have centuries of common history but
despite this, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations
between Tbilisi and Yerevan have been far from ideal, due to both
political and economic problems that afflict Georgia’s Armenians.
According to a United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR)
report, the ethnic Armenian community in Georgia continues to shrink
owing to different factors. Thus in 1959 there were 442,900 Armenians
in Georgia, constituting 11% of the total population. By 1979 this
number had dropped to 448,000 or 9%. January 2002’s national census
revealed that the Armenian population had then reduced to only
248,929, representing 5.7% of the total population of Georgia. The
Armenian population of Tbilisi, according to Indiana University (US)
research, has dropped from 74.3% nearly two centuries ago to a mere 7%
now. Still, Armenians remain the second largest ethnic group in the
country, with most of them centred in Tbilisi, Samtskhe-Javakheti and
Akhalkalaki, southern Georgia.

The latest wave of exodus came after the collapse of the Soviet Union
and the rise of Georgian nationalism. Armenians remain poorly
integrated into Georgian state structures, something that the EU has
repeatedly highlighted in recent years. The European bloc has also
raised concerns about the cultural rights of Georgia’s Armenian
community, including the right to have full-time Armenia language
schools, while the Georgian government under President Mikhail
Saakashvili has advocated the prominence of the Georgian language, the
only acceptable language for landing a public job both in central and
local authorities.

Economic opportunities remain very limited for the southern regions,
an issue that was further aggravated after the Georgian authorities
shut down Russian military bases in the region between 2001 and 2007.
The military bases were a key source of employment for local Armenians
and since their closure, little has been done to create more economic
opportunities. The UNHCR report also confirms that economic issues are
increasingly the main driver behind the continued exodus, which has
affected not only Armenian but Georgians and other ethnic groups.
Ivanishvili, elected only a few months ago after his Georgian Dream
coalition gained a surprise victory in October 2012’s parliamentary
race, said that the “ball is now in my court,” to deliver on his
election campaign promises and improve conditions for the sizeable
ethnic Armenian population of Samtskhe-Javakheti and Akhalkalaki.

Another dimension to the tensions is the continued suspicion of
potential Armenian secessionist intentions, although officially
Armenia has never made such claims. But the mistrust is mutual, and
worsened in the last decade as the central Georgian government decided
to settle Mtskheti Turks, repatriating from Central Asia, in the
southern regions. This has led to a number of Armenian community
organisations accuse the central government in trying to change the
demographics of Samtskhe-Javakheti and Akhalkalaki.

Ivanishvili is trying to solve a multi-layered problem – the issue of
ownership of churches is also adding to ongoing Armenian-Georgian
tensions. According to Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL), a number of worship
sites are claimed by both the Armenian Apostolic and Georgian Orthodox
Churches. These concern the fate of formerly Armenian churches in
Tbilisi and abandoned medieval monasteries in Armenia’s Lori province,
bordering Georgia. Ivanishvili told RFE/RL that he also held meetings
with the head of the Armenian Church, Catholicos Garegin II at the
Echmiadzin headquarters of the Armenian Church. True to his innovative
approach to thorny issues, Ivanishvili has proposed to use his
personal capital from a special fund which will be set up to renovate
all disputed churches, as well as sponsoring joint archaeological work
on these sites. All initiatives have been welcomed by Armenia,
according to Ivanishvili.

Two different views from Georgia

Opening a railway linking Georgia with Russia via the breakaway region
of Abkhazia has critical operational importance for landlocked
Armenia. The network was closed in 1992 following the outbreak of the
war between the autonomous region and the central government.
Armenia’s desperate efforts to see the railway opened did not bring
any results. Armenia, itself under blockade from Azerbaijan and Turkey
over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, relies on Georgia and Iran for its
trade. The Georgian Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti handle most of
the freight for Armenian businesses, but reopening the Abkhazian
railroad would significantly reduce transportation costs for Armenian
businesses.

Ivanishvili made a very bold pledge to open the railway while in
Armenia, saying that the Georgian side is ready. RFE/RL quoted
Ivanishvili as saying, “I feel that Russia is showing understanding
for this issue. There are positive signals from our Abkhaz brothers.”
However, almost immediately Saakashvili branded his arch-rival’s plans
as “anti-state” and damaging Georgia’s national interests. The
president, who is due to end his final term in October this year and
is likely to be replaced by Ivanishvili, said that only after the
“de-occupation” of Abkhazia from the Russian military the opening of
the railway could be considered.

Outlook and implications

Ivanishvili’s constructive dialogue with the Armenian government also
included signing a Georgian-Armenian agreement on joint customs
administration at the border between the two countries. The Armenian
prime minister also proposed creating a customs bloc to facilitate
trade between the two neighbouring states.

Ivanishvili’s visit to Armenia has to meet diplomatic and domestic
political goals. Diplomatically, it was to counterbalance an earlier
visit to Azerbaijan, Armenia’s arch-enemy. Georgian-Azerbaijani
relations have become particularly strong under the presidency of
Saakashvili. The latter’s quest to restore Georgia’s territorial
integrity rhymes well with that of the Azeri president Ilham Aliyev
keen to return ethnic Armenian breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

But Ivanishvili delivered a more neutral statement in both capitals,
saying that all disagreements must be resolved through peace talks.
Domestically, catering to Armenian electorate is important for
Ivanishvili’s government. The recent polls showed that the ethnic
Armenian vote mostly went to the PM’s Georgian Dream coalition. Given
the continuing frustration amongst the ethnic Armenian voters with the
current state of affairs any promise of hope is better than none.
Ivanishvili is unlikely to deliver on all his pledges in the short
term. However, generous gestures such as restoring churches could
secure support for the Georgian Dream candidate from a segment of
Georgia’s electorate in the October presidential race.

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