Dennis Sammut, Director of LINKS Europe and Managing Editor of Commonspace.eu discusses how the countries of the South Caucasus have reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and what they should do next. “In the present circumstances, the strongest card that the three countries have, if they choose to play it, is regional co-operation and an informal loosely co-ordinated common approach”, he says.
The South Caucasus countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have for the last thirty years pursued different trajectories in their foreign policy. Armenia allied itself with Russia and joined the Russia led CSTO military alliance and the EAEU economic bloc, also Russia led. Azerbaijan on its part declared itself non-aligned, and currently heads the Non-Aligned Movement as its Chairman; Georgia on its part declared early its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and wants to join NATO and the EU as soon as possible. As expected, these differences initially reflected themselves in the diplomatic reaction of the three countries to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At a special session of the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday (2 March), Georgia voted together with 140 other countries in favour of a resolution condemning the Russian invasion. Armenia abstained, and Azerbaijan was absent. That was the formal bit. Behind the scenes, however, the three countries have agonised on how to deal with this crisis that for them has deep and unpredictable implications. Their response has been unusually similar.
The three countries declared they will not join in the sanctions against Russia and will not close their airspace to Russian planes. They recognise that public opinion, especially in Georgia and Azerbaijan, is overwhelmingly pro Ukrainian. They have not tried to suppress expressions of such sympathies. This goes also for the usually tightly controlled pro government media in Azerbaijan which overall have been clearly pro-Ukrainian.
In Georgia the government’s aloofness has been severely criticised by the opposition parties, and in a softer but no less clear way, by the country’s president Salome Zurabishvili. Sane minds in Georgia understand that the country has few good options and keeping a low profile in the current impasse is probably the right thing to do. Tangibly there is little Georgia can contribute to Ukraine’s heroic struggle, whilst on the other hand it is vulnerable to any further misadventures of the Kremlin. Not irritating the Kremlin unduly is therefore probably the right thing to do. However, there is widespread belief in Tbilisi that the government has seriously mismanaged its communication of what it was doing and why, in its statements and in its dealings with both the Georgian public and the international community. This failure appears to be in line with a trend that has emerged in the ruling Georgia Dream party in the last year of not caring what either domestic public opinion, or the international community are saying, “because the next elections are not until 2024”. This is both short-sighted and misguided and needs to end if Georgia is not to pay a high cost. On the other hand, the Georgian opposition may take short term satisfaction from the government’s clear public discomfort in its dealings with the Ukraine situation but are failing to understand the potential high risks that current political divisions pose to the country.
Georgia last week jumped on the Ukrainian bandwagon and submitted a formal application to join the EU. It had intended to do this in 2024. The EU does not want to destabilise Georgia any further, and some Solomonic formulation will be used to respond to this request, but the current shenanigans in Tbilisi do not contribute to Georgia’s cause
Other problems arising from the Ukraine crisis are more immediate and will require resolve and tact.
All three countries face a potential economic fallout from the crisis, and particularly from the massive sanctions imposed on Russia. All three countries have large diaspora communities in Russia who regularly send money back to their relatives back home. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there has already been a decrease in these remittances even before the sanctions came into play. They are likely to decrease much further as a result of an economic downturn in Russia and the devaluation of the rouble. An economic crisis in Russia will have also an impact on multiple other areas, even if it may also see some increase in exports of some goods to Russia.
A further worrying prospect on the horizon is that Russia will try to use its networks in the three countries to circumvent the sanctions. This will put them in direct confrontation with the US, EU and other parts of the international community. The three countries need to develop a clear policy on how to deal with these issues. It is through transparency that the three countries can protect themselves from being entangled in the Kremlin’s machinations, and the work of nebulous business interests that are bound to emerge to service them.
Beyond the economics, depending on how the Ukraine crisis will unfold, the Kremlin may find it convenient to light small fires in other parts of the world. If this strategy is pursued the South Caucasus is hugely vulnerable. Russia, which has a military presence right across the region, can easily provoke incidents that if not properly assessed and addressed can quickly flare up into extensive violence. The wisdom and clear head of the leaderships in Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan is necessary at this very delicate moment.
In the present circumstances, the strongest card that the three countries have, if they choose to play it, is regional co-operation and an informal loosely co-ordinated common approach to the current situation. In the South Caucasus it was impossible until very recently to envisage such regional co-operation and co-ordination, but that has changed. The ingredients exist for such regional co-operation to evolve and develop. Of course, it would have been better if this could be done outside the heavy shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the invasion has helped focus minds. There is a sense of urgency in the air which helps add to the dynamic of this process. In the final analysis there is one very important common denominator for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia: they all want to protect and safeguard their independence and sovereignty. They all recognise the implications of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and how this does not augur well for them. It is therefore time to take the plunge and embrace regional co-operation. If there is one thing that will disorientate the Russians it will be that. All the Russian strategy in the South Caucasus in the last thirty years has been built on the premise of adversity and unhealthy competition between and within the three countries. Debunking this will be a major victory for all the countries and people in the region.