This editorial first appeared in the 20 April 2023 edition of our newsletter Caucasus Concise. If you would like to subscribe to Caucasus Concise, or any other of our newsletters, click here.
The last two weeks have seen missed opportunities for the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process, and for the Georgian government to establish facts and proving the truth over the US sanctioning of four Georgian judges, writes commonspace.eu in this editorial. Instead of building trust and confidence, the burning of the Azerbaijani flag at the European Weightlifting Championships in Yerevan "further entrenched the enemy imagery". Meanwhile in Georgia, "by obstructing the establishment of a parliamentary investigative commission to assess the US accusations against Georgian judges, the Georgian government missed an opportunity to deal openly and transparently with what is clearly a very sensitive and controversial issue."
Foreigners watching the South Caucasus political landscape often talk about the propensity of local governments and political elites to shoot themselves in the foot.
This tendency is not due to some streak of masochism. It results from a different reading of situations and, importantly, different perspectives of what is important and what is not. One can say the same thing about missed opportunities. What may appear to be obvious from the outside, gets distorted once it is put in the mix of domestic considerations and power plays. In the last days we have again seen missed opportunities in the region.
Missed opportunity 1: The Azerbaijani weightlifters in Yerevan
Last week, a small group of Azerbaijani weightlifters travelled to Yerevan to participate in the European Championships that were being held in the Armenian capital. Such visits, both ways, have happened before, largely without incident. Of course a lot of preparation goes into such visits, not least to get assurances about safety and security. This reflects the continued animosity between the two countries that runs deep into society. But such sports exchanges were always seen as important small steps to build trust and confidence between the two countries and the two societies.
It had been agreed that the Azerbaijani sportsmen will not participate in the opening ceremony. But since Azerbaijan was a participant, and this was an official competition under a European sports body, the Azerbaijani flag was displayed with that of the other countries during the official opening ceremony. It was at this point that a man emerged from a group of accredited officials and burnt the Azerbaijani flag. Some Armenians were delighted, arguing that the Azerbaijani flag should never be displayed in Yerevan. But a lot were also appalled.
Flag burning is unfortunately a common occurrence in periods of turmoil. It usually happens during demonstrations against this or that state. A lot of American and Israeli flags get burnt in the Muslim world by protestors objecting to Israeli policy on Palestine or the Muslim holy sites. But as far as anyone can remember this was the first time that the flag of a participating country was burnt during an opening ceremony of a formal sports competition.
The Azerbaijani team left Yerevan without taking part in the competition. It may have been wiser if they stayed, but in the circumstances one can understand that it would have been difficult for them to do so.
So instead of helping to build trust and confidence, this incident further entrenched the enemy imagery. The incident damaged the whole process of confidence-building between the two countries that is so essential if a peace process is to succeed. Fortunately, in this incident, no one got hurt, but harm was done.
Those working on building trust and confidence between Armenia and Azerbaijan hope the incident will blow away. Knowing the region, it will remain in the memory for quite a while. But in the meantime the work must continue. This was a missed opportunity. But it should not stop other opportunities in the future. Those working to build trust and confidence must stay resolute and focused, and must carry on.
Missed opportunity 2: Investigating US claims against Georgian judges
The sanctioning by the United States of four officials in the Georgian judiciary system, accused of involvement in corruption, continues to create ripples amongst the Georgian political elite. The government, first cautiously but later, more robustly, came to the defence of the judges saying that no proof has been given publicly or privately by the American government of the accusations against the judges. The government continues to insist on the independence of the judiciary and is determined not to allow pressure on the judiciary, even from outside sources.
The opposition saw in the sanctioning the start of what they hope would be a much wider process, but at first stumbled in their response. Eventually, and after a false start, they agreed to convene a session of parliament to establish a special investigative committee. But on the day the motion was to be discussed the government MPs did not attend. There was no quorum, and the initiative failed.
The incident once more exposed sharp and deep decisions within parliament and within the Georgian political system, as this report on civil.ge summarises.
Whilst the idea of having an investigative commission was an opposition initiative, the government could have easily used it to ease some of the pressure it has been under since the US sanctions were announced. Since the government has the majority of MPs, it could have ensured that its voice on the commission was well heard, and it could have used it as a way to exonerate the judges if they are truly not guilty of the things the US is accusing them of.
A parliamentary commission could have insisted that the US government give any proof that it has and on which it based its decision. Establishing the Commission was not in itself an admission of guilt of the judges, but on the contrary a good way of establishing facts and proving the truth. Instead the government said it would not allow the Commission to be established in order to protect the judges, and by implication the rule of law in Georgia. This is odd, since it assumes already what the investigative committee would have reported.
By obstructing the establishment of a parliamentary investigative commission to assess the US accusations against Georgian judges, the Georgian government missed an opportunity to deal openly and transparently with what is clearly a very sensitive and controversial issue. It assumes that the Georgian government has the luxury of doing nothing on the issue. It does not, and in one way or another this matter needs to be dealt with.