A minibus passes 230 kilometers from Yerevan to the Georgian border in three hours. The remaining 60 kilometers to Tbilisi take two hours.
"Roads are a very important factor in Georgia's hands," says Gayane Novikova, a Yerevan-based analyst. "But the Armenian-Georgian relations in fact are built upon a sophisticated system of balances and counterbalances, and roads are just one of the levers."
Indeed, through Georgia passes the only way from Armenia to Russia, its strategic partner, since the roads and railways through Azerbaijan are blocked for more than a decade, because of the Karabakh war, and Turkey closed its borders with Armenia in solidarity with Azerbaijan. So, the way through Georgia is vitally important for its Southern neighbour. Closure of the Georgian roads could have an extremely negative effect for Armenia's economy. Some say, it may end up in an economic collapse.
Balancing the factor of communications, fears of Javakheti becoming another separatist formation ("second Karabakh") dominate in Tbilisi. Javakheti (Javakhk in Armenian) is a small region in Southern Georgia, a part of Samtskhe-Javakheti province, bordering with Armenia and Turkey. Javakheti occupies about 3.7 % of the country's territory and, according to the last census, there lives about 2% of the population, of which 97% are Armenians.
Tbilisi has no economic abilities to develop the region, which makes the fears more acute. "As Armenians are the majority of the population, and there is the Russian military base, a high threat exists that the region will become a conflict zone," wrote local Georgian media. Javakheti remains a source for concerns and tensions, especially when politicians from the two countries make statements about the region. While Armenian politicians speak about ethnic discrimination, the Georgian opposition voices xenophobic attitudes.
However, the Armenian government takes a well-tempered stance and uses every opportunity to show their respect to the Georgian official powers in the region. And still, if problems with Javakheti occur, against the background of other unresolved regional issues (Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Tskhinvali region), the Pankisi Gorge) it may become crucial for Georgia's integrity as a country.
The two issues (roads and Javakheti) highlight the level of interdependence of the two countries. According to Alexander Iskandarian, a Moscow-based analyst, the level of interdependence is so high that "any breach of the existing balance can be disastrous for the statehood of both sides."
His opinion was backed by Eduard Shevardnadze, who said during his recent visit to Yerevan: "A Georgian, who is at enmity with Armenians, is an enemy of Georgia. Likely, an Armenian, who is at enmity with Georgians, is first of all an enemy of Armenia".
But the post-soviet development of the Caucasian neighbours moves them in different directions. While Georgia establishes good partnership with Turkey and Azerbaijan, forming an East-West axis, Armenia's partner is Russia (North-South axis).
Analysts claim the Georgian-Turkish-Azerbaijani partnership is strategic. Armenia's relations with these countries, on the contrary, are hostile and more than complicated.
Armenia is in war with Azerbaijan, which refuses to establish any kind of relations with its Western neighbour until Karabakh is under Armenian de-facto control. In regards to Turkey, Armenia demands recognition of mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915 as a genocide (over 1,5 million were killed), which is categorically denounced by Turkey. The latter also backs Azerbaijan in the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.
An important role in the Georgian-Azerbaijani-Turkish partnership is implied to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan crude oil pipeline project. Turkey stresses importance of ensuring safety of the planned pipeline, as it will safeguard the interests of Azerbaijan and Central Asian countries with which it has ethnic ties, and who also are major oil producers, for whom the pipeline may become the best non-Russian way to the Western markets.
For Ankara, which has donated at least $13 million for Georgia's defense needs since 1997, Georgia is also militarily important as a balance to Russian-Armenian alliance in the Caucasus.
Several Turkish military delegations have visited Georgia over the past 12 months to train Georgian officers and help refurbish former Soviet military installations. One of these is the military airport in Marneuli, an Azeri-populated region close to the Armenian border. The possible accommodation of Turkish military airplanes on this airport raises serious concern in Armenia. Georgian officials deny existence of such possibility, calling it "absurd", however, a Turkish diplomat (ambassador to Azerbaijan, Unal Cevikoz) said the planes will be accommodated according to bilateral military agreements signed between Ankara and Tbilisi.
Georgia is an active member of a regional alliance, GUUAM (Georgia-Ukraine-Uzbekistan-Azerbaijan-Moldova). It was designed to promote trade among its members and lessen their energy dependence on Russia. This is also seen as a counterbalance to the Russia-dominated CIS and a military alliance known as the CIS Collective Security Treaty.
Armenia, on the contrary, is Russia's military partner in the region. This worries Georgia, which sees Russia as its opponent, and attributes to Russia most of its problems, first of all, the unresolved territorial issues.
However, in terms of economic cooperation, some Armenian analysts say the Armenian-Russian relations are deteriorating during the recent years. David Petrosian, a prominent Armenian journalist, says last year was "very, very uneven", as after a recent meeting of the Armenian-Russian Governmental Commission for Economic Cooperation, five big Armenian enterprises were given to Russia as a payment for $ 98 million debt.
Anyway, Armenians see their close ties with Russia as a shield from the Turkish domination in the region. The latter is desirable to Georgia as a counterbalance to the Russian domination. Armenia's president Robert Kocharian said in an interview to the Georgian Prime News Agency that the Russian military presence in the region should be taken as a stabilizing factor.
All this brings the Armenian-Georgian relations to the geostrategic level, where the small Caucasian nations are objects, and not subjects, because here interests of world powers are involved.
For Russia Armenia remains important as a possibility to preserve presence in the strategically important region. It is widely understood in Russia that if it looses influence in the Southern Caucasus, its positions in the Northern Caucasus will be seriously damaged.
Armenia in this regard is seen as a tool of influencing Southern Caucasus. This partnership also opens the North-South axis down to the Persian Golf through Iran.
Russia uses every instrument to preserve military bases in Georgia. One of the bases is in Akhalkalaki, where it established good relations with the local population, creating jobs for a significant number of people. According to Western publications, the Akhalkalaki base pays $ 80,000 per month as salaries to the local population. According to the Azerbaijani daily "Ekho", the arms of the two Russian bases in Georgia (Akhalkalaki and Batumi) exceed the overall armament of the Georgian army. Georgia wants both bases vacated within four years, while Russia says it may need up to 15 years to pull out for financial reasons.
Georgia is moving towards the West, which in military terms means US and NATO. So, it actively participates in the Partnership for Peace program, hosting NATO exercises and claiming its intentions to become a NATO member as soon as possible. In response, it enjoys technical and financial assistance in the military sphere from the West.
The American interests in the Caucasus are outlined by Zeyno Baran, of the Georgia Forum in US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies as "strengthening the independence and prosperity of the new Caspian states, bolstering regional cooperation, enhancing global energy security through the free-flow of Caspian oil and gas to world markets, and increasing investment opportunities for companies from the U.S. and other countries." In fact, this means using all possible tools to reduce the Russian domination in the region, and creation of a counterbalancing force. Georgia perfectly fits for this task.
So, on the geostrategic level Armenia and Georgia find themselves involved in clashes of diametrically opposed interests, which is dangerous for the region as a whole. "Armenia and Georgia need to develop their neighborhood relations," believes Vicken Cheterian, journalist from Geneva.
To conclude, the level of Armenian-Georgian relations at present shows a good balance of forces. However, they are endangered by the presence of too many factors, and especially by the relations of the two countries with regional and world powers. This brings to the forefront the traditional good neighbouring relations between the two nations, which may become an important factor to balance the political tensions. Another important factor of strengthening ties is direct economic cooperation. Enlarging trade between the two neighbours may bring forth common interests and reduce the influence of world powers and geostrategic collisions.
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