Author: Natig NAZIMOGHLU
Georgia is suffering from the largest crisis in relations with Russia since the end of the August 2008, which can result in complications in its economy and the efforts that Tbilisi is making to turn the country into an outpost of the West at a strategically important Eurasian intersection.
Having been triggered by the scandal around the participation of Russian deputy Sergei Gavrilov in the session of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy (IPAO) held in Tbilisi and the subsequent anti-Russian protests accompanied by bloody clashes between the police and demonstrators, the crisis takes on more unexpected outlines. If President Salome Zurabishvili's statement about Russia as an “enemy and occupier”, as well as the Kremlin’s decision to ban Russian flights to Georgia starting from 8 July fit into the logic of confrontation between Tbilisi and Moscow, then the incident with Georgy Gabunia of Georgian Rustavi-2 TV channel became unprecedented.
The Georgian journalist used obscene language on television about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his deceased parents, which was regarded as an unprecedented provocation not only from Russia, but also from the Georgian leadership and public. President Zurabishvili condemned the journalist for such an “unacceptable action for Georgia”, serving to “provoke a new war” and actually “damaging state interests”. Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze called the incident a "disgusting expression of provocation and an attempt to destabilize situation" inside the country, "a dirty and outrageous game with the security of the state and citizens."
Undoubtedly, the local political background is also clearly visible behind the anti-Russian demarche of the Georgian TV host, bearing in mind that the Rustavi-2 channel does not hide its opposition orientation, ties with former President Mikhail Saakashvili and his supporters from the United National Movement. So, it is quite possible that the journalist, through using obscene language against the Russian leader, tried not only to show his attitude towards the “enemy”, but also to provoke a new round of clashes between the authorities and the opposition within Georgia. Yet such an attitude can have the most unpleasant consequences for Georgia, primarily in the context of the country's foreign policy interests. Hence the unequivocal condemnation of the journalist by official Tbilisi, which, amidst the scandal at the IPAO session and subsequent protests, denied the existence of Russophobic sentiments in Georgia, and also tried to somehow mitigate the consequences of Putin’s decisions to ban air traffic between the countries.
However, immediately after the foul language on Rustavi-2, the Russian Foreign Ministry described the "provocation of the Georgian radical forces aimed at undermining Russian-Georgian relations" as "a vivid example of where far-going Russophobia leads." In addition, a number of Russian politicians, including representatives of all factions of the State Duma, began to call for the imposition of sanctions against Georgia, in particular - a ban on the supply of Georgian wine to Russia. This measure could cause considerable damage to Georgian winemaking, if we consider that last year 62.3% of the total export volume of Georgian wine fell on the Russian market.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin decided not to worsen relations with Georgia. “With regard to various kinds of sanctions against Georgia, I would not do this out of respect for the Georgian people,” Putin said commenting on the possibility of imposing sanctions against Tbilisi. At the same time, the Russian president expressed his desire to restore a full-fledged bilateral dialogue and not to undertake anything that could lead to a complication of relations with Georgia.
However, is it possible to improve relations between Georgia and Russia in the near future? Unfortunately, it is difficult to give a positive answer to this question. Not only because Moscow is still not averse to inflicting certain damage on the Georgian economy, as evidenced by the Russian refusal to cooperate with the southern neighbour in tourism. The root of the ongoing crisis in relations between Tbilisi and Moscow lie, on the one hand, in geopolitical struggle between Moscow and the Western centres of influence on Georgia, and on the other hand, Georgia’s attempts to find its alliance with the West in the bosom of the global world order promoted by Euro-Atlanticists.
Georgia turned to the West immediately after the collapse of the USSR and the restoration of the country's independence. However, rapprochement with the Euro-Atlantic centres inevitably caused problems in relations with Russia, a manifestation of which was Moscow’s explicit support for separatist forces in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Culmination of the confrontation was the August 2008, as a result of which Georgia paid for its pro-Western aspirations with the actual loss of rebel autonomies “thanks to” Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Facing one on one with Russia, little Georgia did not wait for real support from its new patrons, including the US and Europe. Nevertheless, in recent years, the Georgian drama has continued to develop amidst Tbilisi’s insistence in becoming part of NATO and the EU and, accordingly, the impossibility of finding a common language with Moscow. The last factor is particularly painful because, firstly, it causes new problems for the Georgian economy, since Russia and its market are the traditional areas of attraction for Tbilisi’s economic interests, and secondly, utopic hopes to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity. Coupled with the aggravation of domestic political struggle in the country, this whole matrix of unpleasant circumstances sometimes turns into the most unexpected and even ugly excesses in its ethical nature, such as the one expressed by the infamous Georgian journalist.
This vicious circle is becoming more closed on the interweaving of internal and foreign policy problems facing Georgia. Against this background, it is worth pointing out again the invaluable role of the closest strategic partner of Georgia - Azerbaijan - from the point of view of the interests of its state independence and economic development.
During all the years of Georgia’s independence, Azerbaijan has been a key external force influencing its political positions and economic potential. According to official statistics for 2018, Azerbaijan invested $240 million in Georgian economy, followed by the UK, the Netherlands and so on...
Along with Turkey and Russia, Azerbaijan is one of the three largest trading partners of Georgia: in 2018 turnover with these countries reached about $4.2 billion, which is about 33.4% of the total trade turnover of the country.
Georgia also benefits from all large-scale economic projects implemented with the participation and with the leading role of Azerbaijan, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Southern Gas Corridor, Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, which is increasingly becoming the mainline of the common Eurasian integration, a connecting link between West and East in the most important section of the Great Silk Road. The upcoming supplies of Azerbaijani gas from Shah Deniz-2 to Europe will be benefitial for both Azerbaijan and Georgia. SOCAR of Azerbaijan has already expressed readiness to start supplies through the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP). The natural gas, which promises to play an important role in ensuring the energy security of Europe, will flow from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, ultimately reaching Italy through the Turkish-Greek border through the Trans-Adriatic gas pipeline (TAP).
All these projects, even in Georgia's most difficult times, are hinting the most promising source of the country's welfare. No less important is the military-political component of our cooperation. Georgian experts recognise the increasing role of the “triangle” between Baku, Tbilisi and Ankara. The proof of such cooperation is evident: successfully held trilateral military exercises, regular meetings of defence ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey (the last one was held a month ago in Gabala), conclusion of the Giresun agreement on trilateral military cooperation, etc.
Azerbaijan acts as a hub of regional integration, one of the leading drives of multilateral cooperation formats, including the aforementioned three of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, as well as Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia and Iran. That is why Baku is interested in the earliest possible regulation of relations between Russia and Georgia, as our country is linked with each of these countries through friendly cooperation.
However, the significant role of Azerbaijan in the fate of the region and Georgia, in particular, does not make the main violator of regional peace, Armenia, which continues to occupy the territories of Azerbaijan and more openly claims the Georgian region of Javakheti, unhappy. It is not surprising that at the difficult time that Georgia is experiencing now, Armenian media is trying hard to drive a wedge between Tbilisi and Baku, while official Yerevan is desperately trying to push through the establishment of land connection with Russia through Georgia and its rebellious autonomies.
Recently, Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani acknowledged that Azerbaijan is Georgia’s main strategic partner. “We cannot spoil relations with the main strategic partner,” minister said. The last remark sounds very reasonable given the efforts of certain forces both outside and inside Georgia to damage the strategic partnership between Baku and Tbilisi, traditional relations of friendship and cooperation, the value of which becomes even more obvious in such a difficult time for Georgia, facing the crisis of relations with Russia and growing political instability and economic problems.