The Azerbaijan-Georgian relations have been on the top of the political agendas in the both countries in the recent months. We talked to Dr. George Mchedlishvili from Georgia to understand what caused misunderstandings between Baku and Tbilisi and what to expect further.
How do you estimate the latest tension about the Azerbaijan-Georgia border? What factors brought it to life?
Unfortunately, this is yet another legacy of the Soviet Union. Despite its political demise occurred nearly 28 years ago, some of the issues are yet to be solved. One those is related to the borders: as in the Soviet Union the borders between the constituent union republics were not official state borders and virtually transparent, and understandably not too much importance was attached to them. There were of course maps issued at the time, but even those show minor discrepancies as far as the exact borderline is concerned. And for 28 years since the restoration of our independence, the successive political leaderships in the two countries have been kicking the can down the road, well aware of the difficulties that the border delineation would have entailed. Particularly in the late 1990s and 2000s, when the two countries were solidifying their strategic cooperation through vital energy projects like BTC and South Caucasus (natural gas) pipeline. Understandably, it was viewed appropriate to put the issue on the back burner. But the border demarcation commission was nonetheless established, and they did meet relatively regularly for a number of years, managing to demarcate about 2/3 of the state border between the states, albeit less controversial parts.
So, the low activity of the commission periodically brings to fore the border issue. It is usually tied to some other question and should be viewed in the context. It might be ensuring security during the Formula-1 Baku Tour or to hint indirectly that more cooperation is expected on other issue. Unfortunately, the involvement of the external factor (for instance Russia) is also not excluded, particularly when the eternal question "Cui Bono?", ("Who benefits?") is asked. It's not a secret that Russia might have a stake in deterioration, or at least weakening, of the strategic ties and friendship between Azerbaijan and Georgia.
What do you consider the best approach to resolving this contentious issue, and what can the role of international organisations or mediators be?
Negotiations and continued work of the Commission are key, along with the political will to get this job done and particularly while demarcating sensitive parts of the border like the David Gareji monastic complex. I do not even exclude some very minor quid pro quo territorial swaps in order to smoothen potential differences. The most crucial thing to understand is that strategic partnership between the two countries is too important to be allowed to weaken because of the border issue. At this point, the only international organization that comes to mind is UNESCO, which has vast experience in managing cultural heritage even in conflict areas, let alone some controversial parts of the state border.
How do you estimate the Azerbaijan-Georgia relations? What are the major ups and downs, and what are potential threats to successful cooperation and partnership?
The contemporary political and economic ties between Georgia and Azerbaijan date to early-mid 1990s, when harsh geopolitical necessity and massive common challenges both countries faced, like lost wars, hundreds of thousands of IDPs exacerbated by overall economic meltdown necessitated partnership between Baku and Tbilisi. Energy corridors, created by our two countries and Turkey, with serious political backing on the part of the United States, were not just profitable economic projects sending Azerbaijani oil and gas to Europe bypassing Russia, they were the projects that strengthened the very statehood and economic self-reliance of our countries. Those years cemented not only interstate relations, but personal ties between the country leaders as well as the people. Peoples of Georgia and Azerbaijan like to travel and visit each other. Despite a degree of cooling over the last several years, I believe the geopolitical stakes are too high, although maybe not as vital as they were 20-25 years ago.
What has changed in the bilateral relations since Ms. Zourabichvili was elected President, and do you consider her a more difficult partner for Baku?
Salome Zourabichvili is an experienced diplomat, but her experience mainly stems from a well-structured and far more civilized domestic and international politics of France. In a no-holds-barred atmosphere of Georgia’s domestic politics, she feels considerably less comfortable. Add to this a very controversial second round of the 2018 presidential election, where Zourabichvili won only through a considerable deployment of administrative resources by the ruling Georgian Dream party, which detracts from her legitimacy and curtails her ability to serve as a genuinely independent (which she formally is) head of state. All these circumstances, along with vastly reduced presidential powers by the latest amendments in the Constitution of Georgia, render her a weakened political figure. Therefore, her capacity to significantly influence the relations between the two countries is limited, despite her apparent will to improve the ties, which, as I have already mentioned, somewhat cooled lately.
What impact is the latest crisis between Georgia and Russia likely to exert on Tbilisi's political and economic cooperation with Baku?
The latest crisis is still in progress and, given how it proceeds, the scenario whereby Russia expects (or requests/demands) Azerbaijan to be less friendly to Georgia is not entirely excluded. In 2007, when the Kremlin was trying hard to strangle Georgia economically and in terms of energy security, Azerbaijan has virtually come to Tbilisi’s rescue, defying Moscow’s expectations. I hope this time Baku will not be confronted with such stark a choice, given that Georgia today is less vulnerable compared to previous decade. That said, the fact that Azerbaijani delegation voted unanimously for the restoration of Russia’s voting rights in PACE was not lost on Georgia, and Tbilisi hopes that on more fundamental issues the obligations of strategic cooperation between our two countries will prevail. Our countries’ friendship is too important for both of us, as well as for regional stability and economic prospects.
George Mchedlishvili is a Ph.D. in Political Science (2006, Tbilisis State University). He is currently an associate professor at the International Black Sea University in Tbilisi, as well as an invited lecturer at the Tbilisi State University, Caucasus University and the University of Georgia. His lecture courses include "Foreign Policy Analysis", "South Caucasus in Global Politics", "Post-Soviet Politics", "Nuclear Weapons' Proliferation and Non-Proliferation", "International Relations Theories". From mid-2016 to February 2019 George worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the capacity of a Counselor of the Strategic Communications Department. In January-June 2016 George was an invited Carnegie fellowship researcher and lecturer at the Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. In 2013 Dr. Mchedlishvili was a Robert Bosch fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). George has been an invited lecturer in the universities of Tartu, Estonia (2009) and Malmo, Sweden (2019). In 2006-2007 he worked in the World Security Institute (Washington, DC) as a part of the "South Caucasus Project", together with his Armenian and Azerbaijani colleagues.