The Georgian-Azerbaijani relationship in the late 1990s

May 02, 1999 02:00 AM

by Manos Karagiannis

Over the past few years, the Georgian-Azerbaijani partnership in the field of oil transportation has moved forward in spite of the region's instability.
Both countries view the transportation of energy resources as the key to independence and as a result, a strong partnership has emerged between them. Revenues earned from oil transits have the potential to foster national unity and diffuse ethnic tensions in both countries by improving social welfare for all groups, thereby strengthening the status of ruling regimes.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev are aware of this potential, and their aggressive pursuit of oil transport reflects this perception.
Moreover, the successful construction of the Baku-Supsa early oil pipeline, while building confidence in prospects for the development of a Eurasian Transport Corridor, has heralded the beginning of a new era in relations between the two countries.
Azerbaijan and Georgia both suffered politically and economically in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each country has an interest in maintaining independence and resisting Russian interference in its internal affairs, particularly in light of the ethnic disputes that have plagued the recent histories of both. Unlike Armenia, which became the most homogenous former Soviet Union republic after the Azerbaijani minority fled in 1988-89, Georgia and Azerbaijan are ethnically diverse states that are easily vulnerable to Russian manipulation. Indeed, Russia has worked toward weakening Azerbaijan and Georgia, undermining non-Russian oil routes in the region and controlling access to Caspian oil.
Therefore, both countries have resisted all moves towards further strengthening of the CIS at the expense of their sovereignty. They see the Commonwealth of Independent States chiefly as an instrument of Russian influence over the post-Soviet republics and want to broaden their international contacts Westward. They seek security through Western mechanisms, principally NATO.

The two states realised the potential of co-operation very quickly after gaining independence. This in turn led to a remarkable improvement in the political and security links between them. Given Azerbaijan's wish for a strong link to Turkey and the West, Georgia is crucial to Azerbaijan: Tbilisi is Baku's link to the West, to Europe, to Turkey. Similarly, Georgia has found it logical and necessary to improve relations with Azerbaijan despite Christian Georgians' traditional distrust of Muslims, which was exacerbated by the North Caucasian groups' alliance with the Abkhazians in their war of secession from Georgia.
This is not a totally new development. It was in Tbilisi's interest in 1918-1920 to develop better relations with Baku because of the country's dependence on oil. Armenia had little to offer Georgia, and mutual territorial claims brought both countries to war in 1918, soon after the collapse of the tsarist regime. This is not unlike the situation today: Energy-dependent Georgia still gives priority to its relations with Azerbaijan since the Baku-Supsa pipeline is of considerable importance to the strained Georgian economy. As a result, Georgians are more favourably disposed to Azeris than Armenians.
Indeed, Georgia's interests and orientations coincide in many respects with those of Azerbaijan. Both Tbilisi and Baku seek the restoration of territorial integrity and full independence from Moscow. Yerevan, on the other hand, will for the foreseeable future be dependent on the Russian presence in the Caucasus. It supports the countervailing principle of self-determination of minorities, in particular for the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Nevertheless, Tbilisi maintained an impartial position during the Nagorno-Karabakh war and was sufficiently pragmatic to keep on good terms with Armenia as well as Azerbaijan, a move that helped to provide Georgia with an important outlet to the Middle East and Iran.

Baku and Tbilisi have also become the leaders of a much tighter grouping of states that share significant common interests: the so-called GUAM alliance, which includes Ukraine and Moldova as well as Georgia and Azerbaijan. An interesting development of last year was that co-operation between members of GUAM moved into the military field. In May 1998, the four countries announced plans to create a common peacekeeping battalion. This seemed a clear attempt to avoid in the future duplicating the present reliance on Russian peacekeepers, especially in Georgia.
In early December of 1998, Georgian officials proposed that the four countries form such a peacekeeping force to promote regional security and guard the Baku-Supsa pipeline. In a bid to demonstrate their determination to ensure the pipeline's security, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine conducted in mid-April of 1999 -- beginning just days before the inauguration of the Baku-Supsa pipeline -- a four-day joint military exercise near Tbilisi. The exercise was conducted in three stages: a simulated terrorist attack with dynamite on the pipeline; destruction of the terrorist group; and construction of a bypass pipeline to ensure continuous flow of oil.
Despite these signs of closeness, however, bilateral relations have been complicated by the presence of a large ethnic Azeri minority within Georgia. With a religious revival taking place among the Georgian population, Tbilisi has increasingly begun to regard the Georgian Orthodox Church as an integral feature of Georgian nationalism. This Christian-tinged nationalism has increased tension between the majority Christian population and the Muslim Azeri minority in south-west Georgia. Indeed, clashes occurred in the Marneuli district near Tbilisi, where many Azeris live, in the early 1990s. Such incidents have raised fears in Baku that refugees may flee to Azerbaijan from Georgia.
Furthermore, there is a possibility that border disputes could arise between Georgia and Azerbaijan: Georgia might claim the north-western part of Azerbaijan, while Baku might demand the south-eastern part of Georgia from Tbilisi. Such scenarios represent the worst case for the Azerbaijani-Georgian relationship. But if they come to pass, they could in turn jeopardise the flow of Azerbaijani oil via the Baku-Supsa route.
However, Baku has so far showed no willingness to interfere in Georgian domestic affairs, and President Aliyev has consistently expressed his support for Georgia's territorial integrity. That stance is hardly surprising in the light of Baku's problems with breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh. More importantly, Azerbaijan's plans to become a major oil-exporting country in the 21st century are conditional on its ability to maintain friendly relations with its neighbours, particularly Georgia. Since ties with other neighbours are strained -- the prospects for a negotiated settlement of the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh are bleak and U.S.-Iranian relations remain tense -- Georgia appears to be the only reliable partner that can provide Azerbaijan with access to Western markets.But while Baku depends on Georgia for its overland ties with Europe, Georgia depends on Azerbaijan for its economic improvement. In face of Russia's neo-imperial policy towards the newly independent republics of the South Caucasus, any future Georgian government is likely to consider bilateral relations with Baku as too important to be spoiled by minority issues. Moreover, the Baku-Supsa pipeline and the development of a Eurasian Transport Corridor are seen as a means of undercutting Russia's influence in the Transcaucasus -- to the benefit of peace and stability in the region.Although there are some potential areas of tension, therefore, the two countries are highly likely to remain keen on fostering co-operation in the field of oil transportation and security.

Source: NewsBase
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