Ivanishvili Talks Georgian Politics

Bidzina Ivanishvili

Bidzina Ivanishvili

In light of the recent scandal in Georgia surrounding former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, the Georgian billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili gave an extensive interview on 8 November to the Georgian Public Broadcaster. For observers of Georgian and Caucasus politics, it was perhaps the most insightful interview Ivanishvili gave since he left office as Prime Minister one year ago.

Commenting on the case, Ivanishvili emphasized that it was not a crisis.

“There were some problems which were not pleasant,” he stated, “but this is not a political crisis of the government. There were some signs but all problems have practically been solved.”

“Of course in a short-term perspective,” he added, “there is nothing good in what has happened, but after everything settles and all the questions are answered, I do not think that it will harm the country in the strategic [long-term perspective] and it even might be good. At least we should try to turn it into benefit for the country.”

Bidzina Ivanishvili (TASS)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (TASS)

He also accused the media, especially the UNM-backed network Rustavi-2, of hyping up the issue. The billionaire has set his own sights on hosting a talk show on Georgian television. “There is a vacuum in objective information and objective analysis,” he said, “which misleads many experts.” He added that he hopes his new television program will adequately address that concern.  In this regard, he has started “2030,” a new organization which derives its name from Ivanishvili’s vision of realizing a prosperous and advanced Georgia within 20 years. The organization will reportedly “prepare analysts” to appear on Ivanishvili’s new television program, which would also be called “2030” and which would be broadcast weekly for about an hour.

Ivanishvili also spoke about relations with former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, calling his allegations about the Defense Ministry “irresponsible.” With regard to the case, he noted that Alasania still has not addressed “serious questions” over the way in which the Defense Ministry handled the money and noted the suspicious haste in which ministry officials paid contract costs to winner companies in advance.

“The question is why the ministry hurried to make payment in advance, when it has no money for ammunition?” Ivanishvili openly wondered.

Irakli Alasania

Irakli Alasania

In the meantime, Alasania was elected the official party chairman of the Free Democrats on 8 December. He pledged to bring the party to victory in the 2016 parliamentary elections and also gave a strong diatribe against Russia and what he called Russian “imperial fundamentalism.” Calling Georgia a “sworn enemy” of Russia, the hawkish Alasania declared that “today Russia continues implementing its imperial fundamentalist ideas and plans in Ukraine.”

In response to Alasania’s election as chair of the Free Democrats, Ivanishvili stated, “I told him [at the 7 November meeting] that it was not worth it to be elected party chairman in such a situation. Speaking simply, when there are many questions about a leader, the latter must not damage his party and team members. Even if he was the party chairman, he should have resigned. But on the contrary, he was elected chairman and this is a wrong decision from my point of view.”

Ivanishvili said that he “respected” the Free Democrats but that they left the coalition “at the wrong time and for the wrong reason.” However, he maintained that this was not unusual since parties leave coalitions in “all democratic countries” and that “we should use all events for the benefit of our country.” Ivanishvili also said that he was not a “revenge-seeking person” and that he had “nothing personal” against Alasania and that he wants him to have a “good future.”

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Press office photo)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Press office photo)

“I wish them [the Free Democrats] success, there are many friends in the party.” He added that the “positive side” of the split of the Free Democrats is the emergence of a “constructive opposition” inside and outside of Parliament, “unlike [Mikheil Saakashvili’s] UNM.”

Ivanishvili also addressed his intervention in the recent scandal noting that such occurrences were and continue to be very rare. “God forbid – something disastrous should happen in order [for my intervention] to become necessary.”

Ivanishvili then discussed criticism in this regard from President Margvelashvili. Though Margvelashvili sided with the pragmatists in the Alasania scandal by not challenging the dismissal of Alasania, he has also stated, in an apparent jab to Ivanishvili, that “the country should be ruled with strong institutions and not from the backstage.” His comment came amid a falling-out between the President and the billionaire.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Mzia Saganelidze / RFE/RL)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Mzia Saganelidze / RFE/RL)

Ivanishvili took exception with Margvelashvili’s remark, calling it “irresponsible” and that it was “an insult for the government and an insult for me too” emphasizing that “such allegations are insulting and absolutely groundless.” Making a distinction between “giving advice” to the government and “ruling” the government from “backstage,” he also stated:

It is just impossible to rule the government from the backstage; who has any slightest idea of management, [knows] that it is impossible to manage the government from the backstage. I was in Ureki [at his Black Sea dacha] for six months and I’ve seen Garibashvili only once. Now look at this from my perspective – how [this allegation] insults me. How can you imagine me – with my biography and my past, I did as I said: I came [into power] and then quit… If I wanted to be in politics I could have stayed, who was obstructing me?

As time goes by, Irakli [Garibashvili] is disturbing me less [with questions] and I am very happy about it. If previously he was calling me on phone once in a month or week, now two months can pass without him calling me.

Ivanishvili and Margvelashvili in happier times (Agenda.ge)

Ivanishvili and Margvelashvili in happier times (Agenda.ge)

Ivanishvili then turned to Margvelashvili’s performance as president, criticizing him for “weakening” and “devaluing” the presidency. He critiqued his veto in parliament as a “veto for the sake of vetoing,” just to flex his presidential muscle and “compete” with the government. He likewise criticized Margvelashvili’s many trips abroad and did not understand why Margvelashvili needed to attend the UN Conference on Developing Landlocked Countries in Austria when Georgia is not landlocked. “Like it was a visit just for the sake of visit, he vetoed the bill for the sake of vetoing.”

He also returned to earlier criticism of Margvelashvili, such as his decision to take up residence in the Saakashvili-era glass-dome presidential palace and for also allegedly holding up the declassification of Saakashvili’s controversial spending records. He said that even though he does not “have much suspicion” of Margvelashvili being in collusion with the UNM, “his actions and interests are very much consistent with those of the [UNM].” Indeed, Margvelashvili’s loyalties appear to oscillate between the pragmatists and the hardliners in Georgia depending on how a given situation develops, though he remains in favor of peaceful dialogue with Moscow.  Most of all, it is clear that he seems to simply relish the idea of being “the President.”

Relishing the Presidential post, Giorgi Margvelashvili arrives with his wife Maka Chichua in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on his way back to from a visit to Japan. (Press office photo)

Relishing the Presidential post, Giorgi Margvelashvili arrives with his wife Maka Chichua in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on his way back from a visit to Japan. (Press office photo)

It is unclear what the precise outcome of the ongoing row between Margvelashvili and Ivanishvili will be. There could be a direct meeting between the two in order to create a common dialogue that will resolve their differences. An alternative might be that Margvelashvili, who is not a member of the Georgian Dream or any other party, steps down from his post. A third scenario would be the status quo, in which Margvelashvili will remain as President and continue periodic conflicts with the government, acting as a “decision maker” and a “wild card” factor in Georgian politics. For the time being, this third scenario appears to be most likely.

Aside from Margvelashvili’s veto, Ivanishvili did not comment directly on the debate regarding surveillance regulation in Georgia, though he generally praised the Interior Ministry and appeared to lean more toward their position on the issue.

Ivanishvili and Garibashvili (Tabula)

Ivanishvili and Garibashvili (Tabula)

Additionally, Ivanishvili praised the work of Prime Minister Garibashvili in responding to the Alasania scandal, calling him “a very strong individual and a very strong practitioner.” However, he did criticize Garibashvili’s remarks on Alasania, which he said were “unacceptable” but which he attributed to “emotionalism” and “inexperience.” Still, he emphasized that, as a Prime Minister, Garibashvili is “very sincere, very efficient and energetic” and that he “works round the clock.”

Overall, Ivanishvili’s assessments appeared largely balanced, measured, and sensible. He was cool, calm, and in control in his responses. The interview, broadcast on Georgian public television, likely will have the overall impact of heightening his popularity in Georgian society. By contrast, Alasania, who still commands a popular following, will likely see his credibility eroded by this most recent scandal, while Mikheil Saakashvili and his UNM – despite a planned upcoming rally – appear more politically marginal than ever.

Overall, Ivanishvili remains a true Georgian patriot and perhaps the greatest statesman Georgia has seen in its recent political history. Thus his interview is important for those closely following developments in Georgia, the Caucasus, and the former Soviet space.

Russia and Georgia: In Search of a Caucasian Peace

Ivanishvili after his election victory, October 2012 (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

Ivanishvili after his election victory, October 2012 (David Mdzinarishvili / Reuters)

In October 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition swept into power, dealing a severe blow to the ruling party of Mikheil Saakashvili. First and foremost, the Georgian billionaire promised to adopt a more pragmatic approach toward relations with Russia and to entice its breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia by peaceful, diplomatic means.

Two years later, Russo-Georgian relations are at a standstill. Communications appeared to be heading toward a thaw in February when, during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to meet the newly-elected Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Such a meeting would have been the first between the Russian and Georgian leaderships since the 2008 South Ossetian war. However, this proposed summit was postponed indefinitely, overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.

Russo-Georgian relations remained in a state of “freeze” since that time. Meanwhile, in the absence of official diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, the region is becoming increasingly more militarized. Encouraged by Washington, Tbilisi continues to pursue NATO and was recently granted a NATO security package at the recent NATO Summit in Wales. Among other things, the package allows for the establishment of a NATO training facility on Georgian territory and for NATO to “occasionally” hold military exercises in Georgia.

USS Mount Whitney in Batumi (Civil.ge)

USS Mount Whitney in Batumi (Civil.ge)

Moscow has reacted to this with alarm. Indeed, their fears seemed confirmed when, on October 13, it was announced that the USS Mount Whitney, the flagship for the US 6th Fleet in Europe, would land at Batumi. According to Washington, the visit was intended to “strengthen ties with NATO allies and partners like Georgia, while working toward mutual goals of promoting peace and stability in the Black Sea region.”

That same day, Moscow proposed a treaty of “Alliance and Integration” with Abkhazia as a means of strengthening ties with the rebel region.  Among other things, the proposed draft called for a total standardization of the Abkhaz and Russian militaries and for additional Russian troops to be stationed along the de facto Abkhaz-Georgian border. It also called for looser border restrictions, a standardization of Abkhazia’s customs legislation with that of the Eurasian Union, a gradual “harmonization” of Sukhumi’s budgetary and tax policies with Moscow’s, and for Russian diplomatic aid in expanding Abkhazia’s international recognition.

Moscow’s move was likely a gambit to call Tbilisi’s bluff on its NATO aspirations. It also indirectly signals to Georgia that it regards NATO as a very serious threat to its security. It further communicates that while Tbilisi still has a realistic chance at reconciliation with Sukhumi now, it may lose such an opportunity permanently if it continues to pursue NATO membership.

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (Mikhail Mokrushin / RIA Novosti)

Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba (Mikhail Mokrushin / RIA Novosti)

As expected, the draft agreement was received negatively by official Tbilisi, which warned that it “will seriously endanger the process of normalization of the Georgian-Russian relations” and may represent a de facto “annexation of Abkhazia.” The Abkhaz have reacted negatively as well. Though most Abkhaz support the idea of one day joining the Eurasian Union and of having Moscow’s backing on security, they see the proposed treaty as going too far and “infringing on Abkhaz sovereignty.” Even the new Abkhaz President Raul Khajimba, who is usually known to be close to the Kremlin, spoke out against it.

Zurab Abashidze (RFE/RL)

Zurab Abashidze (RFE/RL)

Talks in Prague between Tbilisi’s special envoy to Moscow, Zurab Abashidze, and his counterpart Grigory Karasin, have failed to yield results. Meanwhile, Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and at least one politician from within the ruling Georgian Dream coalition have called for a total cessation of any dialogue with Moscow. Indeed, UNM members have argued that the Abkhaz treaty is clear proof of Moscow’s sinister intentions toward Georgia. Consequently, in their view, there is no purpose for future talks and they should be cancelled completely. Of course, such a reckless move would have negative implications for both Georgia and Russia. Abashidze, a veteran diplomat from Shevardnadze-era Georgia and from the USSR, knows this better than anyone and has been quick to defend continued talks.

Do these most recent developments indicate an end to the efforts by the Georgian government toward a Russo-Georgian rapprochement? Are the options for a peaceful and diplomatic solution between both sides exhausted?

Hopefully not.

Both Moscow and Tbilisi are still searching for the right moment to reset relations beyond practical economic and trade issues. In fact, as it became increasingly apparent that the ceasefire in Ukraine’s Donbas appeared to be holding, Georgian President Margvelashvili expressed renewed interest in finally realizing his proposed meeting with Putin.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (President.gov.ge)

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (President.gov.ge)

In media interviews in September and October, Georgia’s philosopher-president stressed that relations between Tbilisi and Moscow must first be eased before serious talks can begin on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He likewise warned Moscow of the potential danger of the status quo, and expressed interest in greater dialogue.

In one such interview with the Georgian edition of Forbes magazine on 8 October, Margvelashvili stated that “it is difficult to talk about Putin in such an open discussion. Putin is interesting to me as the real decision-maker in the most difficult issues for Georgia. I do not personally know him, but I hope he is rational and supports a rational policy. I hope at some point it will be possible to construct the Georgian-Russian relations in favor of our countries’ interests. I hope for this.”

A potential Putin-Margvelashvili meeting would do much to improve relations between both countries and may even lead to a future compromise resolution over Georgia’s breakaways. While it is difficult to imagine that Russia would simply “unrecognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is possible that Moscow could offer an equitable solution to the problem through a co-equal federal or confederal structure among Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Tskhinvali. A Moscow-backed peace deal between Georgia and its breakaways would also ameliorate Russia’s concerns of seeing an enlarged NATO on its southern flank.

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili in a football friendly between Georgia and South Ossetia. (InterPress News Agency)

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili in a football friendly between Georgia and South Ossetia. (InterPress News Agency)

In this regard, Georgia has sought to pursue a more balanced policy toward its estranged regions, emphasizing peaceful dialogue and coexistence as opposed to military confrontation. On 12 October, the Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili engaged in one peace initiative with his Ossetian counterparts by donning a football jersey. He and other members of the Georgian government, together with current and former Georgian football players, engaged representatives from South Ossetia in a football friendly in the city of Gori. The captain of the Georgian team, Garibashvili, decided to switch sides in the second half and joined the South Ossetians. The game ended 4:4 in yet another variation of Caucasian “football diplomacy.”

“We don’t want to be enemies of Ossetian and Abkhazian brothers, we want fraternity with them and today’s game was a clear demonstration of it,” stated the Prime Minister after the match. “I have an amazing feeling. It was a step towards confidence building. I am so glad that our Ossetian brothers have so sound generation. I am really in a good mood. I felt love and friendship coming from them.”

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili (Vano Shlamov / AFP)

Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili (Vano Shlamov / AFP)

Garibashvili has been another voice of reason in Georgia, calling for the continuation of talks and dialogue. Reacting to the proposed Abkhaz treaty, he emphasized that Moscow confirmed that the treaty was still incomplete and remained only “under consideration.”

“I am very interested in the Russian government’s final position,” he said. “I do not want to believe that the Russian government intends to respond to our constructive and pragmatic policy by such a step. This should not be in anyone’s interest.”

He continued stated that “we started a direct dialogue, which was a direct recommendation from the international community. We successfully continued the pragmatic policy, launched by Bidzina Ivanishvili as early as two years ago, and as a result of this the trade and economic relations were normalized with Russia, resulting in increased export to Russia. We have not spared our efforts to demonstrate that we are a maximally pragmatic, constructive and stable government.”

At the same time, he also noted that such efforts still have “not significantly affected the political situation” outside of trade and economic ties. Indeed, immediate talks between Moscow and Tbilisi would be in the best interests of both countries. In this regard, a direct meeting between Putin and Margvelashvili would do much to restore confidence on both sides and would lead to a serious and constructive dialogue on important and difficult issues. Overall, it is clear that diplomacy is the best route toward normalization, compromise, and resolution.

UPDATE (20 October 2014): Vano Machavariani, the Former Foreign Affairs Advisor to the President of Georgia has stated today that Tbilisi had been preparing for a direct meeting between Margvelashvili and Putin but that it had been indefinitely postponed due to the “government’s reluctance.”  While he notes that the situation is “more complicated now” and that “it is difficult to organize a high-level meeting,” he also emphasized that such a meeting is still possible

“If the partner countries will engage in [this meeting],” he stated, “some steps can be taken.”  He also maintained that such a move is particularly important now, given the recent controversy over Moscow’s proposed treaty with Abkhazia.

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Davit Zalkaliani and Tbilisi’s envoy to Moscow Zurab Abashidze have stated that they were unaware of such preparations.  However, Zalkaliani does not exclude that Machavariani may have been pursuing extra diplomatic efforts.  He also noted too that a potential visit is still possible.

“As you know, the organization of a visit is a very serious matter and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be involved in it,” he stated.  “All organizational issues are agreed on through diplomatic channels. We do not have diplomatic relations with Russia. Hence, it should have been done through the Swiss Confederation, though we have not sent any note or letter.”

Abkhazia’s Man of the Hour

Abkhaz President-Elect Raul Khajimba (ITAR-TASS / Valery Matytsin)

Abkhaz President-Elect Raul Khajimba (ITAR-TASS / Valery Matytsin)

Abkhazia’s Raul Khajimba is the man of the hour. The victor of Abkhazia’s snap presidential election on Sunday, Khajimba has appealed to many Abkhaz as both a man of action and as a patriot. A nationalist with a history of refusing compromise with Georgia, let alone granting ethnic Georgians Abkhaz citizenship, Khajimba may be a cause of concern for some in the region. However, behind his nationalist posturing, he may also be the man to bring about a compromise, the kind that could help unite a region that is increasingly fragmented by ongoing geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West.

Georgia has signed on to a European economic and political Association Agreement, and more hawkish members of Tbilisi’s political elite insist that it join NATO. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Tbilisi’s two breakaways, remain in a sort of geopolitical limbo, recognized by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru but not by the rest of the world. Further south, Armenia has signed on to join the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union. To the east, oil-rich Azerbaijan, under the autocratic regime of Ilham Aliyev, remains free of any geopolitical union. Yet, Baku’s penchant for human rights abuses and bellicose statements regarding Armenia and the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh continue to be a cause for concern. Meanwhile, the crisis and conflict in Ukraine continues.

It is far from certain what path Khajimba will take Abkhazia. If he pursues a narrow ethno-nationalist policy, then it is doubtful that it will be beneficial for the Caucasus region as a whole, let alone Abkhazia. However, he could instead opt for a more pragmatic policy and use his position to pursue a path of engagement.

A good starting point would be the Abkhaz-Georgian railway, which directly linked Armenia with Russia in Soviet times and which was closed during the war in Abkhazia of the 1990s. Armenia and the Armenian community of Abkhazia have signaled their support for such an initiative. In Georgia too, Bidzina Ivanishvili, during his tenure as Prime Minister, sought to put this issue on the table.  Though vocally opposed by Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) party, the opening of the railway with Abkhazia has widespread popular support in Georgia.  Meanwhile, Abkhazia’s political elite has been uncertain about opening the railway.  No serious action toward a resolution of this issue alone has appeared in either Tbilisi or Sukhumi beyond mere rhetoric.

Khajimba could make this happen to the benefit of Abkhazia, Georgia, Russia, and Armenia. Such a move would also set in motion the right process to engage in broader dialogue between the Abkhaz, Georgians, and Russians on issues such as a compromise resolution on the Abkhaz conflict. This would bode well for the stability of the Caucasus region as a whole.

Khajimba does indeed have connections in Moscow and received his first congratulations from Russian President Putin, even before the official announcement of his victory in Sukhumi’s Apsny Press agency. Notably, in 2004, Putin favored Khajimba for President of Abkhazia.

The newly-elected Abkhaz leader’s Kremlin connections may make him more amiable to a pragmatic political solution. However, this requires political will and, even more importantly, courage. Whether or not Khajimba opts for a path of informed pragmatism vs. one of narrow nationalism remains to be seen. Though one thing is for certain, Abkhazia, Georgia, and the Caucasus can only benefit from peace.

UPDATE (28 August 2014): On August 27, Khajimba met Putin personally at Novo-Ogaryovo near Moscow.  The talks were focused on enhanced cooperation between Abkhazia and Russia.  In an exclusive interview with ITAR-TASS, the Abkhaz leader noted that he was considering reducing Abkhazia’s border checkpoints with Georgia.  He also indicated that he was open to dialogue with Georgia but stressed that this can only be possible if Georgia signs a non-use-of-force agreement.  “We understand we won’t get away from Georgia as a neighbor anywhere, we’re destined to live side by side and to build up a relationship that will make it possible for us to minimize external risks and threats,” he said.

 

Who Are the Yazidis of the Former Soviet Space?

Yazidis Girls Near Mt. Aragats, Armenia (Bo Løvschall)

Yazidi girls in the vicinity of Mt. Aragats, Armenia (Bo Løvschall)

Recently the news has been replete with headlines about the atrocities being committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or simply the “Islamic State”) against the Yazidi people. Who are the Yazidis, exactly?

The Yazidi are an ethnoreligious group of Kurds who speak the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish. Approximately 640,000 live in Iraq.  The next largest concentration of Yazidis in the world is actually in the former Soviet Union where about 100,000 reside. These ex-Soviet Yazidis are divided among three former Soviet republics: Russia, Armenia, and Georgia. In Iraq, they write Kurmanji using the Perso-Arabic script. In the former USSR, they use Cyrillic.

Melek Taus

Melek Taus

The Yazidis follow a unique faith that seemingly fuses together Islamic Sufi, Christian, and Zoroastrian beliefs. They worship Melek Taus, the “Peacock Angel,” who, according to their tradition, temporarily fell from God’s grace but was later redeemed. The mistaken association of the Melek Taus with Satan by other religions has led to the persecution of the Yazidis as “devil-worshipers,” the atrocities by the ISIL being among the worst in their history. They observe many ritual traditions, including an annual pilgrimage for seven days to the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in Lalish, north of Mosul in Iraq. As previously mentioned, the Yazidis also speak Kurmanji and have Kurdish cultural traditions. Yet, many prefer the designation “Yazidi” over “Kurd.” In some Western publications, they are occasionally referred to as the “Yazidi Kurds.”

Yazidis Fleeing Violence in Iraq (Reuters)

Yazidis fleeing violence in Iraq (Reuters)

Traditionally, Yazidis lived between northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey. However, due to oppression and religious persecution, many have fled. In recent years, especially due to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and the Iraq War, many emigrated to Europe, particularly to Germany and Sweden.

However, the first community of Yazidi immigrants emerged in the 19th century, when many fled to Tsarist Russia, escaping religious persecution in the Ottoman Empire. They fled over the border into the Russian Caucasus where they principally established themselves in Armenia and Georgia. Others fled further north to Russia proper. A second wave came in the early 20th century when they were targeted alongside Armenians during the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire.

Avant-garde poster for the NEP-era Soviet Armenian film Zare (1927) about the Yazidi Kurds.

Avant-garde poster for the NEP-era Soviet Armenian film Zare (1927) about the Yazidis.  Watch the full film restored on YouTube here from EzidiTV.ru in association with ArmenFilm.

In Armenia, the Yazidis form the country’s largest ethnic minority (about 1% of the population) in an otherwise homogeneous country (98% Armenian). Most are largely concentrated in the provinces (marzer) of Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat. They generally tend to be well-integrated into Armenian society. They have a history of good relations with the Armenians. The 19th century Armenian writer Khachatur Abovyan was a great friend of the Yazidis.  Some Yazidis even fought alongside the Armenians during the Turkish invasion of Armenia in 1918 and again in the war over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh in the 1990s. The Yazidis also have a place in Armenian cinema.  During the NEP era, in 1927, the acclaimed Soviet Armenian filmmaker Amo Bek-Nazaryan directed the film Zare about the Yazidis of Armenia.  In 2003, the Kurdish filmmaker, Hiner Saleem directed yet another film, Vodka Lemon, depicting Yazidi life in post-Soviet Armenia.

Further north, in Georgia, the Yazidis are primarily concentrated around the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where they enjoy good relations with the Georgians and the city’s other ethnic groups. However, since the Soviet collapse, many Yazidis from Armenia and Georgia have emigrated due to poor economic and employment opportunities. Most of them fled to Russia which had already developed a sizeable Yazidi community. The largest concentration of Yazidis in Russia is in the Krasnodar Krai in the North Caucasus. There are also significant communities in Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Stavropol, Novosibirsk, Tambov, Rostov, and Moscow.

Yazidi demonstration in Tbilisi against ISIL's atrocities against the Yazidis in Iraq. (Georgian Union of Kurdish Youth)

Yazidi demonstration in Tbilisi against ISIL’s atrocities against the Yazidis in Iraq. (Georgian Union of Kurdish Youth)

The most recent persecution of Yazidis in Iraq by ISIL has catalyzed their compatriots in the former Soviet space into action. As early as May, Yazidis in Armenia have been protesting ISIL’s actions in front of the UN building in Yerevan.  In July, in Tbilisi, the Yazidis there banded together with representatives of various Christian churches in Georgia along with Georgian MPs, human rights activists, and lawyers to protest against ISIL’s attacks on Yazidis and Christians also in front of the UN building. Even larger rallies have since been staged in both Yerevan and Tbilisi.

On 15 August, official Yerevan announced that it was “deeply concerned by the violence against the Iraqi Yazidis perpetrated by extremists” and that Armenia shares “the indignation of Yazidis living in Armenia concerning the ongoing tragic events.” Earlier on 13 August, the Armenian government announced that it would send $50,000 of humanitarian assistance to help Yazidis who have been displaced by ISIL. Meanwhile, Georgia has accepted Yazidi refugees fleeing from Iraq. On 8 August, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the treatment of the Yazidis. The Yazidis in Russia also called on President Vladimir Putin to lend Russian assistance to their Iraqi compatriots.

As the plight of the Yazidis in Iraq continues, the aid from the former Soviet space will likely continue to expand. The post-Soviet Yazidis will do their best to ensure this.

UPDATE (19 August 2014): Armenian President Serj Sargsyan has voiced his concern about the Yazidis of Iraq and has called ISIL’s actions “absolutely unacceptable.” In addition, the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic has pledged to accept Yazidi refugees fleeing from Iraq. In Stepanakert, Davit Babayan, a spokesman for the President of Karabakh, stated that “the Armenian people cannot remain indifferent to what is happening to the Yazidi people now.”

Russia and Georgia: Where to Go Next?

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (left) and EU's José Barroso (right)

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (left) and EU’s José Barroso (right) (Georgian Government)

On Friday, Georgia signed its Association Agreement with the EU. The event was favorably celebrated in Tbilisi and touted in the West as a “first step toward the EU.”

However, the agreement does not guarantee automatic membership in the EU. In this regard, Georgia still has a long way to go. Russia has voiced its concerns regarding the EU agreement. Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s breakaway republics on the Black Sea, has echoed this sentiment. On July 1, its Foreign Ministry declared the following:

It is quite obvious that signing of the Association Agreement with the EU does not provide to Georgia an immediate perspective for membership in this union, but at the same time, it distances Georgia from cooperation with neighboring states, first of all, with the Russian Federation and Republic of Abkhazia.

There has also been concern in the West, and to a lesser degree in Georgia, regarding an even greater Russian reaction. Some fear a reversal of the progress made on economic ties while still others fear an invasion of Georgia proper.

Yet Moscow will likely not resort to hard retaliatory measures as has been widely speculated in the West. In its effort to bring all the ex-Soviet states into its Eurasian Union, instead Moscow has sought to pursue its aims by proposing offers and deals that may make the ex-Soviet republics more amiable to it.

Georgia is an important country to include in a proposed supranational union of ex-Soviet states, not just for Putin, but for any future Russian leader for several reasons.  Georgia has historically been viewed in Moscow as the “center” of the Caucasus region and the gateway to Eurasia. Outside of Abkhazia, it possesses a prosperous Black Sea coast that includes port cities and resorts like Poti and Batumi. Russia views the Black Sea as a vital geostrategic region and as part of its traditional zone of influence. Georgia naturally plays a role in this. The United States, Russia’s rival in the region, has also realized the geopolitical significance of Georgia and thus has focused much of its efforts on trying to bring Georgia into Euro-Atlantic structures. Whether or not such ambitions will help US-Russian relations, global security, or Georgia’s own efforts toward reform, remains an open question.

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Further, there are also cultural and interpersonal affinities between Russia and Georgia. A Georgian nationalist might state that “as people, Russians and Georgians were never brothers and sisters” and that this is “Soviet mythology.” However, the truth and reality are far different from such ethnonationalist pronouncements. Despite the rupture in relations from the 2008 war, most Russians admire the Georgians, if only because of their reputation as easy-going party people. Conversely, many Georgians deeply admire Russian culture, literature, and language. At least 92% of Georgians still speak Russian as a second language. There are also the shared ties of Orthodox Christianity. Additionally, as many as one million ethnic Georgians live and work in Russia, and that number is estimated by some to be even higher. Georgians are generally well-integrated in Russian life and freely intermarry with Slavic Russians. The most famous Georgian in Russian history is probably Prince Bagration, the hero of the Napoleonic War. The most infamous is probably Joseph Stalin.

These are the reasons why Russia values Georgia and why its long-term plan is to lure Tbilisi back through some goodwill gesture. The obvious place for this to occur would be in Georgia’s two breakaway regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both were recognized by Russia as independent states after the 2008 war, thus further complicating Georgian-Russian relations. However, Moscow’s aim at the time was to “respond” to the West’s recognition of Kosovo and to domestically discredit Georgia’s controversial President, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Georgia's Moscow attaché Zurab Abashidze (Georgian Government)

Georgia’s Moscow attaché Zurab Abashidze (Georgian Government)

With these goals attained and with a new government in Georgia willing to talk to Moscow, Russia may be more flexible on the issue. Already Bidzina Ivanishvili has stated that the goal of reunification with the two breakaways is Georgia’s top priority and the Georgian attaché to Moscow, Zurab Abashidze, has confirmed this position, even tying it to the re-establishment of relations between Georgia and Russia. At the same time, Russia will not betray the interests or rights of the Abkhaz or Ossetes. Instead, the logical solution lies in working to find a compromise between them and Tbilisi to forge some sort of federal or confederal solution. This can be accomplished informally without direct diplomatic relations, even outside of the Geneva framework which, like its OSCE counterpart on Nagorny Karabakh, has failed to produce any serious results or resolutions.

It is likewise unclear how the recent revolution in Abkhazia will affect such talks. Regardless of speculation on whether or not Russia played a role in the revolution, or whether it was an entirely domestic Abkhaz affair, it is clear that whomever the Abkhaz select as their next president, he or she will play a decisive role in working to normalize relations between Abkhazia and Georgia. Certainly, even this depends on the development of Georgian-Russian relations.

Woman casts ballot in the South Ossetian parliamentary election as her daughter watches (ITAR-TASS)

Woman casts ballot in the South Ossetian parliamentary election as her daughter watches (ITAR-TASS)

Meanwhile, the situation in South Ossetia is less clear. United Ossetia, the victors of the recent parliament vote in the breakaway region, advocate joining North Ossetia in a political union with Russia. It is unclear if they will follow through with such a program or, if under pressure from Moscow, they will take a more compromising stand on relations with Georgia. Moscow has already distanced itself from Ossetian demands and will likely react with caution if South Ossetians do indeed vote for a political union with Russia (as Moscow did with the Donbas rebels in Ukraine). In general though, the outcome of all of this remains to be seen.

The Georgians are also looking for an opening with Moscow not just in terms of a resolution to its conflicts. Tbilisi also wants to ensure that if Moscow makes an attractive counteroffer to the EU, it must consider Georgian national sensitivities. Any effort toward integration among post-Soviet states cannot be imperial in nature, but rather a union of equal states. If the Eurasian Union, like the EU, were to ensure an official status for Georgian and other national languages, then such an idea would become much more attractive to Tbilisi and would make the Eurasian Union an easier sell to the Georgian public at large. Moscow must keep in mind its own long tradition of multiculturalism, universalism, and ethnic tolerance that has preceded the birth of post-war “EU values” by several centuries. In order to be a viable international player, Russia must do more to embrace this great tradition of multiculturalism and shun all forms of ethnic Russian nationalism that not only threaten the unity of Russia but also its geopolitical interests in the ex-Soviet space as well. In this regard, presenting the Eurasian Union as a “union of equals” to Georgia would certainly work to its advantage.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti / Aleksandr Imedashvili)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti / Aleksandr Imedashvili)

Efforts toward a reconciliation with Moscow by Tbilisi began almost immediately after the victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012. However, the progress of such a reconciliation had to be limited to basic issues, such as trade and visa questions. This was due not only to the complex situation that existed over Georgia’s breakaways, but also because of the fact that Saakashvili still remained the President into 2013 and thus still held significant political influence. Following the electoral victory of Margvelashvili in 2013 and Ivanishvili’s appointment of Garibashvili as the new Prime Minister, the chances for an enhanced reconciliation grew significantly. During the Sochi Olympics, Putin proposed meeting with the Georgian President. Abashidze, and his Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin, agreed to meet and plan this high-level visit which was supposed to take place in March. However, as the Ukraine crisis worsened and the crisis in Crimea erupted, the proposed meeting was postponed indefinitely.

Both Moscow and Tbilisi likely have their reasons for this. Moscow is not only focused primarily on the outcome of Ukraine but it is also clear that, since Yanukovych’s ouster, it learned from recent history and sought to not place the potentially friendly government in Tbilisi in the same position as Yanukovych. Already Mikheil Saakashvili has threatened to launch his own “Georgian Maidan,” and a Georgian volte-face on the EU Association Agreement would have been the perfect excuse to launch such a revolt. Tbilisi likely shares this same concern and that probably played a part in its considerations on how to approach Moscow. Adding to this were other considerations on the Georgian side, such as its desire to balance its relations between East and West. The government also sought to maximize its support base in the recent local government elections.

The Georgian government also has a problem in that its party, the Georgian Dream coalition, is still a coalition. Garibashvili and Margvelashvili, though they have disagreed on petty issues such as who will sign the Association Agreement, are nevertheless allied on the question of Russia. They favor a pragmatic and balanced approach. This is contrasted by Davit Usupashvili who heads the Georgian parliament, a very vocal critic of Moscow and a stalwart supporter of NATO expansion. Defense Minister Irakli Alasania has been traditionally more moderate and once played a key role in bringing the Abkhaz and Georgians close to a peace. However, during his stint as Defense Minister, his advocacy for NATO membership and his proposal to place missile bases on Georgia soil near Abkhazia have raised eyebrows in Moscow, Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Tshkinvali.

Tbilisi was likewise concerned over the Russian annexation of Crimea and of the potential implications of this for Georgia’s breakaways, though Russia quickly assured Tbilisi afterward that Crimea was a unique case and that Russia was not interested in annexing Abkhazia or South Ossetia. The Georgian Prime Minister Garibashvili reaffirmed this view on an interview with the BBC.

What the next step will be in Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow remains to be seen. However, there are compromises and deals to be made. One aspect of Tbilisi’s protracted conflicts with Moscow, Sukhumi, and Tskhinvali remains clear: that from a basic geographic perspective, cooperation between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, is not only desirable and logical, but necessary.

Some Georgians may want to break away totally from Russia and join Europe, but they seem to forget the simple fact of geography; that the Kura is not the Seine and that Georgia is not at the center of Europe but at its very fringe. Historically, it has had less-than-pleasant relations with its larger Islamic neighbors like Turkey and Iran. It shares a very long northern border with Russia, a country that has served for centuries as Tbilisi’s protector and as its lifeline to the rest of Europe. Georgian nationalists can try to wish Russia away all they want, but the fact is that Russia is there and Tbilisi has to deal with it and can even benefit from it.

For its part, Russia views Tbilisi as an important factor in its security policy, and in turn needs Georgia to secure its position in the Caucasus region, especially in the unstable North Caucasus. Thus, while ethnic Russian nationalists may believe that weakening or punishing Georgia for its “independent attitude” will help Russia, in fact they are far from correct. This will only exacerbate regional divisions and animosities that will most certainly not serve the interests of Russian security.

Finally, the Abkhaz and Ossetian nationalists too may try to wish Georgia away, but this is unrealistic as well. Geography and centuries of close cultural ties demand coexistence and compromise. Thus, it is to everybody’s benefit and advantage that there be a solution to the protracted conflicts plaguing the Georgians, Russians, Abkhaz, and Ossetes. Above all, it is the people of Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Russia who will benefit the most from a peaceful diplomatic solution. This is what the politicians of these countries and regions have to realize if any tangible progress is to be accomplished.

Abkhazia’s Revolution: Background and Analysis

UN Map of Abkhazia, 2014

UN Map of Abkhazia, 2014

As the attention of the world was fixed on the violence, unrest, and uncertainty in Ukraine, a revolution erupted in another former Soviet territory. This was the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia, a subtropical breakaway territory of post-Soviet Georgia located along the Black Sea coast. However, in order to fully understand what is happening in Abkhazia now, a brief background of the region is required.

What is Abkhazia?

Mural of Bagrat II of Abkhazia from the Gelati Monastery in Imereti, Georgia

Mural of Bagrat II of Abkhazia from the Gelati Monastery in Imereti, Georgia

An autonomous republic of Georgia in Soviet times, Abkhazia is the home of the Abkhaz, a people who speak a Northwestern Caucasian language that is unrelated to Georgian but more closely related to the language of the Adyghe people, better known to the English-speaking world as Circassians. At the same time, the Abkhaz have a long historical relationship with the Georgians. Though linguistically distinct, Abkhazia was part of the old West Georgian Kingdoms of Colchis and Lazica. Further, the celebrated King Bagrat II of Abkhazia (himself of mixed Abkhaz and Georgian ancestry) unified Georgia as a single, feudal state in the Middle Ages. Consequently, as a people, the Abkhaz have a mixed cultural heritage, incorporating Circassian and Georgian influences as well as Russian, Byzantine, and Turkish ones – and also elements that are uniquely “Abkhaz.” Like the Georgians, the Abkhaz are renowned for their polyphonic singing. In terms of religion, most Abkhaz are Orthodox Christians with significant Muslim and pagan minorities (though pagan traditions generally persist among all Abkhaz).

The Abkhaz-Georgian relationship is complex. In the 19th century, several Abkhaz perceived to be sympathetic to the Ottoman Sultan were deported, along with almost all of their Adyghe neighbors, to the Ottoman Empire by Imperial Russia. Though many Abkhaz remained in Abkhazia, members of other ethnicities moved into their territory as well. These included Russians, Germans, Baltic peoples, Armenians, and Greeks. They also included Mingrelians, a subgroup of Georgians. Many of these Mingrelians were peasants who sought to find free land that was unavailable in their own historic region of Mingrelia.

Nestor Lakoba and his wife Sariya.  Both were victims of Stalin and Beria's Terror in the 1930s.

Nestor Lakoba and his wife Sariya. Both were victims of Stalin and Beria’s Terror in the 1930s.

By the early 20th century, Abkhazia was a distinctly heterogeneous region. Abkhaz comprised roughly the same proportion or a slightly higher proportion of the population to Georgians, with other ethnicities forming the remainder of the population. During Sovietization, Abkhazia was made a contractual, co-equal republic affiliated with Soviet Georgia. However, the territory’s status changed when it was downgraded in the 1930s from being a co-equal region within Georgia, to an autonomous republic of Georgia. Nevertheless, its leader Nestor Lakoba enjoyed popular support from the local population. Abkhaz and Georgians within the republic generally got along well with one another. In fact, Lakoba’s own wife Sariya was a beautiful ethnic Georgian woman from Batumi.

However, Lavrentiy Beria, the leader of Soviet Georgia and of Soviet Transcaucasia despised Lakoba. Born to a Mingrelian family in Abkhazia, Beria viewed Lakoba as a rival for influence with Stalin especially because Stalin seemed to favor Lakoba. The rivalry is perhaps best illustrated in the glasnost-era film Belshazzar’s Feasts, or A Night with Stalin based on a story from the novel Sandro of Chegem by the celebrated Russian-language Abkhaz writer Fazil Iskander. The enmity did not end well for Lakoba or Abkhazia. He was assassinated by Beria in 1936. Shortly afterward, he was declared an “enemy of the people” and his family was persecuted. Beria then flooded Abkhazia with large numbers of ethnic Mingrelian settlers and encouraged the invention of a false academic discourse claiming that the Abkhaz were not indigenous to Abkhazia, but “new arrivals.” By the 1950s, the Abkhaz were reduced to only 15% of the population in their own homeland.

Beautiful Gagra on the Black Sea Coast (Panoramio)

Beautiful Gagra on the Black Sea Coast (Panoramio)

After Stalin’s death, the Abkhaz began to experience an era of limited freedom. Abkhaz-language publishing returned and the Abkhaz representation in Abkhazia increased. Gradually, the Abkhaz portion of the population was beginning to bounce back as well. The situation in the republic remained largely peaceful. Abkhazia was known throughout the Soviet Union as a popular and prosperous holiday destination. Gagra, Sukhumi, Pitsunda, and other coastal cities became highlights of the Soviet Black Sea Riviera. Its citrus trees, spas, and the famous Sukhumi botanical garden became legendary throughout the Soviet Union. Politics meant little to vacationers on Abkhazia’s inviting Black Sea coast. The republic’s diverse ethnic groups generally lived in peace with one another.

However, ethnic tension arose with the start of glasnost. Some Abkhaz nationalists demanded to elevate their territory to the status of a full union republic while Georgian nationalist dissidents, led by the eccentric Zviad Gamsakhurdia (also a Mingrelian) began to encourage a chauvinistic discourse of a “Georgia for the Georgians.” They claimed that Abkhaz, Ossetians, and others were “new arrivals” in Georgia and consequently alienated them. Clashes erupted between Abkhaz and Georgians in Sukhumi in 1989. Yet despite the violence and the rival nationalisms, Gamsakhurdia reached a compromise with the Abkhaz in a power-sharing agreement. Thus, as ethnic tension engulfed South Ossetia and civil war in Georgia proper erupted over Gamsakhurdia’s nationalist discourse and authoritarian rule, Abkhazia remained relatively peaceful. Notably, the Abkhaz leadership expressed the desire for their republic to become a full co-equal republic within a federated Georgia, an offer that was rejected by Tbilisi.

The Council of Ministers Building of Abkhazia, still damaged from the 1992-93 Abkhaz-Georgian war (RFE/RL)

The Council of Ministers Building of Abkhazia, still damaged from the 1992-93 Abkhaz-Georgian war (RFE/RL)

In December 1991, the rouge general Tengiz Kitovani led a coup against Gamsakhurdia that deposed the controversial nationalist president. After Gamsakhurdia was ousted from power, the more moderate Soviet-era Georgian leader and former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was invited to return to Tbilisi as Georgia’s new President. Undeterred, Gamsakhurdia fled to his home region of Mingrelia where the “Zviadists” launched a revolt against the new government in Tbilisi. Acting on his own accord, Kitovani invaded Mingrelia and then pressed on to Abkhazia, claiming that Gamsakhurdia’s supporters were sabotaging the Abkhazian railway. In reality, Kitovani was moving to bring the Abkhaz firmly under Tbilisi’s rule.  His operation resulted in a full-fledged and violent war in Abkhazia with atrocities committed by all sides. The Abkhaz side was assisted by rouge Russian nationalists (though not the Russian government) and by militants from the North Caucasus like the notorious Shamil Basayev. By the end of the war, much of Abkhazia’s Georgian population either fled or was expelled. Many still live as IDPs in Georgia today, though a sizable number have returned, notably to the southern Gali district.

Post-war Abkhazia and lost alternatives toward peace

Abkhazia's Sergey Shamba (RFE/RL)

Abkhazia’s Sergey Shamba (RFE/RL)

Peace talks subsequently ensued, often with Yeltsin’s Russia leading the way in the negotiations. Several proposals existed in the 1990s to create a common Georgian-Abkhaz federal or confederal state structure. The Abkhaz side claims that they accepted such proposals, but that they were rejected by Shevardnadze who wanted to retain a unitary Georgian state with an autonomous Abkhazia. The Abkhaz refused this and talks ultimately fell through. However, a renewed effort toward peace began after the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. Mikheil Saakashvili’s new envoy to the disputed territories was Irakli Alasania (now Defense Minister of Georgia).  Born to a Mingrelian family, Alasania was able to forge very good working relations and friendship with the Abkhaz.  He invited the Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba to Tbilisi, a request with which Shamba accepted with pleasure. The visit was by all accounts a success, except for the fact that President Saakashvili refused to meet with Shamba. Instead, confident that he had the full backing of the United States and NATO, Saakashvili planned (according to many Georgian observers) to retake Abkhazia and Georgia’s other breakaway region, South Ossetia, by force. On the day of Shamba’s Tbilisi visit, Saakashvili was on the Georgian-Abkhaz frontier making military preparations.

Yet Alasania was undeterred. With Shamba he agreed to sign a non-use-of-force agreement as a confidence-building measure with the Abkhaz. This would have taken place in Sochi under the auspices of then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. It would have been a serious alternative leading to a de-escalation in tensions not only between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, but also Tbilisi and Moscow as well. However, Saakashvili refused to permit the meeting to take place. Instead, according to Nino Burjanadze and others, Saakashvili continued preparations for war on the two territories, and brazenly informed Russia’s Vladimir Putin about it. Putin warned Saakashvili that invading either of the two territories would result in a Russian intervention and a formal recognition of their independence. But Saakashvili dismissed this. The result was the August 2008 war in which Saakashvili’s Georgia lost. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia were recognized by Russia.  Any sort of peace or reconciliation now seemed more distant than ever.

Georgian Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (VOA)

Georgian Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (VOA)

A renewed chance for peace?

In October 2012, Mikheil Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement lost parliamentary elections to the Georgian Dream coalition, led by the Imeretian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Unlike Saakashvili and his party who were unequivocally pro-Western, Ivanishvili and his party can be best described as neither pro-Western, nor pro-Russian, but pro-Georgian. While Ivanishvili has spoken of the historical importance of joining the EU, he has, at the same time, not completely ruled out joining the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union either. The party’s control on power increased following Saakashvili’s loss of the Georgian presidency to the bon-vivant philosopher-turned-politician Giorgi Margvelashvili. Then, Ivanishvili himself stepped down as Prime Minister, appointing Irakli Garibashvili as his successor.

One of the cornerstones of the new Georgian government’s foreign policy is reunification with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even more so perhaps than membership in the EU and NATO. Evidence of this is the fact that the Ivanishvili government is filled with people who have good working relations with the Abkhaz and Ossetians who understand fundamentally the ethnic concerns of both groups. These include individuals like Alasania, Guram Odisharia, and Paata Zakareishvili. Many were featured in the documentary, Absence of Will, a must-see film for anyone wanting to get a true understanding of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict. Indeed, the present Georgian Dream government can truly be described as the first post-Soviet Georgian government that really understands Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ivanishvili has kept both the EU and NATO on the table, likely as bargaining chips with Moscow to regain the two breakaway regions. However, the sentiments of the Abkhaz and the Ossetes have to be taken into consideration as well, and Russia will not simply “reverse” its recognition of these two regions. Rather, it may work to promote a “reunification” of these regions with Georgia proper into a co-equal federation or confederation (though Tbilisi would be more accepting of the former than the latter). This would be a logical resolution to the issue and it would certainly help Moscow both geopolitically and domestically with the Georgian public (the Georgian Dream would receive the credit for reunifying the country, not Saakashvili). I have written about such a resolution in the past and others, including Dmitri Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center, have done so as well.

What is happening in Abkhazia now?

Protests in Sukhumi (AFP / Getty Images / Ibragim Chkaduaibragim Chkadua)

Protests in Sukhumi (AFP / Getty Images / Ibragim Chkaduaibragim Chkadua)

Since last Tuesday, there have been massive protests in Sukhumi against the Abkhaz President Aleksandr Ankvab. The opposition has accused the leader of authoritarian tendencies and of misspending funds by Russia. On Saturday, the Abkhaz parliament relieved Ankvab of his presidential duties. He resigned the next day. Snap elections have been called for August 24.

What is happening now in Abkhazia is either:

A) Genuine discontent and frustration with the Ankvab government by the people of Abkhazia and by the political opposition, or,

B) Moscow covertly working through the opposition in Abkhazia to unseat Ankvab and to bring to power a government more compliant to Moscow that would be more willing to compromise with Georgia. This is possible given the sheer timing and speed with which the events have been proceeding (kind of like Crimea) since last Tuesday.

Both are reasonable explanations for the present situation.

However, it must also be noted that the Abkhaz opposition is a diverse group. One of its leaders Raul Khajimba is a hardline nationalist and former KGB agent who has categorically ruled out any compromise with Georgia, let alone granting ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia Abkhaz citizenship. Another, Sergei Shamba is the man who both led the peace negotiations with Abkhazia in the 1990s and forged a good working relationship with Georgia’s Irakli Alasania. If anyone in Abkhazia can find a compromise solution to the problem, it would be Shamba.

Former Abkhaz President Aleksandr Ankvab (RIA Novosti / Vladimir Popov)

Former Abkhaz President Aleksandr Ankvab (RIA Novosti / Vladimir Popov)

The most interesting development is the sudden request by the Abkhaz opposition to join Moscow’s Eurasian Union. Prior to this, the idea of joining the Eurasian Union never figured in Abkhaz politics much at all. The rapidity of such a request, and the fact that it has appeared almost coincidentally with the signing of the Eurasian Union deal between Moscow, Astana, and Minsk, also makes one wonder whether or not Moscow is involved. This may be intended to further illustrate to Tbilisi that it risks being permanently separated from Abkhazia if it joins the EU and NATO. On the other hand, if this request emerged from the genuine sentiments of the Abkhaz opposition, it could be in response to the Georgian Defense Minister Alasania’s statements calling for NATO bases in Georgia, which Abkhaz politicians of all political strands oppose. Such statements may have been made by the traditionally more moderate Alasania to call Moscow’s bluff. Likewise the request to join the Eurasian Union could also be a combination of both factors (i.e., Moscow’s involvement and concerns of the Abkhaz regarding Georgian NATO membership).

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how Moscow responds to the demand of the Abkhaz opposition to join the Eurasian Union. Will they welcome them with open arms, or will they shuffle their feet? My guess is the latter, not only because Moscow still wants to have a card on the table to lure back Tbilisi, but also because the other two founding members of the Eurasian club, Belarus and Kazakhstan, do not recognize Abkhazia’s independence. Minsk and Astana would need to recognize Abkhazia’s independence before supporting Sukhumi’s membership in the Eurasian Union, which they will likely not do because they have their own geopolitical priorities (especially Nazarbayev with his traditionally balanced foreign policy). All of this adds credence to the scenario that Moscow is involved in the present revolution in Abkhazia because, under the present geopolitical circumstances, Abkhazia can never fully join the Eurasian Union without Georgia largely due to the position of Minsk and Astana. Hence, the ouster of Ankvab may very well be step one to a detente between Tbilisi, Sukhumi, and Moscow.

It should likewise be noted that Moscow does not need to do this in South Ossetia because it already has a government in Tskhinvali that is now more or less under its control. To illustrate this, it should be recalled that the former interim South Ossetian President Vadim Brovtsev was an ethnic Russian businessman from Chelyabinsk with no prior ties to the region.

In any case, one can safely say that unless Moscow, Tbilisi, and Sukhumi resolve their differences, Abkhazia could become another “frontline” in the emerging new Cold War. If this happens, it would make the situation in the Caucasus region much more dangerous and it would ultimately be a negative development for Russian, American, European, Middle Eastern, and international security.

Abashidze-Karasin Meeting Today

Georgia's Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze (Tabula)

Georgia’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia Zurab Abashidze (Tabula)

Today, Georgia’s special envoy to Russia, Zurab Abashidze, will meet with his Russian counterpart Grigory Karasin in Prague to discuss bilateral relations between the two countries and to lay the groundwork for a future meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Georgian political leadership, the first such meeting since 2008.  The Abashidze-Karasin summit was  originally scheduled for March 4-5 but was postponed twice.

The stakes are relatively high for both Tbilisi and Moscow. From a geostrategic perspective, Moscow specifically needs Georgia as part of its planned Eurasian Customs Union. Not only would it geographically link Russia with prospective Eurasian Union member Armenia, but it would also discourage further Western efforts to expand its geopolitical and energy interests into former Soviet territory. Political circles in the West, and particularly Washington, view Georgia as a critical part of its efforts to gain access to natural gas and oil reserves in the Caspian basin and Central Asia.

Moscow views this expansion as a threat to its security. Consequently, Russia has been reaching out to Georgia in recent months. Its efforts include both Medvedev’s August  invitation to Tbilisi to join the Eurasian Union and Putin’s friendly comments toward Georgians during his December press conference. In the meantime, the West has been also reaching out to Georgia, expanding the presence of the EU and NATO, and taking advantage of the fact that Georgia has not yet fully restored its relationship with Russia.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

The post-Saakashvili Georgian Dream government kept the pursuit of the both the EU and NATO on the table, likely as leverage in its relations with Moscow. The major force behind the party, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a patriot in his own right who can be best described as neither pro-Western nor pro-Russian, but pro-Georgian. Whoever can offer Ivanishvili, and by extension Georgia, the best deal, Tbilisi will accept. So far, the West recently increased its efforts to bring Georgia fully into its camp. It has moved up the date of Georgia’s planned signing of the EU Association Agreement to June and has discussed the possibility of granting Georgia a NATO MAP (Membership Action Plan) at the next NATO summit in Wales in September. Yet, unlike his predecessor Saakashvili, Ivanishvili and his party have not ruled out the Russian option completely.  In September 2013, just six days after neighboring Armenia formally reversed its course on its EU Association Agreement in favor of Eurasian Union membership, Ivanishvili announced that Georgia too may consider joining the Moscow-backed union “if it will be advantageous for our country.”

In plain Georgian, this means that if Moscow wants to see Georgia join its Eurasian Customs Union, then Georgia needs to be enticed to join. Tbilisi will not accept any solution that would involve forgoing claims to its breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Significantly, Ivanishvili and others in his Georgian Dream party have placed more emphasis on Georgian unity than any other issue. For Georgians, the unity of their state, including all of its historic and ethnically distinct regions is a top priority, even more so than EU or NATO membership.

Irakli Gabribashvili (Government.ge)

Irakli Gabribashvili (Government.ge)

In a December interview with Eduard Shevardnadze’s granddaughter Sophie Shevardnadze on the Moscow-backed news service RT, Georgia’s new Prime Minister Irakli Gabribashvili, expressed his sadness at the present situation vis-a-vis Georgia’s breakaway regions. While acknowledging the mistakes of Georgia’s earlier post-Soviet governments, Gabribashvili stated “we are hurt because our Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers no longer live with us.” He also stated that “if, as a hope – I am quite optimistic about this issue – the Russian government decides one day to reset relations with Georgia by means of peaceful conflict resolution, it will be the best case scenario.”

Consequently, only a peace deal between Georgia and its breakaways involving a federal solution would be the best possible outcome, satisfying all parties in the dispute. Such a solution would ensure Moscow’s security in the region, the unity of the Georgian state, and, most importantly, the ethnic rights of the Abkhaz and the Ossetes.

However, if Moscow tries to entice Georgia to join the Eurasian Union without any incentive for a peace deal on its breakaway regions, then the situation could become very dangerous. If Tbilisi were to make a U-turn on the EU and NATO without any significant concessions from Moscow, then Euromaidan-style civil unrest could break out in Georgia, led by Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (UNM). Kiev-style violence and unrest is especially concerning for a country like Georgia, which experienced a very violent civil war in the 1990s. If the UNM were to launch a revolt in Tbilisi, succeed in overthrowing the potentially friendly Georgian Dream government, and replacing it with a staunchly pro-Western nationalist government, then it would be a geopolitical nightmare for Moscow.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

Already the Georgian government is taking precautions in the case of such an eventuality. Prosecutions and questionings of UNM lawmakers and activists, including former President Saakashvili, on various unresolved controversies have increased in recent weeks. Also, Georgia’s Interior Ministry recently spoke of concerns with regard to UNM launching a Maidan-style revolution. Prime Minister Garibashvili has responded by declaring that “no one will dare to stir destabilization in this country while we are in the government” and that “if anyone has any such desire or attempt, they will be strictly punished.”  Indeed, in light of the recent Ukraine crisis, the UNM has become increasingly aggressive, nationalistic, and Russophobic, calling for sanctions against Russia by Georgia, an end to any diplomatic communication with Moscow, and for denial of “Russian aggression against Georgia” to be criminalized. From his base in Ukraine as an advisor to the Yatsenyuk government, Saakashvili has been particularly provocative, not only against his traditional enemy Russian President Putin, but also his domestic arch-rival Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream government, which Saakashvili dismisses as “completely worthless.”

Certainly, the UNM could try to launch a Maidan-style revoltion even if Moscow does grant Tbilisi concessions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, its effectiveness would be greatly diluted given its already declining popularity and the fact that a peace resolution on the two breakaways would seriously undermine their credibility even further among the Georgian public. Conversely, if Moscow attempted to entice Georgia into the Eurasian Union with no concessions on the breakaways, it would create an angry backlash in Georgian society on which the UNM could easily capitalize to launch a “Georgian Maidan” in Tbilisi. Saakashvili might even take advantage of this to restore his political career and return to the Georgian presidency in a coup d’état.

Given this, Russia has to very cautious and very prudent. The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back in 2008 has served its purpose by discrediting and neutralizing Saakashvili and by illustrating to the West the potential dangers of the Kosovo precedent.  Now Moscow has to consider its strategic priorities.  Specifically, Russia must ensure its security in the region as well as the overall stability of the Caucasus.

If Moscow can entice Tbilisi into its Eurasian Union, then this would be a major diplomatic success. If not, Russia will continue to be vulnerable to Western expansionism, not just in the Caucasus but in Central Asia as well.  Much of this depends on the outcome of tomorrow’s meeting as well as any future meeting between the Georgian and Russian leaderships. Already there are some concerns because a Georgian TV crew was detained yesterday for accidentally crossing the border into breakaway South Ossetia. Given Moscow’s concerns regarding Georgia, releasing these journalists should be a top priority, which in turn would build trust and confidence between both sides.

Crimea and Karabakh: A Precedent in the Caucasus?

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Previous posts on this publication have been devoted to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Today’s post shifts the focus on Georgia’s southern neighbor, Armenia. Like Georgia, Armenia shares a very strong sense of national pride, related to its unique art and culture as well as its centuries-old history. Also like the Georgians, Armenians are independent-minded and are generally adverse to Russian imperialism, though, again like their Georgian counterparts, they are also fond of the Russian culture and people. Indeed, Armenia is an ancient Christian country with a long tradition of statehood. The Christian faith arrived here via two of the original twelve apostles of Christ and in AD 301, Armenia became the first nation to officially adopt Christianity as its national faith. This had a profound impact on the development of Armenia’s cultural and literary traditions and resulted in the creation of the unique Armenian alphabet invented in the 5th century and written horizontally from left-to-right, thus indicating a Western orientation. At the same time, similar developments also profoundly affected Georgia, which also adopted a unique alphabet with a left-to-right directionality.

Armenia, along with Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, was one of four countries that actively participated in the Brussels-backed EaP.  Yet, on September 3, 2013, Yerevan made a sudden volte-face on signing its Association Agreement deal with the EU (basically the same deal that Ukraine later refused in November). Instead, it opted for membership in Moscow’s Eurasian Union. This shocked many commentators, who at the time viewed Armenia’s signing of the EU Association Agreement as a foregone conclusion. Many observers, both inside and outside of Armenia, quickly concluded that the Armenia’s President Serj Sargsyan was pressured by Russian President Vladimir Putin to join the Eurasian Union.

Armenia's Serj Sargsyan and Russia's Vladimir Putin immediately after their 3 September meeting.

Armenia’s Serj Sargsyan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin immediately after their 3 September meeting.

However, I believe that it is more plausible to conclude that Sargsyan managed to squeeze out the best possible terms for Eurasian Union membership from the Kremlin. This would explain the body language between the two leaders when the decision was announced. Sargsyan was visibly pleased, as if he had received something, whereas Putin looked somewhat satisfied, though also as if Sargsyan had extracted major concessions out of him. Sargsyan has stated publicly to the Armenian media that he managed to secure “major concessions” from the Russian leader. What these concessions are is not yet known. However, they must have been quite substantial since Armenia was willing to sell the remaining 20% share of its gas sector to Russia’s Gazprom and guarantee that this agreement would remain unchanged until 2043. This action remains controversial with both within the Armenian parliament and on the streets of Yerevan, where Armenian students have launched demonstrations against it. The vote to validate the deal was boycotted by the opposition in the Armenian parliament. Still, though, the basic idea of joining the Eurasian Union has been broadly endorsed by all sectors of the Armenian political elite, including one of Sargsyan’s most vocal critics, former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan. Though Sargsyan has not yet announced the benefits of Eurasian Union membership for Armenia, they are likely tied to security concerns stemming from the dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh.

Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of Ukraine's far-right Svoboda party (zbroya.info)

Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of Ukraine’s far-right Svoboda party (zbroya.info)

Then in yet another more recent shocking move, on March 27 Armenia voted with Moscow against a UN Resolution condemning the incorporation of Crimea into Russia. Earlier, Yerevan seemed to have at least partially endorsed the Crimean move, with Sargsyan phoning Putin and hailing it as “yet another example of realization of peoples’ right to self-determination through a free expression of will.” The latter caused a slight rupture in Ukrainian-Armenian relations.  Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the far-right Svoboda party, urged the recall of Kiev’s ambassador to Yerevan, a demand with which the Yatsenyuk government eventually complied. What is behind Armenia’s pro-Russian posturing on Crimea? Is it under pressure from Moscow with regard to security and energy ties? Possibly. However, a far more likely scenario is that the Armenians actually see a precedent in Crimea for Nagorny Karabakh.

The famed 13th century Gandzasar Monastery in Karabakh.

The famed 13th century Armenian Gandzasar Monastery in Nagorny Karabakh (Gandzasar.com)

So what exactly is Nagorny Karabakh and why does Armenia attach such importance to it? Nagorny Karabakh is a disputed, mountainous region sandwiched between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its very name is a testament to its checkered history with “nagorny” being Russian for “mountainous,” “kara” being Turkish for “black,” and “bakh” being Farsi for “garden.”  The current Armenian President Sargsyan is a native of Karabakh as was his predecessor Robert Kocharyan. De jure Karabakh is recognized internationally as being part of Azerbaijan. De facto the region is a self-proclaimed independent state, closely tied with Armenia. Yet no state, including Armenia, presently recognizes it internationally.  The landscape of Karabakh is littered with old, historic Armenian churches and monuments. Its local population is comprised entirely of ethnic Armenians who speak their own distinct musical dialect, heavily influenced by Russian and Farsi with significant remnants of the old Classical Armenian or grabar (the Armenian equivalent of what Old Slavic is to Russian or Ukrainian or what Latin is to Italian).  The dialect is so unique that even native Armenian speakers have difficulty understanding it.  The Karabakh Armenians are known as a strongly independent mountain people and are said to be “more Armenian than Armenians.” Many prominent Armenian military figures that fought in the armies of Tsarist Russia and the USSR came from Karabakh. During World War II, a significant number were renown for their bravery in the war.

We Are Our Mountains (also known as Tatik u Papik (Grandma and Grandpa) in Armenian), a statue that is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh's identity.  It was completed by the sculptor Sargis Baghdasaryan in 1967. (Barev Armenia.com)

We Are Our Mountains (also known as Tatik u Papik (Grandma and Grandpa) in Armenian), a statue that is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh’s identity. It was completed by the sculptor Sargis Baghdasaryan in 1967 and is located near Stepanakert, the capital of the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic. (Barev Armenia.com)

The area of Nagorny Karabakh, known as “Artsakh” in Armenian, is of particular significance to Armenians historically and culturally. Historically, it formed one of the easternmost provinces of the Kingdom of Armenia.  Along with the province of Utik, Artsakh was disputed at times with the neighboring Caucasian Albanians, a Christian people, unrelated to the Albanians of the Balkans, whose core homeland encompassed significant portions of modern Azerbaijan east of the Kura River, west of the Absheron and Shirvan, and south of the Greater Caucasus range. In the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Armenia enjoyed significant prosperity under the Bagratuni dynasty which also had a branch ruling in neighboring Georgia. This kingdom collapsed amid Armenian infighting, Byzantine opportunism, and invasions by the Seljuk Turks. It was only the province of Artsakh (today’s Nagorny Karabakh) along with the neighboring region of Syunik (today the southermost province of Armenia) that managed to maintain some level of independence and autonomy. Together, these two regions became to Armenia what Piedmont-Sardinia became to Italy. To Armenians, they became a center for national liberation and unification.

18th Century Armenian diplomat Israel Ori

18th Century Armenian diplomat Israel Ori sought the aid of Peter the Great to free Armenia and Georgia from Persian suzerainty.

By the 18th century, both regions were still governed by Armenian nobles and were under Persian suzerainty with Artsakh now known by the name of “Khachen.” The local Armenian nobility was eager to secure protection from a Christian power and thus sought aid from Imperial Russia. The diplomat Israel Ori was especially notable in this regard. A noble from Sisian in the Syunik region, Ori secured an audience with Tsar Peter the Great, in which he detailed the persecution of the Armenian and Georgian people who lived under the sphere of Persia and under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Peter, already interested in gaining access to the silk and spices of Persia, Central Asia, and India, now found an additional reason to expand Russia into the Caucasus. He readily agreed with Ori’s proposal and sent a delegation to Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church (then under Persian rule).

Davit Bek as portrayed by Hrachia Nersisyan for the 1944 Soviet Armenian feature of the same name.  The film was meant to foster patriotic feelings among Armenians during the time of the Nazi invasion of the USSR.

Davit Bek as portrayed by Hrachia Nersisyan for the 1944 Soviet Armenian feature of the same name. The film (the Armenian equivalent to Eisenstein’s Aleksandr Nevsky) was meant to foster patriotic feelings among Armenians during the time of the Nazi invasion of the USSR.

Unfortunately, Ori died in 1711 and thus was unable to see his dream realized. Yet, he nevertheless laid the groundwork for Russia’s intervention in the region. The movement for the liberation of the Caucasus from Persia continued under the Armenian Catholicos Asdvadzadur as well as the Georgian King Vakhtang VI the Scholar (whose descendent would later be Prince Pyotr Bagration, the great hero of the Napoleonic War). Having soundly defeated the Swedes in the Great Northern War in 1721, Peter finally set his sights on the Caucasus. The time seemed perfect as Persia had descended into a civil war. Vakhtang camped in Ganja (in present-day Azerbaijan) with a Georgian-Armenian force 40,000 strong awaiting Peter’s army. He hoped that the Tsar would liberate Georgia and Armenia from the Persian and Ottoman yoke. However, Peter’s Caspian and Caucasian campaigns against Persia proved disastrous and the Russian aid never arrived. Feeling threatened by Russia and taking advantage of internal turmoil in Persia, the Ottoman Empire intervened to violently attack the Georgians and Armenians for entertaining the idea of Russian aid. However, Davit Bek, an Armenian rebel leader of noble stock in the service of the Georgian court managed to hold off the Turks until his death in 1728.  In 1736, Nader Shah reasserted Persian authority over the region and reaffirmed the autonomy of the Armenian princes, who had assisted Persia in expelling the Ottomans.

Following the death of Nader Shah in 1747, the regional autonomies of Khachen and Syunik lasted until 1750 when both were incorporated by a local Muslim Khan into the neighboring Karabakh Khanate with the aid of an Armenian prince. This was a consequence of the fact that the region had since become engulfed in infighting among its different Armenian noble families. The local nomadic Turkic Muslim population (the predecessors of today’s Azerbaijanis) saw an economic connection between the lowland Karabakh area that they had known within their khanate and the highland Khachen principality. They used both areas alternatively for seasonal grazing of their sheep. The incorporation of highland Khachen into the Karabakh Khanate only reinforced this perception of economic unity with Lowland Karabakh among the Turkic nomads. Henceforth, the Armenian region of Khachen gradually became known as “Highland Karabakh” in contrast with the neighboring lowland areas located entirely within present-day Azerbaijan that had been already known as Karabakh.

Eventually, the Russians managed to secure a foothold in the region with the annexation of Georgia in 1800. Then in 1813, St. Petersburg renewed its assault on Persia, seizing Baku and the Caspian coastline and further inland, Highland Karabakh and Syunik (also known by now by the name of “Zangezur” after the area’s distinct mountain range). It was not until 1828 that Russia managed to acquire the remainder of the present-day Armenian republic with Yerevan and Etchmiadzin. Yet, the dates here are significant for Highland Karabakh remained administratively outside of the confines of the Erivan (Yerevan) guberniya (province) within the Russian Empire.

The remants of the Armenian quarter of Susha after the pogrom of March 1920.

The remnants of the Armenian quarter of Susha after the pogrom of March 1920 (US National Archives).

With the collapse of Russian power in the region following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War, the Caucasus at first attempted to unite into a single Transcaucasian Federation. This attempt at unity failed between both the external ambitions of the Ottoman Empire and internal divisions among the Caucasus peoples. The federation was dissolved and three new states emerged: Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Armenia was constantly under threat from the Ottomans who had initiated a systematic campaign of genocide against their Armenian population in 1915 in which 1.5 million Armenians perished. A large number of starving refugees from the genocide poured into the newly-independent republic and the government in Yerevan had few resources to deal with them. The new republic also faced territorial disputes. The dispute over Highland Karabakh with neighboring Azerbaijan proved especially contentious. Ethnic violence engulfed the region. A Karabakh Armenian uprising in March 1920 was violently crushed by Azerbaijani forces and an anti-Armenian pogrom ensued in the town of Shusha (also known as Shushi).

By the time of the region’s Sovietization, the area passed into provisional Azerbaijani control, though this was deeply resented by the local Armenians. Meanwhile, the Armenian Republic itself was absorbed by the Bolsheviks in 1920, with Moscow ceding some portions, including the Armenian national symbol Mount Ararat and the ruins of the historic medieval Armenian capital Ani, to now-Kemalist Turkey.  The Bolshevik presence in Armenia was met with significant resistance in Syunik.  In 1921, the Armenian mountaineers of this region fled to the highlands and launched a major revolt against Soviet rule. The situation was so intensely out of control that the Soviet military was called in to establish order.  To placate the Armenians and to subdue the rebels, the Soviets periodically promised that the region of Highland Karabakh would be incorporated into Soviet Armenia.

In the end, the Soviets managed to crush the rebellion. The highland mountaineers of Syunik fled across the border into neighboring Iran. The crushing of the rebellion literally occurred just as the Kavburo was voting to determine whether or not Highland Karabakh should become part of Soviet Armenia. Initially the delegates voted in favor of this but when the fortunes changed on the ground in Syunik, the Soviet Azerbaijani leader Narimanov managed to convince his colleagues that there was no need to make Highland Karabakh part of Armenia anymore. He further threatened Soviet leaders with a possible cessation of oil supplies from Baku. Eager to avoid this and to quickly resolve territorial issues to maintain their control in the region, the Bolsheviks acceded to Narimanov’s demand. Hence the decision was reversed and Highland Karabakh was granted to Soviet Azerbaijan provided that it be granted autonomy in order to satisfy the local Armenian population. Such a decision was never accepted by the Armenian locals who wanted to be part of Soviet Armenia.

Yerevan 1988

Yerevan 1988

Throughout the Soviet era, the Karabakh Armenians periodically petitioned Moscow for the area to be reassigned to Armenia with no success. When Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his policy of glasnost (political openness) in the late 1980s, the Karabakh Armenians seized the opportunity. Petitions, accompanied by peaceful protests in both Armenia and Karabakh, requested that the Soviet leader transfer the region to Armenia. By February 1988, the demonstrations in Yerevan had grown to as many as one million people (about one third of the Armenian population). Fists raised, the protestors shouted slogans such as “Ka-ra-bakh” and “Hay-as-stan” (the Armenian name for Armenia). In addition to Karabakh, the protests also focused on other issues as well, notably environmental concerns such as clean air and the controversial Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. The leaders of the demonstrations were a group of individuals known as the “Karabakh Committee.” However, unlike Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Georgia, the leaders of the Karabakh Committee like Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Vazgen Manukyan, Ashot Manucharyan, Hambartsum Galtsyan, and others were not national chauvinists but liberals influenced by progressive Thaw-era Soviet values.

Memorial to the Armenian Earthquake Victims, Washington, D.C. (Panoramio)

Memorial to the Armenian Earthquake Victims, Washington, D.C. (Panoramio)

Unfortunately, the situation turned violent when anti-Armenian pogroms broke out in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. The protests in Armenia and Karabakh became even more impassioned and tension between Armenians and Azerbaijanis only continued to rise. Soon, all Armenians from Azerbaijan left for Armenia and all Azerbaijanis left Armenia for Azerbaijan. The horrible earthquake in Armenia in December 1988 only seemed to compound the crisis. Measuring a magnitude of 6.8 on the Richter scale, between 25,000 to 50,000 people died and as many as 130,000 were injured. Azerbaijan also instigated a total blockade against Armenia and Karabakh, preventing the delivery of crucial relief aid to Armenian earthquake victims. Meanwhile, Moscow’s perceived inaction on the crisis by local Armenians fueled the growth of a national secessionist movement in Armenia by 1990.

Armenian Refugees from Karabakh.  The conflict over the disputed territory displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides. (BBC World News)

Armenian Refugees from Karabakh. The conflict over the disputed territory displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides. (BBC)

By the time both Armenia and Azerbaijan achieved independence from the USSR in 1991, the conflict over Karabakh had erupted into a full-scale war. The war left tens of thousands of people dead or displaced on both sides. Though the Karabakh Armenians managed to secure their own de facto independence and a “buffer zone” of territory connecting them to Armenia proper, Turkey joined a blockade against Armenia and Karabakh. This precipitated a grave energy crisis that was only compounded by economic difficulties and a large number of IDPs from the war and the 1988 earthquake. The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed and the situation has remained very tense since. Consequently, a Russian military base in Armenia, located on the Turkish-Armenian border plays a major role as a guarantor for stability and security in the region.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Meanwhile, exploiting its oil resources, Azerbaijan has increased its military spending in recent years and has been empowered to be even more nationalistic. President Ilham Aliyev’s controversial statements have raised serious concern in Yerevan. In speeches and messages, he has referred to Armenia as a “country of no value,” stated that “Armenians are guests in Yerevan,” and that the Karabakh Armenians should accept Azerbaijani rule or be forced to emigrate. Official Baku likewise refuses to allow individuals bearing Armenian surnames to enter their country (even if they are not citizens of Armenia) and has maintained the blockade against Armenia, preventing crucial civil society and people-to-people contacts so important to a lasting peace.

In September 2012, Aliyev declared Ramil Safarov a “National Hero.” Safarov killed a young Armenian man in his sleep with an axe during a NATO Partnership for Peace seminar. In February 2013, an Azerbaijani author, Akram Aylisli, who has called for peace and dialogue in the Karabakh dispute, was threatened by officials affiliated with Azerbaijan’s ruling political party who have called for a bounty on the author’s ear for $15,000 and who have staged public book burnings of his works. Indeed, the level of anti-Armenian sentiment prompted one popular Russian-Jewish television journalist to draw parallels between the official Azerbaijani attitude toward Armenians and that of Nazi Germany toward the Jews. All of this has only evoked painful memories among Armenians about the tragic 1915 Genocide and has only fueled greater distrust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. It also has reinforced the need for Russian security in the region.

Now with the Crimea united with Russia, many in both Armenia and Karabakh see the potential possibility for a direct reunification between their two entities in the case of a future Azerbaijani attack. The precedent of the incorporation of Crimea into Russia via a democratic plebiscite has certainly buoyed hopes in Karabakh for the region’s eventual reunification with Armenia, even if Yerevan-based analysts have emphasized that the two situations are entirely different. Meanwhile, official Baku has been noticeably quiet in the midst of all of this. What will happen next remains to be seen.

Georgia Revisited

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

This past week, photographs of the late Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s body emerged in the press. According to the official investigation by the previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili, Zhvania died from a gas leak in his apartment. However, much of the Georgian public did not accept this finding. Suspicions arose when some former officials in the Saakashvili government questioned the formal explanation. The new photographs, disclosed this week on YouTube, show injuries on the former Prime Minister’s body, clear evidence of foul play. Lawmakers in Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), now in the opposition, immediately condemned the discovery as a “political act” by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

This weekend, the Georgian government ordered former President Saakashvili in for questioning. Saakashvili has refused to go, referring to the summons as an “Ivanishvili-Putin game.” He also stated the following:

As for your question, whether I will arrive in Georgia or not, I can tell you that I will arrive in Georgia not to fulfill Putin’s dream but to free my country of those who fulfill Putin’s orders. This will happen much sooner than Ivanishvili can imagine.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has stated that if Saakashvili does not arrive, that the prosecutor’s office will act in accordance with the law and declare the former President wanted. “Whether he will arrive or not is a different matter but, in my mind, he must arrive if he has any common sense left,” said Garibashvili.

Official Tbilisi has been condemned by the West for its summoning of Saakashvili. The British ambassador to Georgia, Alexandra Hall Hall, and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt both roundly criticized the move. More harsh were the words of former US Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, stating that Georgia does not deserve a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in light of the “politically motivated summoning” of Saakashvili. Estonian President Hendrik Ilves said that it would threaten Georgia’s chances of signing the EU-Georgia Association Agreement. In an inexplicable move, the summoning was also criticized by the US State Department late on Sunday, 23 March.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Regardless of what one thinks about Saakashvili’s summoning, it is extraordinary that the West is taking such a profound interest in the legal proceedings of a sovereign, independent country. This fact was underscored in Garibashvili’s response, in which he indicated that Georgia would stand firm on the issue:

I cannot understand where this hysteria is coming from. This is absolutely usual, democratic process. Similar thing is happening in the middle of Europe, as you probably know that there were questions towards former French president, I mean Chirac, Sarkozy, and also towards Berlusconi.

So it’s absolutely a normal process. Moreover, the prosecutor’s office is talking about very grave crimes. I think that we have not given any reason for suspicion, on the contrary, we reaffirm that we are guided by [the principle] of transparency and the rule of law is the most important for us. If someone tries to [demand from] Georgia to be more democratic country than France or Italy, I think this is a wrong assessment. No one should demand from us to be more Catholic than the Pope.

As for Saakhasvili, he is presently serving as an advisor to the Yatsenyuk government in Ukraine. His advisor status has been criticized by the government of Georgia and the government of Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. In Armenia, it has been lampooned on the popular satirical Armenian news program, ArmComedy (an Armenian version of The Daily Show).

Whatever the criticism from his home region, Saakashvili has certainly been relishing the role as a “seasoned advisor” in Ukraine. As one TIME reporter wrote, “the former Georgian leader is at home in Kiev, where he attended law school, served in the Soviet military and has countless political and social ties.” Indeed, Saakashvili has positioned himself as the man who “knows a thing or two about Russian invasions.” After the disastrous war in 2008, Saakashvili feels vindicated amid rising Western animosity against Russia and hysteria in the Western media over a “Russian invasion of Crimea.”

All of this is occurring as the West and Russia expand the frontlines of their geopolitical competition in the post-Soviet space to include Georgia. Most recently, there have been calls in the West for Georgia to receive an MAP at the next NATO summit at Newport, Wales in September. For its part, the EU has moved up the signing of Georgia’s Association Agreement from August to June. Meanwhile, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and his Georgian counterpart Zurab Abashidze are set to convene a meeting soon that will pave the way for a high-level diplomatic meeting between President Putin and the Georgian political leadership, the first such meeting since the 2008 war.

The stakes in this new front of the Russia-West geopolitical contest over the former Soviet space are considerably high. If the West succeeds, it will effectively drive a wedge between Russia and prospective Customs Union member Armenia. It would also give the West a continued open corridor to the vast energy reserves of post-Soviet Central Asia, posing a major threat to Russia as a European energy provider. Most significantly, it would permit the expansion of NATO squarely on Russia’s southern flank, paving the way for military bases within close range of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. Russia will never let this happen. Suddenly, there would be a new Cold War dividing line running directly through the Caucasus, one of the most volatile regions of the world.

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Such a scenario would be a nightmare for Russia. Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko has indicated as much, stating that “I was absolutely very clear; we are against [NATO membership for Georgia]. We believe that this is a huge mistake to do it. This is the position of my country.” He has likewise stated:

NATO is free to take any decision and Russia is free to take any decision to protect its legitimate security interest and from the beginning we were telling to all our colleagues and we were very outspoken in all our discussions that we do believe that if NATO goes with enlargement it will continue produce new dividing lines, moving dividing lines towards the Russian borders and we said very clearly also that in some cases these dividing lines will cross the countries, inside the countries and this was a very important signal.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Yet, regardless of the West and Russia’s competition over Georgia, the real power broker behind the future geopolitical direction of Georgia rests in the hands of Bidzina Ivanishvili. A Georgian patriot and a pragmatist, Ivanishvili is the bona fide force behind the present Georgian government, and he appears to be playing both great powers off one another in order to secure the best possible deal for Georgia. The Georgian billionaire, the son of poor Imertian peasants who made it big in Moscow by selling computers and push-button telephones, is likely well-aware of Russia’s strong disapproval of NATO expansion. As a businessman, he also knows that for Georgia to join the EU would be to join an economically sinking ship. However, as I have argued previously, he is keeping both the EU and NATO on the table as leverage in his relations with Russia.

Specifically Ivanishvili wants Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is something that only Russia, not the West, has the ability and mechanisms to resolve. Such a concession by Moscow would appeal to Georgian nationalism and would significantly diminish the perception in Georgian society of Russia as a “threat,” thus rendering any reason for future NATO membership completely moot.

Of course, Moscow would not just return these breakaway regions to Tbilisi nor would the populations of these regions simply assent to this. Rather, Moscow would need to work and promote the “reunification” of these “independent republics” to Georgia in a co-equal federal structure that would then accede to the Eurasian Customs Union. A resolution like this would ensure protection of Abkhaz and Ossetian ethnic rights by Moscow and freedom of movement between these peoples and those of the Russian North Caucasus.

Only time will tell what will happen next during this incredible roller coaster ride of the last several weeks. However, the summoning of Saakashvili by Tbilisi this weekend, and the strong Western reaction will undoubtedly affect future developments in the Caucasus. Through all of this, one thing is clear: Ivanishvili is the man who will make or break any future deal regarding Georgia’s geopolitical future. One can only hope that such a decision will be beneficial for the unity, stability, and security of the Caucasus as an entire region.

Addendum (26 March 2014): As it turns out, the Karasin-Abashidze meeting has not yet been rescheduled. I read earlier that it may have been rescheduled for this week, but this has not happened. There will be likely an official announcement on this soon. I have corrected my piece accordingly.

Further, my friend Benjamin Sweeney has informed me that Georgia has not been officially offered a NATO MAP by the US. Instead, it seems as though there has been a push by some in Washington and in Brussels to give Georgia an MAP at the upcoming NATO summit, though, this is not an official policy of the US (at least not yet). This has also been amended. Ben is a fellow-traveler in Russian and post-Soviet studies and has extensive experience with Georgia. He is an MPP student at the Ford School of Public Policy and an MA student at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREES) here at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

United Caucasus: An Incomplete Vision Without Russia

Ethnolinguistic map of the Caucasus

Ethnolinguistic map of the Caucasus

“No more closed borders!  No more conflicts!  A united Caucasus!” has been the mantra of many outside observers and civil society activists who have been involved with the Caucasus region since the collapse of the USSR.  This complex area, with its multitude of different ethnic groups and conflicts, badly needs unity.  However, can this be achieved without the presence of Russia?

Some activists from across the region would respond in the affirmative.  They would claim that Russia is a neo-imperial force with divisive intentions for the region.  This writer is more skeptical.  If Russia were to entirely withdraw from the Caucasus, then would the leaders of the various republics and territories come together?  If not, then who would become the outside force to help them to achieve such unity?

The United States is far too distant to become a serious player.   Turkey, with its historical legacy in the region, would not sit well with Armenia and Georgia, but may get the support of Azerbaijan.  Yet, regardless of this, Ankara already has enough domestic and foreign policy issues as it stands.  The same likewise applies to Iran.

The EU could help, but its understanding of the region’s complexities is very shallow.  Additionally, while it does offer the “European values” of human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, etc., it does not offer any sort of cultural cohesion, e.g., there is no single “European” language.  Further, the European economy is still just recovering from the 2008 Eurozone crisis.  By over-expanding itself, it runs the risk of placing serious stress on the bloc’s unity, thus threatening continental stability and peace.

Finally, independent regional integration among the three independent Caucasus states would not work as an option.  Such an effort would require overcoming mutual distrust, which these countries cannot easily accomplish without the presence of a third-party mediator.  Even if unity was achieved, Azerbaijan, as the largest of the three states in terms of demographics and area and also the richest, would likely dominate the union, thus placing Armenia and Georgia at a disadvantage geopolitically.

Mikheil Saakashvili in Kiev (Getty Images Europe/Brendan Hoffman)

Mikheil Saakashvili in Kiev (Getty Images Europe/Brendan Hoffman)

It should also be noted that in this and the other aforementioned options, the nations and peoples of the North Caucasus would not be included simply because the autonomous states of this region are part of the Russian Federation and cannot willfully join another entity on their own.  The former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, likely channeling the great medieval Georgian monarch King David the Builder, attempted to make common cause with the North Caucasus peoples in his calls for Caucasian unity.  However, the rhetoric and discourse of “Russian occupation,” “Russian aggression,” and “Russian invasion” and potential support for North Caucasus Islamic rebels failed to accomplish anything constructive with regard to regional unity.

If there is to be a sustainable and lasting Caucasus unity, it will require a common language and culture at its core.  In the current state of things, it would be impossible to select one language as being the dominant of the region without another nationality raising complaints.  Thus, a regional language or lingua franca cannot be Armenian, Georgian, or Azerbaijani.  It must be another independent language entirely.  There must also be a uniting regional culture.  Films, television programs, literature, and common cultural experiences can also bring different people close together.

A future unity must also ensure a sense of economic viability and strength.  If these countries were to join a bloc like the EU, where the economy is still in recovery mode, then they may have to implement harsh austerity measures which would threaten regional stability.  Regardless of any austerity, considering the current economic state of the EU, it is unlikely that these three countries, where poverty and unemployment remain major problems, will find “overnight” prosperity.  Instead, they need to join a supranational union wherein there are more immediate economic benefits.

Security is another important factor to unity.  The EU, the US, and any potential solo “United Caucasus” unit could not readily guarantee the region’s security, especially against the geopolitical ambitions of Turkey and Iran.  This is particularly true in the cases of Armenia and Georgia, where historical memories of Turkish and Persians invasions, attacks, and (in the Armenian case) genocide still run deep.  Only a larger outside force, with a deep sense of the region’s history, landscape, and potential benefits, can guarantee its security.

Likewise, a third party is also needed to act as a “mediator” to sort out the messy thicket of disputed regions, territories and borders.  While many blame Stalin and the Bolsheviks for being the root causes of such disputes, the truth of the matter is that the Bolsheviks had no intended “divide-and-rule” policy when drawing the region’s borders during Sovietization.  Instead, the most recent research has illustrated that their policy in the Caucasus during the 1917-22 Russian Civil War was to simply secure the region, making compromises, deals, and autonomies along the way, based more on the principle of who-controlled-what than on some sinister plot to undermine local political ambitions for independence.

In all of these cases, whether one wants to admit it or not, it is Russia that truly has all the levers to bring the Caucasus together.  In terms of culture, language, economics, and security, Moscow offers the Caucasus states optimal benefits.  To this day, it is the culture of Russia and the former Soviet Union that still looms large here. For example, during this past New Year’s, families in Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Baku all ritually tuned in to watch the Russian-language Soviet cult classic Ирония судьбы, или С легким паром! (The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Banya!), a much beloved film not just throughout the region but throughout the entire former Soviet space.

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Prince Pyotr Bagration, a painting by George Dawe (1820)

Socially, the peoples of the Caucasus have been highly integrated into both Russian and Soviet life. In history and politics, Prince Pyotr Bagration, Prince Valerian Madatov, Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov, Anastas Mikoyan, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Sergei Lavrov are among the most notable examples – and Joseph Stalin is perhaps the most notorious.

In culture, Russian and Soviet audiences had the pleasure of experiencing the creative work of great artists like Tengiz Abuladze, Ivan Aivazovsky, Sofiko Chiaureli, Rustam Ibragimbekov, Fazil Iskander, Kara Karayev, Aram Khachaturyan, Vakhtang Kikabidze, Frunzik Mkrtchyan, and Sergei Parajanov. And this is just the short list!  In chess, the Armenians have been especially prominent, particularly World Chess Champions Tigran Petrosyan and Garry Kasparov.

Further, it was an ethnic Georgian Soviet soldier, Meliton Kantaria, who, alongside an ethnic Russian soldier Mikhail Yegorov, famously raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag at the end of World War II. Indeed, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev expressed such sentiments on the closeness of the Georgians specifically to Russians in a 2009 interview for the Moscow-backed English-language news service RT with Eduard Shevardnadze’s granddaughter, Sophie:

I am tired of these Georgians. I love them just like Russians. And I am glad that through all these things Russians have not gotten disappointed in Georgians and Georgians have not been disappointed in Russians. Your grandfather and I celebrated the anniversary of the Treaty of Georgievsk. It is such a big thing. There is a lot of talk about Russia enslaving Georgia. We never occupied them. And there are so many Georgians who went down in Russian history. Every time I go to and from work, I drive past the monument to Bagration, the Georgian who was a hero of the 1812 war. There is so much to remember about the relations between Russia and Georgia. And even now – do you know how many Georgians live in Russia?

The great Bagration was also depicted (rather accurately) as a brave and selfless hero in Leo Tolstoy’s sweeping epic War and Peace. In the same novel, Pierre Bezukhov saves a local Armenian girl in Moscow from marauding French soldiers.

In short, to neglect Russia’s historic role as a cultural and political mediator in the Caucasus in favor of another, less tenable geopolitical player would only serve to undermine the unity of the entire region.  Consequently, it is principally Russia that can make such the vision of a “United Caucasus” into a viable and lasting reality for the foreseeable future.