Georgian Diplomacy Opens the Door for a Larger Western Presence in the South Caucasus
Aug 4, 2021
Georgia pulled off a diplomatic feat this summer. President Salome Zourabishvili summarized the results of Tbilisi’s summer diplomatic blitz in a tweet, proclaiming, “Georgia is back [in] its historic mediator role, [the] U.S. and EU are back in the Caucasus.” Through a series of regional negotiations, international conferences, and joint military exercises, the Georgian government has demonstrated its commitment to bringing peace and security to the country through active diplomatic engagement that has also led to the expansion of Western relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The diplomatic frenzy started in May with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s first official visits to Azerbaijan and Armenia.
In Baku, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev and Garibashvili celebrated the recent opening of the Southern Gas Corridor, which funnels Caspian Sea gas through Baku and Tbilisi to European markets, and pledged to work towards a solution to the historical border dispute around the Davit Gareja monastery that sparked controversy last October. During the next leg of the trip in Yerevan, then-Acting Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan emphasized the countries’ “common values of democracy,” while Garibashvili noted that the revived Nagorno-Karabakh war threatened the region’s peaceful cooperation. In a region where two out of three countries are in active conflict, Georgia’s deft engagement with both sides was vital for keeping communication and transit corridors open.
Tbilisi’s balanced diplomacy proved fruitful a month later, when Garibashvili’s government helped negotiate a prisoner and mine map exchange between Armenia and Azerbaijan. On June 12, Georgia Deputy Prime Minister David Zalkaliani announced that “over the past 2-3 months, we have been working very actively with our main strategic partner [the USA],” to arrange the transfer of maps for 97,000 Armenian anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in the Aghdam region of returned Azerbaijani territory in exchange for the release of 15 Armenian soldiers. The deal, which took place in the presence of Georgian representatives, also involved U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in addition to EU and Organization for Security the Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) officials. Tbilisi’s ability to serve as an alternative arbiter to Moscow opened the door for U.S. and European actors to play a role in mediating a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
In July, before attending an international summit in Georgia’s Black Sea-city of Batumi, EU Council President Charles Michel revealed the extent to which the EU is ready to challenge Russia’s hold over the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process during trips to Baku and Yerevan. Michel, whose guidance in April led to an agreement between Georgia’s feuding political parties that is now under contention, is poised to take on a similar responsibility in the wider region. “The EU is ready to play a constructive role as an honest broker with Azerbaijan and Armenia in addition to the Minsk group efforts,” said Michel during a press conference with President Aliyev on July 18.
Michel’s proclamation strays from the EU’s previous position of delegating the conflict to the OSCE’s Minsk Group to avoid a duplication of responsibilities. Yet, the Minsk Group, led by U.S., French, and Russian co-chairs, has become increasingly obsolete since it was sidelined in the Russian-brokered ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia in November. Indeed, while Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov alluded to welcoming OCSE-funded humanitarian projects in Nagorno-Karabakh, no new political role for the organization has been outlined. Tbilisi helped Michel forge his reputation as a reliable arbitrator in the South Caucasus, paving the way for European influence to potentially extend across the region.
To cap off the summer, Georgia welcomed troops from 15 NATO member and partner countries for the 10th anniversary of the ‘Agile Spirit’ military exercises led by Georgia and the United States. From July 26 to August 6, troops from Azerbaijan, Turkey, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Ukraine, and more will participate in a series of military drills aimed at strengthening regional security cooperation.
It has been an action-packed summer for Georgia in the international sphere. As President Zourabishvili claimed, Georgia is reclaiming its historic mediator role. For both Baku and Yerevan, Tbilisi and Western partners’ amplified leadership is a welcomed means of decreasing Russian influence, which the former views as too sympathetic to Armenia and the latter considers too unresponsive to the security needs of a fellow CSTO member state.
To maintain its leadership role and its carefully cultivated international reputation, Georgia must also safeguard a peaceful and secure environment at home. On July 28, Georgia Dream (GD), the ruling party, withdrew its signature from the April 19 EU-brokered deal. The landmark agreement, which resolved a year-long political stalemate between disputing parties, committed the government to holding early parliamentary elections if GD receives less than 43 percent of votes in local elections in October. According to opposition leaders, GD’s backpedaling comes after the party realized it would not attain the 43 percent benchmark and would be forced to relinquish its grip on power. The United National Movement, the main opposition party, has not signed onto the agreement.
The Georgian government relied on active communication and an openness to outside voices to bring the South Caucasus closer to peace and to enhance interactions with the West this summer. It should employ similar tactics of reconciliation and good-faith to secure these objectives at home and reaffirm Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic course.
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