“After the August war” – most political analysts use this quote when discussing events after the Georgian-Russian war in 2008, which changed the political map of the wider Caucasus. The war also served as an unequivocal reminder that Russia will no longer allow itself to be treated as a weak and vanquished country, challenged the established international regime concerning the recognition of sovereign states and raised questions about Georgia’s future as a partner of Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, on 18 July 2010 President Saakashvili said that “Georgia and Azerbaijan have time-tested friendship” at a joint news conference with his Azerbaijani counterpart. “Azerbaijan’s authority is growing not only in the region and Europe, but throughout the world, and this is an obvious fact,” Saakashvili stressed.
Indeed, political analysts note that Saakashvili thanked Azerbaijan after the August war in 2008 for its great support of the Georgian economy in difficult times. The time was very dangerous, and it was hard to support Georgia when Saakashvili asked Europe: Where Are My Western Friends? However history shows this time-tested friendship began neither in 1991 nor after the August War of 2008, but 1918.
Georgia and Azerbaijan have maintained cordial relations ever since the first establishment of their independent statehoods in 1918. On June 16, 1919, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the Democratic Republic of Georgia signed a defensive treaty against the White troops of General Anton Denikin’s Volunteer Army, who were threatening to start an offensive on their borders. In spite of a territorial dispute over the Zaqatala district and Georgia’s concerns over Azerbaijan’s support of the short-lived South West Caucasian Republic, the two countries maintained peaceful relations in the chaotic years of the Russian Civil War.
After the collapse of the USSR both Georgia and Azerbaijan saw their territorial integrity challenged. While Georgia suffered from bloody conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Azerbaijan became enveloped in a protracted, undeclared war in the mountainous heights of Karabakh. Azerbaijan attempted to curb a secessionist movement in Nagorno Karabakh. Nonetheless, the bloody conflicts have not stopped the development of either Georgia or Azerbaijan, and both states have managed to establish a firm position in the region. The strategic partnership between Georgia and Azerbaijan has resulted in increasing economic cooperation and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline was the sign of the friendship between Azerbaijan-Georgia and Turkey. Georgia and Azerbaijan are improving relations as members of GUAM. Both countries, as GUAM states, have always prioritised integration and cooperation with the Transatlantic community.
During the Georgian-Russian crisis, when the BTC pipeline was frozen, Azerbaijan diverted its oil supplies to Russia via the Novorosiisk pipeline and to Iran via the port of Neka. The August war, showed that neither Georgia or Azerbaijan independently can guarantee the security of the transit routes. Only a strong European and American presence will prevent disruptive actions that sabotage the transit infrastructure.
The August war, contrary to expectations, did not negatively affect the relations of Azerbaijan and Georgia, and the strong economic support of Azerbaijan was helpful. Indeed, pragmatism became a trademark policy for Baku and Tbilisi, establishing the foundation of a strong bilateral partnership. The Azerbaijan-Georgia partnership has forced the world to look at the Caucasus in a new, different way. In spite of all challenges, no longer is this solely an area known for bloody conflicts and incompetent leaders and its resources being too problematic to develop. Regional cooperation is now at least feasible.
Presently, Armenia stands largely separate from its two Caucasian neighbours and, unable to develop relations with Turkey, generally acts more as an observer than a participant in emerging partnerships in the region. One reason is obviously Armenia’s devastating war with neighbouring Azerbaijan, which has resulted in chunks of the latter’s territory still being under occupation. Although the war was recent, with hostilities halted by a ceasefire in 1994 and, in fact, the occupation and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani IDPs still ongoing, Yerevan often refers to history as a justification for Armenia’s stance and policies. It seems that Azerbaijan and Georgia are focused on the region’s future while Armenia is still preoccupied with its past. Thus, not much room is left for thinking about the present; perhaps, a common trend for transitional periods.
Finally, an important element of the partnership between Baku and Tbilisi is the ability to overcome mutual historic and more recent emotional grievances as well as an understanding that all unresolved issues can be addressed through bilateral negotiations. Arguably, only such an accommodation can serve as the basis of a sustainable regional identity. One psychological factor that seems to underpin any such identity is an appreciation of the Caucasus being a common neighbourhood for all its citizens. Without appreciation of this commonality, a regional cooperative arrangement is not likely to be effective.
Zaur Shiriyev is a Foreign Policy Analyst at the Centre for Strategic Studies in Baku, Azerbaijan. Ideas expressed here reflect the personal views of the author and do not represent the views of any institution.
The Georgian Times