South Caucasus : The deepening of “Russian-Western” tensions linked to the new Armenia alliance policy and the polarization of Georgian political life, do not prevent the economic breathing of the Azerbaijan-Géorgie axis .
– The month of February 2023 saw the continuation of pro-government Azerbaijani environmental protests in the Lachin corridor triggered on 12 December. If these allow the daily passage of vehicles of the Russian peacekeeping forces and the ICRC, it is the usual exchanges of approximately 400 tons of goods per day between the part of the exclave of “Nagorno-Karabakh” still occupied by a majority of Armenians governed by the secessionist regime known as the “Republic of Artsakh” and Armenia which are no longer possible, resulting in a serious humanitarian crisis.
The Russian-Western rivalry has grown considerably over the resolution of this conflict, with each protagonist playing a very different card. On 20 February, the European Union Mission in Armenia (EUMA) was launched within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). The Russian side clearly denounced this manoeuvre, with Russian MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova saying: “European Union representatives are mistaken in insisting on the exclusively civilian character of the new mission” and Sergei Lavrov: “All actors, especially those located far from the South Caucasus, are not guided by the same principles and do not work “in favour of something” but “against someone”. Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin even said on 13 February, during his meeting with his Azerbaijani counterpart: “those who make statements in the direction of European institutions can simply lose their country”.
Indeed, Armenia has come much closer to its European and American partners. It should be noted that the exercises of the CSTO “Indestructible Brotherhood” and which Nikol Pashinyan very recently refused to take place in Armenia as planned, have been moved to Kyrgyzstan, the Secretary of the Armenian Security Council Armen Grigorian also declaring regarding Russian criticism of the deployment of the European Union observation mission: “No one can impose anything on us. In this context, the West has imposed nothing on us. The deployment of this mission was the decision of the Armenian side”.
While Azerbaijan has also played the card of European rapprochement by betting on the prospects for the development of gas supplies to the EU. But he clearly muscled his opposition to France, a great Armenian supporter, by playing as president of the Non-Aligned Movement on a denunciation of his foreign policy deemed neo-colonialist, and by sparing the Russian partner, to whom he would serve, according to some analysts, a bridge to pass its energy exports subject to sanctions.
The establishment of a direct dialogue at the end of February (24 February and 1st March) between the Azerbaijani state and the Armenian population of Karabakh under the mediation of Russian peacekeeping forces is perceived very differently by the two parties. In fact, the Azerbaijani side intends to shed the weight of Russian tutelage here again, by developing an independent dialogue aimed at integrating the Armenian minority present on its soil within the Azerbaijani nation, in line with the two-way approach components advocated by Ilham Aliyev on 18 February at the Munich Conference, thereby satisfying the discourse of Armenia which now intends to privilege the rights of this population over its former territorial claims prior to the “44-day war”. For its part, the Armenian side, and particularly the self-proclaimed authorities of “Nagorno-Karabakh” who have changed Minister of State, Gourguen Nersissian officially replacing Ruben Vardanian on 1st March, “President” Arayik Haroutiounian judging that they had “tactical differences“, reiterated their radical position, namely the right to self-determination and independence of “Artsakh”, while 20 February was the 35th anniversary of the birth of the “Karabakh Movement”.
As a sign of Russia’s still strong grip on the situation, Azerbaijan’s proposal to set up joint border checkpoints with Armenia was brushed aside by Sergei Lavrov on 28 February in these terms: “There there is no provision there for creating checkpoints. But it would be possible to use technical means to remove existing suspicions that the corridor is actually being used for its intended purpose”.
– In Georgia, the month of February was marked by the rejection on 6 February of the appeal of former President Mikheil Saakashvili asking for his release or the postponement of the remainder of his sentence due to his state of health, by the court Municipality of Tbilisi, which has been the subject of much international criticism. The main opposition party, the MNA, has called for massive protests and boycotted parliamentary sessions challenging the court ruling. Georgia President Salome Zurabishvili again dismissed the majority and opposition back to back, criticizing the country’s polarization between a majority party with “incomprehensible leniency towards Russia” and an opposition that has backed a damaging campaign of support to the reputation of the country instead of pushing Mikheïl Saakashvili to confess his crime and quit politics. The European Parliament has expressly requested the release of the former Georgian president on February 13.
On 11 February 11, the Georgian Prime Minister renewed his accusations against Ukraine of trying to open a second front in Georgia and to include his country in the ongoing war further west. and mentioning the country’s successes at “unprecedented economic growth of 10.1%, at a time when the whole world was facing recession, uncertainty and unpredictability”
Another contentious issue is the draft law “on the transparency of foreign funding”, drawn up by members of the “People’s Power” formation and described as “fully compliant” with human rights standards “unlike its American and Russian analogues” by the leader of the ruling “Georgian Dream” party, but strongly criticized by the country’s “Western” partners as well as by more than 280 local civil society organizations. On 2nd March, during the preliminary parliamentary debates, a wave of arrests of “activists” according to the authorities and “accredited journalists” according to several local media took place as well as the interruption of the parliamentary session by the security service. This bill would seek to register a number of entities with the National Public Registry Agency and compel them to produce a financial statement each year: “foreign government agencies; persons who are not citizens of Georgia; legal entities which are not established on the basis of Georgian law and organizations (including a foundation, association, company, trade union, etc.) or other associations of persons established under the law of a foreign State and/or international law”.
– The co-presidents of the Geneva International Discussions who had decided at the end of January to cancel the meeting of 21 and 22 February and had consequently been denied entry into Abkhazia and South Ossetia by their de facto authorities, travelled to Tbilisi on 6-7 February, Toivo Klaar, the EU’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus, asking “can we find, can the Georgian government find, new ways to reach out to the Abkhazians and Ossetians?“, personally regretting the cancellation of previous meetings. The Russian MFA had denounced “a continuation of the destructive line adopted by Western representatives”. The 111th Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) was held on 2nd March in Ergneti, with UEMM and OSCE calling for “the lifting of movement restrictions before the Easter holiday period” an approach which had had some success in 2022. Igor Kochiev, head of the South Ossetian delegation, renewed his criticism of the “illegal Georgian post” in Uista,
Rather questionable remarks by Maria Zakharova dated 13 February should be noted referring to “their transformation [Abkhazia and South Ossetia] into modern and self-sufficient states” and declaring “the majority of the population of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has Russian nationality and supports the policy of deepening the alliance with Russia“, if we take into account the extreme dependence of the two “republics” in terms of energy supply and payment of civil servants or the recent opposition Abkhaz people to the project of transfer of sovereignty of the property of the Pitsunda dacha.
On 20 February, Abkhaz “Foreign Minister” Inal Ardzinba held consultations in Moscow with representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry and State Duma deputies on the entry into force of agreements on granting of dual nationality for the inhabitants of South Ossetia, a meeting for which he had to recall: “The basis of the constitutional system of the Republic of Abkhazia, as a sovereign, democratic and lawful state, historically established by the right of the people to free self-determination, is enshrined in law and is not subject to discussion”. The following day, “Abkhazian President” Aslan Bzhania visited Belarus where he met his “counterpart” Alexander Lukashenko to intensify bilateral cooperation, as some interest had been expressed in the Belarusian high-tech park. His visit to Moscow concerned “the formation of contacts between the ministries of defence and the special services of the two countries” which should materialize in the implementation of “a large joint project in the Ochamchira district of Abkhazia, whose work on the site will begin no later than April 2024”. A delegation from the Ministry of Interior of Abkhazia also visited South Ossetia within the framework of a workshop on interdepartmental cooperation in order to take joint measures in the fight against crime and to brainstorm on security issues in order to improve the level of security.
It is noteworthy that the South Ossetian “RES State News Agency” correlated with the adoption of a Duma appeal to world parliaments regarding “American biological activity outside its territory“, again pointed the finger at the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in Tbilisi on 11 February.
– During his 29 January visit to Hungary, Ilham Aliyev strengthened the ties between the two countries in energy matters, his counterpart Viktor Orban declaring: “Azerbaijan is our secret weapon for diversification in the field of energy“. Romanian Prime Minister Klaus Iohannis was on a visit to Azerbaijan on 2nd February, with Ilham Aliyev highlighting the “very good opportunities to deepen cooperation between the ports of Baku and Constanta“ and the Romanian leader referring to “The southern gas corridor, as well as the future submarine cable for the transmission of electrical energy produced in Azerbaijan from renewable resources”. The following day, they attended the 9th Ministerial Meeting of the Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council and the 1st Ministerial Meeting of the Green Energy Advisory Council, Kadri Simon, the European Commissioner for Energy stating: “The results of the latest test market conditions for the Trans Adriatic Pipeline mark the start of the doubling of current capacity. […] As we increase LNG supplies, the Southern Gas Corridor will remain one of the few stable and competitive sources of pipeline delivered to the EU. […] Our interest in renewable energies means that we want to extend the cooperation with our trusted partners beyond gas”.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili promoted his country at the World Government Summit in the United Arab Emirates on 13 February, highlighting free trade agreements with China, CIS and European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and Turkey and referring to infrastructure development such as Black Sea Undersea Power Cable, Euro-Asian Oil Transport Corridor, Southern Gas Corridor, Railway Modernization , the expansion of airports, the construction of the east-west highway as well as the development of the Anaklia Deep Sea Port, a project for which the Georgian Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development announced on 20 February a call for expressions of interest in a 49% stake, with the state holding 51% of the shares.
On 27 February, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it had initiated interstate arbitration against Armenia under the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) seeking “redress and financial compensation for Armenia’s violation of the sovereign rights of Azerbaijan on its energy resources during the Armenian crisis“.
– On the occasion of the vote of the UN General Assembly of 23 February which sentenced to 141 votes “for”, 7 “against” and “32 abstentions”, the Russian aggression against Ukraine, and demanded the “immediate” withdrawal of Russian troops, Georgia voted “for”, Armenia abstained and Azerbaijan was absent.
Regarding the earthquake in Turkey, the three South Caucasian countries have provided humanitarian aid. It should be noted that the de facto authorities of Abkhazia, on the other hand, addressed only to the “Syrian fraternal nation“. Armenia has also offered its help to Syria, where a large Armenian minority is, particularly in the Aleppo sector, particularly affected by this natural disaster.