By Edmond Y. Azadian
While Azerbaijani dynastic rule continues its repressive policies against the opposition and while Armenia is engaged in a witchhunt and the decimation of the opposition in preparation for the forthcoming presidential election, Georgia has been moving credibly towards democratic rule, as a role model in the Caucasus region.
Mikhail Saakashvili’s United National Movement, which swept to power in 2003 through the Rose Revolution, acceded defeat to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition, in the last parliamentary election held on October 2. As Ivanishvili forms his cabinet as the new prime minister, Georgia enters into an era of cohabitation between the ruling Georgian Dream and Saakashvili’s team, who will continue his term as president for another year.
A very familiar political setup in Europe, but it is a novel experiment for the nations, which gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
During his nine-year reign, Saakashvili transformed Georgia at a rapid pace, with the help of the West. He virtually ended corruption, reintroduced the rule of law and reformed the economy by moving towards prosperity. The West invested $10 billion to turn Georgia into a showcase, to demonstrate to the other nations in the region that siding with the West has its tangible rewards. Russia did not learn the lesson to emulate Western approaches in the region. Moscow instead hardened its grip on Armenia’s economy without sensitivity to the economic polarization in the country, helping the rich to get richer and driving the rest of the population to destitution.
But in Georgia, Saakashvili’s reforms were achieved at a stiff cost domestically and regionally. Indeed, his hostile policies with regards to Moscow resulted in territorial amputation; during a 2008 war with Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were snatched from Georgia, most probably forever.
Georgian rulers, including former leaders Shevardnadze and Gamsakhurdia, have been insensitive towards the ethnic makeup of their country, conducting a xenophobic policy against them. The new emerging ruler Ivanishvili does not seem to be any different, as one of his first pronouncements was directed towards Armenians. He is reported to have said, “Why do ethnic Armenians live in Georgia when their own homeland is next door?” The statement demonstrates an obscene level of insensitivity towards history; most of the Armenians living in Georgia, except for those in the capital Tbilisi, have been in Georgia because portions of historic Armenian territories were incorporated into that country during the murky years of 1918-1920. If Javakhk Armenians one day decide to leave Georgia, they have to move their native land to Armenia as well.
Domestically, Saakashvili’s fall came as a consequence of his zero-tolerance policy, which sent minor offenders to jail for unusually long terms. A video of prison tortures was released at the most convenient political period before the parliamentary elections. The video undermined the president’s tough policies. That, coupled with his fallout with the spiritual leader of Georgia, Patriarch Ilia II, brought about the demise of Saakashvili’s regime.
The Patriarch wields a very strong political influence in the country.
He also symbolizes Georgian nationalism. In his haste to reform the country and to please his patrons in the West, Saakashvili passed legislature to recognize the legal existence of other religious denominations in the country, especially giving equal rights to the Armenian Church, which touched a raw nerve in Georgia. Particularly, it irritated the Patriarch, who was already enjoying the lavish contributions of the billionaire tycoon Ivanishvili. The Patriarch influenced the electorate toside with the rising opposition. From now on, no political leader can ignore the Patriarch’s power in the country.
Unfortunately, the Armenian Church and the Catholicos do not enjoy similar clout in Armenia, courtesy of the opposition and Mr. Levon Ter-Petrosian, who insulted the Catholicos and his docile press unleashed an indecent campaign against him.
The new leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is an enigmatic figure, a reclusive billionaire, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be $6.7 billion, mostly from business dealings in Russia. He has no record of earlier political involvement and his rash political pronouncements are blamed on his inexperience. Upon his victory, he called for Saakashvili’s resignation before his term is up. That alarmed capitals in the West. He has retracted his statement since; he has also retracted his statement about the Armenians, which some political observers attribute to Javakhk Armenian voting patterns favoring Saakashvili’s party out of fear of reprisals.
His political credo seems simple and simplistic: “It is Europe, Euro-Atlantic integration and NATO. There is no substitution,” he said in a recent interview. In the same breath, he plans to improve relations with Russia. These two are mutually exclusive propositions, which can lead nowhere, as NATO’s advances in the Caucasus are anathema for the Kremlin.
Armenia and Georgia are strange bedfellows. Christian Georgia has always sided with Turkey and Azerbaijan in UN votes. Tbilisi’s government has also cooperated with Baku and Ankara in isolating Armenia politically, economically and militarily by building pipelines for energy transportation and rail infrastructure in the Caucasus by bypassing Armenia.
Yet, Georgia remains our main trade route with the outside world as the US continues its sanctions against Iran, rendering Armenian-Iranian relations into a risky political business.
Georgia’s ruptured relations with Russia continue to affect Armenia’s relations with Moscow, Armenia’s strategic partner. Any improvement between Moscow and Tbilisi will impact favorably on Armenia’s relations with the outside world.
Of course, we should not pin our hopes for an early easing of tensions in the lives of Armenians in Georgia. With the Patriarch fanning the flames of nationalism to continue holding Armenian churches hostage and the repressive measures against Javakhk
Armenians, the immediate future does not seem promising.
Mr. Ivanishvili’s reckless statement about Armenian presence in Georgia can only aggravate the plight of Armenians in Georgia. Sooner or later, the Georgians will realize that the friendship with Turkey and Azerbaijan will contribute to the demise of the Christians in the region.
Turkey, by giving a contemporary spin to it historic rivalry with Iran, is actually not contributing to the West’s interests. Using the West’s interests as a cover, Turkey and Azerbaijan are trying to revive the old dreams of Pan-Touranism, extending Turkey’s power to Central Asia. At that time, Armenia will be at risk as well as Georgia. Souring relations at the point will be too late for Georgia.
Our love-hate relations with Georgia have to be addressed through a policy of political realism.
That is why Georgia matters.