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Tbilisi as a venue for Azerbaijani-Armenian negotiations?

Georgia has maintained a policy of neutrality for many years when it comes to the Karabakh conflict. Having acted as a mediator on certain occasions in the past, Tbilisi could now host talks that provide a proper solution to its neighbours’ ongoing dispute.

December 4, 2023 - Nicholas Chkhaidze - Articles and Commentary

The Peace Bridge in Tbilisi. Photo: FlazEyePix / Shutterstock

On his visit to Georgia in early October, the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev suggested that Tbilisi host negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This idea could be very appealing to Georgia in terms of re-establishing itself as an essential regional actor, which would also give the country the opportunity to assume more responsibility. This is something that Tbilisi has lacked since 2012. Tbilisi’s long-standing policy of non-irritation vis-à-vis Russia has harmed its regional status and the prospect of adopting a greater role in regional matters for more than a decade.

This proposal is voiced in the wake of statements made by the heads of state of Azerbaijan and Georgia. Overall, they stated that it is necessary for them to address the regional issues themselves and fundamentally remove the shackles of “spheres of influence”, which still loom over the South Caucasus like a dark cloud.

However, there is a certain hesitation from Yerevan to accept a new, Tbilisi-based negotiation format. Armenia’s reluctance to have Georgia broker a peace deal comes from its fear of not having a security guarantor now that the country has decided to change course away from being Russia’s vassal state. This is also why they have been looking westward, seeking states that would ensure their security. Armenian fears could be overcome if western states redirect their efforts to support the Tbilisi normalisation discussions and talk more vocally about the process.

As Baku and Yerevan are not that much interested in Russian involvement in resolving their dispute, with Azerbaijan increasingly disappointed with European mediation efforts, Tbilisi was considered a neutral peace broker that could potentially contribute to fostering dialogue and promoting peace between the other two small states in the South Caucasus.

Besides the geographical factor, Georgia has demonstrated its steadfast loyalty to a policy of neutrality when it comes to the conflict between its two neighbours. Even during the Second Karabakh War, Tbilisi decided to remain neutral and not strain relations with either side. This further cemented its position as an impartial peace broker with the legitimacy to contribute to the normalisation process.

Georgia also has a certain experience in mediating its neighbours’ disputes. Back in 2021, the country facilitated the release of 15 Armenian soldiers from Azerbaijan to Armenia, and subsequently, mediated Yerevan’s handover of the maps of minefields to Azerbaijan.

The recent meeting between the Georgian, Azerbaijani and Armenian prime ministers in Tbilisi as part of the “Tbilisi Silk Road Forum” is a promising sign. This is especially true regarding future perspectives for resolving regional issues by actors from within, not outside, the South Caucasus.

The present phase of the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace talks has been ongoing since early 2021 but achieved little. This was mostly due to disagreements over the destiny of Karabakh’s Armenian inhabitants. However, after Azerbaijan had taken back its internationally recognised territories that were occupied by Armenia for over three decades, a new reality was established in the region.

The status quo currently includes the downgraded influence of Russia not only in Karabakh but also in Armenia, as Yerevan started looking towards the West considering Russia an unreliable partner. Armenia, which has been Moscow’s loyal strategic partner and totally dependent on security guarantees given by Russia, is now looking to gain western support to exert pressure on Azerbaijan. What the foreign policy elites in the West do not understand is that Russia cannot be removed from the South Caucasus if they rely on Armenia, which is ready to change its allies just in order to continue its feud with Azerbaijan.

What can really oust Russia from the South Caucasus is the completion of the bilateral peace process, preferably mediated by Tbilisi. In light of a globally destabilised landscape and numerous attempts to change the world order, it would be wise for the three small states in the South Caucasus not to get dragged into great power competition and the potential collateral damage that could result from this geopolitical struggle.

Not only would Tbilisi establish itself as a potential leader in the South Caucasus by being a host country for these peace talks, it would also send a message to its strategic partners in the West about being a valuable partner in the region. Tbilisi could subsequently help contain the expansion of irredentist and revisionist powers in its neighbourhood and further east. Furthermore, there would be no need for a “3+3 Format”, which is nothing more than an attempt by the three participating big powers to engage in the Cold War-era style establishment of spheres of influence.

Georgia does not have vast resources or significant leverage to facilitate these talks. However, its impartiality and the positive relations it has cultivated with both sides of the conflict, along with the recent decision of the European Parliament to recommend granting Tbilisi EU candidate status, will play a huge role in re-establishing Georgia’s major position in the South Caucasus. It will also revitalise their confidence in holding these peace talks. 

However, for such a reality to materialise in the South Caucasus, in terms of having a distinct geopolitical position that will give these three small states their long-cherished regional and potentially international significance, one should carefully assess the domestic political turbulence in Georgia with all its likely ramifications. It is also important to understand the ever-changing foreign policy priorities of Armenia, which could potentially undermine the peace talks, considering Baku’s priorities and its distrust of certain countries in the European Union.

Nicholas Chkhaidze is a Research Fellow at the Topchubashov Center, a think-tank based in Baku. He is focused on Russia, Ukraine, the South Caucasus, and Russian Private Military Companies. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree in International Relations with honors from the International Black Sea University. Previously, he has worked as a research assistant at the Henry Jackson Society’s “Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre” and at the Public Diplomacy Division of the NATO Liaison Office in Georgia. He is an alumnus of “The Fund for American Studies” 2021 Program.

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