Escalation of the Karabakh Conflict: Threats and Challenges for Georgia
Zurab Batiashvili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
On September 27, 2020, the military escalation in Karabakh and its vicinity caused significant casualties on both sides (this was manifested in tens of deaths and hundreds of wounded, both among military personnel as well as the civilian population) with the subsequent destruction of large numbers of land and air military machinery.
The “meltdown” of this “frozen” conflict created serious threats and challenges not only for Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also for the region at large, especially the neighboring states.
In case of the further intensification and prolongation of the conflict, Georgia will also be facing a host of military-political, economic and humanitarian threats and challenges, and determining them in advance as well as planning the ways of resolving those challenges will be of vital importance.
A map reflecting combat operations
The Karabakh conflict creates the following types of military-political threats and challenges for Tbilisi:
- The more the conflict is prolonged in time, the more difficult it will be for Tbilisi to maintain full “neutrality” due to reasons independent from it and despite the great desire to remain neutral. It is not excluded that the parties of the war will try to accuse Georgia of siding with or supporting their opponent, citing various facts.
- After the conflict was re-ignited, it became quite clear that for a large part of Georgian citizens with Armenian and Azeri origins, the issue of Karabakh is rather painful, to the point of this being capable of rapidly mobilizing/consolidating them: supporting protest meetings, the desire to engage in combat operations for support, attempts to send cargo, blocking of the Kartsakh border crossing point connecting Turkey with Georgia for cargo transport, cutting and/or damaging optic-fiber internet cables and so on. If the conflict is prolonged, it is to be expected that there will be more of such or even more radical actions taking place.
- In the case of the respective articles of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) being activated, Russia might demand the use of Georgian territory for a direct land corridor to Armenia. Tbilisi has very limited realistic military options to resist this. If Russia were to cut a military corridor through Georgia by force, this could have devastating results for the entire country.
- If the Karabakh conflict is prolonged in time, both Armenia and Azerbaijan will be weakened significantly which will increase their level of dependence on Russia. Hence, the influence of Russia in the Caucasus will grow further which is definitely not in Georgia’s interests.
The Karabakh conflict also has a solid economic dimension for its parties. The additional burden of war on the economies already weakened by the coronavirus pandemic will seriously influence their trade and economic capabilities.
The re-ignition of the Karabakh conflict has already had negative influence on the Turkish lira which depreciated by 3% on September 29. In its turn, any depreciation of the Turkish lira creates additional problems for the economy of Georgia as Turkey has been our top trading partner for years. Also, tens of thousands of our citizens live and work there, receiving their salaries in Turkish lira. Hence, over time they will be able to buy less and less in the form of hard currencies and send them to Georgia as remittances.
Apart from Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia are also important trade partners for our country.
In addition to this, every year significant foreign direct investments are made in Georgia’s economy from both Azerbaijan as well as Turkey. Millions of citizens of these countries (also Armenia) visit Georgia for touristic purposes every year. Therefore, in the case of the prolongation of the conflict, we must also expect serious decreases for Georgia in all of these directions and with the consequent economic problems.
Here, one must also take into account the issues regarding the important transport and energy projects connecting Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey (the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, the South Corridor natural gas pipeline and so on) which could become targets in the case of a further worsening of the conflict (especially since the parties are already pointing out that combat operations have already started in the northern part of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border, in the Tovuz district, where the lines of all of the aforementioned projects cross). This creates additional risks and threats for the economy of the entire region, including that of Georgia.
Important projects connecting Georgia and Azerbaijan
In case of a large-scale war and especially if the parties of the war were to occupy new territories or attack them, it is not excluded that new streams of refugees will arise. If this were to happen, part of the refugees could move towards Georgia as well which will pose a new type of challenge for Tbilisi.
The issue of the Metsamor nuclear power station in Armenia also has an important humanitarian dimension. In July 2020 during yet another activation of the military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Press Secretary of the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan, Vagif Dargahli, stated in response to a statement from the Armenian side (regarding the possibility of an attack against the Mingechauri water reservoir): “The Armenian side must not forget that the cutting edge rocket systems possessed by our military forces are capable of hitting the Metsamor nuclear power station with high precision which would be a great tragedy for Armenia.”
It must be pointed out that the aforementioned nuclear power station is located just 15 km from the Turkish-Armenian border and damaging it would cause a serious humanitarian crisis both in Armenia as well as in Turkey’s eastern governorates and the entire Georgia as well.
In the case of a prolongation and intensification of combat operations, new unforeseen factors and issues could also be added to the problems listed above, possibly creating additional challenges and headaches for Georgia.
- It is clear for everyone that the Karabakh conflict cannot be resolved easily. Even if the parties were to achieve a ceasefire agreement in the nearest future, it would be of a temporary character and the chance of its violation will always exist (which the history of this conflict has illustrated well);
- Therefore, the threats and challenges connected to the Karabakh conflict will remain important for Georgia for a long time;
- It is desirable that work on the new version of Georgia’s Threat Assessment Document be completed in time (the previous version expired in 2018), detailing all threats and challenges.
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