Vol. 3, No. 16-17 (September 01, 2010)
Another turn of the Caucasus kaleidoscope: Georgia proposes a confederation with Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
When Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev visited Batumi on July 20, his Georgian host Mikhail Saakashvili proposed that their two countries form a confederation in recognition of their extremely close ties and in order to promote even closer ones. Georgian officials, including both Saakashvili and his foreign minister, have repeated this call since that time, but Azerbaijani officials have been silent, and most commentators and politicians in Tbilisi, Baku, and Moscow have treated this proposal as a typically hyperbolic Georgian gesture rather than a meaningful proposal with any chance of being realized.
At the end of August, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Nino Kalandadze told the media that “technically Georgia has already given its agreement to the creation of a confederation with Azerbaijan.” Although she conceded that “the form of this initiative will depend on diplomatic negotiations,” Kalandadze said that “in the framework of a confederation, we will be able to define plans for the development of our relations which will serve the development of the entire region.”
Her words implied that Georgian leaders were agreed on this step and that Azerbaijan had accepted the idea, neither of which is the case. Georgian officials and commentators have been outspoken in denouncing it as a dangerous absurdity, a step that will never be taken especially because both countries have territorial disputes and because confederation relations in the South Caucasus, when they have existed, have been imposed by outside powers such as Russia, Persia, or Turkey (Roks 2010).
Paata Zakareishvili, a leading Georgian political scientist, told Nezavisimaya gazeta that he “hopes declarations about a confederation are a bluff. In any case,” he added, “in the new Constitution which is being discussed now there is no word about this.” And he added that “if however the powers are seriously thinking about a confederation, then the new relations with Azerbaijan will present great dangers for Georgia.”
At the very least, he continued, it would reignite the Javakhetia problem, the Armenian-populated district in southern Georgia, but more than that it would mean that each country would become involved in and responsible for the resolution of the problems of the other, without gaining anything that each is not already gaining in either the economic or political spheres.
The only basis for considering the idea of a confederation seriously, he suggested, would be “if with its help it would be possible to resolve the territorial problems [of Azerbaijan and Georgia], but nothing will change only on the basis of an alliance of Baku and Tbilisi, and Yerevan of course will in no way be included” in such new arrangements.
Other observers, like Germany’s Alexander Rahr, and Moscow’s Aleksey Malashenko, are equally skeptical of this possibility with the two of them like many others suggesting that this is just the latest example of Saakashvili’s often extravagant statements. And Azerbaijani Professor Rasim Musabayov agreed with all three, arguing that the Georgian president may be trying to compensate for his losses in the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war with an idea that even he must know is not going to be accepted by Azerbaijan.
Such comments appear entirely justified, and it is unlikely that this proposal is going anywhere. But at the same time, it needs to be considered in the context of several underlying changes in the South Caucasus, including closer Russian relations with Armenia as embodied in the extension of Moscow’s lease on a military base there and tighter Azerbaijani relations with an increasingly influential Turkey. And consequently, even though such a confederation is unlikely ever to be adopted, the proposal reveals some interesting aspects of the geopolitics of the South Caucasus that might not have been highlighted by any other action.
The idea of a confederation obviously serves Saakashvili’s own interests for at least three reasons. First, it would again upend the political system in his own country, putting the opposition on the defensive. Second, it would put in place a model for the possible recovery of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Third, it would guarantee Georgia’s access to Azerbaijan’s energy resources even as it would help solve the problems of its own Azerbaijani minority. Fourth, it would be a countermove to closer Russian-Armenian ties. And fifth, it would be yet another step toward a revived GUAM, an organization that Saakashvili hopes to expand to include Romania and Belarus and make into an anti-Russian bloc.
Those are all plausible reasons for putting forward what is an implausible idea, but in diplomacy, it is sometimes the case that an implausible idea if advanced precisely so that other issues can be raised or even so that it can be sacrificed in the pursuit of those interests. Consequently, what may appear stillborn is likely to have a long shadow, one that will affect the latest turn in the Caucasus kaleidoscope as all the players move forward.
Roks, Yuriy (2010) “Thundering Confederation”, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 27 August, available at http://www.ng.ru/cis/2010-08-27/1_confederation.html (accessed 28 August 2010).