As Georgians drive along their central east-west highway at night, they can see the lights of a Russian military base within South Ossetia’s de facto line of control. It is a constant reminder of a clear and present threat, and their military defeat in 2008 by Russia.
After Crimea especially, many worry that Russia once again is looking to expand its borders, or remind its neighbours that orientating themselves to the West could have negative consequences.
The rules of the game seem to have changed. How far is Russia now willing to go to turn countries like Georgia back from their path of Euro-Atlantic integration with NATO and the EU?
Key events are happening this year including the expected signing of Georgia’s EU Association Agreement and NATO meetings, which may determine Georgia’s future membership status.
Against this backdrop, Georgians are jumpy. Mindful of their country’s inter-ethnic makeup, some believe Samtskhe-Javakheti could be the next hotspot, because of notions that ethnic Armenians there cannot be trusted. Despite any clear evidence, there are rumours that many ethnic Armenians hold Russian passports.
Like the rest of Georgia, Samtskhe-Javakheti suffers from poverty and unemployment. The difference is that here, there is an ethnic Armenian majority. Many don’t speak Georgian, and not all of them feel connected to Georgian wider society. Ideas about preserving Armenian culture and language have widespread appeal. Ethnic Armenians have so far not seen the benefits of learning the Georgian language, at least in majority Armenian towns.
Javakheti saw political disturbances in the 2000s. But nationalist Armenian activists lost their momentum, were jailed, or brought into the Georgian political fold. A lot of popular frustration was based around the closure of an important source of support for the local economy – a Russian base in Samtskhe-Javakheti itself.
That also helps to explain in part why ethnic Armenians are today more pro-Russian in their outlook. Many travel to Russia for work, sending home vital remittances to support their families. And why shouldn’t ethnic Armenians see Russia in a positive light? Russia, unlike Georgia, is a source of employment, and opportunity.
Splitting Georgia in half
So this is how the ‘Russian’ threat goes: Given the right excuse – i.e. inter-ethnic strife or instability that could emanate from existing antagonisms (for instance between two powerful political adversaries: the Georgian and Armenian Orthodox Churches), Russian forces would not have to travel far to link up ‘pro-Russian’ Samtskhe-Javakheti with South Ossetia, and split Georgia in half.
To Samtskhe-Javakheti’s south lies Armenia, Russia’s ally. Gyumri in Armenia is home to a strategic Russian military base. Russia provided material support to the Armenians in their war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh and last year the Armenian government pulled out of trade and association negotiations with the EU and announced it would join Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union.
To suggest that new trouble is looming could be dangerous and downright mistaken. Most analysts agree that Armenia is unlikely to support instability in Javakheti. Though Armenia has a working relationship with Russia, one of the last things the country needs is a conflict next door. The Georgian-Armenian border is its sole route to the outside world. (The Turkish and Azeri sides are closed).
Georgia’s fear of insecurity is understandable given all that it has already been through with Russia, and it is a sign that what has happened in Ukraine is having wide-reaching and unexpected consequences. Some media outlets have already played up threats to Georgian territorial integrity. Georgian NGOs released a statement criticising this report, which implied that Georgia could lose the Javakheti region to Turkish interests.
Domestic fears may do more to antagonise inter-ethnic relations than any cynical ploy from the Kremlin.