As Turkey and Armenia prepare to open their mutual border and begin a thaw in their relationship, there are fears that a recent spat between Tbilisi and Yerevan could heighten regional tensions once again.
In early September, Armenia’s President Serzh Sarkisian set out plans to improve the situation of Georgia’s ethnic Armenians. He called for the preservation of Armenian national monuments in Georgia, registering the Armenian Apostolic Church and – most importantly – recognising Armenian as an official language in Georgia.
The series of measures followed a visit by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to Yerevan in June, when Georgia’s Armenians formally called on President Sarkisian to raise their demands - for greater cultural and political rights - with President Saakashvili (RFE/RL, June 18). Not wishing to antagonise a vital ally when the ‘Turkish thaw’ still seemed distant, President Sarkisian quietly ignored the demands. Indeed, he actually praised the Georgian leader for his efforts at improving the social and economic welfare of Javakheti, a region mostly populated by ethnic Armenians in southern Georgia (RFE/RL, June 25).
The package of measures which President Sarkisian proposed in September therefore came as something of a surprise to Tbilisi. Georgian officials reacted with scorn – State Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili remarked that he was “very glad that Armenian language is the only state language in Armenia”, but that it would not be adopted in Georgia (Georgia Times, September 3).
Analysts have linked the timing of the move to the Turkish thaw. The imminent opening of the Turkish-Armenian border (if both parliaments ratify the move, which is still not certain) means that Georgia’s position as Armenia’s only easy transport corridor to the West is at risk. With the option of moving goods west through Turkey, rather than north-west to Georgia’s coast and then across the Black Sea, Tbilisi’s vital role as an economic lifeline for Yerevan will be lost.
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