Al-Jazeera, Qatar
April 6 2014

Georgia wary of Russia 'expansion plans'

Fears of Kremlin's next ploy after Crimea annexation prompt risks of
antagonising pro-Russian ethnic Armenians.

Robin Forestier-Walker

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.

Next hotspot

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.