Relations between Georgia and Azerbaijan took a nosedive when a bust of an Armenian fighter of the Karabakh war was put on display in Bugashen village in Georgia on January 20. The government in Baku chided Georgian authorities for not stopping the incident from occurring, which has put bilateral relations between the two South Caucasus neighbors to the test.
And now, over two weeks after the January 20 unveiling, politicos, historians and the public on both sides are calling on Georgia’s government to take action and remove the controversial statue.
Tengiz Tkhilava, a political analyst in Georgia, said erecting a statue to a person that did not serve the country and people of Georgia is unpleasant and disgusting.
"Let's first ask ourselves questions. What kind of services did this person [give to] the Georgian state that a monument to him was erected? Being born in Bugashen village does not mean any service,” Tkhilava told Azertag in an interview.
“One should have a unique service to his homeland for putting a monument for him in his country,” he said. “Mikael Avagyan is a separatist,” he added, referring to the Armenian the statue honors.
“His involvement in military operations against the Azerbaijani people in the Nagorno-Karabakh war makes it impossible to erect a statue for him in Georgia. Building a monument to such terrorists is a step aimed at violating stability in the country, as well as straining Georgia's relations with Azerbaijan."
A monument to Avagyan was erected in Bugashen, which is located in the Akhalkalaki municipality, which is heavily populated by ethnic Armenians. Avagyan was born and raised in Bugashen and sided with Armenian forces during the war with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which is historically and internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan.
During the war over the region that flared up shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Avagyan went to the front, where he was given the nickname “cobra.” He died from combat wounds in 1994, the same year the full-scale war ended thanks to a ceasefire.
Armenia’s ambassador to Georgia, Ruben Sadoyan, attended the ribbon-cutting for the statue that was paid for by philanthropist Gagik Avagyan, who is also from Bugashen. Akhalkalaki’s mayor Yurik Hunanyan, Georgian parliamentarians Enzel Mkoyan and Samvel Manukyan from the ruling Georgian Dream political party, and local municipality officials were all in attendance.
Officials in Baku did not hold back their outrage at Georgia and summoned Georgia’s ambassador to Azerbaijan Zurab Pataradze to the foreign ministry on January 25.
“He was called upon to take urgent measures to eliminate this case, which does not meet the spirit of the existing bilateral strategic partnership between the two countries,” the ministry’s spokesperson Leyla Abdullayeva said, according to Azernews.
“Avagyan directly participated in the occupation of Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region and the surrounding areas and killing the Azerbaijanis in the territory,” she added, referring to the ethnic Armenian fighter’s full participation in the military campaign against Azerbaijan, which saw 30,000 Azerbaijanis killed and one million displaced.
Despite the protests, Tbilisi has yet to comment on the incident.
Avagyan joined the war in Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region and participated in the battles to occupy Khojaly, Hadrut and Fuzuli districts. During the start of the occupation of Khojaly on February 26, 1992, in which Avagyan participated, Armenian forces massacred 613 Azerbaijanis in a single night. The massacre in Khojaly is recognized as the genocide of Azerbaijanis by 15 countries from around the world, as well as 20 state governments in the United States.
Zurab Gventsadze, the head of the Youth Diplomats Association in Tbilisi, believes the erection of a statue honoring someone whom Azerbaijanis see as a mass murder has the backing of Armenia-oriented groups within Georgia.
“Armenian separatist Mikael Avagyan is not only the enemy of Azerbaijan, but also the enemy of Georgia,” Gventsadze said, according to reports by Qat.az. “That’s why this event targets both Georgia and Azerbaijan. This incident is aimed at putting our people against each other. I think Akhalkalaki mayor is responsible for this.”
Akif Naghi, chairman of the Karabakh Liberation Organization in Baku, called on the Georgian authorities to immediately and completely remove the statue of Avagyan, calling it a grave insult against Azerbaijanis living in Georgia.
“Azerbaijanis living in Georgia should stage protests against this incident. If the monument is not removed, Azerbaijan should use levers in its hands and review economic relations with Georgia,” Naghi told Sherg.az.
Located in the South Caucasus region, just south of Russia and in between the Black and Caspian Seas, Georgia and Azerbaijan have for the most part enjoyed good relations since the two former Soviet republics regained independence. According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, Azerbaijan was the largest foreign investor in Georgia’s economy in the first half of 2018, with $136.5 million in foreign direct investment.
Georgia switched its gas imports completely to supplies from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s state-run energy conglomerate SOCAR has reportedly provided 2.5 billion cubic meters of gas, or 99.65 percent of its western neighbor’s total demand, last year. For its part, Georgia profits from Caspian gas originating in Azerbaijan making its way to Turkey and Europe via the Southern Gas Corridor, thanks to transit fees.