A View from the Streets: what the war in Ukraine means across the South Caucasus8 min read
The recent invasion of Ukraine has sent ripples throughout the globe, with hundreds of thousands protesting against the horrific actions committed in the country in the name of Vladimir Putin’s “special operation”. Perhaps in no other region does this attack on Ukraine and its citizens arouse such a personal response as the South Caucasus. While the official reactions from the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia show three nations wary of their precarious position in the global order, albeit in light of distinct geopolitical dimensions, the streets often tell a different story. In this article, Rhiannon Segar reflects on what this war means for the citizens of the South Caucasus by turning to the public actions seen in the days following the invasion.
The largest rallies within the South Caucasus have taken place in Georgia, with thousands attending multiple solidarity rallies in the capital and beyond following the invasion. The sentiment across Georgia remains staunchly anti-Russian, an unsurprising response given the overriding negative attitude already felt towards Russia before the war’s commencement. Russia’s war in Ukraine feels all too familiar for many Georgians, evoking traumatic memories of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, which resulted in the loss of Georgian territory and the death of hundreds of its citizens.
On the streets, slogans of solidarity were chanted in Ukrainian, Georgian and English (“Georgians stand with Ukraine”, “Georgia and Ukraine without Russia”) as well as a call to the international community to hear their voice on Russian aggression. Where Russian was used, it often came in the form of variations on Ukrainian soldier Roman Gribov’s now infamous words: “Russian warship, go f**k yourself!”. The protests have also held a pro-EU dimension, with the scattered presence of the EU flag visible at most rallies. This has only been further highlighted by the Georgian government’s announcing its official bid for EU membership — two years earlier than expected.
A unique feature of the Georgian protests has been their evolution into anti-government protests. The embittered populace have now taken to the streets to display their disappointment and anger towards their government in response to its lukewarm steps to support Ukraine. The government has refused to enact sanctions against Russia, a decision that has led to immense backlash from the public, with “I’m Georgian, sorry for my government” signs visible among the crowds. This critical public attitude towards the Georgian Dream government is far from a new phenomenon within Georgia, with countless anti-government protests over the past year alone. However, this may be the nail in the coffin for the premiership of Irakli Garibashvili, with calls for his resignation more ardent than ever. For the Georgian population, a strong anti-Russian stance from their government is the only permissible position to the events in Ukraine, which are viewed as yet another move of imperialism in a long pattern of Russian aggression.
Sign of solidarity in Tbilisi / RFE/RL’s Georgian Service
From vocal displays to subdued solidarity
Azerbaijan has also seen people take to the streets to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the largest of which took place on February 27, with many hundreds gathering outside the Ukrainian embassy in Baku. The rally itself was vocal, with chants similar to those seen across Europe, expressing solidarity (“Ukrainian people, Azerbaijani people are with you!”) and anti-war sentiment (“No to war!”). Although anti-Putin messages were not as widespread as their Georgian neighbours, they remained visible among the crowds nonetheless, with chants including “Putin, get out!” and “Russia without Putin!”. At the rally, the national flag flew alongside the flag of Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Turkey, which has pushed to play the role of self-assumed mediator of the war in Ukraine.
People take to the streets of Baku in solidarity with Ukraine / Vladyslav Kanevskyi, Ukrainian Ambassador to Azerbaijan
The response from the Azerbaijani population also holds a distinctive national character. Outside of the major rally, smaller actions and gatherings have also shown the deep emotional response this war has spurred. For many in Azerbaijan, Ukraine’s primarily pro-Azerbaijani stance in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (known as Artsakh in Armenia) is a recurring point of reference. Humanitarian collections have become commonplace among the public, while mothers stand holding images of their sons who died during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Comparisons are also being drawn between the recent massacre in Bucha and the Khojaly massacre of 1992, which saw over 400 Azerbaijanis killed by Armenian soldiers and paramilitary fighters. As conflict escalates again in Nagorno-Karabakh and collective trauma remains widespread, it is easy to understand why parallels between the wars are being drawn so heavily. That being said, these wars are far from mirror images of one another, not least due to Russia’s starkly different role in each conflict.
Since the rally on February 27, the response on the streets has been relatively quiet, with only a few small demonstrations taking place. While this response may seem subdued compared to its Georgian neighbours, it is important to note that freedom of assembly in Azerbaijan is severely limited in the central areas of Baku, with peaceful protests often leading to police dispersals. This response arrived during a demonstration held only a few days later, during which the police detained several activists from Azerbaijan Democracy and Welfare Party who were protesting outside the Russian Embassy. Similarly, activist Elman Guliev was reportedly detained by police after holding a protest in front of the Russian Embassy on the day of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. Guliev and one other activist demanded that Russia end its aggression in Ukraine and the Azerbaijani authorities break the “alliance agreement”, signed with Russia just two days before the invasion. With this in mind, the reaction from the police during the rally on February 27 was somewhat unusual, with reports suggesting minimal intervention from the police. The fact still stands that the war in Ukraine is a difficult topic in Azerbaijan, given the government’s official stance of neutrality. While public sentiment in Azerbaijan may not necessarily support the government’s “neutral” position, it is certainly aware of it.
Police break up a small demonstration outside the Russian embassy / Kanal 13.
A matter of neutrality or polarisation?
While Georgia and Azerbaijan saw their public assemble in their thousands, a comparatively muted response has come from Armenia. This weak response is somewhat expected from a nation so heavily tied to the aggressor in this war. Over the years, Yerevan’s attempts to diversify its pool of international allies have proven unsustainable due to the domineering nature of Russia’s foreign policy; Armenia remains heavily dependent on Russia for trade, national security and energy resources. Importantly, Russia plays an integral role in the ongoing peacekeeping mission in Nagorno-Karabakh in line with the 2020 Russian-brokered peace deal — a mission that some analysts now believe is under threat due to Russia’s distraction over Ukraine. This reliance, however, should not be mistaken as a product of cultural affection or historical obligation but as a strategic necessity for Armenia’s stability. Aware of its precarious geopolitical position, the Armenian government has chosen to take a neutral position towards the war. At face value, the Armenian government’s position of ‘neutrality’ was echoed by the population’s reactions. In the initial days following the outbreak of the war, there were relatively few rallies supporting either side, with those taking place only pulling small numbers. However, emotions are still running high for the Armenian population.
Pro-Ukraine rally near the memorial of Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian poet and political figure / Stepan, Grigoryan, OC Media.
In recent weeks, pro-Russian rallies have attracted support in the country’s capital. One such rally gained considerable attention from Russian state media, unlike the numerous pro-Ukraine rallies preceding it. A peculiar aspect of the rally is its formalised appearance: participants hold identical signs with the letter “Z”; a marching band including children banged its drums in unison; a large pre-printed banner lifted above the crowd with the words “Unity is our strength” in Russian. While pro-Ukraine rallies have a more ‘handmade’ feel, with signs drawn on pieces of cardboard or paper, the pro-Russian rally in Yerevan appeared less spontaneous. Although it is unclear exactly who organised the rally, reports suggest that the pro-Russian Armenian Communist Party is largely responsible.
On the other side, a vocal sector of the population has taken to the streets in solidarity with Ukraine. Rallies organised by the European Party of Armenia and the Ukrainian embassy were attended by Ukrainians and other foreigners living in the capital, as well as many young anti-war Armenians waving their national flag. Chants mirror international solidarity rallies calling for peace (“No to war!”), and signs were held in English calling for an end to Russian aggression. Although these rallies have drawn fewer participants than those taking place in Azerbaijan and Georgia, they appear to be equally a call to Armenians to take an active stance against the war, as they are a call for peace.
As in Azerbaijan, the longstanding tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh have largely fuelled the public’s feelings towards Ukraine. Yet, sentiments are predictably poles apart. Ukraine is viewed as an enemy for many Armenians due to widespread rumours of its role in selling weaponry to Azerbaijan during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, with many struggling to support Zelenskiy given his pro-Azerbaijani position. This rhetoric, however, fails to highlight that Russia’s provision of arms to Azerbaijan greatly surpassed Ukraine’s. Above all, the situation in Armenia shows a nation struggling with a perceived sense of abandonment during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war, unable to fully support either side in yet another tragedy of human life.