The South Caucasus has historically held a special place in the geopolitics of the leading European powers. For Russia, it was a gateway to the south, to the Black Sea and Mediterranean region and beyond—to the Middle East. For the major continental powers and the Ottoman Empire it was a natural barrier called upon to limit Russia’s military-political and economic range and, accordingly, its ability to develop an effective policy towards the south. The Soviet Union succeeded in breaking that stereotype in the 20th century, apparently forever. No one questioned its interest or role in the Caucasus and further south.
The situation changed dramatically after the dramatic collapse of the USSR, largely by reverting to the parameters that existed in the 19th century. Moreover, two powerful new players appeared in the West—the United States, which has global interests and considers the Caucasus worthy of high-priority attention, and NATO, the military and political alliance that it leads and for which the Caucasus is a region into which it may potentially expand. At the same time, a new factor of particular interest to the West has emerged in the Caucasus—the economic factor. At issue are the raw hydrocarbon deposits in the Caspian region and supply routes to Europe, preferably bypassing Russian territory.
Against this complex geopolitical background, ethnic fault lines capable of generating tension and conflicts on both a local and a global scale reemerged in the South Caucasus following the disappearance of the Soviet Union. The latest in a series of such conflicts—the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict (August 2008)—involved Russia directly and the United States and NATO indirectly but no less seriously. That led to the creation of an entirely new political and military environment throughout the Euro-Atlantic region, because never before in the history of the Russian Federation have our country and NATO come so close to a direct military confrontation. Since the spike in tension during the last summer month of 2008, the overall situation in the South Caucasus seems to have stabilized somewhat and become more outwardly calm. But it is nothing more than a temporary lull that is due somewhat, and perhaps largely, to several factors not directly related to the Caucasus.
In recent months, new problems have emerged and some old ones have become exacerbated, and they have significantly lessened the amount of attention paid to the Caucasus by several leading players of the modern world, primarily the United States and its close allies. Those problems are:
– Afghanistan with all of its well-known ramifications, and Pakistan, which is becoming increasingly linked to it. The situation in Pakistan could intensify in the near future. And this is a country that possesses nuclear weapons. The worst-case scenario is that those weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists;
– Revolutionary processes in the Middle East and the destabilization that accompanies them in that volatile region of the world. At the same time, the United States and its closest NATO allies have become entangled in a third regional conflict, this time in Libya. Syria could be next;
– A real prospect that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will flare up. It could escalate into a new large-scale armed confrontation;
– The Euro-ABM issue, which could become a “litmus test” for the West’s real plans toward Russia.
Problems as acute for the United States and the West as Iran and Iraq have moved to the back burner, but only temporarily, of course. Nevertheless, these developments have created a breathing space that can be used to turn the situation in the Caucasus around. How much time is left before the next flareup in the South Caucasus? What will it be linked to, and when might it happen? The most likely event is the Sochi Olympics. Less than 1000 days remain before it opens.
It is no secret that certain forces in our country and abroad are already preparing all sorts of measures to significantly hamper if not completely disrupt the Olympics. There is nothing fundamentally new in their inflammatory fantasies. They involve incitement of ethno-territorial rivalries. As an example of the latter, the Georgian Parliamentary Committee for Diaspora and Caucasus Issues has begun reviewing a draft resolution to declare as genocide events that occurred in the 19th century during the Russian-Caucasian War. Tbilisi, of course, is hoping that its latest anti-Russian gimmick will be picked up in Russia. Under the circumstances, much will depend on how the United States and its partners behave. I would like to hope that they will act responsibly and constructively. Otherwise, the situation could become significantly worse, both in the South Caucasus and on a much broader scale.
Our side needs to take specific and timely steps to counter this threat. So far, they are not particularly apparent. If action is being taken in this arena, it is very discrete. In my opinion, the time has come to build broad international support for the Sochi Olympics. It could be in the form of a Sochi Friends Club (or a Sochi Olympics Friends Club) to unite major public and political figures, well-known entertainers, writers, athletes, etc. representing many different countries around the world. Our conference could take the initiative on that.
Having concluded my general remarks with that proposal, I would like to make some judgments on specific problems of the South Caucasus. The issue of security in the region reached new heights after the events of 2008, requiring more in-depth analysis and understanding. The regional processes in this part of the Greater Caucasus are still centered around the conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states not only has not resolved those conflicts, it has added a new set of problems involving the restoration of relations between Georgia and Russia.
The military conflict of August 2008 had been brewing for several years and eventually became the low point in relations between Russia and Georgia. It was a loss for both sides to some extent, although that is not spoken of openly. Georgia’s economy has become its weak spot. The country needs foreign markets and foreign investments like it needs air. Prior to the 2006 embargo, Russia was one of Georgia’s chief markets, as well as a leading source of investments. Remarkably, Russian investments were not withdrawn from Georgia after the August war. Beeline, VTB and the Russian energy sector continue to operate there.
Overall, however, the current level of Russian-Georgian economic relations is one of the main obstacles to fulfilling the ambitious economic tasks facing Georgia’s leadership. Another important aspect of George’s social destabilization is the closure of the large Russian labor market to Georgian citizens, which significantly reduced the influx of funds into the country.
Another “problem” area in Georgia’s relations with Russia is “territorial integrity” within its current reduced borders. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are independent regardless of whether or not they are recognized by players in the region and beyond. Russia’s international prestige and resources are and will continue to be entirely sufficient to maintain the existing status quo.
The incompatibility of Georgia’s and Russia’s positions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia is obviously the most serious obstacle to initiating a bilateral dialogue. Moscow bases its stance on the unwillingness of the overwhelming majority of ethnic Abkhazians and Ossetians to live in Georgia. Tbilisi interprets the problem of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence as the outcome of intrigues and misunderstandings, as well as Russian aggression. However, the national plans of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not the result of some mythical intrigue; they derive primarily from the negative experiences Abkhazians and South Ossetians have had in their interactions with Georgia’s political elite. Arguments by Georgian political experts that mistakes made in previous years can be easily fixed if Georgia becomes truly democratic and economically prosperous are very simplistic, to say the least.
For Moscow, a significant obstacle to resuming the dialogue with Tbilisi is Mikheil Saakashvili, whose credibility with the Russian leadership has apparently been definitively and irrevocably undermined. The obviously low probability that the situation involving Abkhazia and South Ossetia or Russian-Georgian relations will change radically in the near future does not mean that there are no opportunities to gradually ease tensions in this part of the South Caucasus, primarily through the resolution of local operational problems.
That is already occurring to some extent. For example, South Ossetian authorities are preparing to pass a residence permit law that would allow ethnic Georgians living in the Akhalgori District who have not accepted South Ossetian citizenship to cross the Republic’s border. Work to solve similar local problems must continue. Under the circumstances, it appears that taking one step at a time is the most effective way of strengthening security in the area of the Georgian-Abkhazian and Georgian-South Ossetian conflicts.
Armenian-Azerbaijani relations remain tense. In our view, however, the situation surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh problem changed after the armed conflict in August. Both the Azerbaijani (primarily) and the Armenian sides clearly became convinced that a military confrontation is fraught with disastrous and totally unpredictable consequences that Yerevan, Baku and Moscow alike find undesirable. And, I suppose, Washington and its European satellites do as well. I get the impression that both Azerbaijan and Armenia understand it is imperative for Moscow to play a central role in mediation efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem.
I hope the parties understand that there is no military solution to the problem. Moscow is convinced of that. A new bloody conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh would be disastrous for the Armenian and Azeri peoples because it would erect a wall of enmity between them that would last for decades, if not centuries, and draw in ever newer generations.
The main thing that the Georgian-Abkhazian, Georgian-South Ossetian and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts have in common is that it will take time to resolve them—perhaps an extended period of relatively stable and secure co-existence during which the hostility would become somewhat blunted and the opportunity for such a powerful tool of settlement and normalization as mutual economic interest and the need for social development could emerge.
We should not forget that even given the historic conflicts, the Caucasian peoples were one big family not so long ago, and they got along well within the multinational Soviet Union. Is it impossible to revive the friendship and mutual respect among the peoples of the Caucasus that have been lost over the past two decades?, Or will the forces that disrupted the peace in this region continue to impose their will on them?
Apparently, there is a need to scrupulously construct a complex system of new balances in the Caucasus, with Russia at its center. I say that not because I represent Moscow here, but because it is a reality that cannot be ignored. The collapse of the Soviet Union, which alienated Russia from the Caucasus, and its immediate consequences are in the past. A new stage of mutual convergence is coming, based on new principles and implemented in new forms and, possibly, in new formats. But this new convergence is inevitable; it is, figuratively speaking, in the air.
The United States, the EU, and Turkey (but not NATO) may find their places in this new system of balances in the Caucasus. They are already here, and it would be difficult to push them out. And perhaps there is no need to do so. But to repeat, Russia must be at the center of the structure; and the algorithm must receive the decisive support of the countries of the Caucasus and their peoples. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has a place in this complex coordinate system as one of the most important key elements for maintaining political and military stability in the region.
The strategic goal—a stable, secure and economically prosperous Caucasus—is clear. It is important for both the regional states and the major global players to unite in achieving that goal. That is a difficult task, and it will take considerable time to achieve it; but it is feasible if we do not stray off course.
This article is the text of a speech delivered by Alexander Orlov, Director of the Institute of International Studies of MGIMO (U) and member of the CSTO Expert Council, at the international conference “CSTO and The South Caucasus: Prospects for Peace and Security in the Region”, Yerevan, May 19-20, 2011.
Source: New Eastern Outlook