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Crunch time in the Southern Caucasus

Ivan Sukhov
18 May 2009

Two factors have inflamed the situation in the South Caucasus. On the one hand, NATO is carrying out exercises in Georgia at the moment (6 May to 1 June) under the name Cooperative Longbow/Lancer - 2009. On the other hand, Russia has deployed guards on the borders of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia with Georgia. The hysterical reactions of Moscow and the West  recall the situation a year ago, before the August war. Politicians, diplomats, intelligence services and the military of all interested parties are going to have to exercise great tact and professionalism to avoid destructive and irreversible consequences.

Two closely-linked processes are under way in the South Caucasus.  Georgia is at the centre of one, and Armenia the other. Since autumn 2008 relations between Armenia and Turkey have been improving rapidly. This has resulted in a joint announcement on 22 April 2009 of a "road map" for regulating bilateral relations.  One result will be the opening of borders between the two countries.

Moscow considers that Russia deserves the credit for launching this process of mutual rapprochement. This is true, if it can be regarded as creditable to have engendered fear in neighbouring post-Soviet elites, as Russia's military operations in Georgia did in August 2008.

Turkey's reaction to the August war was not long in coming. You might mock the "football diplomacy" of President Abdullah Gul, who came to Yerevan for the world championship selection match on 6 September 2008.  But had it not been for 8 August, this unprecedented visit would not have happened. The visit ensured that the "platform of stability and cooperation in the Caucasus" proposed by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan might become more than part of the choir deploring Russia's military intervention in Georgia.

Further developments in the Armenian-Turkish rapprochement turned out to be unexpectedly disquieting for both Moscow and the West.  Russia has tried several times (and continues to try) to seize the initiative that has slipped from its hands.  The West clearly has no unified position on the extent of its support for Turkey in these Armenian initiatives. Now more than ever, Turkey needs to consider whether it is primarily an ally of the West, or an independent regional power.

The United States has expressed clear approval of the processes, by way of compensating for the differences between them over the use of the word "genocide".  Meanwhile, the European Union, with its old anxieties about Turkish membership, has been standing back and watching. Yet the success of Turkey's Caucasian initiatives depends to a significant degree on consistent support from Europe. Influential forces within Turkey are unhappy with the policy of rapprochement.  They demand that the government establish contacts with Yerevan to help resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh situation in favour of Azerbaijan, Turkey's traditional ally in the region.

The Armenian government is also under pressure from its nationalist opposition.  Details of the "road map" signed on 22 April are not yet fully known, but a group of Karabakh war veterans  has already dismissed it as a betrayal of Armenia's national interests. The 2008 presidential elections in Armenia saw mass disturbances involving these veterans.  So Yerevan cannot afford to ignore public pressure.  Yerevan and Ankara must both make their positions clear to their foreign policy partners.

However intense the political pressure on the initiators of the Ankara-Yerevan rapprochement, progress is likely to remain good.  If things go well, the Armenian-Turkish border could be opened in a few months. Just a few days ago the Armenian transport ministry reported that it was prepared to open communications with Turkey right away.   Everything is ready. All that remains is to repair the checkpoints. Opening the border will be the more likely if Turkey and Armenia manage to put to one side the issue of Karabakh.

The Karabakh factor

Karabakh may cause a deadlock in the negotiation process. There is no scenario for resolving the conflict that will suit not only Armenia and Karabakh itself in its present form (which cannot be completely ignored), but Azerbaijan and its patron Turkey. Or Moscow, which hopes to maintain its influence on the situation in Karabakh in order to be able to exert influence on both Yerevan and Baku.

Today Moscow is the party which has an interest in any Armenian-Turkish rapprochement being dependent on a settlement of the Karabakh dispute. If Moscow can ensure this, a solution to both issues will effectively be blocked.

Political stability in Armenia depends on the Karabakh negotiations.  Negotiations will be much easier if they can be delayed until there is tangible progress in Armenian-Turkish relations e.g. before the border is opened.  The countless mutual contradictions and concerns of Armenia and Azerbaijan mean that for the first time Armenia will not be negotiating with its back against the wall.

As things stand today, opening the Armenian-Turkish border will mean a very significant reduction of Russian political and economic influence in the region.  At the moment, Russia has to rely on air links with Armenia, which it regards as its main ally in the South Caucasus.  For Armenia's exports and imports, Russia is less important than the EU countries.

At the beginning of May Russia announced completion of repairs to the customs terminal "Verkhny Lars" on the border with Georgia, through which land transport would theoretically pass in and out of Armenia.  But Georgia's agreement is required to start using this as a transit point for Armenian-Russian traffic and cargo. Lars is the only checkpoint on the Russian-Georgian border which falls outside Georgia's conflict zones with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  Georgians well remember that the repairs at Lars took many years, far longer than they were supposed to, and they clearly served as an instrument for the economic blockade of Georgia. In any case, even if Lars is re-opened for traffic, the opening of railway, road and air links between Armenia and Turkey will negate the importance of this crossing.  When there is an open border with Turkey, using Lars would be like climbing in through the neighbour's window, rather than using one's one fine, well-placed gates.

A union through clenched teeth

Armenia has a whole litany of complaints against Russia.  They are rarely heard during polite protocol meetings between Sargis Sargsian and Dmitry Medvedev, but anyone with any interest in bilateral relations between the two countries is well aware of them. They are the background against which this new development in Armenian foreign policy makes sense. The major concerns are:

  • gas prices, which Russia has raised almost to market level for Armenia in 2006
  • enterprises which Russia has taken over by way of payment for Armenian debts, which have not developed as promised
  • the Russian military base in Gyumri. This does not pay rent to Armenia, but irritates neighbouring Georgia. At the moment it is effectively Yerevan's only window to the outside world (apart from the narrow corridor to Iran). It is also an irritant to the Armenians themselves, who increasingly wonder if the Russian military really would help them if the war in Karabakh were to get out of control.  Might the Russians be more concerned to maintain relations with Azerbaijan, the richest country in the region and an independent exporter of energy resources?
  • Russian-Azerbaijan relations, which from the Armenian viewpoint do not chime well with Russian rhetoric about a union with Armenia
  • xenophobia in Russia, which police statistics show for some reason most frequently involves citizens of Armenian origin.

Fears of heavy-handed intervention by Russia in the rapprochement process with Turkey clearly prompted Yerevan to back out of NATO tactical exercises in Georgia literally days before they began. The official reason given was the statement by General Secretary de Hoop Scheffer about NATO support for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan - essentially a manifestation of above-mentioned European tactlessness.   The exercises provoked a hysterical reaction from Moscow right from the beginning.  That Armenia, which belongs to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, should have considered taking part in them is some indication of its real relationship with the country that claims to be Armenia's main foreign policy patron.

Pressing the "reset button" on 8 August 2008

The more the relationship between Yerevan and Ankara improves, the more Moscow wants to be dealt a new deck of cards for the Caucasus, in the hope of getting a better hand. The  rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey is directly proportionate to Russia's loss of influence in the region.

Moscow probably understands that Armenia's move southward is connected with the freezing of Russian-Georgian relations after the 2008 war.  Any hope Yerevan might have had of re-opening land communications with Russia (only possible through Georgia) has died.  So Moscow has a geostrategic interest in "opening up" Georgia. Moscow strategists have realized that this is not going to be possible without a change in the Georgian regime.  Georgia's democratic opposition would not be able to achieve this, as their relations with Russia are barely different  from those of Mikhail Saakashvili's circle. 

Georgia's internal instability results from the activities of the opposition.  Either way, this suits Moscow. At the very least, it undermines the enemy from the inside. At most, it could serve as an excuse for intervention by force. But paradoxically, any escalation of hostilities could also play into the hands of Saakashvili's administration: some Tbilisi analysts expect that a renewal of the conflict would prompt the opposition to step back from attacking the regime directly.

Russia is strategically interested in gaining control over the Georgian section of pipelines between Central Asia and the Black Sea - Mediterranean basin. This control could come about by provoking regime change in Georgia. Intervention by force to gain this end is still not impossible. Russia could also take control by destroying pipelines - but this would spoil its relations with Azerbaijan, currently the most important source of oil for these pipelines.

Russian overriding priority is the South Caucasian pipelines, rather than the mythical union with Armenia.  Before our very eyes Russia is effecting a pragmatic re-orientation to its foreign policy, from a patriarchal empire into a gas corporation prepared to fight its corner. Control of the Georgian pipelines would end all talk of diversifying the delivery of Central Asian energy to Europe.  It would also allow Gazprom to dictate conditions for the purchase of its raw materials to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

Russia looks increasingly prepared to step outside the boundaries of international law as understood in Europe.  Indications include her diplomatic reaction to NATO's exercises in Georgia, the deployment of border troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (once again flouting the Medvedev-Sarkozy peace plan) and border provocations involving pro-Kremlin youth movements. This readiness, and the fact that it did not achieve all of its goals in August 2008, mean that the danger of military engagement in the region is greater than ever.

The European Union and the United States are going to have to do more than merely appeal to Moscow to stop behaving like an old-fashioned colonial power and behave decently. They are going to have to react effectively to the challenges it poses. For in coming months, or even weeks, events in Georgia may force Washington and Brussels into taking strategic decisions on Georgia, if they don't want to lose sight of her for the next few years.

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