In 2014, Moscow attempted to normalize relations with Georgia, integrate Armenia into the new Eurasian Economic Union, and find ways to work with Azerbaijan on Caspian security – all while dealing with a range of territorial disputes in the region.
Armenian and Karabakh armed forces hold joint military exercises at a training ground near the town of Tigranakert in the unrecognized Republic of Karabakh on November 14, 2014. Photo: AFP
The South Caucasus is a very significant region for Russia and its regional security strategy. For Russia, a secure South Caucasus can reinforce security in the North Caucasus where Islamic rebels are still active. In this regard, Moscow is interested in peace and stability in the region. Here’s a look at the major developments in 2014 for Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and how they impact Moscow’s foreign policy calculus for the region.
Georgia: In search of normalized relations with Russia
In the South Caucasus, Russia’s main priority is to mend fences with Georgia, a fellow Orthodox Christian country. Moscow faced a difficult relationship with Georgia under its previous pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili, culminating in the 2008 war in Georgia. Now, however, with a new pragmatic government in power in Tbilisi, this relationship is slowly beginning to be rebuilt.
In Georgia, 2014 began with a clean political slate in terms of leadership, with a new President, Giorgi Margvelashvili, and new Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili. At first it was assumed by Georgia's opposition political forces that both men were mere "puppets" of outgoing Prime Minister and Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. However, 2014 illustrated that both Margvelashvili and Garibashvili are very much independent players on the Georgian political scene.
2014 was also an eventful year for Georgia in other respects. Controversial former President Saakashvili is now a wanted man in Georgia for abuse of office. His assets have been frozen, his property has been impounded, and the Georgian authorities are seeking an arrest warrant for the former President via Interpol. Russia, too, has chimed in and is considering issuing charges against Saakashvili for abuses in the 2008 war.
The charges filed by official Tbilisi are in part fueled by a concern about Saakashvili returning and orchestrating his own version of Ukraine's Maidan in Tbilisi. He made several such threats and the Georgian Interior Minister claims to have intelligence that Saakashvili is indeed plotting a revolutionary return.
The year also saw Georgia's controversial Defense Minister Irakli Alasania dismissed from office in November and the split of his hawkish Free Democrats from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. The overtly pro-Western Alasania pushed Georgia toward the NATO military alliance, antagonizing Moscow. In September, when Alasania was still Defense Minister, Georgia accepted a "military aid package" from NATO causing much grief in Moscow. In addition, the package allowed for the establishment of a NATO training facility on Georgian territory and for NATO exercises to be "occasionally" held in Georgia.
A commemoration ceremony at the monument to the fallens for the territorial integrity in Georgia's Gori on September 27, 2014. Photo: AFP
Regardless of this, there was a promising thaw in Russo-Georgian relations at the beginning of the year, culminating in Russia President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to the Georgian leadership for a direct one-on-one meeting during the Sochi Winter Olympics in February. Unfortunately, the meeting never took place and was instead overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis. Georgia's pragmatists, led by Prime Minister Garibashvili, also faced the difficult task of balancing their desire for a normalization of relations with Moscow vs. their internal feuds with Georgia's pro-Western hawks, both inside and outside of the ruling coalition.
Both Moscow and Tbilisi have stressed the importance of normalizing relations regardless of any obstacles. In fact, Georgia's trade ties with Russia improved significantly in 2014, though Tbilisi's signing of the EU Association Agreement in July may complicate these new dynamic relations. Still, there are increasing signs of a Russo-Georgian rapprochement and that a direct meeting between the Russian and Georgian leaderships may be finally held in 2015.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia: Signs of reconciliation with Tbilisi
Regardless, a significant obstacle to deeper cooperation with Tbilisi remains the unresolved status of the two breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia formally recognized after the 2008 war. Abkhazia saw an unexpected revolution in 2014, unseating the incumbent President Aleksandr Ankvab from office. Early presidential elections were set for August and were eventually won by Raul Khajimba. Though known for his typically nationalist stances, Khajimba appeared open to dialogue with Georgia and voiced his support for the reopening of the Abkhaz railway.
South Ossetia also held elections this year. The June parliamentary elections saw the victory of the United Ossetia party, which seeks to unify South Ossetia with the Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania. However, despite this official party line, Moscow is unlikely to back the absorption of South Ossetia into Russia. Instead, Moscow is more interested in seeing a peaceful solution brokered between Georgia and South Ossetia for the sake of security and stability in the region.
The leader of the Abkhazian opposition and president-elect Raul Khadjimba holds a sword as he takes his oath of office duting the inauguration ceremony in Sukhumi on September 25, 2014. Photo: AFP
Tbilisi's pragmatists have expressed remarkable openness toward a serious reconciliation with the Abkhaz and the Ossetes. Prime Minister Garibashvili has been at the forefront of this movement. He has openly admitted Georgia's responsibility for its past mistakes. He also spoke positively about the "proud Abkhaz nation" and its "25-year-old struggle for self-determination," remarkably conciliatory language for a post-Soviet Georgian leader.
Unfortunately, despite these promising overtures, the pragmatists were unable to fundamentally change the situation in 2014 due to pressure from Georgia's hawks. Garibashvili's conciliatory rhetoric was criticized by Saakashvili. Further, Georgia's pursuit of NATO and the inflammatory rhetoric by Alasania have caused the Abkhaz and the Ossetes to perceive that Georgia is "not interested in dialogue" and that "nothing has changed." Instead, Abkhazia and South Ossetia sought defense and cooperation agreements with Russia, prompting protest and concern from Tbilisi.
Russia straddling between Armenia and Azerbaijan
In 2014, Armenia became the newest member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EaEU), whith Azerbaijan seen as a potential Russian partner for Caspian security.
Even though Armenia was officially approved for admission to EaEU, the decision is still pending parliamentary ratification in Kazakhstan and Belarus.The decision to join the EaEU was made by President Serj Sargsyan in September 2013, favoring membership in the union over an association agreement with the EU.
In addition to Armenia's dependence on and privileges from Russia in the spheres of defense, economics, and energy, Sargsyan's decision was also likely influenced by security guarantees by the Kremlin for the disputed majority-Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The move to join the EaEU was supported by the vast majority of the Armenian political elite and the population, though opposed by a vocal minority of pro-Western politicians and civil society activists who favored the association agreement with the EU instead. Generally, relations with Russia (particularly in the defense sector) remain strong.
As for Russo-Azerbaijani relations, Putin has sought to enhance these ties by shoring up cooperation on Caspian security. However, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev is unlikely to entertain the idea of joining the Moscow-backed EaEU any time soon. Instead, Baku prefers to remain independent of any supranational union, whether the EaEU or the EU. It also mistrusts Moscow's strong defense relationship with Armenia. Relations with the latter continue to be very tense.
Nagorno-Karabakh: An increasingly fragile ceasefire
In fact, 2014 has been an especially tense year along the borders between Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) on one side and Azerbaijan on the other. Karabakh, a majority-Armenian region assigned to Azerbaijan during the early years of the Soviet Union, lies at the center of the conflict between the sides. A ceasefire has been in place since 1994. It has held but violations are common.
Early August has seen a sharp escalation in fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia around a tense line of control around Nagorno-Karabakh. Pictured: A convoy of Azerbaijan's Army tanks moves in the direction of Agdam, Azerbaijan on Aug. 2. Photo: AP
2014 has proved to be a year of significantly increased ceasefire violations, with the most intensive fighting occurring during the summer. Baku has intensified ceasefire violations to demonstrate to the international community that Azerbaijan is not happy with the status quo. This is further underscored by the bellicose anti-Armenian discourse of Azerbaijan's President Aliyev.
Moscow has observed the situation with concern. Russia would be obliged by treaty to defend Armenia in case of an attack by its neighbors. Given the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, such a scenario would place Moscow in a difficult situation. Therefore, in response, Putin called for a peace summit in Sochi in August between Yerevan and Baku to de-escalate tensions. The Sochi meeting proved to be a success for Moscow. Ceasefire violations subsequently decreased.
However, toward the end of the year, there was a new intensification of ceasefire violations. In November, Azerbaijani forces shot down an Armenian helicopter flying over Nagorno-Karabakh. It was involved in a training flight for military drills. When Azerbaijan then declared that they would shoot down any further flights over the Karabakh area, the Armenian president immediately flew to Karabakh by helicopter anyway.
Following this, Armenian commandos conducted a special operation within the so-called neutral zone between the sides to recover the bodies of those who died in the helicopter attack. Despite intense fire from Azerbaijani forces, the Armenian operation was successful and was praised by Armenia's Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan. The helicopter incident was among the most intense in the 20 years since the ceasefire over Karabakh was first declared.