The new status quo set in the South Caucasus back in August 2008 is generally being preserved, despite numerous problems, disagreements and the influence of dangerous background factors.
Army servicemen of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorny Karabakh at the contact line with the armed forces of Azerbaijan in the area of the town of Martakert. Photo: RIA Novosti
Today the South Caucasus has been pushed to the periphery of international affairs. Due to shifting geopolitical priorities, politicians and experts mention the South Caucasus much less often than the events in Ukraine and the Middle East.
But does it mean that the problems and conflicts of the region that used to worry politicians and experts for many years have been solved? Can we really talk about the minimization of risks and threats coming from Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia? How important are Caucasian geopolitics in the context of the growing contradictions of the West and Russia?
If a region steps into the shadow, it doesn’t mean it has achieved “eternal peace” or that all the ethno-political conflicts have been resolved.
Tbilisi and Sukhumi today, as before, see the future status of Abkhazia differently, and Yerevan and Baku can’t find a compromise on Nagorno-Karabakh. And although Turkey is currently focused on solving the Syrian crisis, it won’t leave its strategic partnership with Azerbaijan and won’t launch a new round of talks to normalize relations with Armenia.
Iran, busy with the “reset” of relations with the West and with attempts to open the European market for itself, as well as protect its interests in the Middle East, still considers the “renewed Madrid principles” of resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict unacceptable. This is primarily because of the possibility of positioning peacemakers in the conflict zone.
As much as Russia is busy with the conflicts in Syria and Donbas, it still views Abkhazia and South Ossetia as posts of its influence in the Caucasus and instruments for holding back Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions. At the same time, Moscow is trying to preserve the strategic union with Armenia, while not falling into a confrontation with Azerbaijan.
The U.S., for whom Transcaucasia has always been part of a wider geopolitical puzzle, is still ready to view the region as a platform for its projects on providing Europe with a source of alternative hydrocarbon resources, thereby minimizing the dependence of the European Union on Russian energy.
NATO is not rushing to accept Georgia as a member, but the collaboration with this country remains a priority for the Alliance. Moreover, the military cooperation of Washington and Tbilisi enables Georgia to remain in the pro-Western geopolitical orbit without a formal NATO membership.
Speaking about the countries of the region, the priorities of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia remain the same.
Tbilisi sees the guarantees of its future in strengthening the strategy towards the EU, U.S. and NATO. Yerevan is developing integration projects with Russia (though it’s not trying to take a strong opposing stand towards Europe).
Meanwhile, Baku is continuing its seesaw policy. If, in the energy sphere, Azerbaijan can be considered a part of the West with its call for an “alternative to the Moscow monopoly,” politically it’s interested in developing relations with Russia. That’s because Russia talks about non-intervention into the domestic affairs of the Caspian state and doesn’t ask for improvement in the spheres of human rights and democracy.
In the meantime, the de facto states of the region (Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh) continue to exist despite the problems with the international legitimacy of their special status.
There’s no basis to consider that their attitude to Russia (or any of the post-Soviet republics, to which they formally belong), would drastically change as long as there won’t be any force majeure events.
So a kind of stabilization in the South Caucasus is afoot. It was mainly the result of forming the new status quo in the region, which was established less than a decade ago. The current state of affairs was created after the end of the “Five-Day War” in August 2008. And so what are the primary characteristics of this new stabilization?
First of all, there is Russia’s clear intention to mark the South Caucasus as one of its top priorities to protect, for which it’s ready to use its entire arsenal, including raw military power.
Second, the West isn’t ready to clash with Russia because of the Caucasus. That’s the principal difference of the Georgian story of 2008 from Ukrainian crisis of two years ago.
Ukraine for the U.S. and EU is a kind of symbol of Moscow’s imperial ambitions. The West doesn’t want Russia in the center of Europe, and won’t allow it. But it’s ready to show tolerance in the Caucasus when it comes to Russia.
Today, despite disagreement on Georgia and growing confrontation with Moscow because of Ukraine and Syria, the U.S. and EU do agree on some things concerning the Caucasus.
Washington and some of its European allies interpret the events of 2008 as occupation of Georgian territory. Some EU countries don’t go quite as far, but at the same time, still recognize Georgia’s territorial unity. Moscow is consistent in its line on pushing “new political realities” in Transcaucasia.
However, resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh frozen conflict is still an issue where the approaches of Russia, EU and U.S. are the same. All three co-chairmen of the Minsk OBSE group (where France is de facto a kind of EU ambassador) retain consensus on the “renewed Madrid principles” as a foundation for resolving the old ethno-political conflict.
And even though the document itself causes plenty of controversy, and there are obvious contradictions in it (for instance, recognizing the territorial unity of Azerbaijan and demanding a referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh’s status, which can make this unity doubtful), the West and Russia don’t argue about that problem. Even more, in the current situation, Nagorno-Karabakh is nearly the only story of diplomatic success in Moscow-Washington relations.
The Middle East also has influence on Caucasian affairs. Transcaucasia’s republics are feeling the pressure from the migrants from that region. Armenia has accepted over 17,000 Syrian Armenians (considering the country’s population of 3 million, that is a significant number). Georgia has received approximately 5,000 to 10,000 people from the Arab world.
There’s a certain influence to be noticed from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), a terrorist organization prohibited in Russia.
So in contrast with other turbulent regions, the Caucasus has become a relatively calm territory. Yet not a single one of its ethno-political conflicts has been resolved, and the amount of armed incidents in Nagorno-Karabakh is growing.
But unlike Donbas or the Middle East, there’s no frontal confrontation or a wide-scale military conflict. Unlike Syria and Ukraine, the conflict between Russia and the West in South Caucasus is based on very specific points.
Disagreements spread to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but not to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Moreover, pro-Western Georgia demonstrates its readiness for cooperation with Moscow in holding back ISIS.
As a result, the new status quo set in the region back in August 2008 is generally preserved, despite numerous problems, disagreements and the influence of dangerous background factors.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.