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Caucasian gambit

mercredi 10 septembre 2008, par Hans-Peter Geissen

More than ever in its long and complicated history, the « Trans- » or Southern Caucasus region has captured the attention of a broad European and global public with military events in recent weeks. Though the war is not yet fully over, the actual « blitzkrieg » ended soon and was replaced by diplomatic and humanitarian struggles.

Trying to understand, it appears to me that there remains a stunning question : why did the Russians recognize the « independence » of the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia ?

For Russia, this move creates a number of problems.
- Nobody can overlook that they assume a position opposite to what they said about Kosovo and Cyprus still, literally, last month, and since years and decades.
- It gives a risky example for Russian provinces, too.
- It costs them support from Asian multi-ethnic powers like China, India, Kazakhstan and even Iran, as it causes reactions from NATO and the EU.

For what ?

If the aim was to threaten neighboring countries like Ukraine and Moldavia, or the Baltic republics, the military action was sufficient. Same if it had only been an « angry reaction » to Western, particularly NATO’s, advances, or a « punishment » for President Saakashvili. So who is the real addressee, and why is it important to Putin’s team ?

Apparently, the best match is in the immediate neighborhood, Nagorny Karabagh and Armenia. And finally Azerbaijan. We might even find the cause in this geography.

Wider background

The general picture is that Russia was involved in quite a number of regional conflicts in Southeastern Europe - in Serbia/Kosovo, Moldavia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and also on Cyprus, where they recently blocked the Annan report. All these have in common that they remained unresolved for two or more decades. And it would not be unreasonable to say that Russian activities, whenever there was any, were adequate to prevent solutions.

If it was a strategy, however, it turned into a losing one with Kosovo’s declaration of independence and the subsequent recognition by the major Western powers and various other states. Quite immediately it became clear to Cyprus (-Greeks) that no solution may be equal to dissolution. Russian military and diplomatic backing lost much of its significance on Cyprus and even for Serbia.

The remaining cases of Russian involvement are more homogenous than the original set. Now Russia backs separatist movements exclusively. But hitherto they had refrained from formally recognizing their « states » and just took the position of a « mediator », although they provided military and diplomatic support and protection for the insurgents.

What happened that urged them to change their position now, despite the crowd of disadvantages mentioned above ?

It may have been the simultanous Turkish-Armenian rapproachment, which started discretely but couldn’t escape Russia’s attention.

Hitherto we had/have the « Minsk-Group » as a mediator between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which is impaired by an hereditary disease : it is composed of one neutral and two pro-Armenian forces, the US, Russia, and France. So it is almost guaranteed that there will be no viable results. But then Turkey enters the scene as the only trustworthy ally of Azerbaijan.

Obviously a mediator must have relations with both sides of a given conflict. Hence it was (and is) not possible for Turkey to mediate as long as it does not have diplomatic relations with Armenia. Once it has, things change.


When it comes to neighborhood, the key role of the construction of the Baku - Tbilisi - Kars railway should not be overlooked. Like the existing oil and gas pipelines, it avoids Armenia and provides income and energy supply for Georgia. Hence it serves as a reminder for Armenia to re-examine their options.

At the same time, it may increase Georgia’s attractiveness for its breakaway provinces. Besides the economic effects, there is the spell of connection to the world, and to Europe in particular. Such a spell is working in the Balkan region, including Serbia, and this cannot have remained unnoticed by Russian observers. Is it merely accidental that the Russian invasion in Georgia went straight to a railway station, Gori, and a harbour, Poti ?

So it may appear that the BTK railway has a message which is comparable to the effect Kosovo’s independence had on the Cyprus Greeks. The message is that it may soon be too late, that the blockade may break.

The recent appeal « Open up to your neighbors ! », published on Turquieeuropeenne.eu, shows the effect on Armenia, too. It is urging to open another railway between Armenia and Turkey, repeating an old Armenian position. More than half of the signatories are ethnic Armenians, whereas, significantly, there is no support from Azeris. Even Georgia, apparently the most affected country, is not well represented on the list.

However, there we have the counter-message Russia conveys via Abkhazia and South Ossetia : dear Armenians, you may still insist on maximum demands - Russia is there, in principle ready to recognize Karabagh independence, and the Russian military is ready to reinforce your demands. Not surprisingly Azerbaijan is on high alert.

As to prospects

Hence, Turkey’s position is difficult. Unless there is significant support from Azerbaijan, to open a railway connection with Armenia is virtually a non-option. It might even destroy the possibility to become a mediator in the conflict. So it’s difficult to imagine what the appeal mentioned above might achieve. The minimum requirement would have been to mention connections between mainland Azerbaijan and the Azeri enclave of Nahcivan, if the issue is indeed to « open up to neighbors ». Transport from Turkey to Georgia is already quite easy by road/highway, air- and sea-traffic, with much of the infrastructures built in recent years by Turkish enterprises.

If one of the main issues in the Caucasus conflicts is energy, precisely hydrocarbons, then it is nonsensical to expect anything durable without the consent of Azerbaijan. This is the only source of oil and gas in the region, it is the bridgehead to Central Asia, and it is the biggest country of Southern Caucasia. Moreover, it is a country partly occupied by a neighboring country and threatened by Russia. By the way, Gori as well as Poti are significant stations for shipping Azeri oil westwards. Without Azerbaijan, the whole region is of limited significance for Europe, too, as well as for Russia.

And this is not very different for Turkey, either. Were it not for its « privileged partnership » with Azerbaijan, Turkey would have rather tangential interests in the region, and neither would Turkey have specific significance on the diplomatic desk.

Accordingly, while it is undoubtedly right to support Turkish-Armenian rapproachment, the first priority in the region for Turkey, and for Georgia, remains to be agreement with Azerbaijan. This is also in the best interest of the European Union and its allies. Unless this relation is recognized, well-meant initiatives risk to just serve Russia’s interest to dominate the region, in particular if they cause a rift between Azerbaijan and either Turkey or Georgia. The ultimate key is the Karabagh conflict.

Concluding remarks

If some advice can be distilled from the history of European wars, it is this : a contender for hegemony can be tamed by collective action, and indeed only by collective action. After all, this is why we have Nato, and it’s not the least reason why we have the European Union. So far, both have reacted sufficiently convincing. But maybe this might all have been prevented had the transformation of European decision making (alias constitution) proceeded as planned, and had the EU enlargement process in Southeastern Europe continued with determination. There are also deficiencies in detail. Writing as a German for a French site about Turkey, I guess there’s no need to describe these details at this point.

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