|Author: Giorgi Vashakidze|
THE CAUCASUS AFTER THE COLLAPSE OF THE SOVIET UNION
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus has become a region with turbulent politics and violent conflicts. Conflicts in Chechnya (Russia), between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia) have shaken the very foundations for peace, democracy and economic welfare. The region is marked by a dramatic degree of ethnic confrontation and hatred on the on hand, and the increased geopolitical, economic and strategic interest of Western states on the other. The Caucasus has become an area where the two extremes of ethnic violence and growing economic prosperity coincide. Hence, in spite of increasing Western interest, aid and political support, and regardless of an eventual integration of these states into European institutions, the future of the region as either stable and peaceful or as a permanent hot spot remains uncertain. Due to the gradual improvement of the political environment in these countries, a solution to these conflicts features prominently. Solving these conflicts requires a gradual change to the lives of the people in the region to change the values and common perceptions that perpetuate and underlie the causes of the conflicts.
The Ethno - Historical Background of the Caucasus Region
The Caucasus region, subdivided into the North Caucasus and the South Caucasus, is interposed between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea on the one hand, and the Caspian Sea on the other. It possesses great geo-strategic significance as it not only serves as a meeting place between East and West, namely Central Asia and Europe, but more importantly also as a north–south axis for cultural, political and economical reasons.1 In addition, the Caucasus has received considerable attention over the past 10 years, because of its potential as a source of oil and gas for world energy markets. 2
Ethnic relations in the Caucasus region are diverse and complex. The Northern Caucasus is divided in Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan while the South Caucasus is shared by Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. One cannot understand the current aspirations of the Caucasus region without taking into account its history. For Georgians, Armenians and Azeris with a most crucial turning point was the annexation of the South Caucasus by Russia after 1800. Since then, particularly in recent decades, Russia has been demonized as ever ready to thwart the South Caucasian countries' independence by any and all devious means imaginable. As a consequence, South Caucasus countries were rivaled only by the Baltic states in their depth of anti-Russian sentiment during the later Soviet era. The North Caucasian peoples in their entirety view the end of the 19th century Caucasian War as the start of their greatest tragedy (namely the Exile or Russian maxadzhirstvo). Half of the North Caucasus population was forced into exile in the Ottoman lands (stretching from modern-day Kosovo, mainly through Turkey, into Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Iraq). Only a fraction of the North Caucasus populations remained in the Caucasian homeland.
Radical Islam in the North Caucasus
Extremism and terrorism are seen as the two primary threats in the North Caucasus today, and those who exploit Islamic fundamentalist ideology for their own aims add even more tension. Indeed, some of the Muslim communities were tempted to embrace a more extremist, jihad-related version of their faith in the first half of the 1990s in the Northern Caucasus, when the sociopolitical situation in Chechnya, deteriorated.
In South Russia's present cauldron of religious, political and ethnic conflict, many jamaats3 have developed an Islamist political agenda. 4 Their concern, like their origin, tends to be local in nature. Land claims, mosque closings, moral laxity, political corruption, police brutality and other local problems dominate their public statements. Rarely is there mention of the war on terrorism generally, or references to the so-called global jihad.
The involvement of the jamaats in the fight against Moscow appears to have been part of a plan conceived by Aslan Maskhadov not long after the expulsion of his forces from Grozny in 2000. As a veteran Soviet officer, Maskhadov understood the strategic need to broaden military resistance beyond the confines of Chechnya. Shortly before his death in 2005, Maskhadov declared that, by his orders, "additional sectors were established: Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Dagestan, etc. Amirs of these fronts were appointed, and they are all subordinate to the military leadership of the Chechen resistance".5 Nevertheless, the Russian militaries under Putin's administration have curbed to some extent the Chechen resistance, moreover, the TV footages shown on Russian TV channels hailing that the socio political situation is improved during the last couple of months, is far from reality on the ground. Even today, the threat of war that derives from the North Caucasus affects not only Russia but entire Caucasus region. The recent briefing paper on torture in Chechnya published in November by Human Rights Watch is a clear indication of wrong policy that is implemented in the North Caucasus. The paper covers torture by personnel of the Second Operational Investigative Bureau (ORB-2), torture by units under the effective command of Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, torture in secret detention and continuing “disappearances.” According to Human Rights Watch, torture “in both official and secret detention facilities is widespread and systematic in Chechnya.” 6 Moreover, on November 9, the newspaper "Novye Izvestia" reported that, the rebels fired on the policemen with machineguns and grenade-launchers as they were traveling in two UAZ automobiles on the way back from the district prosecutor’s office to their post in the village of Khimoi, also in the Sharoi district. Seven sergeants and officers were killed in the ambush, including the unit’s deputy commander, while a police major was seriously wounded. The two cars in which they were traveling were completely consumed by flames. 7
Russian policy in the Caucasus/ the Russian factor
Russia's policies in the Caucasus are subject of different interpretation and remain as contradictory now as they were a decade ago at the peak of escalation of several violent conflicts in Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Russian policy should be recognized as an extraordinary complex and incoherent combination of unsustainable aspirations, incompatible interests and uncoordinated activities. The main paradox is perhaps the lack of connection between its desire to dominate a region where many its vital interests are at stake and its inability to influence political developments in this very region. "Russia behaves simultaneously as an old withdrawing colonial power and a young expansionist state, as a guardian of the status quo and as a dynamic predator, while its policy style betrays a fusion of superiority and inferiority complexes".8 While the North Caucasus falls into the realm of Russian internal politics, the South Caucasus is subject to foreign policy. However, interconnected security challenges and energy flows make this distinction less significant in practice. Moreover, much of Russia’s conflict management is conducted on an ad hoc basis with no attempt to learn generally applicable lessons and devise guidelines. Hard-driven special interest groups in Moscow push their agendas for political decision-making without much concern for an overall strategic design. Russia experienced a massive emotional shock from terrorist attacks in September 1999, when two apartments were blown up in Moscow; since then, the threat of terrorism has been a top priority on the list of national security challenges. Paradoxically, Chechnya helped in advancing Putin's foreign policy goals, especially with regard to Russia's rapprochement with the West. From the very start, justification for the war included two mutually exclusive propositions: that it was part of the global struggle against the plague of terrorism and that it was Russia's internal affairs (to which the international standards of human rights did not apply). Before the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, the logic of these two propositions had appeared feeble, but Putin was very quick to exploit the resonance of that tragedy. The Russian president wasted no time in joining the US-led global war against terrorism, thus reducing criticism from Washington to the absolute minimum. Fine-tuning the discourse of the Chechen war, he was holding firm to his internal affairs defence against continuing European criticism. Moscow has emphasized the similarity between its efforts at restoring "normalcy" in Chechnya and the coalition's efforts at rebuilding Iraq. Nevertheless, the Moscow theatre "NordOst" hostage crisis on October 23, 2002 organized by armed Chechen men and women who claimed allegiance to the separatist movement in Chechnya and the Beslan school massacre on September 1, 2004 in the North Ossetia have indeed shown that Russia's policy in the Northern Caucasus has failed and has nothing to do with restoring order. In contrast, Russia's policy in the North Caucasus triggers even more tension and breeds terrorism.
Russia's policy in the South Caucasus does differ ever so slightly from the Northern part of the Caucasus mountainous ridge; nevertheless, the aim is indeed similar and serves to manipulate internal as well as external forces in favor of Russia's policy in the Caucasus region as a whole. The strategy is to cement Russia's influence. Russia's presence in the South Caucasus is characterized by conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. The military contingent of Russian peace keepers that buffers the separatist regimes in the region is indeed remarkable measure as Putin's administration uses them to support and protect organized crime in the conflict zones. Russia has unique experience in using its military power as an instrument of conflict management in both the North and South Caucasus. However, its record of success is mixed, with the protracted disaster in Chechnya, perhaps, outweighing all its achievements. One part of the problem is that Russia has never been able to supplement its military efforts with sufficient economic assistance to underpin fragile peace processes. Another, problem has been Russia's uncertain motivations for resolving the frozen disputes, as every step towards stability reduces the justification for relying on military instruments –and Moscow has few others on its disposal. The purpose and rationale of the Russian military bases in Georgia and Armenia raises questions, since their dismal status stands in sharp contrast to the strategic importance that is often ascribed to them. Indeed, the few thousand troops stationed in those bases increasingly resemble lost regions that have few chances of seeing reinforcements arriving swiftly in a time of crises. Certainly, the decision to close Batumi and Akhalkalaki military bases stationed in Georgia by 2008 can be hailed as a pragmatic policy of Putin's administration. Nevertheless, the peacekeepers stationed in South Ossetia and Abkhazia can be easily used if the necessity emerges to forcefully implement Russia's policy in Georgia. Moscow's strategic calculus concerning the bases in Armenia is even more complicated. In 1994, Moscow pushed for employment of these troops in a peacekeeping operation in Nagorno-Karabakh, which never happened. While Armenia hardly needs Russian forces for ensuring its military superiority vis-?-vis Azerbaijan, Yerevan perceives them as a security guarantee against much-feared military pressure from Turkey.
Another instrument that Russia tends to use in order to influence the South Caucasus region is the fragile energy security of Georgia and Armenia. Indeed, growing pressure and a constant threat to be cut off from energy supply by its northern neighbor, forced the Georgian government to start searching for other gas and electricity markets in the near neighborhood. Russia requests indirectly from the government of Georgia to sell its transit gas pipeline that allows Russia to deliver Russian gas to Georgia and Armenia. The issue has been discussed by both governments for the last two years, however, United States has in many cases suggested to Georgian government not to bargain over the pipeline issues and preserve its even fragile energy independence by avoiding gas pipeline selling to Russia. The Russian state run energy giant Gazprom's Chief Executive has indicated recently that Gazprom will deliver gas at a low price if the Georgian government hands over the pipeline to the company. However, the Georgian government has refused the offer. 9 Russia's energy policy to monopolize the South Caucasus will fail if it does not persuade the Georgian government to sell the pipeline. This refusal is all the more infuriating to Russia as it jeopardizes the efficiency of plans to also buy the gas pipeline that aims at delivering Iranian gas to Armenia. Russia went even further and requested from Iran and Armenia to build the gas pipeline in an unusually small diameter in order to avoid Iranian gas transit to Europe via Georgia. Hence, any involvement of other actors then Russia in the South Caucasus region indeed triggers concern among the Russian political elite that actively tries to persuade the South Caucasus countries to integrate better into the Russian political area.
US interest in the region
The United States policy towards the South Caucasus in the early 90s was uncoordinated and often contradictory. It was only in 2002 that the US launched an active policy in the region. Overall, Washington now views US presence and policy in the region as a component of its larger Middle East and anti-terrorism policies. 10 In addition, the United States has come to understand the energy resources of Azerbaijan in two ways: first, as a contributor to global oil supply diversification and second, as oil in the margins – an effective tool for lowering oil prices. Washington sees cooperation with Moscow in the South Caucasus as important to resolving the conflicts and intended to cooperate with Russia in this area. Nevertheless, the latest attempts to coordinate and solve the conflicts in a peaceful manner seem to be failing. Moscow has linked the conflict resolution process in the South Caucasus with the conflict resolution process in the Balkans. Putin's announcement that Russia looks at the Kosovo precedent triggered concerns not only in the South Caucasus but in Europe as well. EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana's statement on October 4, 2006 that "the Kosovo case could have a negative consequence to Georgia",11 acknowledges the fact that the conflict resolution process is far from being peaceful. All the more considering the Georgian government's position that it will not allow South Ossetia and Abkhazia to be independent. Subsequently, the agreement on non-resumption of hostilities that Putin's administration insists to have signed by the conflict parties does not seem to have a future. Moreover, the Georgian government has stated that the use of force in order to reintegrate the breakaway regions into Georgia is not to be excluded entirely. 12 In the immediate aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Washington tended to treat the South Caucasus as Russia's backyard, and did not take strong interest in the region. Now, however, the US administration sees Georgia and Azerbaijan as main allies in the South Caucasus, and it is less likely that it will stand by as Russia tries to manipulate and control the region. Washington promotes a strong role of Turkey in the economic, political and security developments in the region. A strong motivating factor in the US decision to promote the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was the anticipated economic benefits for Turkey as well as the desire to link Turkey to the states of the Caucasus.
Washington accorded Georgia special attention and promoted more cooperation in the military sphere with Tbilisi than with neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan. This special policy towards Tbilisi is motivated by Georgia's strategic geographic location on the Black Sea, which confers a pivotal role in the region's developments. Moreover, the special treatment of Georgia may have emanated from the fact that relations with Georgia were less controversial from a US domestic perspective than relations with either Armenia or Azerbaijan. In addition, Washington seemed to support Georgia's defiant stance towards Moscow. Especially, after the so called Rose Revolution that is often described as US orchestrated, and pushed a pro-western government in Georgia. Ever since, relations between Georgia and Russia have deteriorated. Moscow has imposed economic, air and sea blockades on Georgia and has recently deported approximately 2000 legally or illegally residing Georgians from Russia. The export of Georgian wines and agricultural goods to Russia was prohibited and the use of military force threatened should Georgia continue to aggravate relations with Russia. 13 Indeed, the President of Georgia would not have aggravated the relations with Russia if he would not have thought to have strong US backing.
Similarly, US domestic considerations, led by a strong and active Armenian-American community, had a huge impact on the actual US policy towards Azerbaijan. At the urging of the Armenian-American lobby, Congress imposed sanctions on Azerbaijan in 1992 in the form of Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. Until a presidential waiver 2002, this legislation barred direct government-to-government aid between Washington and Baku and constituted a major constraint on US policy options towards Azerbaijan. Consequently, congressional sanctions forced the various US government agencies to repeatedly rebuff Azerbaijan's offers of close cooperation. Inadvertently, Section 907 also limited America's scope for security cooperation with Armenia. Nevertheless, in 1999, Washington actively promoted the building of an east-west energy corridor – the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Erzrum gas line. These projects symbolized a major US achievement in the region, both commercially and politically. Since 11 September 2001, and the war in Iraq, the importance of Azerbaijan has grown in the eyes of US policy-makers dues to the perceived need to strengthen ties with Muslim-majority states, especially those like Azerbaijan which border on the Middle East.
In its security policies towards the region, the United States is attempting to bolster the security of the states of the region and address threats that are of concern to the United States. Among those issues are the threats posed by the breakaway territories – Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh – of the Caucasus, which can serve as a base for terrorists and illegal transfers such as money laundering, trafficking in human beings, arms and drugs. The United States cooperates with Georgia and Azerbaijan to capture suspected terrorists who traverse these countries' territory. In addressing all types of threats, the United States is assisting the Georgian military in successfully confronting foreign elements such as Chechens and potential militants from Arab states. In addition, the United States deployed its first military forces in the region with the introduction of the Georgian Train and Equip Program in 2002. The latter includes a program by the US Marines that aims to train two brigades of the Georgian Armed Forces14 . Turkey too has continued to play an important role in the promotion of US policy goals in the South Caucasus. Ankara maintains extensive military cooperation with Georgia and Azerbaijan, and Washington supports this policy.
Despite increased activity, US policy towards the region continues to be contradictory and inconsistent due to the often conflicting policy directions of different arms of the US government – mainly congressional versus executive branches. For instance, for almost a year, officials from Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey have been engaged in intense discussions about ways to finance the construction of the strategic Kars-Akhalkalaki railway system. This rail link will bridge the gap between the Georgian and Turkish rail networks, permitting an uninterrupted flow of cargo from markets in Asia to Europe or vice versa. Earlier this year, a Turkish firm completed a feasibility study of the Kars-Akhalkalaki project. Soon after, Turkey announced that it would finance the construction of the 68-kilometer portion of the railway on its territory ($200 million). Azerbaijan also stated its readiness to allocate funds for the project, while Georgia remained undecided. The reason for delay, however, is related to negotiations between official Baku and Tbilisi. Because the major construction and rehabilitation work is to take place in Georgia and Turkey, the Georgian government had to bear at least half of the cost of the project. This created financial problems for Georgia, which does not have vast natural resources like Azerbaijan or a strong economy like Turkey. The issue became more complicated when the Georgian government’s major financial donor, the United States, was taken out of the funding picture. In September, 2006 Armenian lobbying groups managed to include a prohibition provision, Section 11, in the U.S. Senate resolution S. 3938, the Export-Import Bank Reauthorization Act of 2006. The bill prohibits the U.S. ExImBank from extending a credit or participating in “any railway connection or railway-related connection project that does not traverse or connect with Armenia”, thus eliminating any possibility of credit from the US government to Georgia. Nevertheless, Baku agreed to allocate zero-interest credit to Georgia to start building the railway15 . The construction of the railway is scheduled to begin in 2007 with an expected completion date at the end of 200816 . Moreover, congressionally allocated aid to Armenia is still the highest per capita of all former Soviet states, despite Yerevan's strong cooperation with states of concern to the United States, such as Iran and Syria. In addition, Congress grants earmarked funds directly to Nagorno-Karabakh, which contradicts the US State Department’s policies.
Russia's policies in the Caucasus have indeed become more consistent and better integrated under Putin's leadership, but still there are few signs of an overall strategy or even a clear perception of long-term interests. Putin's personal involvement with settling Chechnya is obvious, but it has not translated into sustained attention by Moscow to the wider Caucasian region. Russia is essentially a status quo power in the Caucasus and works towards further stabilization of the present-day power balances in most local settings, including in the preservation of deadlocks in the region's conflicts. Its policy, therefore, is reasonably predictable as long as no major changes upset the peculiar system of corrupt loyalties and weak dependencies that passes for the Caucasus security architecture. Russia's policy is basically one of small steps aimed at increasing control and influence: This is for instance reflected in installing more controllable presidents in Ingushetia and Chechnya by rigged elections or in building ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia to make sure that these territories will no longer be able to be controlled by de iure authorities. The problem with this policy is that, for many parties to the frozen conflicts, the status quo, even if relatively stable, continues to be unacceptable. Another problem is that the gradual accumulation of problems leads to a steady rise of conflict potential, so that the status quo might turn out to be unsustainable. It is entirely possible that the Rose Revolution in Georgia that has taken Moscow very much by surprise in 2003, could trigger a new chain of escalation in the Caucasus and the signs of so called democratization process is already in the place. Russia's readiness to face acute new challenges or to act as a security provider in the region is at best questionable. Washington also has concerns over the prospects for smooth and legal leadership succession in the region, especially in Georgia and Azerbaijan. In contrast to Russia the United States seem to have adopted much more sober views of the prospects of the Caucasus and actively support quick democratization in the states of the South Caucasus. The United States is concerned with the elections in the South Caucasus countries and continues to invest funds and policy efforts to promote its goal, but where infraction occurs this will probably not have a major impact on US policy towards the region. Bush's statement in Tbilisi on May 2005 where he underlined strong support to Saakashvili's policy17 obviously reflects US support to Georgia's path to Freedom. Once more, he proclaimed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, and referred not only to Georgia's aspirations to democracy but also to the US policy in the South Caucasus. If these words are true, and if the US is to avoid the kind of dilemma the US faced in Eastern Europe in the late 50s, then America and its allies must engage in the kind of robust diplomacy Kissinger envisaged for Eastern Europe.