Director of programs in Brussels,
Centre for East European and Asian Studies
More specifically, the South Caucasus geopolitical landscape is shaped by:
· the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West in the wake of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis which effectively brought the European cooperative security era to an end;
· the growing Russian regional assertiveness, whereby, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is increasingly used as a vehicle for countering strides towards European integration, while the OSCE-led conflict resolution is manipulated to create geopolitical leverage over the regional states;
· a tacit Russian-Turkish partnership of convenience, basically motivated by both parties' focus on different fronts: Russia engaged in the geopolitical confrontation with the West over Ukraine, while Turkey has been absorbed by the fluid evolutions in the Middle East (particularly in Syria, and Iraq).
· the inability of the EU to exert, or at least claim, a bolder regional role because of its own institutional constraints, and lack of appetite for new CSDP missions, in the aftermath of the Euro crisis;
· NATO's self-restrained regional role limited to soft security cooperation in "28+1" format, driven by:
1. its refocus on deterrence, and defence of the territory of its Eastern members against a resurgent Russia;
2. an apparent decrease of the strategic priority of the region in the wake of unwinding the ISAF operation in Afghanistan;
Overall, the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West over Ukraine may have a negative impact on the South Caucasus: it may either freeze the current status quo, or it may push it into the swirl of instability around Ukraine. Two factors seem decisive for this analysis:
1) Russian progress in ensuring geopolitical control of Ukraine may rather tend to support the first option. Otherwise, faced with a stalemate in Ukraine, Moscow might have to deal with a strategic dilemma: either expand its confrontation with the West in the South Caucasus, or strengthen the status quo to avoid annoying Turkey, and prevent it from taking action.
2) Turkish tacit acceptance of Russian incursions in Ukraine may also favor the status quo in the South Caucasus, while Ankara's brazen reaction, via NATO or directly, may dramatically raise the risk of instability in the South Caucasus.
Against this complex and deeply worrying regional background, where Russia and Turkey (re-)emerge like the dominant regional powers, what strategic policy changes might be envisaged by Western decision makers to consolidate their position as a viable South Caucasus player? From a methodological perspective, I addressed those questions through the lens of the evolving challenges in Eurasia.
Unsettled European Security Issues Linger
The geopolitical competition between Russia and the West became predictable after president Putin stated in April 2005: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.” The seeds of the new confrontation were laid into those words, while alluding to both the goal and the strategy of the new resurgence of Russia.
However, this statement came after two rounds of NATO enlargement (1997 and 2004), and after the Big Bang enlargement of the European Union (2004). Moreover, it came after the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, respectively, brought into top state positions pro-Western leaders seeking NATO and EU membership for their countries. In response, Russia suspended the implementation of the CFE Agreement from 2007, while in the summer of 2008 it has fought and won the 5 days war against Georgia. Afterwards, Moscow recognized the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Georgian war actually came up as a Russian warning against NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit decision to recognize Georgia and Ukraine as aspirants for NATO membership.
Both the suspension of the implementation of the CFE Treaty and the recognition of the independence of the Georgian breakaway republics enshrined a very clear geopolitical message from Moscow: Russia was not happy anymore with the current European security arrangements built around the OSCE Decalogue, and it didn’t feel itself obliged anymore to fulfill its commitments. In 2009, the Russian president of the time, Dmitry Medvedev, came up with a proposal to discuss a new European Security Treaty allegedly aiming to create a common undivided space in the Euro-Atlantic region to finally do away with the Cold War legacy. To that end, Medvedev suggested to formalize the principle of indivisible security in the international law as a legal obligation pursuant to which no nation or international organization operating in the Euro-Atlantic region was entitled to strengthen its own security at the expense of others (nations or organizations). Eventually, the West rejected this Russian proposal for it felt it might have prohibited future enlargements of NATO and the EU.
In that very same year, the EU launched the Eastern Partnership aiming at creating conditions for accelerating political association and further economic integration of six partner countries from Eurasia. This EU initiative has been perceived by the Russians as a geopolitical process because: 1) of the wide-ranging consequences of what the EU thought it was a purely technical, norms setting process of modernization; 2) they saw it as a competitor to the Eurasian integration in the former Soviet space.
In December 2013, after the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit, where former president Yanukovich refused in the last minute to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, the Ukrainian crisis has started. Following the Euromaidan protests of pro-Western Ukrainians, and the unexpected ouster of Mr. Yanukovich by the Ukrainian Rada, Moscow has quietly annexed Crimea. It has also stirred and supported pro-Russian insurgents in Eastern Ukraine to the outright dismay of the West, which responded with waves of economic and political sanctions. At present, the area from Vancouver to Vladivostok was hijacked by a new East-West geopolitical competition, while powerpolitik rather than cooperative security seems to prevail in shaping the future destiny of Eurasia.
The Ideological Gap between Russia and the West
Over the last few years, many international observers have noted a deepening gap between perceptions in the West and in Russia on democracy, and the individual rights and freedoms. Russia and the West seem to have embarked on another ideological competition similar in many respects with that during the Cold War. The difference is that Moscow is now supporting a sort of a mixture of state-based nationalism and autocratic traditionalism to counter Western support for democracy and individual freedoms across Eurasia. Others bluntly call the current Russian dominant ideology as anti-Americanism.
Not only had Russia gone in the wrong direction in terms of sustaining the values of democracy and individual rights and freedoms, but it might have also projected a negative influence beyond its borders: "With Russia setting the tone, Eurasia (consisting of the countries of the former Soviet Union minus the Baltic states) now rivals the Middle East as one of the most repressive areas on the globe. Indeed, Eurasia is in many respects the world's least free sub-region, given the entrenchment of autocrats in most of its 12 countries."
In 2013, in Georgia, which boasts Eurasia’s best rankings on the Freedom in the World scale (displaying a Partly Free status, scoring 3 on a scale of 7 for both political and civil rights), a presidential election was held that was widely regarded as fair and honest marked a further step toward the consolidation of democracy. Armenia, which, under strong Russian political pressure, gave up plans for initialling an Association Agreement and a DCFTA with the EU and decided to join the Eurasian Customs Union instead, has kept its Partly Free status, and its scores for political and civil rights from the previous years (5 and 4 respectively). Azerbaijan has kept its Not Free status because of the lower political rights scores (6 on a scale of 7) and its civil liberties rating which declined from 5 to 6, due to property rights violations and crack downs on opposition and civil society in advance of the presidential elections.
Turkey, under the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), shares with Russia a certain incompatibility with the European democratic values. While the early 2000s provided hopes for the supporters of democracy, and individual rights and freedoms in Turkey, tightly linked to the strong drive towards Europeanization, recent years have seen a reversal of that trend. "Turkey has experienced marked deterioration on some central pillars supporting a balance of power, such as the media and the judiciary." The Turkish commitment to democratic principles and to European integration has significantly declined among most of the political forces, as well as in the public opinion. Moreover, it has become increasingly clear that Turkish leaders do not consider themselves as Western, neither in terms of managing domestic affairs, nor on foreign policy matters. But the huge distinction between Moscow's and Ankara's attitudes against the West is that while Moscow is almost every time pursuing conflicting positions against the West, Ankara is proving itself more pragmatic: in contrast to Russia, Turkey is "a power with which the West can work. [...] [although] whenever Turkey and the West do cooperate, it will be because their interests happen to align rather than as a result of shared values".
The current geopolitical competition between Russia and the West is likely to worsen the state of democracy in the South Caucasus in the years to come. That might be the case since "Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which amounts to acts of war, openly flaunts the principles on which the post-Cold War order in Europe is based, posing a challenge both to the European Union and the United States. A winner-take-all approach undermines the prospect of establishing functioning liberal democracies around the EU’s periphery." Moreover, "as a consequence of placing security and stability high on the agenda of ENP countries, the Ukraine crisis has also pushed democracy and democratization lower on the list of their priorities."
Other factors are also likely to affect democracy in the South Caucasus. For example, EU’s prolonged economic crisis and preoccupation with its own future has dimmed its appeal as a model to many in the East European neighborhood. Other external influences, including intolerant forms of religious activism and extreme nationalism fed by the persistence of the regional protracted conflicts, are increasingly shaping the policies of regional states. In addition, the Russian propaganda machine emphasizes "the misgivings" of Western societies and the pains and sacrifices a country needs to make in order to join the West, while "Russia’s penetrating, vivid messages are ineffectively counteracted by the boring, vague responses of European and national governments."
Consequently, the West risks to self-exclude itself from Eurasia- as "the odd boy in town"- if it continues unabated the current policy emphasizing the conditionality of stronger engagement with regional actors from the state of democracy. It is increasingly obvious that, in those circumstances, promoting liberal democratic standards for political rights in the South Caucasus might become a liability for the West, since they are heavily undermining its leverage in shaping regional engagements. To maintain its posture in the South Caucasus affairs, the West should probably tone down its criticism of the "undemocratic governance systems", and replace it with a pragmatic defence of regional economic and security interests. Maintaining a minimal standard for the observance of the civil rights may offer a face saving solution to respond previous commitments. That would also imply seeking new regional arrangements according to common interests, not necessarily upon acceptance of common values. For example, enhancing the level of engagement with Azerbaijan may be required to consolidate regional governance in the South Caucasus.
A multipolar approach to the broader Eurasian geopolitics might be also needed since the decline of Western influence in the world might weaken the parameters of the stability of the global governance system in the coming years. Promoting the universalism of Western values might possibly further accelerate such negative changes. It is quite likely that sharing democratic values would make it for preserving the current Western alliances, while a pragmatic approach to democratic values may attract new allies and break potential anti-Western alliances. In this vein, the leverage created by sustaining increased regional involvement in Eurasia by Iran, India and China, aside of Russia and Turkey, might be also considered from this perspective.
The Resolution of Protracted Conflicts
The unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus (in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Naghorno-Karabakh) are undermining efforts to build up effective regional cooperation and are generating regional instability, as well as asymmetric security risks. The existing conflict management mechanisms haven't yielded the expected outcomes, and this might have rather a lot to do with the lack of regional strategic leadership. To offer better coordinated strategic leadership of the existing crisis management mechanisms, international experts have been calling on Russia, the United States and Europe to re-energize conflict resolution in the Euro-Atlantic area. To that end, developing new means to strengthen diplomacy, supplementing traditional negotiations through contributions of the civil society, and building up public support for peaceful conflict resolution are often quoted as examples.
Over the last decade, Turkish foreign policy, crafted by the current prime-minister Ahmet Davutoglu, shifted towards engaging in all neighboring areas as a means for gaining recognition as simultaneously a European, Middle Eastern, Balkan, Caucasian, Central Asian, Caspian, Mediterranean, Gulf and Black Sea power. In fact, these multiple regional identities have driven Turkey towards a multifaceted foreign policy aiming "to promote good neighborly relations with all, to replace disagreement with cooperation, to seek innovative mechanisms and channels to resolve regional conflicts, to encourage positive regional change, and to build cross-cultural bridges of dialogues and understanding." In the views of many experts, Turkey might deserve a bolder regional role in the resolution of the protracted conflicts from the South Caucasus. On the other hand, Turkey has only marginally got involved so far in conflict resolution, partly to protect its strategic partnership with Russia from potential contentious issues, partly because Turkish involvement was not welcome by some local, regional or international actors.
Russia has become a problem for Europe since the OSCE system has failed to meet its tasks in the post-Cold War era, while Moscow has sought to impose its own security arrangements in Europe. It was NATO and the EU who brought the peace to former Yugoslavia, while the OSCE has continuosly failed to bring up conflict resolution in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Naghorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. Moscow has simply ignored the OSCE Decalogue in Ukraine/Crimea and in Georgia while seeking to justify itself through alluding to others who would have previously done the same (i.e. NATO in Kosovo).
The chronical persistence of the protracted conflicts in the South Caucasus (and in Transnistria) might be also seen as Russia’s refusal to accept the OSCE-rules anymore. A parallel might be drawn between the ongoing Ukrainian crisis and the protracted conflicts in the South Caucasus and Transnistria. In all these conflicts, Russia tacitly prevented a peaceful solution to the conflict, while it formally plaid the role of a peacemaker/provider of humanitarian relief. Moscow might continue to do so until a more favorable geopolitical configuration of the European security system would have been agreed with the West. Or it may implement the policy of the fait accompli, whereby it may solve the protracted conflicts on its own terms, irrespective of what the OSCE and its other members would be saying or doing. The Russians have already plaid out this scenario in Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine, and they might be applying it in the South Caucasus as well. However, “The region (i.e. the Eastern Partnerhsip area) requires a security architecture that takes the current challenges into consideration, and demands determined action by the West towards solutions to the frozen conflicts.” Therefore, the West might take a more pro-active and imaginative role in conflict resolution in the South Caucasus. For example, it may consider initiating multilateral talks with the authorities from Sukhumi, Tskhinvali and Tbilisi on options for conditional recognition of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while proposing more boldly the use of EU’s military peace keeping assets and capabilities for conflict resolution in the South Caucasus.
Conflict resolution in the South Caucasus might actually become a test-case for developing new European security rules and mechanisms, which should integrate Russia and Turkey in a different way than since the end of the Cold War. In this vein, the West should engage more actively with both Russia and Turkey on the resolution of the protracted conflicts in the South Caucasus with a view to overcoming their chronic deadlock since the end of the Cold War. Such multilateral approaches might: ensure a better regional strategic coordination of the existing crisis management mechanisms; strengthen the regional ownership of the peace processes, in particular through developing and implementing a joint post-conflict regional vision; counter the fears of some local actors of Russian-imposed solutions.
However, the way forward in meeting such a goal may not be an easy ride because of: Russian failure to adapt its conflict resolution policies to multilateral approaches, in particular in Georgia; Turkish unsettled issues with some of the main parties to the protracted conflicts, most notably with Armenia; a US policy which attaches a relatively low priority to conflict resolution in the South Caucasus; EU's institutional constraints regarding its involvement in conflict management and resolution in its neighborhoods, and its inability "to carry out a wider range of military tasks to protect its interests and project its values."
The European vs. Eurasian Integration Dilemma of the Post-Soviet States
The steps taken by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan to create a Eurasian integration project have spurred suspicions in the West about an emerging geopolitical project aiming to re-build the Soviet Union (or the Tsarist Empire) into a new institutional outfit. Consequently, a Western myth of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) as a means to "re-Sovietize" Eurasia has emerged. This myth has not been supported by the realities of the Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) so far. However, according to most experts, the project of the EEU might be evolving towards deeper political integration. “Nonetheless, events between the invasion of Georgia and the armed seizure of Ukrainian territory in 2014 forced policy makers and international affairs specialists worldwide to acknowledge the possibility that the Russian Republic under Vladimir Putin has reorganized its entire foreign and domestic policy in order to pursue a single objective, namely, the establishment of a new kind of union comprised of former Soviet republics and headed by Russia itself.”
In addition, experts have highlighted a blatant incompatibility between the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreements, signed by the EU with a number of post-Soviet states, and the commitments that should be made by a member of the ECU - the current precursor of the EEU. This incompatibility is apparently facing post-Soviet states with a dilemma between setting up free trade with the EU and joining the ECU/EEU, while focusing both Russia and the West on geopolitical competition.
Turkey has a unique position against European integration and trading with Russia: on the one hand, Ankara is locked into a customs union with the European Union, though its prospects to become a full fledged member anytime soon are rather minimal. On the other hand, Turkey has developed over the last decade a vibrant economic and trade relationship with Russia. Bilateral trade relations have multiplied by seven since 2001, while Russia is currently Turkey's second largest trade partner after the EU. Ankara has had no better policy choice than being a core promoter of regional economic integration, and has struggled to make from the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) a most effective tool to achieve that goal. Over the last year or so, Turkey went further in getting closer to Russia in terms of economic association. In November 2013, President Erdogan asked President Putin for help to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Furthermore, in June 2014, Kazakh president, Nazarbayev, publicly invited Turkey to become a member of the EEU. This invitation, issued by the political figure who 20 years ago first proposed the Eurasian economic integration project, might have been motivated by the need to acquire an external guarantee that the EEU is not going to evolve into a precursor of a new Russian empire. In an indirect response to this invitation, in July 2014, during bilateral talks with his Russian counterpart in the margins of the G20 trade ministers meeting in Sydney (Australia), Turkish Economy minister Nihat Zeybekci has suggested a Free Trade Zone is established between Turkey and the EEU. Expert discussions on this proposal might have already started since last September.
The South Caucasus countries have been highly divided in their approach to the European vs. Eurasian integration dilemma, and the current geopolitical competition between Russia and the West pushed them into making undesired choices. The first “victim” was Armenia.
The announcement at the beginning of September 2013, in Moscow, by President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia's decision to join the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) after concluding a lengthy four years negotiation on an Association Agreement (AA) and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU took many by surprise. However, experts on the South Caucasus had known for years that Yerevan had almost irremediably linked its security and economy, in particular its energy sector, to Russia. In fact, Armenia chose to partially sacrifice its independence and sovereignty for the sake of keeping a convenient status quo in the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict against a shifting strategic balance in favor of Azerbaijan. One year later, on 10 October 2014, at a summit held in Minsk (Belarus), president Sargsyan was signing Armenia’s accession treaty to the EEU. However, Yerevan has continued to pursue European integration, while taking into account its new trade commitments, by seeking to conclude with the EU an Association Agreement Light, or a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement Plus.
While Armenia joined the EEU, becoming what experts call a “reluctant follower” of the Eurasian integration project, Georgia has chosen the path to European integration at the expense of Eurasian integration. On 27 June 2014, the prime minister of Georgia, Irakli Garibashvili, signed an Association Agreement (AA), including a DCFTA, with the EU, thereby joining, aside Ukraine and Moldova, what the experts call the “European integrators” group. Although the AAs stop short of guaranteeing future membership of the EU, they aim to deepen EU’s political and economic relations with the Eastern Partners, and to gradually integrate these countries with EU's Internal Market.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan seems to have sided with the so-called “rejectionists” group (including also Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), who simply prefer to stay away from any form of regional integration, seeking instead to become increasingly self-reliant. Economic analyses are practically unanimous in noting that due to the structure of the Azerbaijani economy, mainly fueled by energy exports to Europe, “the negatives [consequences of EEU membership] outweigh the positives. Even semi-official Russian analysts have acknowledged this, with one noting that “if Azerbaijan joins the Customs Union, that it is jointly with Turkey and this will not happen soon because of the nature of the Azerbaijani economy.” “ However, one Azerbaijani expert thought that “A stronger Russia than in the 1990s may further enhance its geopolitical clout in various, subtle ways so as to develop and execute problem-solving scenarios that would gratify not only Russia's interests but also the entire post-Soviet neighborhood. Such a move could urge CIS political leaders to accept Kremlin's rules and eventually integrate their countries into a Eurasian Union.” Such views are obviously referring to the inability of the West to offer viable solutions to the protracted conflicts in the South Caucasus, specifically in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, while Russia seemed able (but not willing yet) to manipulate both Baku and Yerevan into a peaceful settlement. This makes the case for Western pro-active involvement in conflict resolution in the South Caucasus even stronger.
The West might start to prepare the ground for sustaining post-conflict regional economic cooperation in the South Caucasus, while “in its relationships with its Eastern partners, the EU should avoid imposing a choice between itself and Moscow, and should instead highlight the benefits of closer relations”. This way, it may both circumvent the dilemma of European vs. Eurasian integration, and make a significant contribution to peaceful resolution of the protracted conflicts. A vision for peace in the South Caucasus reinforced by comprehensive, integrated and sustainable cooperation, which would ultimately enable free movement of people, goods, services and capital at the regional level, might lead to economic integration and the opening of all closed borders. The EU may specifically work towards developing options for harmonizing the European and Eurasian integration normative systems, building upon Turkey’s interest to maintain Free Trade Areas with both the EU and the EEU, and on Armenian desire, as a new member of the EEU, to keep the door open for broader cooperation with the EU. Georgia and Azerbaijan may also support this vision, provided they see it as a key element eventually leading to the resolution of the protracted conflicts on their territory.
Since the end of the Cold War, the South Caucasus has sailed in both turbulent and uncharted troubled waters. The regional countries have been highly divided on their priorities for regional integration. The current geopolitical competition between Russia and the West has raised the stakes on where this region is heading, and has added new political, economic and security risks, challenges and opportunities. This article has pointed at some of those while suggesting ways for the West to help the regional countries to decrease the risks, face the challenges and benefit from the opportunities.
It is becoming increasingly clear that, in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, the West will seek to prevent Russian attempts at “re-Sovietizing” Eastern Europe and Central Asia by an emerging strategy of containment of the Eurasian integration. The defense aspects of this strategy have started to become apparent at the NATO Summit in Newport in early September 2014. With the reversal of Armenia’s European integration efforts, and its subsequent integration with the EEU, the South Caucasus has become a contested area. Consequently, guidelines for containing the Eurasian integration in the South Caucasus might be expected to emerge rather soon.
The main points of this paper suggested that the focus for a new Western strategy on the South Caucasus should rather take a constructive/power sharing approach. From this perspective, the resolution of the protracted conflicts should become a key Western priority. Such an approach might, on the one hand, undo the Russian geopolitical games in the region, and, on the other hand, it may open the door to developing new European security rules and mechanisms in the OSCE area. To that end, a more pro-active and imaginative role of the West should be considered for engaging both Russia and Turkey in effective conflict resolution. For example, the West might start to prepare the ground for sustaining post-conflict regional economic cooperation in the South Caucasus, as a way to circumvent the dilemma of the post-Soviet states caught in-between competing European and Eurasian integration processes. In order to maintain its relevance in Eurasia, the West might also need to tone down criticism of regional players' "undemocratic governance systems", while proposing a minimal standard for the observance of the civil rights. Instead, it may rather pragmatically defend its regional economic and security interests through seeking new regional arrangements according to common interests, not necessarily upon acceptance of common values.
To what extent, the West, Turkey and Russia are prepared for constructive/power sharing rather than competitive approaches to the South Caucasus is unclear at this stage. As history proved so many times in the past, decision makers often deem competition as being more attractive than cooperation since the latter implies partially giving in on some objectives to enable compromise solutions. What it is often forgotten though is that the risk of losing everything through competition is much higher than the risk of losing something through cooperation. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes not less than a crisis or even a war to find out the different amplitudes of those risks. It is for the Western, Turkish and Russian leaders to decide what would be the best political choice not only for their people but for the Caucasian states as well. History will definitely judge their choices.