Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Moscow Declaration, and a few other issues....

‘Much ado about nothing’ – that is how one could safely describe the declaration, signed in Moscow by presidents Sargsyan and Aliyev after talks hosted by Dimitri Medvedev. Reading the declaration itself, it is quite unclear why it provoked the reaction it has provoked in Yerevan, especially among the more radical elements of the opposition.

Some of the criticisms of the document have centred on the fact that it refers to ‘solutions based on principles of international law’, and that is somehow seen as detrimental to the Armenian position. But, really, international law can be interpreted in many different ways, and, moreover, includes the principle of national self-determination – as Serj Sargsyan rightly pointed out on his return to Yerevan. In fact, it there was an element of absurdity in the ways in which both presidents signed this declaration in Moscow, only to hold on to their well-known positions on returning to their respective capitals. The Azeri foreign ministry promptly rejected claims by Yerevan that the document had obliged it to forego any military solution to the conflict. Before long, we were at square one again. Nothing had changed, really.

It would perhaps be better to see this document as a face-saving exercise by the Kremlin. Rightly or wrongly, Medvedev may have thought a breakthrough possible during the meeting in Moscow – after this summer’s war, Russia’s image in the Southern Caucasus had to be skewed to that of a peacemaker again. When a breakthrough didn’t come, the Russians settled for an empty document to have at least something to show for their efforts. Diplomacy can sometimes be as simple as that.

The Minsk Group co-chairmen- whose work seems to have been remarkably unaffected by this summer’s dramatic events - tell the world both sides are close to an agreement. But they have been telling that same story for the past 5 years now. What they haven’t been able to do so far is answer the question as to how one squares a circle by reconciling Armenia’s absolute commitment to Karabakh’s independence to Azerbaijan’s equally uncompromising dedication to its territorial integrity. Both sides haven’t changed their rhetoric in that regard, and as long as that doesn’t change, I believe it’s safe to describe any optimism as completely unwarranted.

The only possible indication of chances for a future breakthrough came from the increasing focus by several of Armenia’s political groups on the prospect of a return of occupied territories around Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijan. The ARF, for instance, stated that it would not be able to remain within the coalition if any of the lands conquered by Armenian forces in 1992-1994 were to be returned as part of a future agreement. Several opposition groups also added their voices to the rejection of such an eventuality.

But what alternative do these political groups propose? “Payqar payqar minchev verj” – “Struggle till the end”? Will Armenians always be condemned to following those abusing their kneejerk reactions through these primitive nationalistic slogans, used and abused by an incoherent plethora of political groups and factions?

For too long, Armenia has been under the influence of those who see ‘national security’ in an underdeveloped, uni-dimensional way. When thinking about security, don’t only think about your actions – try to consider the reactions of those around you. Try to see the bigger picture. Holding on to most of the occupied territories might end up costing Armenia much more than any peace their return would engender.

On an entirely different subject – still related to security, broadly defined – Amnesty International published an entirely credible report ( on the abuse of women in the Republic of Armenia, where no less than 25% of women are the victims of physical domestic violence.

There are two ways in which this report can be read by Armenian society – either as a wake-up call, pointing to the need to address discrimination and gendered prejudice, or as an insult, an attack against the machismo and ‘cult-of-virginity’ prevalent in Armenian society, masquerading under the unassailable label of ‘national tradition’.

I would just like to point out that if everyone had stuck to their ‘national traditions’ from the very beginning, we’d all still be swinging from the trees today.

Some among us obviously still are.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

After the Final Whistle

The idea seemed quite simple when it was first floated by the Armenian president, Serj Sargsyan, in July. For all the historical hatred and political animosity, the beautiful game was one passion shared by people on both sides of the long-sealed Turkish-Armenian border. If the Turkish and Armenians teams were to play each other in a world cup qualifier, why couldn’t the occasion be used to bring the two peoples and states together, in a first step in the long road towards reconciliation? And so, the invitations went out, and the Armenian president invited his counterpart to a football match. That such an otherwise routine and commonplace action was labelled ‘historic’ fittingly illustrated the level of animosity between these two neighbours.

In the end, the visit itself was something of an anti-climax. Despite of Armenia lifting all visa restrictions on Turkish citizens, the visions of Turkic hordes descending on the Caucasian mountain state – Turkey’s fans are known for their fierce dedication to ‘the cause’ – did not materialise. The Turkish delegation included mostly diplomats and journalists, and numbered in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands. Neither did the nightmares of egg- or tomato-throwing Armenian nationalists come true. Yes, there were Armenian demonstrators peacefully expressing their dismay at the visit on the streets of Yerevan. And yes, both the Turkish president and the Turkish anthem were booed before the game. But public demonstrations are a fundamental human right, as is, according to many, the booing and hissing of opponents’ anthems during soccer matches – something at which Turkish football fans apparently also excel. In practice, there was general consensus in Armenian society on the desirability of a normalisation of relations – with the country’s opposition even suspending its long-running protest actions so as to create a favourable atmosphere in the capital, and with the press remaining overwhelmingly supportive. All in all, the visit went as planned – leaving everyone with the question, after the final whistle: “Now what?”

The very fact of a Turkish head of state visiting Yerevan would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. Both Sargsyan’s invitation and Gül’s acceptance indicate a wish on both sides to normalise relations. For Turkey, this is about stabilising the Caucasus, where an escalation of conflict could have potentially costly consequences for the country. It is also about countering the very real possibility of the recognition, by the US Congress, of the Armenian Genocide in the coming months and years, with all the complications this would involve in its relations with the United States. An apparent rapprochement with Armenia could, in Ankara’s eyes at least, delay or even eliminate such an eventuality. Finally, with unrest stirring (again) in Kurdish-populated Eastern Turkey, an open border with Armenia would provide these socio-economically backward provinces with new opportunities for trade and tourism. Finally, last month’s dramatic events in Georgia have graphically illustrated in how far it is counter-productive to use one single and quite unstable route for the energy and transportation projects of the 21st century.

For Armenia, that same conflict has also vividly demonstrated its dependence on a weak and unstable state for its trade links with much of the outside world. Despite of all claims to the contrary, even outside of periods of acute conflict and instability, the Armenian population is paying a high price for the current situation. Elevated transportation costs make imported goods extremely costly, and severely stunt Armenia’s ability to export, resulting in significant trade imbalances that grossly distort the country’s (still fast-growing) economy. Closed borders also make the country less attractive to large foreign investors. Opening the border with its large Western neighbour would enable Yerevan to use the Turkish port of Trabzon in addition to Georgia’s Poti and Batumi, and would connect Armenia’s rail network directly to Europe, thus opening new markets and opportunities for Armenia’s producers and foreign investors, and easing price pressures on consumers, through dramatically reduced transportation costs and a generally more open and competitive economy.

Then why, you may ask, is this border still closed after 15 years – despite of an opening obviously benefiting both sides materially? While Armenia has called for the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of the border without preconditions, Turkey has put forward three prerequisites for a normalisation of relations:

• First, Armenia must abandon any territorial claims it may have in Eastern Turkey. Turkish diplomats and commentators argue, among others, that Armenia’s 1990 Declaration of Independence, which refers to the region as ‘Western Armenia’, and the country’s coat-of-arms, which includes Mount Ararat, both indicate territorial ambitions on official Yerevan’s part.

• Second, Armenia must abandon its campaign at having the 1915 Genocide recognised as such by the international community. In that regard, Turkey has proposed the setting up of an ‘impartial’ commission of historians to study the events of that tragic period in light of their conformity to the 1949 UN Genocide convention.

• Third, Armenia and Azerbaijan must come to an agreement on the thorny issue of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Of these three pre-conditions, the first two are relatively ‘manageable’ – either because they are the result of long-time misperceptions, or because, being of a largely symbolic or historic nature, they do not directly impact the immediate material interests of either party. Moreover, both the territorial and genocide issues are purely bilateral in nature – making their solutions dependent on the parties themselves, and, therefore, relatively less complicated to resolve. The success or failure of the current attempts at Turkish-Armenian rapprochement will largely depend on the third pre-condition – on how the parties decide to deal with the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. Of all three obstacles standing in the way of a normalisation, this is the most complex one, and if this most recent attempt at rapprochement fails, it will most likely be on this issue rather than the previous two. Firstly, the Karabakh question does impact on the interests of both parties in a very real and present manner – here, we are not talking symbols or history, but an extremely tangible situation, existing on the ground as we speak, affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Secondly, the Karabakh issue is not purely bilateral: both Armenia and Turkey will be subject to pressures from below, besides and above as they try to tackle this question, with their societies, allies and the great powers all having a vested interest in how exactly things are settled.

First, the most absurd pre-condition – that of tiny Armenia dropping presumed territorial claims against Turkey. The fact that the Armenian declaration of independence talks of ‘Western Armenia’ does not indicate a territorial claim – neither does Armenia’s very discreet use of Mount Ararat on its coat-of-arms. If the Armenian state stayed silent or made explicit claims in addition to these purely symbolic factors, yes, Turkey would have a right to be concerned – but no-one representing the Republic of Armenia in an official capacity has ever made such demands. Quite on the contrary, high-ranking Armenian officials have, at various times, clearly and unequivocally stated the absence of any territorial claims by Armenia in Eastern Turkey. In 2006, Armenia’s foreign minister at that time clearly affirmed Armenia’s acceptance of the validity of both the Kars and Moscow treaties delineating the current border between Turkey and Armenia. Just a month or so ago, in an interview with the Turkish ‘Radikal’ daily, the current president also clearly acknowledged the absence of any Armenian territorial claims in Eastern Turkey. These statements are being ignored by a surprising number of Turkish pundits and politicians – perhaps because they do not fit the established nationalist stereotypes that would allow them to continue ‘business as usual’ with their Eastern neighbour? Armenian officials would most probably see no problem in officially reaffirming their recognition of Turkey’s territorial integrity, despite of the reaction it would cause among the nationalist fringe.

On the second issue – that of the Genocide – both sides are actually not as far apart as it might seem at first sight, at least on the question of how to limit its effects on their bilateral relations. Of course, it is completely unrealistic to believe Turkey will recognise the Genocide any time soon, as it is unreasonable to assume Armenia will ever completely drop the Genocide issue from its foreign policy agenda. Both parties are subject to considerable pressures from below on that point – at this juncture, Turkish society would simply not accept a recognition by its government, and (contrary to what is often erroneously believed in Turkey), Armenian society (and not just the diaspora) could not countenance its state remaining silent on that matter. Moreover, it would be quite erroneous for anyone to expect the Armenian diaspora to give up its forceful quest for recognition – one of the pre-requisites for ‘managing’ this issue would be for Turkey to accept the Republic of Armenia has little, if any control over what American or French citizens of Armenian descent demand from their respective governments.

Provided all the caveats mentioned in the previous paragraph are taken into consideration, some kind of ‘modus vivendi’ could be found between the parties. Armenia has seriously replied to Turkey’s proposal to set up a commission of ‘impartial’ historians to study the matter by suggesting the creation of an inter-governmental commission tackling all issues of interest to the states after the establishment of diplomatic relations. It would not be surprising if discussion on the exact format of such a commission had been included in the secretive talks between Armenian and Turkish diplomats in Switzerland earlier this year. Another possibility would be for the issue to remain on Yerevan’s agenda, but less prominently so than in previous years, with Turkey silently scaling back its attempts at historical revision. In any case, the visit by Gül to Yerevan would have been unlikely if there hadn’t been at least the prospect of an agreement on how to manage this delicate issue – whether through a commission or through a decision to somehow “agree to disagree” in the future.

Turkey’s most complicated condition is the one relating to Nagorno-Karabakh. For this issue not to stand in the way of a Turkish-Armenian detente, either Turkey would have to de-couple its Armenia policies from Baku, or Armenia and Azerbaijan would somehow have to come to an agreement after years of tortuous and so far fruitless negotiations. While both outcomes are possible, they also face a variety of structural hurdles that limit the scope for action in both Ankara and Yerevan. As noted above, this is the only issue of substantive (rather than historic or symbolic) nature among the pre-conditions cited by Ankara for improved Armenian-Turkish relations. The conflict directly affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the region – the Armenian inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azeri refugees and IDPs. It has a quite tangible effect on the security of Armenia, and Turkey’s closest ally, Azerbaijan; over the past 20 years, all sides have invested considerable material and diplomatic resources in trying to prevail in what they have rightly or wrongly seen as an issue of existential importance.

The conflict is, moreover, one where both sides are subject to pressures from a variety of quarters, making it by far the most complex issue standing in the way of a normalisation of relations. For a number of reasons, preserving the security of Karabakh’s Armenian inhabitants has been the central plank of Armenia’s foreign policy since independence. It would be utterly unrealistic to expect Yerevan to hand over the territory and its ethnic Armenian inhabitants ‘on a silver platter’ in return for economic favours: Armenia has so far been quite willing to pay the hefty economic price that comes with its insistence on Karabakh’s self-determination, which it sees as the only guarantee for the survival of that region’s ethnic Armenian population. On the other hand, Turkey’s powerful nationalists, and many in the nation’s military, see an unconditional commitment to Azerbaijan as an absolutely essential aspect of the country’s foreign policy. De-coupling Ankara’s policies towards Armenia from Azerbaijan would thus involve considerable domestic costs for any Turkish government – these would have to be overshadowed by the gains on the international and regional levels for such an eventuality to occur.

There are, however, solid arguments for such a de-coupling – especially after Georgia’s conflict with Russia. Turkey’s de-facto outsourcing of its Armenia policy to Baku has not achieved anything concrete in terms of making a resolution of the Karabakh conflict more feasible. Instead, it has reinforced existing stereotypes and insecurities, and has in effect excluded Turkey from the negotiations processes regarding the single most important frozen conflict in the region. Any advantages Baku might have received in terms of tilting the balance of power in its favour have been effectively neutralised by Russia’s strategic alliance with Armenia; and any hopes Azerbaijan might have had regarding a speedy Russian withdrawal from the Caucasus have now been dashed during the conflict in Georgia. Now that Ankara has woken up to the necessity of a comprehensive approach to security in the Caucasus – its Caucasus Stability Pact is a clear expression of this realisation – it might also feel that a more independent and pro-active approach is more conducive to constructing compromise solutions based on carefully constructed trust rather than the crude, largely ineffective pressure of closed borders.

Of course, the Karabakh conflict could also cease being an impediment to Turkish-Armenian relations by being resolved. Negotiations led by the OSCE Minsk Group have been continuing for almost 15 years, and, although the negotiators have been claiming for some time now that the parties are tantalisingly close to agreement – save for a few complex sticking points – such hopeful signs have previously been dashed on several occasions. Significantly, the talks have so far involved three co-chairs: France, the United States, and Russia. Although these three actors have been able to co-operate smoothly within the narrow confines of the Minsk Group, it is quite unclear whether this will remain the case in light of recent processes in the Caucasus. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has recently indicated Russia would be happy to see Armenia and Azerbaijan holding direct talks on the question of Nagorno-Karabakh, outside the Minsk Group’s formal aegis - an effort at sidelining Washington and Paris, or a sign of tangible progress? And, Turkey’s president has visited Baku in the wake of his historic football diplomacy in Yerevan – an indication of panic or, again, a hint at a possible speedy solution? It is impossible to know at this point.

What is certain, however, is that the Karabakh conflict represents the most complex of all three impediments standing in the way of normalised Turkish-Armenian relations. In tying the normalisation of relations to that conflict, Ankara has in effect joined its bilateral relations with Armenia to a nexus where the very material interests of numerous actors, foreign and domestic, intermingle with any political will Armenia and Turkey might have towards normalising their relations. Of course, Turkey may have come to the conclusion that a more independent and pro-active Caucasus policy would contribute more to security and peace in the region than threats and blockades – in that case, Armenian-Turkish relations could go from being a hostage to the Karabakh conflict to potentially contributing to a solution. Alternatively, Ankara might feel that an agreement between Baku, Stepanakert and Yerevan is imminent – eliminating Karabakh as an impediment to bilateral interaction. But otherwise, football diplomacy will risk being drowned out in the complications of the Karabakh conflict – yet another tragically lost opportunity in the long and winding road towards the reconciliation of two of the world’s most intractable foes.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Vulnerabilities Galore

Much has been said and written about Russia's next steps in the geopolitical drama that is unfolding in its 'near abroad'. Let's look at three of the states that are mentioned most often as targets for destabilisation: Georgia (what remains of it), Azerbaijan and the Ukraine.

The current situation in Georgia gives Moscow plenty of opportunities to keep meddling in the country's internal affairs. Firstly, its “peacekeepers” are stationed in the immediate vicinity of the Tbilisi-Gori-Poti highway and railroad - the Southern Caucasus’ economic jugular vein. The Kremlin could invent any number of pretexts to cut off traffic on this route that is so crucial to the economic survival of not only Georgia, but all three Caucasian states. Armenia receives much of its strategic supplies (oil, wheat) through this all-important transportation corridor, and recent events have shown Russia to be quite indifferent to its ally’s fate when it comes to dealing with Tbilisi. Baku’s oil industry is also dependent on this route for technical supplies, and considering Azerbaijan’s thinly disguised pro-Western leanings, Russia would be even less reluctant to remind the wannabe ‘regional leader’ of its dependence on its goodwill. With such an important portion of the country’s transportation infrastructure at Moscow’s mercy, it could also become much more difficult for Tbilisi to attract the FDI it so urgently needs for rebuilding.

Secondly, rump Georgia contains two significant, geographically compact non-Georgian ethnic populations: the Azeris in the Marneuli district and the Armenians in Javakheti. While there have been tensions in the past, especially in Javakheti, these have so far been successfully addressed by the Saakashvili administration, sometimes in co-operation with Armenia and Azerbaijan – both of whom are not at all interested in allowing their ethnic kin to poison their respective relations with Tbilisi. Both populations have shown themselves loyal to the Georgian state during the recent crisis. There are, however, fears in Georgia that the Armenians of Javakheti in particular might be aroused by Russian undercover operatives. In the Caucasus, so laden with ethnic suspicions, all it would take to set a problematic province alight would be a well-scripted provocation, supplemented by rumour and innuendo, giving the Kremlin an opportunity to take the dismemberment of the Georgian state one step further. Incidentally, about two weeks before Saakashvili ordered the assault on Tskhinvali, the leaders of an Armenian nationalist group in the region were arrested in mysterious circumstances. Whether or not there was a connection between these two events remains to be seen.

On to Azerbaijan - of course, one obvious way in which the Kremlin could destabilise that country would be through a thawing of the frozen conflict over Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia. That would, however, require the latter’s co-operation, and would, moreover, be fraught with potentially dangerous and unforeseeable consequences for all parties. In its earlier ‘hot’ phase, the Karabakh conflict was the bloodiest in the former Soviet Union, causing over 30,000 deaths and over a million refugees on both sides. Although nothing can be ruled out considering the events of recent weeks, it is difficult to see how Moscow could be interested in a conflagration that may easily spiral out of its control.

However, other ethnic minorities offer alternative, and more controllable ways of creating headaches for Baku. Two, in particular, might be relevant – the Talysh, living in the South-East, and the Lezghin, in the North-East. While the Talysh live far from Russia’s borders with Azerbaijan, the Lezghin would be a particularly attractive target for provocation - because they have ethnic kin living in the Russian Northern Caucasian autonomous republic of Daghestan, just like the Ossetians in Georgia. Coincidentally or not, in July this year, a shadowy organisation claiming to represent the Lezghin in Azerbaijan called on outside intervention to end a ‘genocide’ by the authorities in Baku against that minority. Could this have been a warning shot from Moscow, coming, as it was, on the heels of a government-sponsored conference on Lezghin issues in the Russian capital? In any case, it fits nicely into Russia’s claim, forcefully voiced and applied during the current crisis in Georgia, to be the protector of the ‘small peoples’ of the Caucasus. Azeri (and Western) policymakers better take note.

Finally, the Ukraine – far larger than the other two states I have dealt with above, but also, extremely vulnerable, in three distinct ways. Most Western analysts centre on the Crimea as a potential future flashpoint, and, considering its mostly ethnic Russian population, its strategic importance as the host of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and the fact that it was gifted to the Ukraine by the Russian SSR only in 1954, it seems reasonable to assume Moscow might target it for annexation. In recent months, there have already been irredentist noises in the Kremlin regarding the territory, and there are reports Russia has been – rather ominously - distributing passports as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The local population is quite decisively opposed to Kiev’s NATO ambitions, and it would not take much effort on Moscow’s part to engineer some kind of separatist reaction, if circumstances demanded.

On the other hand, Moscow might concentrate on exacerbating the East/West divide that has plagued the Ukraine since independence. Contrary to what has been seen in Georgia, there is no large majority in the Ukraine in favour of a pro-Western orientation. In fact, the country is split almost down the middle, with support for NATO increasing as one moves towards its Ukrainian-speaking Western part. In the East, people (both ethnic Ukrainians and Russians) speak Russian, and strongly identify with Russia as a natural, Slavic ally. The fact that opposition to NATO is geographically and linguistically distinct throughout the Ukraine – not just in the Crimea – could offer Russia yet another lever in its fight to keep the country, or a significant part of it, inside its sphere of influence.

Admittedly, this would potentially be a very costly and unpredictable path to take. However, this East/West divide is also visible throughout Ukrainian state structures – bringing us to the third way in which Moscow might try to keep the Ukraine pliant. Rather than taking the Georgian route and using separatism (in the East or in the Crimea), the Kremlin might try to engineer the downfall of the Ukraine’s currently pro-Western central government. In the absence of a national anti-Russian/pro-NATO consensus, it would not be too difficult to tip the balance of opinion in Moscow’s favour through any number of tricks – economic blackmail, propaganda, the funding of pro-Russian groups, bribing/cooptation of pro-Western lawmakers, etc... Once re-established, a pro-Russian Ukrainian government could then quickly re-align the country with Moscow, renewing the all-important treaty on the Russian naval bases in Sebastopol, ditching Kiev’s ambitions to join NATO, and repressing the pro-Western regions of the Ukraine with Russia’s approval. Considering the enormous problems associated with engineering and controlling separatism in a country as large as the Ukraine, this latter option may very well be the one the Kremlin decides to employ.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Dignified Protest

Today, Tbilisi ground to a halt as ordinary Georgians were given an opportunity to express their dismay at Russia's neo-imperial activities in their country. And I must say it was a dignified, and quite impressive performance, with young and old, of all ethnic groups, lining the roads in Tbilisi, Georgian flags in hand, marching and chanting in their millions, and fulfilling their civic duty by expressing loyalty to their endangered state. It was, quite clearly, an unforced, sincere outpouring of public emotion by people who are seeing their state torn to shreds as we speak.

For all its faults in relation to its foreign and security policies, one thing must be made clear: in stark contrast to Azerbaijan, Georgia had made considerable progress in recent years, both in terms of democracy and in terms of its treatment of minorities. While problems do remain, the Saakashvili government has made an honest effort at promoting a civic, inclusive form of nationalism, in preparation of the hoped-for reunification of the country. There is certainly reason to believe the Georgian government's accusations that Russia was prodding Abkhazia, and especially South Ossetia, to obstruct its wide-ranging offers of autonomy to both regions. The idea that Russia was ever a peace-keeper in the Caucasus is one that would make any unbiased observer laugh - over 15 years, it did everything in its power to obfuscate and obstruct. By skilfully playing into and amplifying the fears of both Ossetians and Abkhazians through semi-criminal local regimes, it basically eliminated any chances of these two entities ever reuniting with Georgia proper.

Similarly, Russian claims of 'Genocide' have the smell (stench?) of old-style KGB propaganda all over them. While firing on Tskhinvali with Katyushas was certainly unacceptable on Georgia's part, Russia's claims of 2,000 deaths and tens of thousands of refugees (all within the spate of 12 hours) were suspiciously over-the-top from the start. The crude, 24/7 attempt by Russia's media to create the impression of a major humanitarian catastrophe even managed to fool a few western commentators. Not surprisingly, however, once Russia's mission was accomplished, the same people who had reduced Grozny to pulp several times over without shedding so much as a tear quietly decreased the death count to a still elevated, but hardly genocidal 133. These hysterical claims of ethnic cleansing were all the more unbelievable because Georgia's policies of recent years have clearly been aimed at including both Ossetians and Abkhazians in the fabric of the Georgian state - tens of thousands of Ossetians live in Georgia proper up to this day, and remain largely undisturbed. Wouldn't Georgia have ethnically cleansed those Ossetians under its control before attempting a blitz-genocide in South Ossetia?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Forgotten Virtues: Prudence, Foresight and Non-Alignment in the Post-Soviet Space

And so, things have come to a head in Georgia. For months, South Ossetia had been the scene of low-intensity warfare, with regular exchanges of fire from both sides blurring the precise points at which scuffles turned into battles, and battles into full-scale war. There is little doubt, however, that this confrontation was largely the result of a major miscalculation on Georgia’s part: its surprise attack on Tskhinvali, based on the vain hope that Russia would step back from the brink and defer to Tbilisi’s strong links with the West, could be described as one of the greatest blunders in modern international political history. The fact that the Russians and Ossetians had made numerous provocations in the weeks and months before the assault does not imply Sahakashvili was right to naively walk into the trap which they had ingeniously sprung. The Georgian president had clearly not read or understood his Thucydides – small nations with large enemies must know their place in the world.

One thing is clear, however: this conflict is about more than Georgia and South Ossetia. It is the first major confrontation, by proxy, between the West and a re-assertive Russia. As such, it is not just the result of miscalculations made in Tbilisi in 2008, but the logical conclusion to a series of mistakes and misperceptions in Western capitals – and in Washington, in particular. This is not just a tale of a small country bravely (but somewhat hopelessly) confronting a Great Power on its own – it is also the story of the amateurish, ideologised and bungling approach to international politics that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration since its coming to power. In the longer term, it is the result of a dangerous disregard for international law, and the application of double standards in conflicts throughout the world by the West – with Kosovo as only the most striking example. The West should have known that such law-bending was bound to blow up in its face in the longer term. And now it has – in Georgia.

The first miscalculation was intimately connected with the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, designed to circumvent Russia as the main conduit for Caspian oil to Europe and beyond. For this circumvention to be entirely effective, Georgia had to be coaxed from Russian influence towards a firm pro-Western and pro-NATO stance (admittedly, given Russia’s past behaviour, it didn’t need much coaxing). The Rose revolution which toppled the Shevardnadze regime was thus enthusiastically supported by the United States; it was perhaps no coincidence that it occurred at a time when neo-Conservatives – always ready to play geopolitics through regime change - were riding high in Washington after the ‘mission accomplished’ moment in Iraq.

The whole BTC project, however, was first conceived in the 1990s, at a time when Russia’s economic and military might was at low ebb - in fact, at a time when the very survival of the Russian state was in doubt. As such, policymakers in 2003 were working within a paradigm that was seriously outdated. In the 1990s, one could possibly ignore and pressure a weak, dependent Russia into allowing encroachments on what it has always seen as its natural sphere of influence: NATO expansion and Kosovo are remembered to this day in the Kremlin as the humiliating result of feebleness and loss of status, something never to be repeated – for instance, in Georgia.

By 2003, however, the Russian Federation was already changing from an impoverished former superpower to a 21st-century petro-power itching to reaffirm its great power status. If the United States wanted to play in its ‘near abroad’, this would not go unchallenged. This was compounded by the fact that the Kremlin had been taken over by Putin and the ‘siloviki’ – a close-knit clique of former KGB officers with a keen, very Russian sense of the geopolitical: Russia was a Great Power, and Great Powers need spheres of influence. Like it or not, this blatantly outdated, territorial notion of state power had always been deeply engrained in Russian strategic culture – and with petro-power at its disposal, Moscow could do it justice. BTC and Georgia came to be seen as a challenge to which Russia should and could respond – it would not be allowed to lose its ‘near abroad’ the way the Soviet Union had lost Eastern Europe as a prelude to the latter’s collapse. Of equal importance was the fact that control over Georgia would also imply control over Caspian oil and gas reserves. With much of Russia’s renewed regional and global clout based on its mineral wealth, its oil-conscious elite clearly saw the possibility of Moscow acting as gate-keeper to the Caucasus and Central Asia as an attractive prospect.

Thus, the current Russian leadership built on the policies it inherited from the supposedly ‘democratic’ Yeltsin era, which were, even then, when Russia was at its most ‘liberal’, designed to divide and rule the Caucasus. A number of ‘frozen conflicts’ had been artificially kept unresolved in Georgia through open Russian support for separatists entities – whose populations had been provided with Russian citizenship, presenting Moscow with a perfect excuse for intervention under the dubious cover of International Law in case of Georgian military action. For good measure, Russian involvement in peace-keeping operations provided a convenient additional trip-wire. Everything had been readied for a Russian incursion should the need arise. In view of this, the West’s perception that Russia would roll over and bolt once Georgia became a NATO member or candidate was quite surprising: if anything, the prospect of NATO membership, combined with its renewed oil wealth and the ready possibility of intervention must have increased Russia’s resolve for swift and decisive action. As long as Georgia was not under the protection of article 5 – and even the Membership Action Plan (MAP) rejected in April would not have granted that – intervention remained an absolutely rational option for Moscow.

The prospect of NATO membership combined with a second major Western miscalculation in pushing Georgia towards the brink: the recognition of Kosovo, and its detrimental effect on the principle of territorial integrity despite of all empty rationalisations by diplomats that it is ‘a special case’. The combination of these two factors put the Sahakashvili government under considerable pressure: on the one hand, NATO membership required a resolution to the unresolved internal conflicts, on the other hand, the longer these conflicts dragged on, the greater the chance of Kosovo repeating itself in the Caucasus. Russia’s upgrading of relations with both republics in response to the recognition of Kosovo deftly played into these fears. It seems, Georgia’s interests had been much less important to the West than making a point in the Balkans. Now, the country was faced with an unpalatable choice: it had to solve these territorial issues swiftly, or see its chances of becoming a NATO member diminish, with Kosovo acting as an admonition of what could happen to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the long run. With the clock ticking, it made the tragic choice of solving those conflicts quickly – and militarily. To the Russians’ delightful glee.

In general, the Kosovo case shows how the unilateral bending of international rules and the application of double standards always ends up haunting those engaged in the bending and double-talk. Rightly or wrongly, Kosovo was never seen in Moscow in humanitarian terms, but through the perspective of realpolitik – the cynical abuse by the West of humanitarian standards as a ruse for removing a thorn in its side by violating the sacrosanct principle of state sovereignty. Humanitarian or not, Kosovo left open a huge grey area in International Law any great power could abuse to justify foreign intervention – it was now sufficient to cry ‘genocide’ in exactly the same way some in the West did in 1998-99 to excuse invading another country without UN approval. In circumventing the Security Council, NATO set a dangerous precedent, especially for smaller and weaker states like Georgia – unless one could suggest that NATO has a monopoly in determining what is and what is not a humanitarian catastrophe requiring intervention.

The second bending – some would say breaking – of international law came with the recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Western diplomats can parrot the ‘special case’ argument as often as they like – the simple fact is that such recognition without the prior agreement of Serbia was unprecedented under post-WWII international norms. Both the principles of ‘uti possidetis’, and the principle of territorial integrity were put aside, with Western states – again – acting as prosecutor, judge and executioner. For Putin and the siloviki, the question arose – if there is such a thing as sovereign equality, why should such powers be reserved for NATO members? Why couldn’t a great power do the same in its sphere of influence – by threatening to break up a country that was a constant thorn in its side? Again, in unilaterally recognising Kosovo the West irreparably weakened a principle that was primarily designed to protect smaller and weaker members of the international community – to Georgia’s painful detriment. And, after the initial irritation at seeing a previously unassailable (and highly regarded) principle of international law flouted, Russian minds started thinking – ‘if they can do it, why can’t we, as a Derzhava (Great Power)?’

It is quite clear that Russia has been drawing a red line in the sand for some time now – rejecting any attempts by NATO to expand into ‘its’ near abroad. To the West, this issue is one of enhancing energy security and expanding the democratic zone of peace. Russia, by contrast, perceives the matter in much more existential terms – it sees its long-term survival as a great power as depending on a buffer, a zone of exclusive strategic influence. Moscow may be quite wrong in this perception, but everything suggests it would be willing to go to extreme lengths in order to maintain this essential objective, including dismembering Georgia, and perhaps even the Ukraine, in reaction to their pro-Western strategic orientations. For all the benefits NATO expansion would bring, Western capitals should ask themselves whether their goals are worth infringing on interests which Russia sees as essential to its survival. The core interests of Great Powers are only ignored at great risk – and, quite frankly, neither Georgia nor the Ukraine are worth the global conflagration which their move towards NATO might cause, if they would in fact be able to survive such a move.

Instead of attempting the impossible and risking the inconceivable, the Western alliance should start talking to Russia in its own language – that of realpolitik. First, it should draw a red line in the sand itself, by making it clear to Russia that any aggression or harassment of an established NATO member would be dealt with collectively; Russia has so far shown itself prudent, in practice, vis-a-vis those countries that are subject to protection under article 5, which should not be allowed to lose its deterrent effect. Second, the Alliance should come to an understanding with Moscow regarding the status of the former Soviet Union as a ‘neutral’ buffer zone, desisting from expansion in return for the non-aligned status of these states, which would also have to be encouraged to develop foreign policies that are prudent and balanced, taking into account the interests of their larger northern neighbour. The recent Turkish proposal of a Caucasus Stability Pact, while fraught with difficulty, could point the way in that regard. Third, Russia and the West should come to a clear common understanding regarding the principles that govern the recognition of entities like Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transdniestria, instead of basing such recognitions on narrow unilateralism and momentary expediency. The one conflict where co-operation between Western states and Russia actually did go relatively smoothly – in Nagorno-Karabakh – could serve as a model for the remainder.

What the West should not do is maintain the hypocrisy that Georgia (and the Ukraine) could gradually move towards NATO without Russia doing everything in its power to destabilise both while they are still in the ‘twilight zone’. In Europe, at least, the world is no longer unipolar. The days where the Alliance could creep eastwards unopposed while freely tinkering with International Law without considering the consequences at other times and in other places are definitively over.