The Soviet Union’s dissolution fundamentally altered the geopolitics of the South Caucasus, by turning the former constituent republics of the USSR into independent states and hence, also autonomous regional and international actors, bent on defining their own specific national interests and foreign policy priorities. The emergence of these new republics also changed the nature of the region’s interaction both with neighboring states and key international powers, including the Russian Federation, the largest and most important of the Soviet Successor States. It also led to a search for new mechanisms to ensure regional security and to integrate the region within the new frameworks of international cooperation.
The Caucasus region: significance for Russia
The Russian state has a number of significant security and other interests in the South Caucasus, largely resulting from its long association and interaction with the region, as well as the North Caucasus being in position of Russia’s most fragile and politically instable area. This geographical proximity and the overlapping of the South and North Caucasus issues have made «the Greater Caucasus» one of formative regions for Russian foreign policy making. Throughout the entire period after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russian South Caucasus priorities did not stay static. Moscow’s attitude towards the countries of the South Caucasus, as well as the unrecognized entities and the resolution of the conflicts underwent significant transformation. It has been determined by three basic factors:
- evolving the North Caucasus dynamics;
- development of bilateral relationship with the newly-independent counties (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia);
- active engagement of external actors especially USA, European Union and NATO in the regional political and economic processes.
However Russia has had more or less constant goals such as minimizing the armed conflicts’ risks along its border with the negative impact on its domestic security and deterring the “internationalization” be it the NATO (in lesser extent EU) enlargement or attempts to replace Moscow as the dominant “broker” in the peacekeeping activities.
Russia: basic approaches to the South Caucasus
Nowadays Russian leadership does not have a universal approach either to conflicts or to states of the South Caucasus. We can identify two fundamental positions that Russia provides. The first one can be defined as a revisionist position. Moscow recognizes the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and officially withdraws support for Georgia’s territorial integrity. The second position supports the current status-quo and is made clear by refusal to recognize the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and establishing any types of contact with it except those that are within the mandate of the OSCE Minsk group where Russia is one of the co-chairs. Russian Federation while is engaged in a strategic alliance with Armenia, in the process of the settlement of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan recognizes the territorial integrity of the latter.
The acting 2016 Foreign Policy Concept of Russian Federation (in this regard this document repeats the provisions of the 2013 Document) stipulates that Russian priorities include “assisting the establishment of the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia as modern democratic States, strengthening their international positions, and ensuring reliable security and socioeconomic recovery”. During the normalization of relations with Tbilisi that started in 2012-2013 Moscow limited this process by drawing some “red lines”. Russia is not engaging in negotiations over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the Foreign Policy Concept document, Moscow expresses interest in “normalizing relations with Georgia in areas where the Georgian side is willing to do the same, with due consideration for the current political environment in the South Caucasus”. In practice, this means the current state of affairs that was established in the region after recognition of the independence of the two former autonomies of the Georgian SSR.
Thus, from Moscow’s point of view the South Caucasus consists of not three states (UN member countries as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia), but five. Moscow builds it relationships with Abkhazia and South Ossetia based on bilateral agreements “On Strategic Partnership and Alliance” (signed on November 24, 2014) and “On Alliance and Integration” (signed on March 18, 2015). Even though both documents sealed Moscow’s increasing military-political presence in both partly recognizes republics (currently the South Ossetian army is integrated into Russian armed forces) they can hardly be regarded as new milestones. These agreements formalized the set up that emerged in August 2008 when Moscow became the guarantor of security, recovery and social-economic development of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
However despite Russia’s insistence on recognizing the breakaway territories as independent states, the highest rank officials including President Vladimir Putin made numerous statements concerning different variants of hypothetical reintegration of secessionist entities. For Moscow is usual to reject its direct engagement in the two ethno-political confrontations labeling Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia as conflicting parties. This is why in accordance with Russia’s official discourse direct negotiations between Tbilisi, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali can open the way to the resolution of conflicts different from the existing status quo. Moreover from time to time Russian deputies like Leonid Kalashnikov, Chairman of the Russian State Duma’s CIS committee claim that Kremlin does not have any material interest in supporting Abkhazia and South Ossetia against Georgia, and only follows the principles of justice. It means the aforementioned sense could be changed if Tbilisi corrects its geopolitical NATO-centric approaches towards Russia, regional security and foreign policy agenda in general.
Russia-Georgia: paradoxes of bilateral relations
As of today Russian-Georgian relations are rather paradoxical. On the one hand, there are traditional – primarily socio-cultural – ties. In spite of absence of diplomatic relations Russia’s economic presence is still important for Georgia. On the other side we see a variety of controversies concerning not only regional issues be it Abkhazia or South Ossetia but the wide range of international security agenda. Georgia considers membership in both NATO and EU as a guarantee for geopolitical independence from Russia and looks for the enlargement of cooperation with the Western powers despite of suspending formal membership in aforementioned structures. On the contrary for Russia the NATO penetration in the former USSR area is treated as a serious geopolitical challenge leading to decrease of the Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus in particular and in Eurasia in general.
For the Russian political circles Georgia looks like “cut slice” influenced by NATO and US interests. After Mikhail Saakashvili’s departure together with the “United National Movement” party, certain changes took place in Russian-Georgian relations. Nevertheless, they were (and still are) tactical and selective. The new Georgian leadership (represented by “Georgian Dream” party) maintained their loyalty to the strategic approaches of the previous government: supporting and strengthening of integration with NATO and European Union. The normalization process launched in 2012 has been strictly limited by three “red lines” (status of the two breakaway regions and Georgia’s NATO membership). However some clear results of this process are:
- Tbilisi’s refusal to support the North Caucasian nationalist movements and a political alliance with them based on positioning Georgia as a “Caucasian alternative” to Russia;
- Declaration on readiness to cooperate on security issues (partly realized in the period prior the Sochi-2014 Olympics);
- Establishment of direct and regular dialogue between Georgian and Russian governments that is free from raising and discussing the status disputes over Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the meeting format between Grigory Karasin and Zurab Abashidze).
As the Georgian internal developments (mass protests of June, 2019) have shown the ruling party failed to stop using Russia as a factor for domestic political mobilization by the Georgian authorities. This is why currently the interest of Russia to Georgia is minimal. There are no serious hopes in geopolitical “U-turn” of Tbilisi (from NATO aspirations to Eurasian Union membership). The political ties between Georgian and Russian elites are not so strong but they are limited by deputies and rather marginal figures as well.
Nevertheless religious diplomacy seems to be a potential opportunity for the Russian influence. The Russian Orthodox Church supports the integrity of the canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church, mostly as a way to retain influence but also to have the Georgian “brothers” on its side when it faces some politicized issues like the “nationalization” of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church or Ecumenical Constantinople Patriarchy claims both in Ukraine and Estonia. In comparison to the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church publicly prioritizes good relations with Georgia over relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moreover the Georgian Orthodox Church is so critical to alleged Western values establishing the “choir” with Moscow blaming “the USA and EU countries for “the lack of spirituality”.
Thus Georgia and Russia now have a clear deficit of political communication and rather selective contacts not covering crucially important issues of security. At the same time facing similar security challenges such as growing jihadist movements and spreading instability from the Middle East region both Moscow and Tbilisi have a not well-elaborated request for cooperation. In this context the issue of Georgia’s neutrality not influenced by NATO (leading global military integration bloc) can be considered as a potentially attractive framework.
Neutrality of Georgia: how to overcome the Moscow-Tbilisi hostilities?
Considering Georgia’s neutrality as an option we should take into the account two key problems. First one is the popularity of this idea inside Georgia and readiness of its political elites to promote this discourse replacing the pro-NATO dominant narrative. The leading political parties such as “Georgian Dream”, “United National Movement” and “European Georgia” share a clear pro-Western consensus. This discourse is also supported by a wide range of NGO structures, university intellectuals and leading media resources. In short-mid-term perspective it could not be broken. The second option (not less important) is a deal between the West and Russia similar to the bargain between the USSR and USA on Austria in 1955 or within the “European concert” on Switzerland in 1814. In order to be effective model the neutrality should be supported by both Washington and Moscow. However is will require to re-estimate the effectiveness of the NATO enlargement strategy since 1994 and to recognize the necessity of mutual responsibilities of the two currently confronting sides (Russia and the West) for the Georgian security and European that in general. The neutrality status for Georgia and some other countries (Moldova first and foremost) can be treated as an end of the zero-sum game in Eurasia.
For Russia the model of Georgia’s neutrality hypothetically could be acceptable. The termination of the NATO enlargement will be looked as a clear benefit for Russia’s security and its positions in the South Caucasus. However it is inseparable from the issues of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The key sets of potential negotiations will be focused on the conditions of Russia’s presence and formats as well. The other topical questions will concern the status of the two breakaway republics and guarantors of it. For Moscow discussing the potential change of the current status quo its withdrawal with no clear guarantees of keeping presence is inappropriate.
Russia considers the South Caucasus as a crucially important area connected with domestic security developments. This is why it is especially zealous to any external activities and attempts to minimize its presence in the area of strategic significance. Thus it builds its relationship with the South Caucasus states and entities depending on this factor.
Currently, there are a few opportunities for resolving conflicts in the South Caucasus. The positions of all the parties involved do not have room for a compromise. Abkhazia and South Ossetia view Moscow’s recognition of their independence as a final decision, while Georgia sees this as a temporary occupation. Today, conflicts in the Caucasus are influenced by external factors to a much greater degree. Among them are the confrontations between Russia and the West and the armed conflict in the South-East of Ukraine and in Syria. As a result, the issues in the Caucasus become embedded in broader contexts their regional format is increasingly complemented by geopolitical considerations, which reduces the possibilities for reaching a compromise since the principle of “zero-sum games” becomes dominant.
Nevertheless, the search for a way out of the impasse, and at least, building structures to manage if not resolve the conflicts and minimize additional risks, is possible. First of all, it is necessary to overcome the popular misconception it cannot get worse. There are possible scenarios that can lead to a situation when the current relative turbulence can be replaced by a rough shakeup, including military escalation. Secondly, it would be useful to start discussing models beyond the paradigm of the permanent West-Russia confrontation and Georgia’s neutrality represents a good example. However practical implementation of this idea will be accompanied by a lot of troubles be it promotion of this model within Georgia or compromise of the leading international powers on it. Anyway this discussion can attract the attention to the European security in general and non-confrontation developments in the former USSR area in particular.