The South Caucasus and the phenomenon of frozen conflicts

The South Caucasus breaks down into three triangles, one inside the other. The largest, outer triangle includes three regional powers – Turkey, Iran and Russia. The middle triangle includes the three countries of the South Caucasus – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. The smallest, inner triangle consists of three unrecognized or partly recognized entities or de-facto states – Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Obviously, the South Caucasus also deals with global players such as the EU and the US.

The South Caucasus is not a large region; its territory is roughly equal to that of Romania, and the combined population of its countries and entities, to that of the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the region is important for its neighbours, first of all, due to its geographical situation: it lies between Russia in the North and Iran in the South, and between Central Asia in the East and Europe in the West.

All the three countries of the South Caucasus share many key features. All three are new independent states that emerged as a result of the disintegration of the USSR. All three lack traditions of independent statehood in the modern age.

The three regional powers surrounding the South Caucasus also have some things in common: they are all large countries and all former empires: Ottoman, Russian and Persian. Each of them had at some point in the past controlled all or part of the territory of the South Caucasus. The USSR was the last of these empires; at least from the perspective of the South Caucasus nations, it had been a version of the Russian Empire. 

The three entities in the inner triangle emerged as a result of ethnopolitical conflicts, adding to the complexity of the region. The three conflicts all went through a stage of war, sometimes more than one war per conflict, and all remain unregulated. The existence of the unrecognized or partially recognized entities, first, hinders communication, because their borders with some of the region’s countries are sealed, temporarily or permanently; in a mountainous region, sealed borders interfere badly with transportation. Second, it leads to huge spending on security, with the region’s countries maintaining out-of-proportion armies and allocating huge shares of their budgets to military needs. Third, it causes the militarization of many spheres of public and political life. Fourth, it creates the need to enter alliances in order to maintain security.

External allies can be permanent or ad hoc. Since many or most of the threats to the region come from within, so that all parties in conflict are often located inside the region, it is logical that different countries have different external allies. Consequently, competition inside the region transforms into a competition among external players; they might not be competitors in other areas but with respect to the region, they are. This competition can lead to complications.

First, in the event that a South Caucasus country leans excessively towards one of the external players, this may trigger a strong reaction of another external player. A vivid illustration, the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia was to a significant degree provoked by Georgia’s display of its unequivocal pro-Western orientation and aspirations to join the NATO.

Second, it sometimes happens that a regional country ignores the interests of an external player, triggering this player’s negative reaction. For example, the post-Velvet Revolution authorities of Armenia filed a suit against Armenia’s representative in the CSTO at the time that he chaired the organization; this move was resented by all other CSTO members, including Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Third, a regional country sometimes uses an external ally to handle its domestic issues; Azerbaijan thus got Turkey to seal its borders with Armenia to support its position in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Fourth, external allies also use – and sometimes abuse – their allies in the region to achieve their own goals. For example, Russia wanted to prevent Ukraine from concluding an Association Agreement with the European Union, and, to this end, prevented Armenia from signing such an agreement.

Direct confrontations of this kind often harm the regional countries; most of the time they prefer to avoid them by implementing a multi-vector, complementary foreign policy. This involves a balancing game, with the three countries of the South Caucasus trying to build relations with every possible stakeholder inside and outside the region. All three countries do it albeit with varied results. Georgia is on good terms with both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is close to Turkey and relates positively to Russia. Armenia has membership in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union; it has also managed, eventually, to enter into a Comprehensive Enhanced Partnership Agreement with the European Union.

The de-facto states of the South Caucasus have little opportunity to diversify foreign policy because they cannot maintain relations with countries that do not recognize them. Abkhazia and South Ossetia thus have no alternative to a pro-Russian orientation. In both these de-facto states, some civil society actors are unhappy with this unequivocal choice of orientation, but they get no support and even some hindrances from the authorities. Nagorno-Karabakh was not recognized by Russia and can therefore engage in advocacy and diplomacy across the world, chiefly relying on the Armenian Diaspora communities. Of course, try as one might, being unrecognized rules out full-scale complementarism.

Internationally recognized states also face constraints in their foreign policy. For example, Georgia’s relations with Russia are marred by the 2008 war and by Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite some efforts at improvement in recent years, Russia-Georgia ties remain basic. Armenia, in its turn, tried to mend its relationship with Turkey but the 2009-2010 ‘soccer diplomacy’ project failed after a few years of back and forth. Still, compared to other options, complementarity is arguably the safest if not the most effective foreign policy for South Caucasus states. However, it is difficult to implement.

For example, my country, Armenia, faces many challenges while maintaining constructive friendly relationships with both Iran and the United States, or with both Georgia and Russia. Navigating the standoff between Russia and the West in general has become challenging. It is a game one cannot win: Russia resents Armenia’s excessive pro-Western bias, and the West disapproves of Armenia’s close ties with Russia. However, the alternative is too risky, which makes the South Caucasus countries play balancing games to the extent possible. A lot depends on the current relationship between Russia and the West: the bigger the crisis, the larger the risks. 

The overlapping and intertwining interests of various external and domestic players in the region lead to one important outcome. The need to heed the interests of various players and interact with stakeholders with conflicting agendas creates a culture of negotiations and consensus-building in the South Caucasus. This contributes to the stability of this complicated and conflict-torn region. The multi-vector stability of the South Caucasus is weak and fragile. However, the price to be paid for upsetting it is so high that it is worthwhile to invest in reinforcing it, difficult that it may be. This is arguable the case when simple straightforward solutions are too risky.