Moscow’s Sochi Summit on Karabakh

Karabakh Armenian Soldier on the Frontline with Azerbaijan (nkrmil.am)

Karabakh Armenian Soldier on the Frontline with Azerbaijan (nkrmil.am)

In recent weeks, Armenia and its sister republic of Nagorny Karabakh have been experiencing an increase of violence along the contact line with Azerbaijan, claiming the lives of many soldiers on both sides. The fighting has been so intense that some observers have dubbed it the worst the region has seen since the 1994 ceasefire.

Ceasefire violations have been common since the 1994 armistice, with Azerbaijan often doing the violating as a means of warning the Armenians and the international community that it is not pleased with the status quo. Since the death of longtime Azerbaijani leader Heydar Aliyev and the succession of his son Ilham, the ceasefire violations have only increased in their intensity and aggressiveness. This reflects much of the character of the regime of Ilham Aliyev, who frequently engages in bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric as a means of rallying the population around his notoriously corrupt government. He has often referred to the Armenians as a “worthless” nation and has continuously vowed to not only invade Karabakh but also advance on the Armenian capital Yerevan and to take the country’s turquoise Lake Sevan and the ruggedly mountainous Syunik region as well. Aliyev has also worked to use his country’s oil wealth as a means of not only enriching himself, his family, and his clique but also massively increasing Azerbaijan’s military spending. All this while brutally and swiftly stifling voices of dissent at home, earning Aliyev’s Azerbaijan an international reputation as an authoritarian petrostate – a corrupt kleptocratic khanate on the Caspian.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Aliyev’s strategy is a dangerous one. By intensifying ceasefire violations, engaging in aggressive rhetoric, and massively spending on the military, he believes that this will increase his authority and legitimacy domestically.  However, he is instead driving the region toward a war that neither the Armenian nor Azerbaijani sides need. In fact, despite its astronomical spending on high-tech military equipment, Azerbaijan is in a particularly bad place to start a war. Among other things, the Azerbaijani army is poorly-trained and rampantly corrupt. This is compounded by the fact that Aliyev does not want to have a military that is too strong because there has been a history of military coups in post-Soviet Azerbaijan. A war would also be devastating for Baku because the Armenians could easily target the Western-backed oil pipeline that runs through Azerbaijan. Further, it would be extremely difficult for Azerbaijani tanks to make it through Karabakh’s very mountainous terrain, which the local Armenians know intimately and would use as a “natural fortress” to fight against the Azeris. Finally, Armenia has very good security relations with the Russian military, which would protect Armenia in the case that a new conflict erupts.

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Nevertheless, Azerbaijan has persisted in violating the ceasefire along the line of contact and not just in the vicinity of Karabakh. In recent years, there have been several ceasefire violations along the border with Armenia’s northern province of Tavush, close to the border with Georgia. Then in June, Azerbaijan launched an unexpected attack on Armenia from its exclave of Nakhichevan. The exclave has a naturally-defined border with Armenia running along the Vayots Dzor and Syunik (or Zangezur) mountain ranges. The situation has remained largely calm along this border due to the fact that Armenia controls the heights looking over Nakhichevan.

Protection mounds placed near the Armenian-Nakhichevan border, July 2014

Defensive mounds placed near Armenia’s north-south highway along the Armenian-Nakhichevan border, July 2014. (Photograph by this writer)

However, one section of Armenia’s border with Nakhichevan, between the Armenian Ararat province and the northern Nakhichevan district of Sadarak, remains less secure and it was there where the recent border attack unexpectedly occurred. While traveling along Armenia’s north-south highway in Ararat province this July, I witnessed large mounds along the roadside of this section of the border that had been setup by the Armenian military. They are intended to protect civilian drivers from Azerbaijani artillery and indeed, the attacks on Armenian positions are so close that they have actually reached this highway.

In yet another recent episode in early July, three men from Azerbaijan (allegedly Azerbaijani commandos) infiltrated the Karabakh contact line and entered into the region of Karvatchar (or Kelbajar) where they killed two people and seriously injured another. One was shot dead while the other two are on trial for murder in Nagorny Karabakh. All of this has only increased fears in Armenia about the start of a potential new conflict in the region, which very few in Armenia desire. It has also made efforts for peace and dialogue between the sides even more difficult.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters / Maxim Shemetov)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters / Maxim Shemetov)

Despite this, Armenia’s Sargsyan and Azerbaijan’s Aliyev have been invited to Sochi at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting was already planned in advance. Moscow wants to strengthen its position in the Caucasus, especially regarding the Eurasian Union. As efforts to lure Georgia back into Moscow’s fold have stalled, the Kremlin is instead looking to the possible prospect of bringing the sides together and luring Azerbaijan into its Eurasian Union. However, despite some recent warm-up in the relations between Baku and Moscow, Aliyev appears largely content with remaining independent of any geopolitical union, whether it be the Eurasian Union or the EU.

In this context and in the context of the more recent ceasefire violations, Moscow is now shifting gears and trying to play the role of a peacemaker. It realizes that an immediate peace deal over Karabakh is unattainable and is instead working to simply calm tensions and prevent another war from breaking out. As noted above, if a new conflict erupted in Karabakh, Moscow would be obliged by treaty to assist Armenia in ensuring its security. However, given the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas, a war in the Caucasus is the last thing that Moscow needs. Therefore, Putin’s primary objective at the Sochi summit is to de-escalate tensions between the sides, as Moscow was successfully able to do during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Overall, one thing is most certain: nobody in the region would benefit from a new war over Karabakh.

Darial: An Opportunity for Georgian-Russian Cooperation?

Photograph of the Darial Gorge Disaster (Interpress News Agency)

Photograph of the Darial Gorge Disaster (Interpress News Agency)

Located along the Georgian Military Road, south of Vladikavkaz and just north of Mount Kazbek, one finds the famous Darial Gorge. Once celebrated in Lermontov’s romantic poem, The Demon, the Darial was the site of a terrible disaster on Saturday.

A major landslide originating from the Devdoraki glacier on the northern slopes of Kazbek, brought down a massive wave of debris and mud into the gorge. One Ukrainian citizen, a truck driver, was killed. Seven others are reported missing. Three trucks are reportedly buried in the debris. The landslide blocked the Terek river bed and destroyed part of the Georgian Military Road linking Georgia to Russia, the only overland link between the two countries given the unresolved Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

The disaster also halted the flow of natural gas from Russia to Georgia’s southern neighbor, Armenia, which heavily relies on this resource. Armenians also rely on the Georgian Military Road as a point of direct land access from Georgia to Russia, where many Armenians are migrant workers. The only other possible outlet would be from the Georgian port cities of Batumi or Poti on the Black Sea to Sochi in Russia via boat. These links are especially vital for Armenia, a country still blockaded by Turkey and Azerbaijan over the Nagorny Karabakh dispute. Consequently, for Armenians, Georgia is more than just a neighboring country. It is a lifeline.

Rescue crews were immediately mobilized at the scene of the disaster. 150 people were rescued, primarily “customs, border guard and police employees, as well as several foreign citizens, who are cargo truck drivers.” All were evacuated by helicopter. Twelve workers (all Turkish citizens), trapped in the derivation tunnel of the nearby Darial hydro power plant, were also rescued. The power plant, which is under construction, is highly controversial in Georgia. Georgian environmental activists say that building the dam could adversely affect the area’s ecology.

Georgian President Margvelashvili in the Darial Gorge (Interpress News Agency)

Georgian President Margvelashvili in the Darial Gorge (Interpress News Agency)

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and several of his ministers, including Georgian football superstar-turned-energy-minister Kakha Kaladze, arrived in the area to hold a meeting on the emergency.  Garibashvili left his helicopter to the rescuers and returned to Tbilisi instead by car.  President Giorgi Margvelashvili also went to the Darial to survey the damage. When he arrived from Tbilisi, he concluded that the mountain collapse was larger than the 2007 landslide in Georgia.

Significantly, the first foreign aid came from Russia.  Immediately following the disaster, contact was established with Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations.  The Russian Foreign Ministry has pledged to mobilize aid to assist Georgia in its recovery efforts.  To this end, it has given Georgia 18 metric tons of diesel fuel to “secure uninterrupted work of heavy equipment” to clean up the area affected by the landslide.  Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has thanked Moscow for its assistance.  On the morning of May 19, official Armenia has offered aid to Tbilisi as well.

Rescue Helicopter in the Darial (Interpress News Agency)

Rescue Helicopter in the Darial Gorge (Interpress News Agency)

From the Russian side, sending aid to the disaster zone is now much easier thanks to Moscow’s recent unilateral full reopening of the Georgian Military Road back in March. The road was closed completely in 2006 due to tension between Russia and Georgia’s then-President Mikheil Saakashvili. It was partially reopened in 2010, before being fully reopened in March this year.

The recovery efforts come amid a stalled Russo-Georgian rapprochement. During the Sochi Olympic Games in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Georgian President Margvelashvili to a direct meeting. It would be the first such meeting between the Russian and Georgian political leaderships since the 2008 war. Unfortunately, the process toward this meeting has been delayed by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. At a recent Prague meeting between Georgia’s special envoy to Russia, Zurab Abashidze, and his Russian counterpart, Grigory Karasin, the issue was reportedly discussed, though no date has been set for the actual meeting.

Meanwhile, in light of the crisis in Ukraine, the West has taken advantage of the absence of diplomatic relations between Russia and Georgia and has redoubled its efforts to ensure that Georgia maintains a pro-EU and pro-NATO path. Unlike the previous Saakashvili government, which was categorically pro-Western, the present Georgian Dream government in Tbilisi has sought a balanced relationship between both Russia and the West.  This past week, Georgia’s Abashdize said that ideally, Georgia would have free trade regimes with both Russia and the European Union. Earlier in September, shortly after Armenia’s U-turn on the EU in favor of the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union, Georgia’s then-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, said that Georgia too may consider joining the Eurasian Union “if it will be advantageous for our country.” Though no longer in office, the Imeretian billionaire is still financially supporting the Georgian Dream government and is widely believed to be actively working with them behind-the-scenes.

Russia and Georgia need to seize the moment to restore relations and move forward. Cooperation on the rescue and recovery effort from the Darial disaster presents a good opening for renewed diplomacy on both sides.

The Myth of the European Panacea

The EU flag was a prominent symbol of Ukraine's Euromaidan (img.pravda.com.ua)

The EU flag was a prominent symbol of Ukraine’s Euromaidan (img.pravda.com.ua)

Capitalism hit the former Soviet Union very hard in the 1990s. That was the Boris Yeltsin era of “shock therapy” wherein the economic ideas of Larry Summers, Jeffrey Sachs, and others transformed the countries of the former USSR from state-dominated economies with capitalist elements to the capitalism of the wild, unregulated sort. The results of such a severe and rapid transition were disastrous for these countries, socially, politically, and economically. The ramifications of those years are still felt throughout much of the former Soviet space today, both directly and indirectly.

In Russia itself, the “shock therapy” brand of capitalism was implemented with aid from American advisors such as Sachs and by “democratic” Russian “reformers” like Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, and others.  Their subsequent “reforms” plunged approximately 75% of Russians into poverty and reversed many of the country’s hard-won 20th century achievements, becoming, in the words of Russian scholar Stephen F. Cohen of NYU, “the first nation ever to undergo actual demodernization in peacetime.” It changed public perceptions with regard to the West. If there were many Russians in 1991-92 who were supportive of the basic idea of having democracy, the years of “shock therapy” created a desire for much-needed “stabilnost” and caused many to view the West as primarily responsible for such a terrible economic catastrophe.

Similar rapid transitions to market economies occurred throughout the former Soviet sphere, leaving legacies of entrenched oligarchies, monopolies, economic disparity, poverty, bad business environments, and most of all, corruption. For the citizens of former Soviet states like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia, the EU and its Eastern Partnership program appear to be effective remedies to finally “cure” their economies of these diseases once and for all. The reputation of the EU for its rules, regulations, and carrot-and-stick initiatives seemed to be a cure-all solution to many.

“Like hopeless alcoholics, we are trying to toss ourselves into a rehab, where caring Europeans will cure us from the addiction (in our case – corruption),” wrote the Armenian comedian Sergey Sargsyan. Indeed, corruption remains a very serious problem for all four of the Eastern Partnership states that sought deeper ties with the EU, with Georgia ranking 55, Armenia 94, Moldova 102, and Ukraine 144 on the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index of 177 countries (CPI) by Transparency International.  The issue of corruption is especially serious in Ukraine where the oligarchy and the political elite, from Tymoshenko to Yanukovych, have robbed the country and its people into bankruptcy.  Consequently, the EU is viewed as a panacea, a “symbol” for the hope of a better future.  In the words of Mark Adomanis and Luka Orešković with regard to Ukraine specifically:

Given Ukraine’s omnipresent corruption, the lack of legal security and, most importantly, the country’s economic implosion, it is not surprising that many citizens would latch onto a symbol (“Europe”) that is associated with all of the things that the country itself lacks. Throughout Ukraine, Europe is popularly identified with economic prosperity, transparency, democracy, and the rule of law, with the possibility of living a “normal life” of dignity and material security.

In contrast to the EU, the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union at face-value appears to offer little, especially with regard to combating corruption. With a CPI ranking of 127, corruption is widespread in Russia, though the Kremlin does realize the gravity of the issue and has been trying to fix it in recent years. Still, the continued presence of corruption combined with oligarchic monopolies, has likewise made opportunities for independent businesses and entrepreneurs very difficult. Together, these issues stifle real economic growth and potential and pose a serious challenge to competition, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Additionally, the fact that much of Russia’s economy is also based on non-renewable natural resources has also raised very serious concerns.

“The main reason why many Armenians are not crazy about joining the Russian Customs Union is not the Russian people, culture, literature, or cuisine,” wrote the Armenian comedian Sergey Sargsyan. “The problem is corruption.”

Despite this, Russia is remarkably holding its own. The Kremlin managed to pay off much of its foreign debt from the 1990s. Moscow’s economy is also currently growing much faster than that of the EU. Additionally, the birthrate of the once “dying Russia” has also bounced back and is on the rise, not only in national autonomous republics like Chechnya, but also deep into the Slavic Russian heartland as well.

Still, is the EU a viable alternative solution to these countries’ economic woes?  It is true that the Europeans would undoubtedly implement their rules, regulations, and carrot-and-stick reforms on these countries. However, by placing their hopes on the EU, which is still limping along from the devastating 2008 Eurozone crisis, these countries are staking their fate on a supranational union that cannot bring them any serious promises of lasting economic prosperity and stability. In November 2013, the noted American Economist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times that his…

…joke slogan for Obama has been, ‘It’s not as bad as the Great Depression!’ But Europe can’t even claim that. At this point it’s just as bad as the Great Depression — and where European economies were recovering strongly by this point in the 30s, they’re stalling now. Doing worse than the 30s; that’s a remarkable achievement.

Indeed, by investing so much hope in an entity as economically unstable as the EU, the people of the ex-Soviet states “run the risk of being sorely disappointed with their ‘civilizational choice’” in the manner that ordinary Russians were sorely disappointed with capitalism in the Yeltsin era of the 1990s.  There is also no guarantee that the corruption issue has been completely solved either.  In Bulgaria and Romania for instance, corruption remains particularly widespread. Even more interesting, according to the 2013 CPI report, non-EU member Georgia actually ranked higher on transparency than not only Bulgaria and Romania, but other EU members such as Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Italy, and Greece. Meanwhile, Armenia and Moldova rank higher than prospective EU member Albania! Further, according to Adomanis and Orešković:

The three most recent entrants to the EU (Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia) have performed terribly since the onset of the financial crisis. Croatia, in particular, has seen no economic growth for the past seven years.  After many years of painstaking reform, per capita incomes in these countries are still less than 40% of West European averages. Even more alarmingly, these three countries have almost entirely stopped converging with the “old” EU members in the West.

In spite of all this, both politicians and citizens in the former Soviet Union seem completely sold on the vision of the “European paradise.” At Ukraine’s Maidan, some activists even believed that “in Europe there is no police brutality.” Apparently, they have never been to Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Bulgaria, or France.

Joining the EU at this point will likely not bring about the long-desired dream of economic prosperity. In fact, it could become potentially destabilizing, especially for a country as large and diverse as Ukraine with an economy that, if not near bankruptcy, is already bankrupt.  That said, as unrest continues in Ukraine, ordinary Ukrainians must consider the question, “should we rely on the EU to help us out of our situation, or is up to us, the Ukrainians alone, to create a better future for ourselves?”

How to Defuse the Ukraine Crisis

Below are ten basic provisions that I believe may ameliorate not only the Ukraine crisis but also the broader tension that currently exists between Russia and the West. Not all readers will agree entirely with these positions, but hopefully they will become a starting point from which to defuse the situation, proceed forward, and create mutually friendly, not hostile, relations among all parties:

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS).  The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand "one inch" beyond East Germany.  The promise was never fulfilled.  To defuse the ongoing Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989 (ITAR-TASS). The Bush administration informally promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch” beyond East Germany. The promise was never fulfilled. To defuse the Ukraine crisis, a formal, written promise not to expand NATO by Washington to Moscow would do much to build mutual trust and confidence between both countries.

1. The West and Russia should drop any mutual sanctions or restrictions against one another.

2. In order to encourage mutual trust, Moscow and Washington should make an unambiguous, official agreement prohibiting further expansion and encroachment of NATO into the former Soviet republics. Such an agreement must be clearly articulated in a written document, unlike the informal promise not to expand NATO made by US officials to former Soviet President Gorbachev in the 1990s.

3. The United States must promise to cancel the planned missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

4. The United States should recognize Russia’s interests in the former Soviet states, including at least verbal support by Washington for the Moscow-based Eurasian Union, provided that it does not expand beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet states.

5. On Crimea, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize and accept Russia’s incorporation of the peninsula. This may be a difficult step to take, but the West and the Yatsenyuk government have to acknowledge that the area is demographically and historically Russian, and that it is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Moscow will not reverse this action and any attempts to force Russia to do so would be counterproductive. Therefore, Washington, Brussels, and Kiev should recognize the reality that Crimea is effectively part of Russia.

6. On Ukraine, both Moscow and Washington should express a desire to see Ukraine proper united and indivisible, and to adopt either an oblast-by-oblast federal system or a decentralized unitary system. Ukraine should declare military neutrality and should pursue integration into the Eurasian Customs Union based on Ukraine’s logical and historic economic ties with Russia; notwithstanding the fact that the EU economy currently cannot manage Ukraine. If Brussels were to bring in Ukraine, it would seriously threaten the stability and unity of the EU and would unravel the progress made over the decades of forging a united Europe. Both Russia and the EU should cooperate on helping Ukraine to strengthen its economy and state institutions by challenging the stranglehold of the Ukrainian oligarchs.

7. Given the fact that many Moldovan citizens are already EU citizens via Romanian passports, and that Moldova is becoming increasingly integrated with the EU, Moscow should recognize Moldova’s pro-European orientation.  In turn, Chișinău should relinquish its claims to Transnistria.  Depending on the situation in Ukraine and the will of the people of Transnistria, the latter could then reunite with the former as part of the multiethnic, Russophone Odessa Oblast. The new division would occur along the River Dniester, with all Moldovan-controlled areas on the right bank of the river being ceded to Transnistria, and all Transnistrian-controlled areas on the left bank being ceded to Moldova. The remaining Moldovan state would proceed with EU integration, but would declare military neutrality and disavow any intention of reunification with Romania.  Its relationship with the latter would then become akin to the relationship shared between Germany and Austria.  Such a resolution would alleviate ethnic concerns within Moldova, particularly with the Gagauz.

8. On Georgia, Moscow should promote (with the support of Washington) a federal solution for Georgia as well, making Abkhazia and South Ossetia federal states within a unified Georgian republic. The process for this should follow roughly along the lines of the proposed plan that I posted earlier. Like Ukraine, this new united Georgian federal state should declare military neutrality and, for economic, historical, and geographic reasons, should integrate into the Eurasian Customs Union.

9. On Armenia and Karabakh, the solution to this particular issue should be in the principle of self-determination for the Karabakh Armenians, though this is just an opinion. The aggressive and threatening rhetoric and actions from official Baku have only alienated the Karabakh people. Notably, Baku has also consistently denied basic human rights to its own ethnic Azerbaijani citizens. Thus, such a regime could not be trusted to rule over the people of this region. Aside from this, in order for there to be a realistic and lasting solution to this problem, Azerbaijan must open its borders with Armenia and civil society contacts must be enhanced. Armenians and Azerbaijanis can get along, but not when they do not see or communicate with one another. In their common humanity, they will find that peace and coexistence are possible, but the borders must be open first. Turkey too must open its border with Armenia.

10. Both sides should agree on a gradual convergence of the West and Russia (along with the former Soviet states) in economic, political, and military spheres, thus ensuring that all parties are on the same page with regard to the future of the post-Soviet space and post-Cold War world in general. There are so many more important priorities that need to be solved in the world (Iran, North Korea, Syria, etc.). Russia and the West need to cooperate on these issues and must not be in conflict. Further, such a solution would effectively help to realize the long-term goal of a united and indivisible Europe. It would also go a long way toward building trust with Moscow, thus creating the conditions for Russia to deepen its democratic development endogenously.

Crimea and Karabakh: A Precedent in the Caucasus?

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Previous posts on this publication have been devoted to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Today’s post shifts the focus on Georgia’s southern neighbor, Armenia. Like Georgia, Armenia shares a very strong sense of national pride, related to its unique art and culture as well as its centuries-old history. Also like the Georgians, Armenians are independent-minded and are generally adverse to Russian imperialism, though, again like their Georgian counterparts, they are also fond of the Russian culture and people. Indeed, Armenia is an ancient Christian country with a long tradition of statehood. The Christian faith arrived here via two of the original twelve apostles of Christ and in AD 301, Armenia became the first nation to officially adopt Christianity as its national faith. This had a profound impact on the development of Armenia’s cultural and literary traditions and resulted in the creation of the unique Armenian alphabet invented in the 5th century and written horizontally from left-to-right, thus indicating a Western orientation. At the same time, similar developments also profoundly affected Georgia, which also adopted a unique alphabet with a left-to-right directionality.

Armenia, along with Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, was one of four countries that actively participated in the Brussels-backed EaP.  Yet, on September 3, 2013, Yerevan made a sudden volte-face on signing its Association Agreement deal with the EU (basically the same deal that Ukraine later refused in November). Instead, it opted for membership in Moscow’s Eurasian Union. This shocked many commentators, who at the time viewed Armenia’s signing of the EU Association Agreement as a foregone conclusion. Many observers, both inside and outside of Armenia, quickly concluded that the Armenia’s President Serj Sargsyan was pressured by Russian President Vladimir Putin to join the Eurasian Union.

Armenia's Serj Sargsyan and Russia's Vladimir Putin immediately after their 3 September meeting.

Armenia’s Serj Sargsyan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin immediately after their 3 September meeting.

However, I believe that it is more plausible to conclude that Sargsyan managed to squeeze out the best possible terms for Eurasian Union membership from the Kremlin. This would explain the body language between the two leaders when the decision was announced. Sargsyan was visibly pleased, as if he had received something, whereas Putin looked somewhat satisfied, though also as if Sargsyan had extracted major concessions out of him. Sargsyan has stated publicly to the Armenian media that he managed to secure “major concessions” from the Russian leader. What these concessions are is not yet known. However, they must have been quite substantial since Armenia was willing to sell the remaining 20% share of its gas sector to Russia’s Gazprom and guarantee that this agreement would remain unchanged until 2043. This action remains controversial with both within the Armenian parliament and on the streets of Yerevan, where Armenian students have launched demonstrations against it. The vote to validate the deal was boycotted by the opposition in the Armenian parliament. Still, though, the basic idea of joining the Eurasian Union has been broadly endorsed by all sectors of the Armenian political elite, including one of Sargsyan’s most vocal critics, former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan. Though Sargsyan has not yet announced the benefits of Eurasian Union membership for Armenia, they are likely tied to security concerns stemming from the dispute with Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh.

Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of Ukraine's far-right Svoboda party (zbroya.info)

Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of Ukraine’s far-right Svoboda party (zbroya.info)

Then in yet another more recent shocking move, on March 27 Armenia voted with Moscow against a UN Resolution condemning the incorporation of Crimea into Russia. Earlier, Yerevan seemed to have at least partially endorsed the Crimean move, with Sargsyan phoning Putin and hailing it as “yet another example of realization of peoples’ right to self-determination through a free expression of will.” The latter caused a slight rupture in Ukrainian-Armenian relations.  Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the far-right Svoboda party, urged the recall of Kiev’s ambassador to Yerevan, a demand with which the Yatsenyuk government eventually complied. What is behind Armenia’s pro-Russian posturing on Crimea? Is it under pressure from Moscow with regard to security and energy ties? Possibly. However, a far more likely scenario is that the Armenians actually see a precedent in Crimea for Nagorny Karabakh.

The famed 13th century Gandzasar Monastery in Karabakh.

The famed 13th century Armenian Gandzasar Monastery in Nagorny Karabakh (Gandzasar.com)

So what exactly is Nagorny Karabakh and why does Armenia attach such importance to it? Nagorny Karabakh is a disputed, mountainous region sandwiched between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Its very name is a testament to its checkered history with “nagorny” being Russian for “mountainous,” “kara” being Turkish for “black,” and “bakh” being Farsi for “garden.”  The current Armenian President Sargsyan is a native of Karabakh as was his predecessor Robert Kocharyan. De jure Karabakh is recognized internationally as being part of Azerbaijan. De facto the region is a self-proclaimed independent state, closely tied with Armenia. Yet no state, including Armenia, presently recognizes it internationally.  The landscape of Karabakh is littered with old, historic Armenian churches and monuments. Its local population is comprised entirely of ethnic Armenians who speak their own distinct musical dialect, heavily influenced by Russian and Farsi with significant remnants of the old Classical Armenian or grabar (the Armenian equivalent of what Old Slavic is to Russian or Ukrainian or what Latin is to Italian).  The dialect is so unique that even native Armenian speakers have difficulty understanding it.  The Karabakh Armenians are known as a strongly independent mountain people and are said to be “more Armenian than Armenians.” Many prominent Armenian military figures that fought in the armies of Tsarist Russia and the USSR came from Karabakh. During World War II, a significant number were renown for their bravery in the war.

We Are Our Mountains (also known as Tatik u Papik (Grandma and Grandpa) in Armenian), a statue that is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh's identity.  It was completed by the sculptor Sargis Baghdasaryan in 1967. (Barev Armenia.com)

We Are Our Mountains (also known as Tatik u Papik (Grandma and Grandpa) in Armenian), a statue that is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh’s identity. It was completed by the sculptor Sargis Baghdasaryan in 1967 and is located near Stepanakert, the capital of the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic. (Barev Armenia.com)

The area of Nagorny Karabakh, known as “Artsakh” in Armenian, is of particular significance to Armenians historically and culturally. Historically, it formed one of the easternmost provinces of the Kingdom of Armenia.  Along with the province of Utik, Artsakh was disputed at times with the neighboring Caucasian Albanians, a Christian people, unrelated to the Albanians of the Balkans, whose core homeland encompassed significant portions of modern Azerbaijan east of the Kura River, west of the Absheron and Shirvan, and south of the Greater Caucasus range. In the Middle Ages, the Kingdom of Armenia enjoyed significant prosperity under the Bagratuni dynasty which also had a branch ruling in neighboring Georgia. This kingdom collapsed amid Armenian infighting, Byzantine opportunism, and invasions by the Seljuk Turks. It was only the province of Artsakh (today’s Nagorny Karabakh) along with the neighboring region of Syunik (today the southermost province of Armenia) that managed to maintain some level of independence and autonomy. Together, these two regions became to Armenia what Piedmont-Sardinia became to Italy. To Armenians, they became a center for national liberation and unification.

18th Century Armenian diplomat Israel Ori

18th Century Armenian diplomat Israel Ori sought the aid of Peter the Great to free Armenia and Georgia from Persian suzerainty.

By the 18th century, both regions were still governed by Armenian nobles and were under Persian suzerainty with Artsakh now known by the name of “Khachen.” The local Armenian nobility was eager to secure protection from a Christian power and thus sought aid from Imperial Russia. The diplomat Israel Ori was especially notable in this regard. A noble from Sisian in the Syunik region, Ori secured an audience with Tsar Peter the Great, in which he detailed the persecution of the Armenian and Georgian people who lived under the sphere of Persia and under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Peter, already interested in gaining access to the silk and spices of Persia, Central Asia, and India, now found an additional reason to expand Russia into the Caucasus. He readily agreed with Ori’s proposal and sent a delegation to Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church (then under Persian rule).

Davit Bek as portrayed by Hrachia Nersisyan for the 1944 Soviet Armenian feature of the same name.  The film was meant to foster patriotic feelings among Armenians during the time of the Nazi invasion of the USSR.

Davit Bek as portrayed by Hrachia Nersisyan for the 1944 Soviet Armenian feature of the same name. The film (the Armenian equivalent to Eisenstein’s Aleksandr Nevsky) was meant to foster patriotic feelings among Armenians during the time of the Nazi invasion of the USSR.

Unfortunately, Ori died in 1711 and thus was unable to see his dream realized. Yet, he nevertheless laid the groundwork for Russia’s intervention in the region. The movement for the liberation of the Caucasus from Persia continued under the Armenian Catholicos Asdvadzadur as well as the Georgian King Vakhtang VI the Scholar (whose descendent would later be Prince Pyotr Bagration, the great hero of the Napoleonic War). Having soundly defeated the Swedes in the Great Northern War in 1721, Peter finally set his sights on the Caucasus. The time seemed perfect as Persia had descended into a civil war. Vakhtang camped in Ganja (in present-day Azerbaijan) with a Georgian-Armenian force 40,000 strong awaiting Peter’s army. He hoped that the Tsar would liberate Georgia and Armenia from the Persian and Ottoman yoke. However, Peter’s Caspian and Caucasian campaigns against Persia proved disastrous and the Russian aid never arrived. Feeling threatened by Russia and taking advantage of internal turmoil in Persia, the Ottoman Empire intervened to violently attack the Georgians and Armenians for entertaining the idea of Russian aid. However, Davit Bek, an Armenian rebel leader of noble stock in the service of the Georgian court managed to hold off the Turks until his death in 1728.  In 1736, Nader Shah reasserted Persian authority over the region and reaffirmed the autonomy of the Armenian princes, who had assisted Persia in expelling the Ottomans.

Following the death of Nader Shah in 1747, the regional autonomies of Khachen and Syunik lasted until 1750 when both were incorporated by a local Muslim Khan into the neighboring Karabakh Khanate with the aid of an Armenian prince. This was a consequence of the fact that the region had since become engulfed in infighting among its different Armenian noble families. The local nomadic Turkic Muslim population (the predecessors of today’s Azerbaijanis) saw an economic connection between the lowland Karabakh area that they had known within their khanate and the highland Khachen principality. They used both areas alternatively for seasonal grazing of their sheep. The incorporation of highland Khachen into the Karabakh Khanate only reinforced this perception of economic unity with Lowland Karabakh among the Turkic nomads. Henceforth, the Armenian region of Khachen gradually became known as “Highland Karabakh” in contrast with the neighboring lowland areas located entirely within present-day Azerbaijan that had been already known as Karabakh.

Eventually, the Russians managed to secure a foothold in the region with the annexation of Georgia in 1800. Then in 1813, St. Petersburg renewed its assault on Persia, seizing Baku and the Caspian coastline and further inland, Highland Karabakh and Syunik (also known by now by the name of “Zangezur” after the area’s distinct mountain range). It was not until 1828 that Russia managed to acquire the remainder of the present-day Armenian republic with Yerevan and Etchmiadzin. Yet, the dates here are significant for Highland Karabakh remained administratively outside of the confines of the Erivan (Yerevan) guberniya (province) within the Russian Empire.

The remants of the Armenian quarter of Susha after the pogrom of March 1920.

The remnants of the Armenian quarter of Susha after the pogrom of March 1920 (US National Archives).

With the collapse of Russian power in the region following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War, the Caucasus at first attempted to unite into a single Transcaucasian Federation. This attempt at unity failed between both the external ambitions of the Ottoman Empire and internal divisions among the Caucasus peoples. The federation was dissolved and three new states emerged: Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Armenia was constantly under threat from the Ottomans who had initiated a systematic campaign of genocide against their Armenian population in 1915 in which 1.5 million Armenians perished. A large number of starving refugees from the genocide poured into the newly-independent republic and the government in Yerevan had few resources to deal with them. The new republic also faced territorial disputes. The dispute over Highland Karabakh with neighboring Azerbaijan proved especially contentious. Ethnic violence engulfed the region. A Karabakh Armenian uprising in March 1920 was violently crushed by Azerbaijani forces and an anti-Armenian pogrom ensued in the town of Shusha (also known as Shushi).

By the time of the region’s Sovietization, the area passed into provisional Azerbaijani control, though this was deeply resented by the local Armenians. Meanwhile, the Armenian Republic itself was absorbed by the Bolsheviks in 1920, with Moscow ceding some portions, including the Armenian national symbol Mount Ararat and the ruins of the historic medieval Armenian capital Ani, to now-Kemalist Turkey.  The Bolshevik presence in Armenia was met with significant resistance in Syunik.  In 1921, the Armenian mountaineers of this region fled to the highlands and launched a major revolt against Soviet rule. The situation was so intensely out of control that the Soviet military was called in to establish order.  To placate the Armenians and to subdue the rebels, the Soviets periodically promised that the region of Highland Karabakh would be incorporated into Soviet Armenia.

In the end, the Soviets managed to crush the rebellion. The highland mountaineers of Syunik fled across the border into neighboring Iran. The crushing of the rebellion literally occurred just as the Kavburo was voting to determine whether or not Highland Karabakh should become part of Soviet Armenia. Initially the delegates voted in favor of this but when the fortunes changed on the ground in Syunik, the Soviet Azerbaijani leader Narimanov managed to convince his colleagues that there was no need to make Highland Karabakh part of Armenia anymore. He further threatened Soviet leaders with a possible cessation of oil supplies from Baku. Eager to avoid this and to quickly resolve territorial issues to maintain their control in the region, the Bolsheviks acceded to Narimanov’s demand. Hence the decision was reversed and Highland Karabakh was granted to Soviet Azerbaijan provided that it be granted autonomy in order to satisfy the local Armenian population. Such a decision was never accepted by the Armenian locals who wanted to be part of Soviet Armenia.

Yerevan 1988

Yerevan 1988

Throughout the Soviet era, the Karabakh Armenians periodically petitioned Moscow for the area to be reassigned to Armenia with no success. When Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his policy of glasnost (political openness) in the late 1980s, the Karabakh Armenians seized the opportunity. Petitions, accompanied by peaceful protests in both Armenia and Karabakh, requested that the Soviet leader transfer the region to Armenia. By February 1988, the demonstrations in Yerevan had grown to as many as one million people (about one third of the Armenian population). Fists raised, the protestors shouted slogans such as “Ka-ra-bakh” and “Hay-as-stan” (the Armenian name for Armenia). In addition to Karabakh, the protests also focused on other issues as well, notably environmental concerns such as clean air and the controversial Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant. The leaders of the demonstrations were a group of individuals known as the “Karabakh Committee.” However, unlike Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Georgia, the leaders of the Karabakh Committee like Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Vazgen Manukyan, Ashot Manucharyan, Hambartsum Galtsyan, and others were not national chauvinists but liberals influenced by progressive Thaw-era Soviet values.

Memorial to the Armenian Earthquake Victims, Washington, D.C. (Panoramio)

Memorial to the Armenian Earthquake Victims, Washington, D.C. (Panoramio)

Unfortunately, the situation turned violent when anti-Armenian pogroms broke out in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. The protests in Armenia and Karabakh became even more impassioned and tension between Armenians and Azerbaijanis only continued to rise. Soon, all Armenians from Azerbaijan left for Armenia and all Azerbaijanis left Armenia for Azerbaijan. The horrible earthquake in Armenia in December 1988 only seemed to compound the crisis. Measuring a magnitude of 6.8 on the Richter scale, between 25,000 to 50,000 people died and as many as 130,000 were injured. Azerbaijan also instigated a total blockade against Armenia and Karabakh, preventing the delivery of crucial relief aid to Armenian earthquake victims. Meanwhile, Moscow’s perceived inaction on the crisis by local Armenians fueled the growth of a national secessionist movement in Armenia by 1990.

Armenian Refugees from Karabakh.  The conflict over the disputed territory displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides. (BBC World News)

Armenian Refugees from Karabakh. The conflict over the disputed territory displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides. (BBC)

By the time both Armenia and Azerbaijan achieved independence from the USSR in 1991, the conflict over Karabakh had erupted into a full-scale war. The war left tens of thousands of people dead or displaced on both sides. Though the Karabakh Armenians managed to secure their own de facto independence and a “buffer zone” of territory connecting them to Armenia proper, Turkey joined a blockade against Armenia and Karabakh. This precipitated a grave energy crisis that was only compounded by economic difficulties and a large number of IDPs from the war and the 1988 earthquake. The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan remain closed and the situation has remained very tense since. Consequently, a Russian military base in Armenia, located on the Turkish-Armenian border plays a major role as a guarantor for stability and security in the region.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

Meanwhile, exploiting its oil resources, Azerbaijan has increased its military spending in recent years and has been empowered to be even more nationalistic. President Ilham Aliyev’s controversial statements have raised serious concern in Yerevan. In speeches and messages, he has referred to Armenia as a “country of no value,” stated that “Armenians are guests in Yerevan,” and that the Karabakh Armenians should accept Azerbaijani rule or be forced to emigrate. Official Baku likewise refuses to allow individuals bearing Armenian surnames to enter their country (even if they are not citizens of Armenia) and has maintained the blockade against Armenia, preventing crucial civil society and people-to-people contacts so important to a lasting peace.

In September 2012, Aliyev declared Ramil Safarov a “National Hero.” Safarov killed a young Armenian man in his sleep with an axe during a NATO Partnership for Peace seminar. In February 2013, an Azerbaijani author, Akram Aylisli, who has called for peace and dialogue in the Karabakh dispute, was threatened by officials affiliated with Azerbaijan’s ruling political party who have called for a bounty on the author’s ear for $15,000 and who have staged public book burnings of his works. Indeed, the level of anti-Armenian sentiment prompted one popular Russian-Jewish television journalist to draw parallels between the official Azerbaijani attitude toward Armenians and that of Nazi Germany toward the Jews. All of this has only evoked painful memories among Armenians about the tragic 1915 Genocide and has only fueled greater distrust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. It also has reinforced the need for Russian security in the region.

Now with the Crimea united with Russia, many in both Armenia and Karabakh see the potential possibility for a direct reunification between their two entities in the case of a future Azerbaijani attack. The precedent of the incorporation of Crimea into Russia via a democratic plebiscite has certainly buoyed hopes in Karabakh for the region’s eventual reunification with Armenia, even if Yerevan-based analysts have emphasized that the two situations are entirely different. Meanwhile, official Baku has been noticeably quiet in the midst of all of this. What will happen next remains to be seen.

Georgia Revisited

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP/Vano Shlamov)

This past week, photographs of the late Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s body emerged in the press. According to the official investigation by the previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili, Zhvania died from a gas leak in his apartment. However, much of the Georgian public did not accept this finding. Suspicions arose when some former officials in the Saakashvili government questioned the formal explanation. The new photographs, disclosed this week on YouTube, show injuries on the former Prime Minister’s body, clear evidence of foul play. Lawmakers in Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), now in the opposition, immediately condemned the discovery as a “political act” by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

This weekend, the Georgian government ordered former President Saakashvili in for questioning. Saakashvili has refused to go, referring to the summons as an “Ivanishvili-Putin game.” He also stated the following:

As for your question, whether I will arrive in Georgia or not, I can tell you that I will arrive in Georgia not to fulfill Putin’s dream but to free my country of those who fulfill Putin’s orders. This will happen much sooner than Ivanishvili can imagine.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has stated that if Saakashvili does not arrive, that the prosecutor’s office will act in accordance with the law and declare the former President wanted. “Whether he will arrive or not is a different matter but, in my mind, he must arrive if he has any common sense left,” said Garibashvili.

Official Tbilisi has been condemned by the West for its summoning of Saakashvili. The British ambassador to Georgia, Alexandra Hall Hall, and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt both roundly criticized the move. More harsh were the words of former US Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, stating that Georgia does not deserve a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in light of the “politically motivated summoning” of Saakashvili. Estonian President Hendrik Ilves said that it would threaten Georgia’s chances of signing the EU-Georgia Association Agreement. In an inexplicable move, the summoning was also criticized by the US State Department late on Sunday, 23 March.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (RFE/RL/Mzia Saganelidze)

Regardless of what one thinks about Saakashvili’s summoning, it is extraordinary that the West is taking such a profound interest in the legal proceedings of a sovereign, independent country. This fact was underscored in Garibashvili’s response, in which he indicated that Georgia would stand firm on the issue:

I cannot understand where this hysteria is coming from. This is absolutely usual, democratic process. Similar thing is happening in the middle of Europe, as you probably know that there were questions towards former French president, I mean Chirac, Sarkozy, and also towards Berlusconi.

So it’s absolutely a normal process. Moreover, the prosecutor’s office is talking about very grave crimes. I think that we have not given any reason for suspicion, on the contrary, we reaffirm that we are guided by [the principle] of transparency and the rule of law is the most important for us. If someone tries to [demand from] Georgia to be more democratic country than France or Italy, I think this is a wrong assessment. No one should demand from us to be more Catholic than the Pope.

As for Saakhasvili, he is presently serving as an advisor to the Yatsenyuk government in Ukraine. His advisor status has been criticized by the government of Georgia and the government of Georgia’s breakaway region of Abkhazia. In Armenia, it has been lampooned on the popular satirical Armenian news program, ArmComedy (an Armenian version of The Daily Show).

Whatever the criticism from his home region, Saakashvili has certainly been relishing the role as a “seasoned advisor” in Ukraine. As one TIME reporter wrote, “the former Georgian leader is at home in Kiev, where he attended law school, served in the Soviet military and has countless political and social ties.” Indeed, Saakashvili has positioned himself as the man who “knows a thing or two about Russian invasions.” After the disastrous war in 2008, Saakashvili feels vindicated amid rising Western animosity against Russia and hysteria in the Western media over a “Russian invasion of Crimea.”

All of this is occurring as the West and Russia expand the frontlines of their geopolitical competition in the post-Soviet space to include Georgia. Most recently, there have been calls in the West for Georgia to receive an MAP at the next NATO summit at Newport, Wales in September. For its part, the EU has moved up the signing of Georgia’s Association Agreement from August to June. Meanwhile, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and his Georgian counterpart Zurab Abashidze are set to convene a meeting soon that will pave the way for a high-level diplomatic meeting between President Putin and the Georgian political leadership, the first such meeting since the 2008 war.

The stakes in this new front of the Russia-West geopolitical contest over the former Soviet space are considerably high. If the West succeeds, it will effectively drive a wedge between Russia and prospective Customs Union member Armenia. It would also give the West a continued open corridor to the vast energy reserves of post-Soviet Central Asia, posing a major threat to Russia as a European energy provider. Most significantly, it would permit the expansion of NATO squarely on Russia’s southern flank, paving the way for military bases within close range of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. Russia will never let this happen. Suddenly, there would be a new Cold War dividing line running directly through the Caucasus, one of the most volatile regions of the world.

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Alexander Grushko (RIA Novosti)

Such a scenario would be a nightmare for Russia. Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko has indicated as much, stating that “I was absolutely very clear; we are against [NATO membership for Georgia]. We believe that this is a huge mistake to do it. This is the position of my country.” He has likewise stated:

NATO is free to take any decision and Russia is free to take any decision to protect its legitimate security interest and from the beginning we were telling to all our colleagues and we were very outspoken in all our discussions that we do believe that if NATO goes with enlargement it will continue produce new dividing lines, moving dividing lines towards the Russian borders and we said very clearly also that in some cases these dividing lines will cross the countries, inside the countries and this was a very important signal.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Reuters)

Yet, regardless of the West and Russia’s competition over Georgia, the real power broker behind the future geopolitical direction of Georgia rests in the hands of Bidzina Ivanishvili. A Georgian patriot and a pragmatist, Ivanishvili is the bona fide force behind the present Georgian government, and he appears to be playing both great powers off one another in order to secure the best possible deal for Georgia. The Georgian billionaire, the son of poor Imertian peasants who made it big in Moscow by selling computers and push-button telephones, is likely well-aware of Russia’s strong disapproval of NATO expansion. As a businessman, he also knows that for Georgia to join the EU would be to join an economically sinking ship. However, as I have argued previously, he is keeping both the EU and NATO on the table as leverage in his relations with Russia.

Specifically Ivanishvili wants Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is something that only Russia, not the West, has the ability and mechanisms to resolve. Such a concession by Moscow would appeal to Georgian nationalism and would significantly diminish the perception in Georgian society of Russia as a “threat,” thus rendering any reason for future NATO membership completely moot.

Of course, Moscow would not just return these breakaway regions to Tbilisi nor would the populations of these regions simply assent to this. Rather, Moscow would need to work and promote the “reunification” of these “independent republics” to Georgia in a co-equal federal structure that would then accede to the Eurasian Customs Union. A resolution like this would ensure protection of Abkhaz and Ossetian ethnic rights by Moscow and freedom of movement between these peoples and those of the Russian North Caucasus.

Only time will tell what will happen next during this incredible roller coaster ride of the last several weeks. However, the summoning of Saakashvili by Tbilisi this weekend, and the strong Western reaction will undoubtedly affect future developments in the Caucasus. Through all of this, one thing is clear: Ivanishvili is the man who will make or break any future deal regarding Georgia’s geopolitical future. One can only hope that such a decision will be beneficial for the unity, stability, and security of the Caucasus as an entire region.

Addendum (26 March 2014): As it turns out, the Karasin-Abashidze meeting has not yet been rescheduled. I read earlier that it may have been rescheduled for this week, but this has not happened. There will be likely an official announcement on this soon. I have corrected my piece accordingly.

Further, my friend Benjamin Sweeney has informed me that Georgia has not been officially offered a NATO MAP by the US. Instead, it seems as though there has been a push by some in Washington and in Brussels to give Georgia an MAP at the upcoming NATO summit, though, this is not an official policy of the US (at least not yet). This has also been amended. Ben is a fellow-traveler in Russian and post-Soviet studies and has extensive experience with Georgia. He is an MPP student at the Ford School of Public Policy and an MA student at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (CREES) here at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

United Caucasus: An Incomplete Vision Without Russia

Ethnolinguistic map of the Caucasus

Ethnolinguistic map of the Caucasus

“No more closed borders!  No more conflicts!  A united Caucasus!” has been the mantra of many outside observers and civil society activists who have been involved with the Caucasus region since the collapse of the USSR.  This complex area, with its multitude of different ethnic groups and conflicts, badly needs unity.  However, can this be achieved without the presence of Russia?

Some activists from across the region would respond in the affirmative.  They would claim that Russia is a neo-imperial force with divisive intentions for the region.  This writer is more skeptical.  If Russia were to entirely withdraw from the Caucasus, then would the leaders of the various republics and territories come together?  If not, then who would become the outside force to help them to achieve such unity?

The United States is far too distant to become a serious player.   Turkey, with its historical legacy in the region, would not sit well with Armenia and Georgia, but may get the support of Azerbaijan.  Yet, regardless of this, Ankara already has enough domestic and foreign policy issues as it stands.  The same likewise applies to Iran.

The EU could help, but its understanding of the region’s complexities is very shallow.  Additionally, while it does offer the “European values” of human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, etc., it does not offer any sort of cultural cohesion, e.g., there is no single “European” language.  Further, the European economy is still just recovering from the 2008 Eurozone crisis.  By over-expanding itself, it runs the risk of placing serious stress on the bloc’s unity, thus threatening continental stability and peace.

Finally, independent regional integration among the three independent Caucasus states would not work as an option.  Such an effort would require overcoming mutual distrust, which these countries cannot easily accomplish without the presence of a third-party mediator.  Even if unity was achieved, Azerbaijan, as the largest of the three states in terms of demographics and area and also the richest, would likely dominate the union, thus placing Armenia and Georgia at a disadvantage geopolitically.

Mikheil Saakashvili in Kiev (Getty Images Europe/Brendan Hoffman)

Mikheil Saakashvili in Kiev (Getty Images Europe/Brendan Hoffman)

It should also be noted that in this and the other aforementioned options, the nations and peoples of the North Caucasus would not be included simply because the autonomous states of this region are part of the Russian Federation and cannot willfully join another entity on their own.  The former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, likely channeling the great medieval Georgian monarch King David the Builder, attempted to make common cause with the North Caucasus peoples in his calls for Caucasian unity.  However, the rhetoric and discourse of “Russian occupation,” “Russian aggression,” and “Russian invasion” and potential support for North Caucasus Islamic rebels failed to accomplish anything constructive with regard to regional unity.

If there is to be a sustainable and lasting Caucasus unity, it will require a common language and culture at its core.  In the current state of things, it would be impossible to select one language as being the dominant of the region without another nationality raising complaints.  Thus, a regional language or lingua franca cannot be Armenian, Georgian, or Azerbaijani.  It must be another independent language entirely.  There must also be a uniting regional culture.  Films, television programs, literature, and common cultural experiences can also bring different people close together.

A future unity must also ensure a sense of economic viability and strength.  If these countries were to join a bloc like the EU, where the economy is still in recovery mode, then they may have to implement harsh austerity measures which would threaten regional stability.  Regardless of any austerity, considering the current economic state of the EU, it is unlikely that these three countries, where poverty and unemployment remain major problems, will find “overnight” prosperity.  Instead, they need to join a supranational union wherein there are more immediate economic benefits.

Security is another important factor to unity.  The EU, the US, and any potential solo “United Caucasus” unit could not readily guarantee the region’s security, especially against the geopolitical ambitions of Turkey and Iran.  This is particularly true in the cases of Armenia and Georgia, where historical memories of Turkish and Persians invasions, attacks, and (in the Armenian case) genocide still run deep.  Only a larger outside force, with a deep sense of the region’s history, landscape, and potential benefits, can guarantee its security.

Likewise, a third party is also needed to act as a “mediator” to sort out the messy thicket of disputed regions, territories and borders.  While many blame Stalin and the Bolsheviks for being the root causes of such disputes, the truth of the matter is that the Bolsheviks had no intended “divide-and-rule” policy when drawing the region’s borders during Sovietization.  Instead, the most recent research has illustrated that their policy in the Caucasus during the 1917-22 Russian Civil War was to simply secure the region, making compromises, deals, and autonomies along the way, based more on the principle of who-controlled-what than on some sinister plot to undermine local political ambitions for independence.

In all of these cases, whether one wants to admit it or not, it is Russia that truly has all the levers to bring the Caucasus together.  In terms of culture, language, economics, and security, Moscow offers the Caucasus states optimal benefits.  To this day, it is the culture of Russia and the former Soviet Union that still looms large here. For example, during this past New Year’s, families in Yerevan, Tbilisi, and Baku all ritually tuned in to watch the Russian-language Soviet cult classic Ирония судьбы, или С легким паром! (The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Banya!), a much beloved film not just throughout the region but throughout the entire former Soviet space.

Prince Pyotr Bagration, George Dawe (1820)

Prince Pyotr Bagration, a painting by George Dawe (1820)

Socially, the peoples of the Caucasus have been highly integrated into both Russian and Soviet life. In history and politics, Prince Pyotr Bagration, Prince Valerian Madatov, Count Mikhail Loris-Melikov, Anastas Mikoyan, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Sergei Lavrov are among the most notable examples – and Joseph Stalin is perhaps the most notorious.

In culture, Russian and Soviet audiences had the pleasure of experiencing the creative work of great artists like Tengiz Abuladze, Ivan Aivazovsky, Sofiko Chiaureli, Rustam Ibragimbekov, Fazil Iskander, Kara Karayev, Aram Khachaturyan, Vakhtang Kikabidze, Frunzik Mkrtchyan, and Sergei Parajanov. And this is just the short list!  In chess, the Armenians have been especially prominent, particularly World Chess Champions Tigran Petrosyan and Garry Kasparov.

Further, it was an ethnic Georgian Soviet soldier, Meliton Kantaria, who, alongside an ethnic Russian soldier Mikhail Yegorov, famously raised the Soviet flag over the Reichstag at the end of World War II. Indeed, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev expressed such sentiments on the closeness of the Georgians specifically to Russians in a 2009 interview for the Moscow-backed English-language news service RT with Eduard Shevardnadze’s granddaughter, Sophie:

I am tired of these Georgians. I love them just like Russians. And I am glad that through all these things Russians have not gotten disappointed in Georgians and Georgians have not been disappointed in Russians. Your grandfather and I celebrated the anniversary of the Treaty of Georgievsk. It is such a big thing. There is a lot of talk about Russia enslaving Georgia. We never occupied them. And there are so many Georgians who went down in Russian history. Every time I go to and from work, I drive past the monument to Bagration, the Georgian who was a hero of the 1812 war. There is so much to remember about the relations between Russia and Georgia. And even now – do you know how many Georgians live in Russia?

The great Bagration was also depicted (rather accurately) as a brave and selfless hero in Leo Tolstoy’s sweeping epic War and Peace. In the same novel, Pierre Bezukhov saves a local Armenian girl in Moscow from marauding French soldiers.

In short, to neglect Russia’s historic role as a cultural and political mediator in the Caucasus in favor of another, less tenable geopolitical player would only serve to undermine the unity of the entire region.  Consequently, it is principally Russia that can make such the vision of a “United Caucasus” into a viable and lasting reality for the foreseeable future.

As the Ukraine Crisis Continues, Keep Georgia on Your Mind

As events in the ongoing Ukraine crisis continue to unfold at breakneck speed, another geopolitical contest between Russia and the West is currently unfolding in the Caucasus republic of Georgia.

UN Map of Georgia, 2014

UN Map of Georgia, 2014

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (Reuters)

In the 2000s, Georgia under Mikheil Saakashvili was the West’s most loyal ally in the former Soviet space. The Georgian leader curried favor with the American media and the Bush administration, while simultaneously castigating Russia and its President Vladimir Putin as the eternal enemies of democracy. He also consistently refused to engage in dialogue with the governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite major breakthroughs by his chief attaché Irakli Alasania to the breakaway regions.

Instead, according to the testimony of Paata Zakareishvili, Nino Burjanadze, and others, Saakashvili evidently favored military means to recapture these areas, underestimating Russia. He was convinced that he had full support of the Bush administration. The result was the disastrous war of 2008 which concluded with Georgia losing any foothold in the two regions and Russia recognizing them (likely in response to US recognition of the disputed region of Kosovo in Serbia). This and other scandals, including the infamous Gldani prison abuse scandal of 2012, eventually cost Saakashvili the presidency and his party’s total monopoly on power.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (RIA Novosti)

The current Georgian president is philosopher, academic, and bon vivant Giorgi Margvelashvili and the Prime Minister is Irakli Garibashvili, the second youngest national leader in the world. Both are members of the Georgian Dream coalition that came to power in Georgia in November 2012. Its patron is the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili who made his fortune in Russia and who preceded Garibashvili as Prime Minister until last year. Significantly, though Tbilisi managed to confirm the final version of its Association Agreement with the EU at the November 2013 Vilnius Summit to be signed in September 2014, it remains to be seen whether or not Georgia is entirely committed to the EU course. In an interview with Georgian television on the fifth anniversary of the 2008 war, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev invited Georgia to join the CU. Shortly after Armenia’s Serj Sargsyan announced the decision of Yerevan to join the Moscow-backed union in September, Georgia’s Ivanishvili announced that Georgia too would consider joining, provided that it be “advantageous for our country.”

While serving as Prime Minister, Ivanishvili kept the issues of the EU and NATO on the table for Georgia. As a businessman with a good knowledge of economics, he likely understands the current economic situation of the EU very well. Even more importantly, he also likely realizes that Russia strongly disapproves of the continued expansion of both the EU and especially NATO. At the same time, he also made reconciliation with Moscow a top priority. These seem like contradictory and mutually exclusive policies. However, they make sense once one realizes that Ivanishvili is likely using the pursuit of NATO and the EU as leverage in Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow.

Therefore, it is conceivable that Ivanishvili’s successors, Margvelashvili and Garibashvili, will use the EU and NATO as bargaining chips for South Ossetia and Abkhazia respectively. After the disastrous 2008 war, Russia recognized both regions as independent states, making any future reconciliation with Georgia seem virtually impossible. Yet this is probably not the last word on the situation. The present Georgian Dream coalition government has made a resolution on its breakaway regions a top priority. Among other things, the current government includes individuals like Irakli Alasania, Guram Odisharia, and Paata Zakareishvili who have strong contacts with the breakaway governments (especially with the Abkhaz) and who are devoted first and foremost to the cause of conflict resolution.

As for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both are not members of the Moscow-backed Customs Union, despite the fact that they are dependent on and closely tied to Russia. Therefore, it is possible that a future solution would involve a “grand peace” in which Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Georgia proper would all enter the CU together in some sort of federal Georgian state structure. Such a solution must have negotiated terms acceptable to all sides and must be sensitive to the ethnic concerns of the Abkhaz and the Ossetians. In this case, Moscow would accept a decision by Sukhumi and Tskhinvali to freely join a federal Georgian state in which their rights would be ensured. To quote one Russian analyst, “if Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia express the desire to unite, Russia will not meddle in their affairs.”

Vyacheslav Chirikba (Apsny Press)

Vyacheslav Chirikba (Apsny Press)

Significantly, on June 20, 2012, Abkhaz Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Chirikba signaled his openness for future talks:

We are open for dialogue. I am sure that in a circumstance where there is a different president other than Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia would have also been a different country and we would have every opportunity to come to an agreement.

We need to have a more pragmatic interlocutor like Irakli Alasania or oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili for example– someone who has just entered into politics. Ivanishvili is a businessman and is perhaps pragmatic enough to understand what kind of solution would be beneficial for everyone.

Giorgi Margvelashvili

Giorgi Margvelashvili

Though the statement was dismissed by a pro-Saakashvili MP, members of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition have nevertheless responded enthusiastically. In his inauguration speech in November, President Margvelashvili, while calling for the need of European integration and dialogue with Moscow also stated:

Our offer to our compatriots living in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region [South Ossetia] is as follows: Let us build a successful democratic country together, a country that will guarantee the welfare of all citizens, preservation of their ethnic and cultural identity, and respect for their political rights.

As President of Georgia, the ruling party and I assume responsibility for implementing this policy.

Irakli Garibashvili

Irakli Garibashvili

Then, in a very telling December 2013 interview with the Moscow-backed English-language news service RT, Sophie Shevardnadze asked Prime Minister Garibashvili whether or not Russia was ready for serious political dialogue. He responded:

I do not know. And this is exactly why our government expresses its will to hold dialogue with Russia. We have already taken that step with a view to resetting and regulating our relations. In my opinion, I truly believe that it is a heavy burden to have recognized Abkhazia and Tskhinval as independent states. And if, as a hope – I am quite optimistic about this issue – the Russian government decides one day to reset relations with Georgia by means of peaceful conflict resolution, it will be the best case scenario.

…We have all made mistakes. Let us admit that we have all made mistakes in the early 1990s, for example. There is no way only one side can be spotless and unblemished. But we take it close to heart. We are hurt because our Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers no longer live with us. Somehow I believe and I feel that sooner or later the Abkhazians and the Ossetians will be compelled to live with us. And I certainly hope that this dream too will come true.

Both Margvelashvili and Garibashvili have advocated not only a normalization of relations with Russia, but also a visa-free regime between the two countries. Russian President Putin fully endorsed this in his December 19 press conference, a move that was immediately hailed by Garibashvili. Even more telling, Putin also reached out to his Georgian colleagues with conciliatory language, placing blame for the 2008 war not on the Georgian people, but squarely on former President Mikheil Saakashvili:

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Personally my attitude has been changed towards the leadership of Georgia, but not towards the Georgian people. It is as kind and benevolent as it was previously. Even during the most difficult time, when fighting was underway in the Caucasus [reference to the August, 2008 war], relations with the Georgian people were very good. And it was confirmed even during those difficult days and hours and demonstrated in attitude of Georgians themselves towards Russia. Don’t remember if I have ever said it publicly, but in one of the towns a grandpa approached our soldiers and told him: “What do you want here? What are you looking for here? Go over there – Tbilisi and take Mishka [referring to then President Mikheil Saakashvili].”You know we had losses among our military servicemen. Aircraft was downed, a pilot ejected and landed somewhere; a Georgian babushka approached and told him: ‘Come here son’; she took him and fed him. Then he was sent towards the Russian military.

…I am not kidding, I am neither ironic, when I say that I have the kindest attitudes towards the Georgian people. We have the deepest relations both cultural and spiritual; I mean religious closeness to each other.

There are problems, which arose through no fault of ours; we did not start these hostilities [in August, 2008]. We did not start it and now it is quite obvious; everyone has already acknowledged it a long time ago. Whatever happened, happened. We said thousands of times: do not do it no matter what; do not allow bloodshed. But they did it anyway. Now there is a certain reality; we cannot neglect it. But still, we see some signals coming from the new leadership of Georgia.

Is a major Russian-Georgian reset in the offing? It certainly seems so. After the opening of the Sochi Olympics, a confident Vladimir Putin announced that regular flights would resume between Sochi and Tbilisi. More significantly, he invited Giorgi Margvelashvili to a top-level diplomatic meeting. As the Georgian President analyzed the possibilities, Prime Minister Garibashvili threw his support behind the initiative as did Georgian football superstar-turned-Minister of Energy Kakha Kaladze. Tbilisi’s Russia representative Zurab Abashidze and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gregory Karasin have already planned to hold discussions in early March leading to a subsequent high-level meeting. The installment by Moscow of barbed-wire fences around Georgia’s breakaway regions (something that had caused much controversy in Georgia) was suddenly halted. The installation was likely initiated by Moscow as a means of reminding Tbilisi that it risks losing any chance of reconciliation with its two regions if it decides to pursue the path of the EU and NATO. It is Moscow’s way of telling Tbilisi that it “speaks softly” but also carries “a big stick.”

Irakli Garibashvili and John Kerry (Civil Georgia)

Irakli Garibashvili and John Kerry (Civil Georgia)

However, considering the crisis in Ukraine, the United States has redoubled its efforts to lure ex-Soviet states into the Western fold. Last week, Prime Minister Garibashvili headed to the United States for a high-level visit. Meanwhile, likely in response, Moscow resumed its border installments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as soon as the visit began, much to the annoyance of Tbilisi.

In Washington, the young Georgian Prime Minister was in awe. He was greeted warmly by members of the US political elite including Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain, and John Kerry. All pledged unconditional support to Georgia for EU and NATO membership. According to Tbilisi’s Foreign Minister Maya Panjikidze, Obama said that “there was no-one in the building [i.e., the White House] who doesn’t support Georgia’s territorial integrity.” Kerry even promised to visit Georgia in the Spring. In the course of the visit, Garibashvili, who previously said that “NATO is not a priority for Georgia,” suddenly backed a full NATO MAP (Membership Action Plan) for Georgia.

More was to come. Yesterday, the EU’s enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle visited Tbilisi where he emphasized Brussels’ full support for Georgia’s territorial integrity. More significantly, he met with the Georgian Catholicos Ilia II. The patriarch was previously a staunch supporter of Russian President Putin. However, Füle managed to convince him that the EU would in no way interfere with the Church’s position on traditional family values. Subsequently, the patriarch released a statement saying that the Church would now do “everything to make Georgia an EU member.”  During the same visit, Füle also signed an agreement between the EU and Georgia pledging 22.5 million euros to Tbilisi.

Considering such developments, Moscow has called for the meeting between Abashidze and Karasin to be postponed until March 14. They need to think of a major counter-offer quickly. Compounding all of this is the growing imminence of Georgia signing the final version of the proposed EU Association Agreement in August or September.

Whatever happens, it is clear that Georgia is a major front in the battle between Russia and the West for control over the post-Soviet space. In this respect, Georgia is particularly significant for the Kremlin. Moscow knows that, at the end of the day, it needs Tbilisi and it wants to prevent it from joining the EU and especially NATO at all costs. The idea of NATO military bases on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus range, aimed at Chechnya and Daghestan and within close proximity to Sochi must be a major concern for Putin. Further, without Georgia, Moscow will be unable to have a direct geographic link with prospective Customs Union member Armenia. Additionally, if Armenia joins the CU without Georgia, it also means major economic and unemployment problems and even more geopolitical isolation for Yerevan. This would be a major headache for Armenia, even if it means greater security guarantees from Moscow vis-a-vis neighboring Turkey and especially Azerbaijan, both of which maintain a blockade on Armenia over the Nagorny Karabakh dispute.

In summary, the viability and legitimacy of the Customs Union in the Caucasus depends on the geopolitical fate of Georgia. If Tbilisi spurns Moscow for Washington and Brussels, then both it and Moscow stand to lose. Georgia would be unable to reconcile with Abkhazia and South Ossetia and Moscow would have NATO bases right on its southern flank. Meanwhile, Yerevan would face economic hardship resulting from all of this.  Arguably, the West too would not benefit.  If Georgia joins NATO and Armenia remains a military ally of Russia due to security concerns vis-a-vis Turkey and Azerbaijan, then there will be a new Cold War-style divide running right through the volatile Caucasus.  Nobody would gain from such a scenario.  Meanwhile, if Tbilisi goes with Moscow then all of this could be averted and the West’s expansion into former Soviet Eurasia would effectively end. In this regard, the Kremlin knows that the West has no mechanisms to resolve the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts, whereas it does and this could be its major trump card.