by Mitat Çelikpala - ASAM
2008 has been a busy and troubled year for the Caucasus. The Georgian army’s extensive military operation against South Ossetia on 8 August turned a regional disagreement into a hot conflict. The Russian intervention in Georgia almost transformed regional disagreements into a Russian-Georgian war. Russia has repeatedly warned that it would react strongly to the Georgian policies to this end; the bilateral relations between these two states have become irreparably disturbed since the coming to office of Mikheil Saakashvili. Nevertheless, the recent developments and the Russian reaction came as a shock to everyone. It was also feared that a new regional war could erupt, which could develop into a global war.
The armed conflicts that brought the two states to the verge of war appear to have stopped as a result of the cease-fire agreement signed on the EU’s initiative. Although the conflicts seem to have died down the potential for war remains. Another interesting point that is not often stressed is German Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s initiative the week prior to the start of the armed conflict. It was expected that as a result of the German Government’s efforts, Georgia would start a negotiation process with the South Ossetian and Abkhazian administrations to discuss the status of these regions. Despite this expectation, and the anticipation that as a result of Russia’s approval a solution would be found, the region was plunged into war. Even this outcome is an indication of the unpredictability of Caucasus politics; the violent conflicts ended soon after they erupted. Although exact numbers are not available, it is estimated that over 2,000 people died and more than 100,000 are refugees. Georgia’s infrastructure, which had been constructed under difficult conditions, was destroyed, and its military prestige, self-esteem and national morale were crushed. The Vaziani and Marneuli bases and the port of Poti were heavily damaged. Many roads and railways are ruined. This not only affects Georgia; economically, all the neighbouring countries and regions including Turkey are directly affected. While the BTC pipeline is out of service, the gas flow from the BTK natural gas pipeline has been cut off for security reasons. New investments in Georgia now face even more risks.
The cease-fire agreement, which resulted from the initiatives of France, the EU term president, came into effect after being signed by the leaders of Abkhazia, Ossetia, Russia and Georgia. It was expected that the six-article cease-fire agreement would help pave the way for the preparation of agreements that would carry the region into a more stable future by normalizing the process. The cease-fire agreement requires ending the use of force and all military operations, providing permission for humanitarian aid, Georgian units to withdraw to their former positions, Russian units to withdraw to their pre-conflict positions, and commencing international negotiations for the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Furthermore, it is stressed that the agreement includes an article that states Russian peacekeeping forces should patrol these regions for an undetermined period of time. This is believed to be legitimizing a Russian presence in the region. In other words, although the cease-fire agreement has ended hostilities, it is evident that Georgia’s near future will be a troubled one. Although the Western world – specifically the EU and US – considers the Russian reaction disproportional, it could be said that Russia has, for now, the upper hand in the Caucasus.
The role of Turkey, which has been dealing with domestic issues recently, should be focused on. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s view that Turkey is ‘a country that offers solutions to problems in its neighbouring regions’ – which was stressed during his speech at the Mediterranean Union Summit – and how it potentially contributes to the resolution of problems in the Caucasus should be carefully analyzed. Similarly, it is important that the constructive role Turkey plays in its neighbouring regions is stressed at the Ambassadors’ Summit. Indeed, Turkey’s position on the recent developments is particularly striking considering Turkey’s special relations with Russia and Georgia. With Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s visits to Moscow and Tbilisi, inviting the parties to normalize their relations, Turkey has demonstrated its close attention to such developments. Turkey’s alternative to establishing stability in the Caucasus is the formation of a regional stability pact. Such an initiative is expected to contribute to regional peace and stability by improving economic relations. Formation of a platform and its transition to a structure that provides peace and stability is dependent on the constructive attitudes of the regional states. Considering Turkey is part of certain regional problems in the Caucasus, their resolution will clearly be of direct benefit to Turkey – particularly resolution of the problems between Turkey and Armenia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the issues concerning Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia/South Ossetia (Russia and Georgia). This article will examine the general situation in the Caucasus within the context of global relations. In light of this picture and the latest developments, Turkey’s position and effects on and contributions to potential developments will also be examined. This will enable us to understand the course of regional conflicts and Turkey’s position in the Caucasus and its future.
The Caucasus states, which had felt excluded and disregarded until the 2000s, entered a new era when they became neighbours of the EU and NATO. The Caucasus became a zone of conflict when Russia, which had been economically revitalized with the help of rising natural gas and oil prices, began to perceive these developments as threats and engaged in political struggle. Russia’s borders on the Caucasus are now also the borders of the EU and NATO. In short, the whole world is closely following the developments in the Caucasus, and common solutions are being sought for the regional problems. The connection between the interests of parties and the solutions to problems has given the struggle for a balance of power a new global dimension.
Since their independence, the Caucasian republics have tried to form reliable and sustainable state structures that prioritize the protection of this independence. Although during this process, states have digressed from their course on occasion in response to developments and expectations, it was evident that they sought to form original policies. While Georgia, from the beginning, perceived Russia as a threat to its national existence and sought to become part of the Western world and its institutions, Armenia forged a full alliance with Russia to protect its security and territorial integrity. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has preferred to pursue a more balanced policy, reflecting its wealth of natural resources and the diversity of its problems. The common elements these countries share are fragile economic, political and social structures. Georgia’s ethnic composition and the struggles between these ethnic groups had a destructive effect on the Georgian state throughout the 1990s, weakening it and causing it to become a state that cannot protect its territorial integrity – as seen in the examples of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Because the governments have preferred to employ nationalist, militaristic and violent methods to resolve problems, the situation has reached a dead end. It is now unrealistic to expect Abkhazia to accept Georgian administrative/political/territorial sovereignty in any way. Similarly, the positions of Azerbaijan and Armenia, which are fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh issue, have made for a difficult process. Armenia occupies more than 20 per cent of Azerbaijan’s territory, excluding Nagorno-Karabakh. International isolation and domestic instability has put Armenia into a difficult corner. Meanwhile, everyone tries to avoid getting involved in the Karabakh issue. What kind of political future and change in regional balances will result from Azerbaijan’s recently accumulated wealth – the outcome of integration with the West – has become one of the most important items on the international community’s agenda. The possible military and political balance that could arise after the elections is being analyzed in the anticipation of war.
In this context, the main factor determining regional countries’ positions and policies is essentially global processes. It is evident that fundamental change has occurred in the perception and policies of the transatlantic world – primarily the EU and NATO – of and towards the region. The new target of these organizations, which are about to complete the process of political integration with Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, is the Caucasus. Both institutions have appointed Caucasus special representatives, made certain projections defining the Caucasus as a special region in their policy documents, and have been preparing documents for Caucasus policy initiatives since the 2000s. The regional states are being pressured to transform into democratic, liberal countries respecting the rule of law and human rights. It could be said that the EU and its member states seek to continue this process slowly, with a balanced and feasible vision. It could also be argued that such a process ensures the Caucasus states do not become uneasy and that Russia does not perceive the steps as direct threats to its existence. The special relationships between certain EU members and Russia enable the EU to act as an acceptable problem-solver in the Caucasus.
The US obviously plays an active role in this struggle and is perceived as the global hegemon trying to infiltrate the region. The recent struggle around the Black Sea region has now reached Georgia, having moved from Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria and Romania, one by one. Poland and the Czech Republic could be added to this list, since the clash over the missile shield has led to the perception of an encirclement policy. The commencement of negotiations between the USA and Poland following the armed conflicts in South Ossetia, Ukraine’s attitude towards the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, and the accelerated implementation of the encirclement policy all raise expectations of a tougher Russian reaction. This situation will occasionally put Turkey, which controls the Straits (the gates to the Black Sea), in a difficult position.
In this context, it could be argued that the struggle for global hegemony has turned the Caucasus into a ‘war zone’. It is apparent that the USA is gradually directing its resources away from Europe towards the Middle East, the Caucasus and its neighbouring regions. It is evident that, together with the agreements made with the Czech Republic and Poland and the missile defence system, this is all part of the Russian encirclement policy. It is understood that Russia, which is incapable of preventing this encirclement, wants to play a Caucasian-centred game. It must be stressed that the USA wants to launch a new initiative that will boost its effectiveness, by placing Georgia at the centre of its policies. Within this framework, Washington’s priority is finding a solution to the frozen conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia that would serve its own interests.
On the other side of the struggle for the Caucasus is Russia, and its perspective is arguably the product of a geopolitical-geostrategic approach. It is obvious that the transatlantic world’s process of expansion is not in Russia’s interests and perceived by Russia as a threat. The new Russian vision is one of domestic order, growth, international acceptance, respect and legitimacy. In order to meet these expectations Russia conveys the message that it can cooperate regionally – in the Caucasus for example – with Western actors, and the US initially, by employing various diplomatic and political methods. The ‘Strategy for Development to 2020’, which was formed by Putin and adopted by new President Dmitry Medvedev, defines Russia as a global actor. ‘Strong Economy, Strong Society, Strong Leadership and Strong Government’ are the pillars of this strategy. In this context, it aims to make Russia the world’s fifth largest economy by utilizing its resources – especially its energy supplies. Preserving the social status of the middle classes, which form the majority of the population, and achieving permanent political stability is part of this strategy. The multi-party political life dominated by the governing party, the strong state institutions and strong army are considered the driving forces of this process. When the last five years of Russia are examined, it can be said that this political vision has been put into practice. The goal is for Russia to become the main determinant of regional and global developments. Indeed, there are many reasons to believe efforts to reach this target continue steadily: the increasing levels of criticism levelled at the Western world – the centre of which is the US – since Putin’s speech at the Munich Conference in February 2007, the decision to unilaterally suspend the European Conventional Forces Treaty (ECFT) on 12 December 2007, the initiatives to create special spheres of influence around the Black Sea and the Caspian region, the efforts to re-establish at a new level relations with such Middle Eastern countries as Iran and Syria, and the proposed alternative solution to the problems in Kosovo and Abkhazia. Considering the recent developments related to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Caucasus appears to be the new conflict zone for this struggle.
Frozen conflicts underlie the new ‘cold war’ going on in the Caucasus. The Western-oriented perception of the situation is that while Russia works to provoke these crises to serve its own interests, the US, EU and their institutions work to solve them. However, when the end result is analyzed it is evident that all parties are trying to manipulate the crises to their own advantage. When the recent developments are examined, it is apparent that the struggle for balance takes shape around Abkhazia and the Abkhazian problem. The parties are taking tactical, strategic steps to ensure the crises reemerge or are resolved as suits their purposes. South Ossetia could be considered Georgia’s test case for Abkhazia. Russia’s reaction and response to Georgia have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of such experiments. The struggle has advanced to a global level, and whether it will play out to the Western world’s advantage and Russia’s disadvantage, as in the previous cases of Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, is an important question; the Caucasus is not in Europe, nor are the Caucasian states Balkan or Eastern European. Russia’s presence and its activities in the region, which it considers its ‘neighbourhood’, differ from Europe’s. It could be argued that the EU cease-fire agreement confirms this, and has perhaps even prompted the start of a new period, one in which new states and borders will be established in the Caucasus.
The breakdown of relations between Russia and Georgia and the irreconcilability that will result from the destructive war, carries the potential to not only adversely affect Turkey’s economic and political projects, such as the BSEC, BTC pipeline and BTK railroad, but also bring an end to Black Sea-centred regional security initiatives such as the BLACKSEAFOR and Black Sea Harmony. The collapse of these regional projects, which are the products of lengthy and problematic efforts, would lead to unwanted developments and outcomes for Turkey.
It will be remembered that until the mid-1990s, Georgia had not occupied an important place in Turkey’s Caucasus and Central Asia policies. However, it took centre stage when relations with Armenia deteriorated, Iran was isolated from international relations and competition with Russia began. Georgia has been given a major role in Turkey’s energy projects, such as the BTC and BTK oil and natural gas pipelines, and transportation projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railroad. Since the beginning of Saakashvili’s term, Turkey has actively contributed, together with the US, to many civilian, military, social and economic projects to assist Georgia’s development. The most important result of these investments and initiatives is that economically, Turkey has become Georgia’s primary partner. Indeed, Georgia is the only country among the former Soviet states to surpass Russia in its level of economic relations with Turkey. Although the figures are not high in absolute terms, this has symbolic and political importance. Moreover, the Turkish level of investment puts Turkey at the top of Georgia’s list of foreign direct investors. Through Georgia, Turkey is building a very important network.
It could be argued that the latest developments will damage Turkey and Turkey’s Caucasus and Central Asia policies as much as it did Georgia. In addition to the economic problems, Turkey’s political course of action/vision and infrastructure, which have been developed over the last decade with huge effort and occasionally ambiguously, are under threat of collapse. Turkey’s connection with Azerbaijan and Central Asia is weakening and there is a possibility that its policy to form a secure line might collapse. Georgia’s instability and civil war is more of a threat to Turkey than a Georgia without territorial integrity. Georgia-centred instability and disorder will force Turkey to choose between different alternatives, though clearly there are few to choose from. The possibility of diversifying relations with Iran is seriously limited by the US, and to a certain extent by Iran’s policy choices and attitudes. The only alternative that remains is Armenia. The acceleration of secret and indirect negotiations with Armenia to overcome the problems and progress the resolution of problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan could be expected. The Armenian Diaspora and relations with Russia will be the major roadblocks in this process. In this context, the policies towards Azerbaijan will be another restriction.
** This article was first published in Stratejik Analiz September 2008 issue in Turkish and translated by ASAM for the Foreign Policy Analysis section of ASAM’s web site.
- The Latest Developments in the Caucasus, the Struggle for Global Hegemony and Turkey - By Mitat Çelikpala - ASAM