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The South Caucasus: are the Оpportunities Мissed?

By Saro SAROYAN
Expert of the Armenian Center
for Strategic and National Studies
Yerevan

The judgements about the missed opportunities, first of all, of the South Caucasus may seem not so important from the view of the situation in the region and the peaceful co-existence of the three states. And the point is not just in the fact that the subjective mood is unacceptable in politics, but also on the way of comprehension of the historical experience of the nations and states.

This formula in individual cases, when you mean the political processes that have been fermented in the transit societies, may lose its significance (as in the discussed case). Thus, against the background of the general regional developments and for the sake of the peaceful co-existence of the South Caucasian states, it is very important to consider the opportunities that have been lost in the past, but still are unfulfilled priorities of the political elites of the region.

In the end of 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR three South Caucasian states obtained independence along with the other republics. The appropriate display of the will of the populations, aimed at state building, and especially the favorable international situation became the guarantees that secured the filling of the vacuum, created after the collapse of the Soviet empire, by their own military and political elements and not any foreign forces. But the ethno-political diversity of the Caucasus, as well as the set of tools that some time ago guaranteed the dependence of the region from the former metropolia, hampered the smooth pace of the process. The Caucasus burnt out by the Armenian-Azerbaijani, Georgian-Abkhazian, Georgian-Ossetian, Azerbaijani-Talysh sovereign-territorial conflicts.

In 1994, with the freezing of the last and most bloody confrontation – the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, the South Caucasus has got the opportunity to be occupied with the state-building for almost 15 years.  However, the interests of the neighboring powers, the lack of comprehension of the integration priorities by the elites of societies of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan and the disuse of them, prevailing the national tasks over the state goals and other circumstances have pushed the region to strengthening of the division lines within itself.

The Republic of Armenia has held a number of falsified elections during these 15 years; oligopolies and an oligarchic state system have been emerged there. As a result the people witnessed the shooting of members of Parliament and Government (on October 27, 1999) and the civil society (on March 1, 2008.)  The hot political developments and aggravation of the social-economical situation in the recent years have led to the urgency of the democratization and settlement of the public relations in Armenia.

The Azerbaijan Republic, unlike Armenia, has chosen the Middle Eastern model of state-building: a sultanate. The launching of new communications projects, oil revenues and the radical rhetoric related to the Karabakh issue have allowed to the Aliyev clan to divert the attention of the society from the urgent problems and build an authoritarian, corrupt  state that is not governed by the rule of law at all. In the recent years some shift have been noticed in the stagnant social relations in Azerbaijan as well, which may be supportive to integration and democratization of the South Caucasian states.

The path of the state-building in Georgia has not been smooth either. The available internal unsettled conflicts, the fiasco of the economical policy, the mess in the social-economic sphere, the problems in the relations among the autonomous entities and various ethnic groups had kept Georgia in the permanent tension.  But after the Rose Revolution of 2003 Georgia, unlike Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been succeeded in the combat against corruption and building a social state, governed by the rule of law.

The Russian-Georgian war of 2008 has become an important signal for the political elites of the South Caucasus, urging to think about more serious external challenges for the region (than the unsettled Caucasian conflicts and historical disputes) and the security systems, capable to withstand them. At the same time the globally spreading financial-economic crisis, the rising costs of food, the “warnings” of the Arab spring about the social justice and human rights protection have forced many people to conclude that the wellbeing, security and peaceful future of the region is conditional on the stimulation of integration processes.

The importance of some solvable top priorities is marked for continuation of the South Caucasian countries, which have not been implemented so far and are still missed opportunities now. The first is the fact that the borders are closed. The opening of the Armenian-Turkish, Armenian-Azerbaijani and Russian-Georgian borders might most of all  contribute   to the development of  the regional trade, stimulation of  humanitarian ties, establishment of  public tolerance, improvement of  the common social-economic and political environment in the South Caucasus.

The next task might be the implementation of the regional transport and energy projects not in accordance with the political, but rather the physical-geographic reasonability. From this point of view the communications, laid in the Soviet times, might have got a huge economic potential in case of their reconstruction and operation. In particular, the border line rail-road junctions of Gyumri and Julfa, the section between Idjevan and Kazakh and the destroyed bridge of the Inguri River on the Georgian-Abkhazian border might have been the main warrant of the integration of the Caucasian republics.

Besides using the already laid railroads, new communication projects also might serve to the removal of the division walls in the South Caucasus and development of the region, unless the economic interests would not have been subdued to the political purposes. Among the energy projects, which have been implemented in the recent decade, only the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzrum gas pipe-line is spoken about as economically reasonable. Unlike this project, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan works under-loaded and with substantial losses. To say nothing of the economical efficiency of the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline, this has been laid solely to satisfy the needs of Armenia. Experts are also sceptical about the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars, now under construction, and the new pipeline, named the Southern gas corridor.

The opportunities that have been formerly “missed” in the “settlement” of the Caucasian conflicts are a reflection of the other philosophy. The essence of this philosophy requires from the political elites and societies of the South Caucasus, who have found themselves in the epicenter of the collided geopolitical interests and suffering from intolerance, to focus their attention on freezing the situation and the strategy of encouraging the economic, cultural inter-relations, but not on the search of the new ways or principles of the settlement of the conflicts. The experience of the contacts between societies, which has been accumulated for almost  a hundred year old history of the Karabakh problem, can become a corner-stone that might force the parties concerned putting away the mechanisms of settlement of the Caucasian problems for a distant future and concentrate the efforts on the implementation of the mutually beneficial economic projects in the region.

The formerly missed opportunities have never been so applicable now. The projects, aimed at integration of the Caucasus, are always on the foreground in the relations of the European Union with the South Caucasian states. Unfortunately the West sees the following truth better than our region itself, that the South Caucasus can preserve its role and weight in the Middle East, avoiding to fall into the “whirlpool” of the Russian, Turkish and Iranian policies and becoming a serious factor only in case if it starts    acting with the right of a common voice, representing all three republics. The solution of this problem requires the following: the long-term Russian-Armenian and Turkish-Georgian integration processes should be substituted for all-Caucasian integration projects, taking into account the interests of all entities of the South Caucasus.