By Richard GIRAGOSIAN
Director of Regional Studies Center (RSC)
The region of the South Caucasus has long served as an arena for competing regional powers and, for much of the past two centuries, has been hostage to the competing interests of much larger regional powers, as neighboring Russia, Turkey and Iran have jockeyed for power and influence.
And those very same historic powers — Russia, Turkey and Iran – continue to exert influence today as the dominant actors in the region. This competition continued in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but has only intensified with the onset of new challenges and recent crises. But for much of 2011, the combination of historical legacies and current realities has constituted a rapid shift in regional security. This shift in security incorporates not only several general elements, ranging from the threat of war from Azerbaijan, conflict between the West and Iran, and the constraints from unresolved or “frozen” conflicts, but also including a recent resurgence in tension between Russia and the West.
Against the backdrop of a dynamic shift in security over 2011, the three states of the South Caucasus region continue to face a difficult course of economic and political reform, systemic transition and nation building. The region also continues to struggle in overcoming the legacy of constraints and challenges stemming from seven decades of Soviet rule. Given this regional reality, each state has pursued a different course, with Armenia backed by its sizable diaspora, yet remaining firmly rooted in the Russian orbit, and Azerbaijan leveraging both its Caspian energy resources and its historic ties to Turkey. For Georgia, the legacy of instability from a destructive civil war in the 1990s and the loss of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have prompted Georgia’s strategic reorientation, based on exploiting its role as a key “transit state,” offering its territory and Black Sea ports as crucial links in the regional energy chain, providing Azerbaijan with a strategic link to both the Black Sea and to Turkey, and as a frontline Western ally.
Looking back at the past year of 2011, there have been several notable, broader and dynamic trends that have also impacted the South Caucasus. The first of these trends to emerge in 2011, was the obvious danger of the “frozen” Nagorno Karabagh conflict moving rapidly to an open “hot” conflict, as Azerbaijan seems increasingly intent on escalating tension and leveraging the use of limited military attacks to pressure the international community over its frustration at the lack of any real progress in the peace process and for what it sees as a betrayal by Turkey in the wake of Armenian-Turkish diplomatic engagement. Another looming challenge consists of the approaching cycle of elections and political change in the region, as both Armenia and Georgia are preparing to usher in elections for parliament and president in 2012 and 2013. This political transition is compounded by both lingering questions of legitimacy and continued economic instability.
Another broader shift in the regional geopolitical landscape can be seen in the changing nature of Western engagement. More specifically, both the United States and the European Union have instituted significant modifications to their strategic view of the South Caucasus, with a corresponding change in the scale and scope of their engagement in the region. For the US, the South Caucasus returned to its more traditional role as a strategic subset of broader U.S.-Russian relations, mainly for two reasons. First, the Georgian war and its subsequent tension between Washington and Moscow tended to reinforce the view that the South Caucasus could not be treated as a region separate from the U.S. relationship with Russia.
This view inherently downgraded the region in terms of strategic significance and implied recognition of the more important calculus of a tradeoff between accommodating a reassertive Russia with the geopolitical necessity of securing Russian cooperation over U.S. needs in Afghanistan and Iran. In terms of Washington’s “reset” of its bilateral relationship with Russia, this meant a veiled acceptance of Russian interests in the “near abroad,” thereby reinforcing Moscow’s view of the region as a “sphere of interest.” This also translated into a US approach that sidelined Georgia as an issue that Washington and Moscow would “agree to disagree,” but that allowed both sides to move beyond the Georgia issue as an obstacle to broader and more strategic interests. Interestingly, this resulted in a shift from the previous decade, as the priority for secure energy pipelines and transit routes were replaced by a new need for transit routes and access through air corridors as the strategic imperative for the United States. The overall result of this shift in US policy was more of a strategic withdrawal from the region, however, with much less of a lead role for Washington in terms of being actively engaged in more local interests while focusing on broader strategic imperatives.
At the same time as this shift in US policy triggered a pullback from active and direct regional engagement, the European Union was faced with both a new opportunity and a pressing demand for greater, not less engagement in the South Caucasus. After a difficult and trying test of its capabilities, it was, after all, European engagement in the Georgian war that resulted in a ceasefire. Although much of the diplomatic initiative was led by France, rather than the EU institutionally, the perception of effective European mediation marked an important test for the EU as a whole. In order to sustain the success of greater engagement in the region, however, the EU needs to overcome the seemingly contradictory nature of EU strategy, as several leading EU member states have each tended to follow their own competing and, at times, diverging national policies. Such divergence is most clearly evident in relations with Russia and over energy policy. Yet the EU holds an inherent advantage from both its EU Action Plans and from its Eastern Partnership, which have each contributed to a steady accumulation of political capital in the region.
Nevertheless, the future of EU engagement in the region largely depends on the EU itself, which has already reached a crossroads, with a choice between the comfort of competing national policies and the challenge of forging a common policy for strategic engagement. And there is still a sense of optimism that the EU will live up to its expectations for deeper engagement in the region, as it is no longer possible to ignore or downplay the imperative for the EU to assume a lead role in fostering greater security and stability in the South Caucasus, which remains very much a “region at risk.” Consequently, looking back at the “lessons” form 2011, it is clear that the leaders of each of the states of the region, and including Nagorno Karabagh, themselves now hold the key to their future. And while there is a need to prevent regional isolation, with engagement an obvious imperative, real stability and security depends on legitimacy, and on local economics and politics, and much less on grand geopolitics.