Arab Spring Spurs Strengthened Democratic Imperative in the South Caucasus Countries

Interview with Ghia NODIA
Former Minister of Education of Georgia, Director of International School of Caucasus Studies
Tbilisi

– In your opinion, what were the major events of the last year in the South Caucasus?

– Probably, there were no dramatically important events to be seen as turning points. Georgia observed a standstill in the internal political situation, and generally quite stable relations with the countries of the region. One could note some nervousness, heightened tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; in general, the relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan were the basis for concern. In addition, Georgian policy towards North Caucasus was regionally important. In 2011 the Georgian parliament recognized the genocide of the Circassian people that probably was quite important factor in terms of regional policy.

– Has the “Arab spring” impacted the South Caucasus? At least, the opposition in the regions quite often hinted at its replication in their respective countries…

“Arab Spring” is an Arab one in the sense that the demonstration effect of the Tunisian revolution, has spread to Arab countries, but not beyond the Arab world. It is the Arab states and their people that identify themselves with those events. Despite the differences between those countries they share some common path of development, while the South Caucasus countries are developing in a somewhat different direction, and the peoples of our countries do not identify themselves with the peoples of the Arab world. That is why there was no effect on the countries of South Caucasus, and there was no direct impact on our region. Although, in general, we may say that the Arab events give cause for reflection for all authoritarian regimes around the world.

– Last year, official Tbilisi, said that Georgia can play a mediating role in the settlement of Karabakh conflict. Is it real?

– I think Georgia cannot play a crucial role in this very complicated issue. And the problem is not lack of intermediaries, but the fact that there is not enough motivation from both sides to resolve the conflict. Of course, Georgia is seriously concerned about the increasing tension and negative trends around Karabakh. Any “hot” renewal of the conflict would be disastrous for the entire region including Georgia. And if Georgia could make at least a minimal contribution to the prevention of negative scenario, if not the solution to the conflict, this would be very important. But saying that Georgia may seriously affect the resolution of the conflict, and make parties reach an agreement seems not realistic to me.

– After the Russian-Georgian war, the period of 2008 to 2011proceeded peacefully enough. Do you think that 2012-2013 election cycles in the region, in Russia, could lead to an escalation in the conflict zones?

–  Elections may have a destabilizing influence in the countries where democracy is still not well established, or where it is too early to talk about democracy. We cannot rule out a possible destabilizing effect of the elections in certain countries, above all, perhaps, in Russia. But I do not see a high probability that the elections in any of the countries would entail a regional destabilization.

– May Moscow’s policy in South Caucasus countries change after the March presidential elections in Russia?

–  Notwithstanding the reinforcement of the protest movement in Russia, Putin still remains the favorite. And if he becomes the president again, as expected, there is no indication of possible changes in Russian foreign policy. Putin will win the election, but his regime would be weaker than before. And it is possible that he would like to compensate for this weakness inside Russia with more assertive and imperial politics outside of the country. The proof of it is the idea of ​​a Eurasian Union. But it seems to me that Russia has no new resources to change the situation in the post-Soviet space and, in particular, the South Caucasus region. I do not see a trend of increasing Russia’s influence.

– Almost all of last year was talking about a possible war in Iran. If this happens, what impact the war might have on the region?

I think that the prospect of war in Iran is the most threatening factor for the region. This is a neighboring country; Armenia and Azerbaijan have the common border with Iran. Therefore refugee streams may pour into these countries; there may be other reasons for destabilization as well. In Georgia, there is concern that Russia may use a war in Iran as a pretext for the invasion – at least in order to create a transport corridor from the Russian military base in Gyumri. I think that all countries of the South Caucasus have the grounds for serious concern.

– How dangerous is the factor of Russian military base in Gyumri  for Georgia?

– I think, to some extent, it is a time bomb, which can remain as such, or detonate in the case of destabilization in the region. One of these negative scenarios is a possible war in Iran…

–  What is behind the intensified contacts of official Tbilisi and the U.S.?Is this a message of Washington to Georgia or signals to Moscow?

– Of course, it signals both for Georgia and for Moscow, but messages with different contents. I think that in general they are signs of normalization of the situation after the 2008 war, which scared everybody, but did not lead to major changes and shifts in regional politics. There was the so-called reset of U.S.-Russian relations, which, as most experts agree, is well over. The very metaphor of the “reset” means, it cannot continue for long…

Those interests and conflicts of interest that existed before 2008 and, to some extent, led to war in 2008 are still in place. So, Georgia continues to be an ally of NATO, the European Union and the West in general, and is not going to change its foreign policy orientation. Russia is unhappy, and her hope that the 2008 war would deter the West’s attempts to expand its influence in South Caucasus, has not come true. Thus, the overall situation and the groups of interests remained pretty much the same as they had been before the war.

– Last year was notable for some stirring up of the opposition in all the countries of South Caucasus. Does the opposition have a chance to get more seats in parliamentary elections and change the political situation in their countries?

– I cannot talk about more active opposition in Georgia. Quite the contrary, before October some apathy could be seen in the opposition camp. The appearance of Bidzina Ivanishvili created certain expectations in the opposition. But I think as it can be seen in Ivanishvili’s behavior, the opposition’s hopes are doomed to failure in the sense that he is not a strong political player. Perhaps, opposition will increase its share in the Georgian parliament compared to the current situation, but  the balance of power has not yet seen fundamental changes. I cannot say that I closely watch over the political life of Azerbaijan and Armenia, but there are no signs of a radical strengthening of the opposition either.

– Last year, the theme of the possible opening of Armenian-Turkish border was discussed, President Medvedev held meetings with the Presidents Aliyev and Sargsyan on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, but no progress has been reported. Can we hope this year for a breakthrough in the conflict settlement, including the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

– Unfortunately, I see no reason for optimism. Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts are deeply frozen meaning that any progress there completely depends on the changes in Russian-Georgian relations, which gives no hope of warming. To some extent, the situation with the Karabakh conflict is even worse, as long as there is a threat of resumption of the war. I hope this will not happen, but in any case, any substantial improvement of the situation seems much unlikely.

Turkish-Armenian process gave some hope for improvement in the South Caucasus, but again, the stumbling block was the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which prevented achieving any serious progress in this direction. Nevertheless, the fact that both sides were close to reaching a specific agreement has led to some warming of relations between Turkey and Armenia. But it also had a negative impact since it created more reason for irritability in Azerbaijan. So, all in all, the atmosphere in the region has not improved. Alas, I do not see any reason for positive changes.

–  You believe that Putin’s regime in Russia will weaken. Could this be a definite push toward activization of the West in the South Caucasus?

– There will be no abrupt motions. One of the important trends since the 2008 war has been gradual intensification of the EU in South Caucasus. The EU generally moves slowly, but on the other hand, if their influence starts to spread, this will be for a long time. This trend will continue.

As for the U.S., much depends on the outcome of the presidential election. I think the improvement in Georgia – U.S. relations has already taken place, as compared to the first period of the Obama administration. It can be associated with the electoral cycle in the U.S. since Obama has been criticized by Congress for his policy towards Georgia. If Obama remains the U.S. President, it is likely that there will be no major activation of Washington; however, serious decisions on the bilateral free trade agreement and enhancing defense cooperation publicly voiced during Obama-Saakashvili’s meeting – mean a trend of the increasing U.S. influence and not vice versa.

–  Can a growing economic and financial crisis in Europe adversely impact our region?

– Undoubtedly. If the existing fears come true, the crisis in Europe and the euro zone will have serious political consequences. If the reliability of the European project is questioned, it will impact Georgia both politically and economically. Many Georgian citizens, living and working in Europe, send remittances back home, which is an important economic factor for Georgia.

If European investors have plans to invest in Georgia, then the crisis, of course, will not let their plans to be implemented. The Georgian Government, no doubt, is concerned with the events in Europe. I think, the governments of the other Caucasus countries are also closely monitoring the situation in the EU. But, I think, for Georgia the relations with Europe are of special importance in terms of country’s overall development.

– What would you call the main lesson of 2011 for the South Caucasus?

– Of course, if you take the “Arab spring”, although it did not immediately affect and probably would not affect the region, these events  rather have increased the imperative of democracy in our countries. Internal and long-term stability of states in the modern world is only possible through the development of democratic institutions. Non-democratic countries may stay relatively stable for a relatively long time. Well, a decade. But, ultimately, the long-term stability is based only on the democratic foundation.

Interview by Irakli Chikhladze

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