An interview with Georgy KHUTSISHVILI, Director of International Center on Conflict and Negotiation (ICCN).
– The regions of Middle East and South Caucasus deserve to be considered “hot.” What are their differences and resemblances?
– Yes, they are certainly hot, unstable regions, but they differ from each other very much. The South Caucasus establishes its new post-Soviet identity, and this process is going forward more or less successfully, specific to each country. All three countries in the South Caucasus are well-established states, but with serious problems with their territorial integrity (I mean, Georgia and Azerbaijan). In addition, our countries are trying to find trans-regional ties that might bring them some stability, economic growth, etc., in the future. That is why the South Caucasus has already been considered within the Black Sea region format. In this case it is difficult to insert Azerbaijan into this format, but, anyway, there cannot be an obstacle to perceive it within the frameworks of the Black Sea region; I mean the frames of some more enlarged view of the South Caucasus. Turkey also identifies itself as a Caucasian country, having serious reasons to speak about the integration into the enlarged region of Caucasus. As for Iran, this country is more connected with the Middle Eastern regional structure than with the South Caucasus. So in this sense, the South Caucasus is half-way between Iran and the Middle East. And in this case, if a military operation is launched against Iran, our region will be engaged into it very painfully.
– The U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro recently said that his country has completed elaborating the plan of striking the Iranian nuclear sites and is ready to implement it…
– I have taken part in the radio-bridge, where Russian expert Pavel Felgengauer made another prediction about the start of a war in Iran. Hopefully, his prediction will not come true; otherwise, it will be a real disaster. Not only Felgengauer, but some other experts also think that in case of the war in Iran, Russia may get a corridor through the Georgian territory. Corridors can be laid through the territory of Armenia and Azerbaijan as well; some goods, first of all, military ones, may be transported from the north to the south, which could cause reciprocal terrorist acts in our countries. And the South-Caucasus countries will not be able to do anything against, as far as the interests of superpowers will cross each other here. However, I think the situation will not be escalated so far.
– In another Middle East country, Syria, there is a long and bloody confrontation between the authorities and the opposition. The opposition forces in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia have already predicted the “Arab spring” for their governments quite a long time ago. How real is the Syrian scenario in the South Caucasus countries?
– “The Arab spring” is a somewhat different phenomenon, but, naturally, the regional influence exists, and we even can speak about the influence of the “Arab spring” on the processes, currently going on in Russia.
The situation in Syria is very tense, but the international community does not properly react to the repressive regime of President Bashar al-Asad, and it fails to effectively impact the regime. As a result, tragic events are developing in Syria, and no-one knows yet when they will end.
In Georgia, the situation is ultimately determined by local processes, the parliamentarian elections are coming, so the public activity mainly is concentrated around them.
Coming to Azerbaijan and Armenia, the situation there is very tense due to the unresolved Karabakh conflict, and no-one rules out that it might get out of control. I think that there may be serious consequences related to the Karabakh conflict for our region, if the Iranian operation starts.
– Do you think that the hostilities in Nagorno Karabakh can start simultaneously with the events in Iran?
– No, but the Iranian events will have their own impact on the situation. I mean that some derivations can grow from the Iranian problem and produce new dynamics for the Karabakh process. I do not think that a war is probable in this case. Just the contrary, facing the serious military problem in the immediate neighborhood, the superpowers will do their best not to let the Caucasian countries start solving their international or internal conflicts using such an “opportunity” as a cover. It will be fully forbidden, as far as you will have to implement all your obligations within just the coalition, which you will support.
– Can we say in this case that the war in Iran will be a specific guarantee for peace in the South Caucasus?
– The West is not interested in facing any surprises, and with Russia’s consent, it will demand appropriate guarantees from the Caucasus states. Most probably, the United States will make joint decisions with Russia, and the countries of our region will have to adjust their actions accordingly. I think that the situation in case with Iran will develop like this. But it is difficult to predict how really the events will develop, and in case of the crisis, it will be hard to keep yourself within concrete frameworks. As for the Karabakh conflict, it can get out of control in case of the Iranian operation. There is a danger that the situation in the Caucasus may be fully destabilized. That is why my strongest desire is that the military operation against Iran does not start.
– Will the escalation of the situation in Iran and Syria cause a mass exodus of refugees to the South Caucasus countries? For example, several dozens of makhajir-refugees from Syria have already settled in Abkhazia…
– Nearly 18 million Azerbaijanis live in Iran, and according to some experts, in case of the war in Iran, their mass exodus to Azerbaijan can be expected. Then Baku will face a problem, accepting a huge number of refugees. As for the return of makhajirs to Abkhazia, I think, it will be limited.
I remember how the Abkhazian authorities tried to stimulate a mass repatriation of Turkish Abkhazians, to resettle them and improve the demographic situation in Abkhazia. But it did not work. First, the incomers immediately compared the conditions of life and business environment in Abkhazia and Turkey, which was not in favor of Sukhumi at all. The difference of mentalities was the second reason.
– Israel signed a contract with Azerbaijan to sell arms for 1.6 billion US Dollars. Israel’s activity is also visible in Georgia. Does this fact mean that Tel-Aviv intends using the territory of the South Caucasus in its confrontation with Iran one way or another?
– As if we have normal relations and Israel was concerned with having the South Caucasus countries as its partners and allies here. However, our very countries do not take any serious steps in that direction in response. For example, there have been some facts from the part of Georgia that made Tel-Aviv be more careful regarding its relations with Tbilisi. Almost whole Israeli leadership, even President Shimon Peres, were engaged into the talks on releasing businessmen Fuks and Frenkel, arrested in Georgia. It is difficult to understand why Tbilisi made the matter so complicated?
In addition, development of relations with Iran by Georgia was taken as a specific signal to Israel. So we see that, on the one hand, Tbilisi is a strategic ally of the United States, a partner country of Israel, and on the other hand, it is getting closer to Iran.
Answering to your question, I can say that the partnership with Israel does not develop any way in the South Caucasus. Georgia’s intentions to develop relations with Iran are apparent, despite the tensions in the U.S.-Iranian relations. And all this is going on while an international coalition, headed by the United States, and is created, trying to impact Iran regarding its nuclear program.
– What is your forecast for development of the situation in the countries of the South Caucasus and Middle East?
– I think that much depends on the presidential elections in the United States and Georgia. The elections in the U.S. will have a global impact on the situation in both regions. The elections in Georgia will have a regional impact. If the ruling party of Georgia again gets a constitutional majority in the parliament, it will be the last drop for the Georgian society, which will cease hoping that people are able, as in any other normal country, achieve changes constitutional way. The current situation is not normal at all. The pluralism of opinions in the society is much wider than the forces, represented in the parliament. So the situation requires that parliament adequately reflects the moods in society. As for our parliament, it is just a tribune for one ruling party, which, unfortunately, resembles the Soviet times.
People really expect political changes in Georgia as a result of elections. If it does not happen, the protest movement will develop, now after the elections.
Interview by Irakly Chikhladze