Vali Kaleji

How to Minimize the Conflict Potential in the South Caucasus?

Date of publication : May 24, 2016 19:24 pm
US servicemen take part in the Noble Partner 2016 joint military exercise at the Vaziani training area outside Tbilisi on May 24, 2016.

The collapse of the Soviet Union at late 20th century was one of the most important events in the international political history since the Westphalia Peace Treaty, when the first pillars of the international system were formed. The event resulted in a systemic transformation of the international structure and put power distribution and the rules of interactions among the units in the "turbulent world", subject to radical changes. Here, one of the most important manifestations of this systemic change emerged at a regional level and various regions of the world had a chance to develop after rising out of the Cold War great rivalries' dark shadow. The emergence and influence of regions subsequent to the Cold War, was dual-faced. On the one hand, it resulted in redefinition and/or forming of new regional organizations, and on the other, it led to the outbreak of several conflicts and wars among actors of different regions, lacking any possibility for dynamism and readiness for confrontation.
Among various regions of the post-Cold War world, the Caucasus accounts for one the most unstable regions in which this Janus-faced situation is vividly see, although cooperation dimension has always been overwhelmed by rivalry and conflict in the region. Geopolitical circumstances, several ethnic and identity challenges among various peoples, secessionist inclinations, imposed demarcations left from the USSR era, rivalries among regional and trans-regional powers and many and bloody wars during the last two decades (the Georgian civil wars in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Azerbaijan-Armenia war over Nagorno-Karabakh, two Chechen wars and Russia-Georgia military conflict in 2008) turned this region, from security point of view, into one of the most unstable regions in the post-Cold War world.
How to Minimize the Conflict Potential? - Connecting Three Levels
Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, the famous French politician, has been quoted as saying during the Versailles Peace Conference that, "Yes, we have won the war and not without difficulty; but now we are going to have to win the peace, and that will perhaps be even more difficult." The important question is, as put by Clemenceau, how we can help to establish peace in the Caucasus or, at least, reduce the conflicts, after two decades of war and instability? Presenting any model for a regional security system, formulation of peace and reconciliation plans, and establishment of a sustainable security system for the entire region would not be possible without an attention to multidimensional nature of regional security as well as the interests and goals of sub-national and national players, peripheral countries and great powers, influential in the region. The bitter experience of the past and failure to establish a sustainable security regime in the South Caucasus during the past two decades despite all the endeavors, which have been made to this effect, attest to this fact. All these developments lead to a main question: What would be the future security outlook for the Caucasus region? In which way, can the process of securitizing various issues in South Caucasus be replaced with a non-security approach, and how necessary grounds for the establishment of sustainable peace and stability and a comprehensive security regime in this region can be provided? In view of the experiences of the past two decades, non-practical and idealistic approaches to ending crisis in the region should be avoided. Therefore, in order to achieve its large-scale and ideal goals, the South Caucasus states need to take practical steps and create necessary grounds to gradually change the existing political and security conditions and pave the way for more changes in traditional patterns of friendship and hostility as well as the regional power balance. Therefore, I believe that this goal can be achieved at three domestic, regional and international levels and I will try to explain various dimensions and characteristics of every one of these levels.
I) Domestic Level: Democratization and Applying Diversity-Within-Unity (Dwu) Model to Management of Ethnic Issues
Everybody knows what democracy is. But what is democratization? It refers to the process of making the state "democratic." This process applies to states in transition, and in particular to the states of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in this context – which are on their way to becoming democratic societies. The process of democratization in these states can be described by the cyclic model of democratic transition, which is mostly typical for developing countries in which authorities display a positive attitude towards democracy. Democratization is not an easy process, and it becomes more difficult because for many years Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were integral parts of the Soviet Union, which rejected any kind of democratic development. Now these states are trying to develop democratic institutions within their countries, and the European community tries to help them to become democratic because all three countries are now members of the European structures, and parts of the Eastern Partnership Program launched by the European Union. The involvement of these countries in various programs offered by the EU implies democratic development, private enterprise, and the promotion of human rights in their societies. However, Freedom House reports show that the process is moving slowly.
In this regard, the first step toward establishment of peace and stability in the South Caucasus is to rectify the approach taken by regional states to political development and the process of democratization. Holding free and fair elections, regular and peaceful rotation of power, recognizing the opposition forces, bolstering the civil society, accountability of government before the society, freedom of political parties, and establishment of a powerful legislature and independent judiciary will help these societies to move from their weak and unstable positions to a more stable situation.
In the meantime, in view of multiethnic and multicultural nature of societies in the South Caucasus, a close relationship seems to exist between political and democratic development and application of correct ethnic and cultural management models. Generally, ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity is an aesthetic masterpiece of the wise creator of the Universe, being inherently a divine fabulous phenomenon. The South Caucasus is among the regions bearing wonderfully this kind of ethnic and cultural diversity in its inherent. Overall, more than 60 ethnic groups with local origins have occupied a region as vast as 300 thousand square kilometers.
Relatively high ethnic diversity in the South Caucasus has paved the way for many political, social, and security developments during the last century. Factors like historical differences, negative mentalities of certain ethnicities towards others, imposed demarcations, engineering of the nationalities during communist era, non- compatibility of political borders with the ethnic ones, and incorrect political management based on ethnic domination by the regional countries following their independence, have resulted in ethnic and identity factor playing a key role in the trend of regional societies developments.
Given the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of the South Caucasus societies, there seems to be a tight link between political and democratic development and implementation of descent ethnic and cultural management. Generally, in ethnic problems sphere, the implementation of two different patterns would lead to the formation of cross-cutting or reinforcing societal cleavages. First is the assimilation pattern in the framework of which state policies are shaped based on homogenizing decisions and creating a society without ethnic differences. In the contrary, exists the pluralism pattern which recognizes ethnic diversity policy.
The South Caucasus developments of the past two decades clearly explain the reinforcing societal cleavage in the field of ethnicities formed as a result of implementing (varying degrees of) homogeneity pattern. Many well-known factors have led most of the ethnic movements in the South Caucasus to change their negotiable demands into non-negotiable ones. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are two classic examples of this situation.
Thus, reforming regional states' approaches towards ethnic minorities is considered the main pillar of resolution of regional ethnic crisis or at least preventing it from being heightened. This could be materialized only under the auspices of adopting a correct ethnic management based on unity- in- plurality pattern.
In this pattern framework, the South Caucasus countries could realize identity-creating factors like language, culture, territorial integrity, and national security on one hand, and the ethnicities could keep their own language, religion, culture, and ethnic rituals, on the other. To this end, minorities’ rights should be practically (and not artificially and symbolically) be recognized by the state; removing the black shadow of historical difficulties, political and security look at the minorities be changed into a social one; ethnic elites join the government, parliament, military and security forces at national and local levels in order that they actually feel their presence in the political destiny of the country. One could consider the sphere of culture and education as the most important way facing the South Caucasus countries in correct ethnic management. This sphere includes a vast range of recognition of the language, religion, customs, rituals and cultural and historical values of an ethnic minority which is generally considered the main pillar of ethnic demands. Mainly due to the ignorance by the governments and imposition of the values attached to the majority; however, these demands escalate to political and security levels (autonomy, secessionism and political independence). This is why the correct implementation of ethnic and cultural diversity policy-through correct management of ethnic problems on the basis of "Diversity-within-Unity" (DwU) model could satisfy a major part of South Caucasian ethnic demands. During the past two decades, preserving the ethnic identity and recognition of historical culture and values have constituted the main demand of Lezgi, Taleshi, Ajari, Abkhazian, Ossetian, and Javakheti Armenian minorities of the South Caucasian states which of course did not face a due response by Azerbaijan and Georgia, respectively. Thus, a change of approach by the regional countries towards ethnic minorities accompanied by acceleration of democratization process could play a significant role at the domestic level in disembarking of the South Caucasian region from security crises and at least stopping aggravation of current dangerous trends.
II) Regional Level: A Normalization of Relations between Turkey and Armenia
The second development in the region, which can help the South Caucasus region get out of its critical situation, is normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia. The deadlock in the two countries' relations has been one of the major factors affecting the developments, as well as a balance of power in the South Caucasus region during the past two decades. Unfortunately, normalization of their relations has not progressed since 2009, and there has been no major practical change in Turkey’s policy for closing its borders with Armenia and laying economic siege to this country. In view of the effect that relations between Turkey and Armenia have on developments in the region, any change in the existing deadlock and completion of the process of normalization of relations between these two countries can lead to basic changes in the entire region.
Opening the Turkish-Armenia border, insofar as the US, Europe, and Russia support it, is in the interest of many actors. It is even in the interest of Azerbaijan, since Turkey with more leverage in the region will be able to influence the Karabakh negotiations process. The rapprochement is also in Georgia's interest in the long term, because it will substantially increase stability in the region. The only actor whose interest is doubtful is one of two forms of Russia: one form wants to rule and influence its neighbors via military power, and "another" one (the civilized trading partner wielding only soft influence) will benefit from the rapprochement process. Both Armenia and Turkey will benefit economically by attracting more foreign direct investments. International businesses will come to Armenia via Turkey. The underdeveloped areas of Eastern Turkey, populated by Kurds, will find themselves at a newly opened crossroads.
In fact, the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey and Azerbaijan is a cornerstone for the political and energetic future for the entire region and beyond it. If Armenia and Turkey as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan reach the agreements, it will change the overall picture of not only the South Caucasus but for all great powers and regional players particularly and will have an impact on designing of the regional and other projects regarding energy issues and further geo-political developments.
III) International Level: Energy as a Common Denominator among All Players
The international environment around the region compounds the intra-regional scene. The South Caucasus has gained importance through its strategic location and its energy resources. The region’s a strategic location between Russia and Iran and connecting Europe to Asia, as well as its oil and gas resources and its position as the main route for the Westward export of Caspian energy resources, has gradually led to an increased geopolitical attention to it. In these circumstances, several questions should be answered. How the existing confrontational approaches taken by the great powers in the South Caucasus region can be replaced with an interactive approach at international level? What issue can serve as the axis of such interactive approach?
It is evident that it would be unrealistic to expect full cooperation and interaction among the Russian Federation, the United States, and the European Union, or among the regional powers like Iran and Turkey, which pursue different and, at times, conflicting goals and interests in the various political and security areas. Therefore, it seems that in view of the realities in the region, energy is the sole field which can serve as the main axis of cooperation and interaction among all regional and international players that are present in the South Caucasus. The question, however, is in what way and based on what capacities and potentials such an interaction could be realized? A second factor is the overlap among the interests of various political players with regard to energy resources in the Caspian region and the Caucasus. On the whole, countries with interests in energy geopolitics of these regions can be divided into three following categories:
-  Countries producing energy, which include Azerbaijan, Russia, and Iran;
-  Countries which are transit routes for energy, including Georgia, Armenia and Turkey; and
-  Countries that consume energy, including European states and the United States.
Since energy serves as the common denominator among all regional countries, including those producing, transiting and consuming energy, it can play the same role in promoting future regional cooperation and convergence that coal and steel played in the 1950s in Europe. Unfortunately, during the past two decades, pursuit of the policy which seeks to exclude Armenia, Russia and Iran from the regional energy market, especially from Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Nabucco pipeline projects, has prevented this valuable capacity to be properly taken advantage of. The main question is that could be any hope in future realization of cooperative security without any change in this policy?
Regional countries have already suffered from bitter and costly outcomes of exclusive approaches and the zero-sum game during recent years. Such an approach has had no other consequence but to impose heavy costs on regional countries while preventing all-out economic development of those countries and emergence of constructive regional cooperation.
The strategic region of the Caucasus is complex in many ways. Its security ingredients are intertwined and as such any slight change would affect the integrity of the region. In this context, security in the region would necessitate the emergence of consensus among regional countries and neighboring states. On the other hand, the relations of the regional states with each other and with regional and supra-regional powers are not congruent. National security objectives do not coincide. Against this background, a consensus on the region’s security order seems out of reach. It requires a comprehensive and balanced approach towards the issues that confront the region.
Expediting the democratization process and applying "unity-in-diversity" model to the management of ethnic issues within the countries (domestic level), completing the process of normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey (regional level), and focusing on the role of energy as an axis of cooperation among all regional players by establishing a common energy consortium (international level) will gradually help to minimize the conflict potential in the South Caucasus.
NOTE: A longer version of this article first appeared at the conference ‘NATO's Partnerships and the South Caucasus: A Strategic Approach to Regional Security’, sponsored by Center for Strategic Research, Yerevan, Armenia.
Vali Kaleji, an expert at Center for Strategic Research, is the senior fellow at IRAS.

ID: 1286
Author : Vali Kaleji