The South Caucasus could be falling apart at the seams

Border skirmishes and casualties on the Azerbaijani-Armenian border have raised fears of the possibility of a new war in the South Caucasus. The war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 ended the extended cold war in the region. No new order has been established since, and uncertainty prevails.

In the wake of the 2008 war, external and internal actors alike have been in search of a regional design. Attempts by Russia, the European Union and Turkey to establish regional order, together with the survival strategies pursued by the nation states that comprise the Caucasus, have shaped the geopolitical landscape of the region since 2008. The United States, unable to reach out to support Georgia, has remained outside this picture.

Russia’s current policy toward the Caucasus seems similar to the Soviet nationalities policy, which entailed redrawing maps based on ethnic relocation and the creation of enclaves within countries. In 2008, Moscow recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, positioning them as de facto states in the region. With Karabakh’s status pending, the South Caucasus has virtually broken up into six separate states.

Moscow has succeeded in shifting attention away from the North Caucasus, and the challenge of dealing with fundamentalist terrorism is now an internal matter for Russia. A “cold peace” was enough to suspend the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict at a manageable level of tension. Russia’s only concern has been the prevention of a hot conflict between Baku and Yerevan, and it regularly brings the two heads of state together to sign non-aggression agreements.

Turkey’s policy aims to contain the crises, promote regional ownership and find a solution in the spirit of political and economic integration. Turkish policy in the aftermath of the war between Russia and Georgia prevented the problem from escalating into an international crisis. By imposing limits on the passage of vessels through the Bosporus strait, Ankara blocked a potential encounter in the Black Sea between the United States and NATO on the one hand and Russia on the other and curbed U.S. involvement while bolstering Turkey’s own regional legitimacy for an integrationist approach.

Ankara also initiated a Caucasus Cooperation and Stability Platform, bringing together Russia, Turkey and the three Caucasian states with the aim of building up an inclusive order in the region.

The third strand of Turkey’s policy was to attempt to normalize relations with Armenia and reopen the border, which has been closed since 1993. This diplomacy was tied to progress in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, and aimed to achieve simultaneous progress on both fronts.

The EU’s approach is based on soft-power capabilities and entails a refined and focused version of its “neighborhood policy” toward the Caucasus. The 2008 crisis engaged the EU’s interest, causing it to recognize its lack of presence in the region. During the crisis, the EU failed to develop a concrete policy initiative. The only exception was Germany’s failed mediation attempt.

In 2009, the EU launched its Eastern Partnership initiative to improve engagement and support for political and economic stability in the Caucasus. The EU’s role in promoting rule of law, civil-society capacity-building, structural reforms and the regional economy has increased, though slowly, since the creation of this new policy framework.

The nation states of the Caucasus also have their own survival strategies for dealing with the post-2008 situation. Georgia is trying to reintegrate its de facto separated territories and is working toward political and economic stability.

Armenia tied its economic and political future to Russia, but Russian assistance has fallen short of what Armenia actually needs to address its problems. The Armenian economy is weakening, and emigration rates are increasing year on year.

Azerbaijan benefits from oil and gas resources and utilizes these riches for economic reform and political stability at home. Azerbaijan has increased its role in regional energy geopolitics and used this leverage to rally support for the liberation of the Armenian-occupied territories.

Ultimately, the EU’s initiative was both delayed and slow, Turkey’s efforts failed to bring real change to the regional landscape and Russian policies have aggravated the situation. The status quo in the Caucasus is unsustainable, and a regional war is a real danger. This instability could rapidly spread to the North Caucasus, mobilizing fundamentalist elements.

Russia, the EU and Turkey should agree on – or at least should not oppose – measures to eliminate the risk of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia’s withdrawal from occupied regions, for instance – deferring a decision on the legal status of Karabakh – would be a positive step, and would pave the way for the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border. Armenia would consequently be brought out of its isolation and reap the economic benefits of normalized relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. For Georgia, economic incentives and political targets would help improve stability.

Russia, the EU and Turkey have the opportunity to implement these initiatives. Russia would not consider this detrimental to its interests, since even Moscow is not in a position to deal with a new war in the Caucasus. There is no visible U.S. role, apart from the region’s energy issues, though U.S. support for constructive diplomatic attempts would certainly provide a good deal of incentive for the three Caucasian states.

The situation in the Caucasus needs immediate action. To prevent another regional war, Russia, the EU and Turkey must address the situation as soon as possible.

Bulent Aras is the academic adviser to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. He also served as director of the Foreign Ministry’s Center for Strategic Research, while serving as chairman at the Diplomacy Academy, between 2010 and 2013. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 18, 2014, on page 7.




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