New thinking for the South Caucasus

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Two opportunities present themselves here. First is the start of construction of the Trans-Anatolian or TANAP gas pipeline from Azerbaijan through Turkey to the Turco-Bulgarian border. This pipeline will bring gas from Azerbaijan into Central Europe once a corresponding route is chosen from Bulgaria’s border with Turkey. TANAP and the pipeline that is ultimately chosen to connect to the Balkans will also give Balkan governments an alternative to Russia’s South Stream pipeline that is essentially a political project to subordinate the Balkans and Ukraine to Russian influence under  highly dubious economic terms.  Moreover, to the extent that Azerbaijan can move ahead with liquefied natural gas (LNG) and other Caspian producers like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan can produce LNG or even shale gas and bring it to Azerbaijan by ship, thereby bypassing the issue of demarcating the Caspian Sea, these Caspian producers will have devised a way to overcome Irano-Russian efforts to block them from building pipelines to Azerbaijan and then Europe. A U.S. initiative to ensure diversity of supply from the Caspian to the Balkans also enhances opportunities for democratizing Balkan governments and enhancing the security of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.       

The second opportunity in the Caucasus is the beginning of a process of Russo-Georgian dialogues even if it is a very small first step. The U.S. should encourage Georgia not only to negotiate with Russia but also to undertake genuine democratization without being caught up in a game of political revenge between President Saakashvili and Premier Ivanishvili. Instead we should encourage a process to expand democracy in Georgia and deal seriously with the ethnic issues that precipitated the 2008 war. We should ultimately aim at a democratic Georgia, a negotiated resolution of the issues pertaining to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory. Should Abkhazia and South Ossetia gain their independence through this negotiated settlement with Georgia, one precondition must be the evacuation of all foreign troops. Then on that basis objections to Georgia’s entering onto a NATO membership track, especially if its democratization parallels this process, will seriously diminish. Georgia will then have new opportunities to improve its security and Russian concerns will have been answered by the resolution of those outstanding ethnic issues.  Of course, if Moscow refuses to withdraw its forces from sovereign Georgian territory, U.S. diplomacy should see to it that Russia then pays a price commensurate with this violation of international accords.

At the same time there are also major challenges. The most urgent one is devising and implementing a mechanism for negotiating an end to the Azeri-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Absent such a solution, Moscow entrenches itself further in Armenia thereby threatening both Azerbaijan and Georgia. Meanwhile Armenian politics are hostage to Yerevan’s claims on what is still generally recognized formally as Azerbaijan’s territory and Azerbaijan spends enormous amounts of its energy revenues on its armed forces to prepare for a second round. At the same time the lack of a resolution causes Baku to worry about the Azeri refugees’ susceptibility to extremist Islamic ideologies and Iranian subversion. The more positions on both sides harden the less disposition there is to seek a negotiated settlement, more partisan forces come to dominate the two sides, and the number of incidents that could trigger a new regional war grow. Turkey could be easily drawn into this conflict, but the only winner would be Russia, an outcome wholly detrimental to U.S. Turkish, and European interests, not to mention Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s true vital interests. 

Moscow’s seeming negotiations here aim only at assuring for itself military bases in perpetuity, not peace. But the U.S. could broker such an agreement with the added provision of persuading Turkey as part of a negotiated settlement to normalize its ties with Armenia, stop blockading this border with Armenia, and provide Yerevan with economic opportunities to Europe that it now lacks. Armenia, who now loses up to to 15 percent of its GDP from this blockaded, would, over time, gain economic and security options beyond Russia and could become integrated into regional economic processes. This trend might also reduce Iran’s ability to threaten Azerbaijan and Iranian influence in Armenia. It also could even open European eyes to the wisdom of reconsidering Turkey’s application to the EU. But if the opportunity to launch this virtuous circle is lost the continuing high degree of tensions or even a vicious circle will replace it and nobody will benefit from that outcome.

These challenges and opportunities underscore the linkages among the South Caucasus, vital issues of European energy security, and the security not only of the South Caucasian states but also Turkey and Russia’s future regional roles. Failure to grasp the opportunities now being presented to us can only increase the possibility that the challenges to security here will go unmet. And, as in 2008, we all know what happens when conflicts are left to fester. 

Blank is a professor at the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pa. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

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