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Rome, Byzantium and NATO: Grand Strategy of the West and Georgia

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Authors: Prof. Dr.Tedo Dundua and Dr. Emil Avdaliani

There are two ways to prove Georgia’s place within the NATO Alliance. First is the current argument urging for total Euro-Atlantic unity, next – historical one. Previous pan-European (Roman and Early Byzantine) military presence in Georgia can be applied to the present discussion. The article covers this issue.

Roman Period. Frankish Limitanei in Lazica

Before being totally destroyed, the Roman Imperial security system actually had shown three gradual phases of development.

A large number of the Italian colonists with the best technologies, swift and comfortable communications, the most prominent industrial output, Roman citizenship, municipal freedom – that was the Roman gift for the Western provinces in the 1st-2nd cc. A.D. Sincere intimacy with the metropolis had been founded as a direct result of complete satisfaction. It paved the way to the Romanization. As for the Greeks, the Romans reserved a quite life and economic stability. Still beyond the Roman Rhine, Danube and Pontus there were others favouring this concept of pan-European integration. The happy client kings used to be awarded with the Roman citizenship. And for the Julio-Claudians these client kingdoms formed the first defense-line of the Imperial territories. A little behind, the whole perimeter was dotted by solid legionary concentrations, proving the system to be impregnable. No cardinal changes took place in the era of the Antonines, except for annexation of the client kingdoms and breaking the big army concentrations in favour of scattering the legions along the whole frontier. In both cases, after defeating comparatively weak enemy at the border, the Romans usually attacked their territory. This system of security is called forward defense.

Greeks and the Romans were sending more and more working hands towards industry, but not to manufacture the means of production. As a result, population was growing, but not amount of industrial goods per capita. Prices rushed high for the Italian produce, demanding damping for provincial food and raw materials, thus weakening the sympathies between the European subjects of the Roman Empire. Some even started to search for a relief beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers. Many things happened that completely changed the defensive strategy, namely: 1. economic crisis; 2. weakening of the integratory links; 3. socio-economic animation of “Barbaricum”; 4. financial chaos and some professional regiments converted into limitanei. From now on they are to stand the first strike and evacuate the whole frontier folk into citadels, thus wearing down the enemy. And there were large and mobile field armies deployed far behind those self-contained strongholds to cut down any invasion into the depth. This system shaped in the times of Diocletian is called defense-in-depth.

But before this new system was finally established, the Romans had been fighting those already easily passing the border wherever they could manage to concentrate large army-units. In the early days of the Empire praetorians formed the only Imperial reserve. And now Gallienus recruited special mobile reserve-regiments. Name for this defensive system is elastic defense.

Security system had to be changed at least because of emergence of the Germanic seaborne attacks from the 3rd c. everywhere at the seas that prolonged the line of the frontier (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire. From the First Century A.D. to the Third. Baltimore. 1981, pp. 192-193; T. Dundua, N. Silagadze. European Industrial Complexes of I Cycle of Capitalism and the Georgian Western Affiliations. Historical and Numismatic Tale. Tbilisi. 2005, pp. 5-7; T. Dundua. North and South. Tbilisi. 2001, pp. 8-15).

Full-time units, legions, alae of cavalry, cohortes of infantry and mixed cohortes equitatae served the forward defense-system. Part-time border force of limitanei had appeared and auxiliary alae and cohorts had disappeared; and regular mobile reserve – comitatenses – substituted legions, fixed at the border. All they served new security system – defense-in-depth. The whole 3rd c. saw these changes, finally shaped in the times of Constantine I. Septimius Severus was the first to form a certain kind of reserve. He stationed II Parthica in Albanum, increased praetorian and urban cohorts in number. And Gallienus created special cavalry units to serve as a reserve (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy, pp. 173, 184).

In the 3rd c. large federations of Franki and Alemanni began to threaten the Rhine-frontier. And the Goths had already reached Dniester by 238 (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy, pp. 128, 146). Franks attacked Gaul, Alemanns – Italy. From the great deeds of Emperor M. Aurelius Probus (276-282) the most important is the deliverance of seventy Gaulic cities. He drove back Franks and Alemanns, four hundred thousand of them being killed. Probus passed the Rhine, and returned back with considerable tribute of corn, cattle, and horses. Sixteen thousand Germanic recruits were dispersed among the Roman units. Other captive or fugitive barbarians gained a new status, that of part-time peasant-soldiers (limitanei). Emperor transported a considerable body of Vandals into Cambridgeshire, great number of Franks and Gepidae were settled on the banks of the Danube and the Rhine, Bastarnae – in Thrace. Pontic (The Black Sea) coast was reserved for some more Franks (Ed. Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1. London. 1993 (first published in 1776), pp. 362-368). But which one exactly? This is to be discussed.

According to Ed. Gibbon, Franks settled at the sea-coast of Pontus had to check the Alani inroads. A fleet stationed in one of the harbors of the Euxine fell into their hands, and they resolved, through unknown seas, to explore their way from the mouth of Phasis (river Rioni in West Georgia) to that of the Rhine. They easily escaped through the Bosphorus and the Hellespont, and cruising along the Mediterranean, indulged their appetite for revenge and plunder by frequent descents on the shores of Asia, Greece and Africa. City of Syracuse was sacked by the barbarians. Franks proceeded to the columns of Hercules, coasted round Spain and Gaul, and steering their course through the British channel, at length finished their voyage by landing in safety on the Batavian or Frisian shores (Ed. Gibbon. The Decline and Fall . . ., pp. 367-368).       

What is this whole story based on? Zosimus and one panegyric to Constantius Chlorus contributed to it.

Narrating about the events in the past, in the times of divine Probus, author of this panegyric mentions undeserved success of the small Frankish band, who, sailing from Pontus on the captured fleet, ravished Greece and Asia, damaged Africa, stormed Syracuse, and passing through the columns of the Hercules, reached the ocean (Recursabat quippe in animos illa sub diuo Probo paucorum ex Francis captiuorum incredibilis audacia et indigna felicitas, qui a Ponto usque correptis nauibus Graeciam Asiamque populati nec impune plerisque Libyae litoribus appulsi ipsas postremo naualibus quondam uictoriis nobiles ceperant Syracusas et immenso itinere peruecti oceanum, qua terras irrumpit, intrauerant atque ita euentu temeritatis ostenderant nihil esse clausum piraticae desperationi, quo nauigiis pateret accessus.) (Panegyricus Constantio Dictus, IV, XVIII. Panégyriques Latins. T. I (I-V). Texte Établi et Traduit par Édourd Galletier. Paris. 1949, pp. 96-97).

Zosimus tells us about the Franks having appealed to the Emperor, and having a country given to them. A part of them afterwards revolted, and having collected a great number of ships, disturbed all Greece; from whence they proceeded into Sicily, to Syracuse, which they attacked, and killed many people there. At length they arrived in Africa, whence though they were repulsed by a body of men from Carthage, yet they returned home without any great loss (Zosimus. New History. Book 1. London. 1814).

There is no mention of mouth of the river of Phasis as a spring-board for the expedition in the sources. Then, what was in Gibbon’s mind? Perhaps, logic, excluding the possibilities.

Indeed, the Northern Black Sea coast is beyond the Roman rule. The Western shores, and the Balkans are already packed with the barbarians. Southern littoral was less used for receptio, while Lazica (West Georgia) and Pontic Limes cannot be argued.And something strange had happened to this limes in the 3rd c.  Now threat comes not from the front, the Romans have Lazi client king dwelling there, but – from behind, because of the Goths living at the Northern shores.

We can only guess that the Franks were in Lazica as limitanei. But we really know nothing about how they were coordinating with the full-time units, their number before and after the revolt, what was the life like for those who stayed loyal.

Still, it seems quite reasonable that the bargain of receptio-system should have been distributed among all Roman provinces to keep the centre undisturbed from the barbaric influx. In the 3rd c. theEmpire is able to do this, not after.

Byzantines in Georgia

With the death of Theodosius, last Emperor of the united Roman world, in 395 A.D. the Empire was divided into two almost same-sized halves. The Western part, while defending itself throughout the 5th c. from various barbarian hordes (at the time, the Western part was defended by regiments consisting mainly of barbarians) coming from beyond the Rhine river, had an almost destroyed tax-paying system. This very factor did not allow the Imperial administration based in Ravenna to muster enough economic and military resources for effective defense of the Northern borders. Last Western Roman Emperors were mere puppets in the hands of barbarian warlords – the process which culminated in deposing the last Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476.

The Eastern part (Byzantium) with the capital in Constantinople, on the other hand, showed greater resilience in managing internal problems and external threats. Byzantium managed simultaneously to hold off the barbarians coming from the North and the Sassanians from the East. This was made possible by an efficient tax-paying system the Byzantines inherited from the Romans, which, in turn, made it possible to field large armies to defend the Imperial borders on several fronts and at the same time wage offensive wars (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Harvard. 2009, pp. 1-16. The most apparent case is the reign of Justinian when, while waging war on Vandals in North Africa and the Ostrogoths in Italy, Constantinople still had to defend its Eastern border from the Sassanians and the Danube river from the Slavs).

The Byzantines did not have such abundant resources as the Romans had during the first three centuries A.D. Moreover, the Eastern half was spread on three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – making the Imperial borders highly vulnerable to foreign powers. In other words, the geography put the Byzantine Empire at a huge disadvantage as the Danube river was a barrier easy to cross for the Goths, or in later centuries Huns, Slavs and Avars. In Africa, the desert frontier stretching for more than a thousand kilometers had no geographic barrier to rely on making rich Tripolitania and Byzacena and the South of Egypt exposed to attacks from the Berbers and other nomadic groups. The Eastern frontier too was highly vulnerable as the Arab groupings could easily reach Palestine and Syrian cities from the Syro-Mesopotamian desert. In the North Mesopotamia Byzantium faced its greatest rival, Sassanian Iran, and this portion too needed to be defended with the assemblage of large military power, whether through the field armies or military fortifications. Moreover, the Byzantines had little geographic depth along its entire Eastern frontier to fully employ the defense-in-depth strategy (e.g., in the Balkans Constantinople did enjoy large geographic depth necessaryfor the defense. This was apparent when the Huns under Attila and then the Avars in early 7th c. broke through the Danubian defenses and reached Constantinople. However, military regiments placed in various fortresses and the distance of several hundreds of kilometers (from the Danube to the capital) enabled the Emperor, whether it was Theodosius II or Heraclius, to thwart the barbarian onslaughts). The similar situation was in Africa. Since Asia Minor, Balkans, Egypt and Syria were the most prosperous lands in terms of population number and the level of urbanization, the functioning of the Empire was contingent upon the defense of these provinces. Overall, the Byzantines were at much worse geographic situation than their Western counterparts.

Thus, in order to survive in this difficult geopolitical situation and preserve the Empire from early 5th c. to the 7th c., the Byzantines had to develop a whole set of military strategies. In other words, the Byzantines were no less successful than the Flavians, Antonines and late 3rd c. Emperors. However, the Byzantines made numerous changes by adapting to new circumstances. Since Constantinople had less economic and human resources than the united Roman Empire, the Byzantines always tried to use less military power and employ more diplomacy and the propagation of the Christian religion (G. Fowden. Consequences of the Monotheism in Late Antiquity. Princeton. 1993, pp. 80-100) to safeguard Imperial borders.

The Byzantines inherited from the Romans military presence in Lazica and alliance with Kartli/Iberia (East and South Georgia). This military tradition goes back to the first two centuries A.D. and represents a forward-defense strategy. Byzantine garrisons, which existed in Lazica from the 5th c. till the Arab invasion of the Middle East in the 30s of the 7th c. (T. Dundua. Influx of Roman Coins in Georgia. Roman Coins Outside the Empire. Ways and Phases, Contexts and Functions. Proceedings of ESF/SCH Exploratory Workshop. Nieborow (Poland). 2005. Moneta. Wetteren. 2008, p. 313), did not change their location. However, the role of Lazica considerably increased as in late 4th c. the so-called  Völkerwanderung” or Migration period began. Since the new peoples such as Huns, Avars etc. lived in the Eurasian steppes, which bordered the Caucasian range and the Danube river, Constantinople had to face a two-front war from the North (from the Eastern and Western parts of the Black Sea). Therefore, the Byzantine garrisons in Lazica were transformed into forward posts for collecting information about new peoples coming from the steppes and, in case of need, establishing first diplomatic contacts too.

For example, when approximately in 557 the Avars reached the Volga river, in modern-day Southern Russia, in a year or two through the Alans they sent an embassy to Constantinople. But, before the letter was received in the capital, first it had been passed through the hands of Byzantine generals stationed in Lazica (Ed. N. Luttwak. The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, p. 59). The role of Lazica increased also because of the mountain passes through which the newly-coming nomads from the North could potentially penetrate into the South and cause havoc even in the Eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire as it happened in 395 when the Huns reached as far as Antioch (P. Heather. The Fall of the Roman Empire. A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford. 2007, pp. 145-154). The Byzantine officials also used the passes to distract nomad leaders by making them to take much longer roads to reach the Imperial capital. Menander Protector preserves the bitter complaint of a Turkic chief from the steppes, North to the Caucasian range, dated by 577: “As for you Romans, why do you take my envoys through the Caucasus to Byzantium, alleging that there is no other route for them to travel? You do this so that I might be deterred from attacking the Roman Empire by the difficult terrain (i.e. high mountains which for horses are very hard to cross). But I know very well where the river Danapris (Dniepr) flows, and the Istros (Danube) and the Hebrus (Maritsa, Meric)” (Excerpta de Legationibus Romanorum ad Gentes, 14, in The History of Menander the Guardsman. Translated by R. C. Blockley. London. 1985, p. 175).

Lazica’s military importance increased even more following the stand-off between Justinian and the Sassanian Shahanshah Khusro I Anushirvan in mid-6th c. By the time Iran had already been increasing its political and military pressure towards North and West, which culminated in the abolition of the Albanian and Armenian kingdoms during the 5th-early-6th cc. As was said, mid-6th c. saw renewed warfare between the empires and the focus of the conflict, traditionally along with the North Mesopotamia, also fell on Lazica. Iran was interested in occupying the Eastern Black Sea coast to pressure Constantinople (which by the time was already embroiled in a war with the Ostrogoths in Italy) into signing a more winning peace treaty for Ctesiphon. The Byzantines knew well that if the Sassanians managed to occupy the Lazica shore, Iranian military vessels in the near future would make their way through the Bosphorus directly to Constantinople. This is well reflected in one of the passages from Procopius – Lazi sent an embassy to Khusro to explain the geopolitical advantages which the Iranians would gain through controlling Lazica and the Byzantine fortresses there: “To the realm of Persia you will add a most ancient kingdom, and as a result of this you will have the power of your sway extended, and it will come about that you will have a part in the sea of the Romans through our land, and after thou hast built ships in this sea (i.e. Black Sea), O King, it be possible for thee with no trouble to set foot in the palace in Byzantium. For there is no obstacle between. And one might add that the plundering of the land of the Romans every year by the barbarians along the boundary will be under your control. For surely you also are acquainted with the fact that up till now the land of the Lazi has been a bulwark against the Caucasus Mountains” (De Bello Persico. II. 15; Procopius of Caesarea. History of the Wars. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge. Massachusetts. 1914, pp. 225-226).

The above analysis of the Roman and Early Byzantine military strategies towards their neighbors quite clearly shows that Georgia always had its own place within the pan-European military alliances. Why not bring it back?

NATO and Georgia

NATO alliance’s strategy could be likened to the best military traditions of Roma and Byzantium discussed above. As was the case with these two Empires, NATO too regards the Black Sea and its Eastern shore – Georgia – as fundamental for the alliance’s strategy in the Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region overall.

As for the Romans and Byzantines before, for NATO too Georgia’s Black Sea shore would allow the alliance to expand militarily in the region and control crucial land and maritime military routes from the North to the Black Sea basin. There is also an economic dimension since Georgia serves as a vital transit route for oil/gas pipelines, important railroads connecting the Caspian and Black Seas. Indeed, as Roman and Byznaitne army units before, NATO’s presence in Georgia would serve as a defensive shield for trade in the region which in Antiquity was often referred to as a part of the famous Silk Road and nowadays is called as the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor because of oil/gas transport infrastructure.

This strategic vision is well reflected in one of the recent NATO-Georgia Commission statement: “Georgia is one of the Alliance’s closest operational partners, and an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. Allies highly appreciate Georgia’s steadfast support for NATO’s operations and missions…” (NATO-Georgia Commission Statement. Oct. 2019. Direct allusion to the alliance’s Black Sea strategy is also seen in another passage from the same Commission statement: “NATO values Georgia’s engagement in, and contributions to, strategic discussion and mutual awareness, on security in the Black Sea region” (NATO-Georgia Commission Statement. Oct. 2019.

Thus NATO alliance’s strategic vision for Georgia and the wider Black Sea region is similar to how the Romans and Byzantines saw this part of the world.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

Prof. Dr. Tedo Dundua is the Director of the Institute of Georgian History, Faculty of Humanities, at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University.

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Thorny path towards peace and reconciliation in Karabakh

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On January 11 the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a deal to develop cross-border transportation routes and boost economic growth to benefit the South Caucasus and the Wider Region. This meeting took place two months after the Moscow-brokered armistice between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended a 44-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

This ethno-territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh has drawn dividing lines between Armenia and Azerbaijan for almost 30 years. Some estimates put the number of deaths on both sides at 30,000 after the First Karabakh war before a ceasefire was reached in May 1994. As a result of this war, one fifth of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan was occupied and the entire Azerbaijani population of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and seven adjacent districts (Lachin, Kalbajar, Agdam, Fizuly, Jabrail, Gubatli and Zangilan) was forcibly expelled by the Armenian armed forces. Incidentally, due to sporadic frontline skirmishes and clashes, both military personnel and civilians have been killed along the Line of Contact, devoid of any peacekeeping force, since 1994.

Over the years, Armenia and the separatist regime that emerged in the occupied Azerbaijani territories refused any final status short of independence for Nagorno-Karabakh and tried to preserve this status quo and achieve international security guarantees on the non-resumption of hostilities while avoiding the withdrawal of its armed forces from the occupied territories and preventing the safe return of expelled Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence. However, such a policy, in its turn, polarized the region and reduced to naught any meaningful regional cooperation between the three South Caucasus states.

The Second Karabakh war, which took place from September 27 to November 9, 2020, and the subsequent Russia-brokered peace deal on November 10, significantly changed the facts on the ground and created a new political reality that replaced the “no war, no peace” situation that had been hanging over the region for almost 30 years. As a result of this war, more than 6,000 soldiers died on both sides in fighting.

This war came to an end because of a clear victory for Azerbaijan, which has restored its territorial integrity and sovereignty. Owing to the humiliating defeat of Armenia,the myth of the invincibility of the Armenian armed forces has been shattered and the Prime Minister of this country has been under continuous pressure from the opposition to step down.

Thus, after the Second Karabakh war, the pendulum has swung from devastating war towards actual peace. The question, is, however, whether the conflicting parties will be able to achieve lasting peace in the coming years: How can a relationship that has been completely destroyed owing to this protracted armed conflict and previous wars be restored?

The fate of all inhabitants of both the highlands and lowlands of Karabakh, irrespective of their ethnic origin, is crucial in this context. Security arrangements for the Armenian minority residing in this area are currently organized through the deployment of 1,960 Russian peacekeepers for at least five years to monitor the implementation of the trilateral statement signed by the heads of state of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Russian Federation on November 10 (hereafter, the trilateral statement). At the same time, the return of the former Azerbaijani inhabitants to their permanent places of residence previously occupied by the Armenian armed forces is envisaged by the trilateral statement and the UNHCR has been assigned to oversee this task.

It is paramount that Azerbaijan has to demonstrate a policy of “strategic patience” in the coming years to entice the Armenians of Karabakh region into closer incorporation through attractive political, economic, social, and other development.

On the other hand, Armenia has to concentrate on its own internationally recognized sovereign territory. Today, it is important that this country changes its external minority policy and withdraws its territorial claims against Azerbaijan. As a next step, both Armenia and Azerbaijan can recognize the territorial integrity of one other.

Such rapprochement can lead to the opening of the borders between Armenia and Turkey and Armenia and Azerbaijan, which would increase economic opportunities for landlocked Armenia. It can thereby contribute to regional stability, development, and trans-regional cooperation among the three South Caucasian states. At the same time, it would create an enabling environment that could be more conducive for future dialogue and interactions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

We must face the fact that a stable equilibrium between these two nations has never previously been achieved. However, despite ups and downs, there was peaceful coexistence between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in Karabakh as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan’s respective minorities in Azerbaijan and Armenia. This protracted conflict has, however, led Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live in parallel realities for almost 30 years.

In light of the recent past, we cannot soon reconcile our different narratives. It is a long process; however, reconciliation is not only an outcome, it is also a process. Although the gestation period might be long, the process of reconciliation itself can be extremely rewarding.

In fact, the Armenian and Azerbaijani inhabitants of Karabakh have lived together in this region in the past. However, for almost 30 years this was impossible. Will and determination should be put to good use in order to arrive at such a peaceful coexistence once again.

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Dawn of great power competition in South Caucasus

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The pace of geopolitical change in the South Caucasus is staggering, with the recent Karabakh war only underlining several major geopolitical trends in the region.

The first noticeable trend being the undercutting of democratic ideals and achievements of the region’s states. Take Armenia, its young democracy had high hopes following the 2018 revolution, but now it will be more even more dependent on Russia.

It is not a matter of whether a democratic model is better or not, the matter lies in the incompatibility of an aspiring democracy with a powerful nondemocracy such as Russia.

The Armenian leadership will now have to make extensive concessions to Moscow to shore up its military, backtracking on its democratic values. Building a fair political system cannot go hand in hand with the Russian political model.

The war also put an end to any hopes of Armenia implementing a multivector foreign policy, an already highly scrutinized issue. Mistakes were made continuously along the way, the biggest being an overreliance on Russia.

In the buildup to 2020, Armenia’s multiaxial foreign policy efforts gradually deteriorated, with the 2016 fighting showing the limits. Armenian politicians attempted to develop ties with other regional powers in the aftermath, but Russian influence had already begun to incrementally increase.

Tipping the scales in a no longer balanced alliance culminated in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan thanks to Yerevan’s maneuvering. More crucially, the war has obliterated Yerevan’s multiaxial policy efforts for years to come.

Now, Armenia’s dependence on Russia would be even more pronounced with no viable geopolitical alternatives.

With no more foreign policy diversification, the three South Caucasus states are divided by larger regional powers, further fracturing the region.

The return of Turkey and the growth of the Russian military could resurrect the great power competition, in which a nation’s military power, infrastructure projects and economic might are directly translated into their geopolitical influence over the region, ultimately deterring long-term conflict resolution.

The Western stance

The Karabakh war highlighted a regression in Western peacekeeping standards. The Western approach to conflict resolution based on equality rather than geopolitical interests has been trumped by the Russian alternative.

Moscow is not looking to resolve the conflict (it never does in territorial conflicts); instead, it is seeking to prolong it under its close watch in a bid to increase its influence.

Looking at the situation from the Russian perspective, it is clear the country will continue to influence Armenia and Azerbaijan, only now to a far greater extent than before.

The West’s inability to accommodate fluid geopolitical realities in the South Caucasus also raises questions about its commitment to resolving the issues at hand. The second Karabakh war was in a way a by-product of the West’s declining engagement in the region over the past several years.

The West can no longer treat the South Caucasus as a monolithic entity, and a diversified foreign policy should be applied in line with realities on the ground.

Policies should reflect each individual state, and the West should, perhaps, be more geopolitical in its approach.

Turkey’s recent suggestion to create a six-nation pact bringing together the South Caucasus states, Russia, Turkey and Iran, shows the regression of Western influence in the region. But the geopolitical vacuum is never empty for long, and Turkey and Russia approach.

Georgia’s position

Georgia could act as the last bastion of dominant Western influence, but even there, the West should be cautious. The country is on the cusp of Europe, making it susceptible to foreign influence.

Bordered by Russia and Turkey, two powers often discerning of Europe, Georgia also feels the pressure to adapt to the changing circumstances on the ground.

The lack of Western resolve in the region and the Black Sea could propel Tbilisi if not toward a total reconsideration of its foreign policy, toward diversifying its foreign ties – one could call a “rebalancing.”

The war also solidified that the Caspian basin and South Caucasus are inextricably linked to the greater Middle East.

Russia and Turkey are basing their strategies in the region on developments in the Middle East and the Black Sea region. Not since the end of the Soviet Union has the South Caucasus been such a critical point for the West, especially the incoming Biden administration.

But time is critical and any further delay in active U.S. policy could spell disaster for Georgia, which serves as a door to the Caspian and on to Central Asia.

The West has been in regression in the region for quite some time now; the Karabakh war only brought it to the light, and it must be proactive if things are to change.

Much will depend on the U.S. and its new administration, but the West will have to come to an understanding with Turkey, even if it be limited, to salvage its deteriorating position in the region.

After all, the South Caucasus has always been the only theater where Turkish and Western interests have always coincided. Considering its limited presence in the region, the West could consider backing Turkey.

Not only would it serve as a reconciliatory gesture pleasing Ankara, but it would also limit Russia’s movement in the region. With the ink about to dry on who will influence the region, the West must immediately adapt its approach if it wishes to have any input in the rapidly changing geopolitics of the South Caucasus.

Author’s note: first published in dailysabah

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An Impending Revolution

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Large crowds have demonstrated their anger at the results of the presidential election in Belarus. Photo: Kseniya Halubovich

Even on the end note, the year contains surprises enough to deem it as a year of instability and chaos given every nook and cranny around the globe is riddled with a new crisis every day. Latest down in the tally is the country of Belarus that has hardly streamlined over at least half a decade but now is hosting up as a venue to rippling protests in almost all the districts of its capital, Minsk. The outrage has resulted from the massive rigging imputed on the communist party in ruling for almost three decades since the split of Soviet Union in 1994. With Europe and Russia divided on the front as the protests and violence continue to rage: a revolution is emerging as a possibility.

The historical map of Belarus is nearly as complex as the geographical landscape which might only stand next to Afghanistan in terms of the intricacies faced by a landlocked country as such. Belarus is located in the Eastern European region bordered by Russia to the north-eastern perimeter. Poland borderlines the country to the West while Ukraine shares a border in the South. The NATO members, Lithuania and Latvia, outskirt the borders of Belarus in the Northwest, making the region as a prime buffer between the Russian regime and the western world. As Belarus stands as a junction between the European Union (EU) and Russia, the proximal nature brings about interests of either parties in the internal affairs of Minsk. However, the nature of the bond shared between the trio is by no means a triangle unlike other former soviet nations since Belarus has casted its absolute loyalty to Russia since the split of Soviet Union and ultimate accession to power of president, Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of the Communist Party of Belarus. Along with the alliance, however, came the unwanted dependency since over the 26-year rule of Lukashenko, he crippled the economy and the political writ of Belarus, using every last ounce of authority to subdue the opposition and the democratic mechanism of the country, earning him the nefarious title ‘Europe’s last dictator’.

The outburst of protests today stems from this very problem that is more deep-rooted than what comes across as apparent. The excessive and draconian use of power and autonomy has invalidated the independence of Belarusians and turned them haplessly at the mercy of Russian aid and support while blocking out any western support in the name of guarding national sovereignty. The ongoing surge of dissent was triggered earlier in August when the elections turned about to be absurdly rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenko, granting him an indelible majority of 80% of the total vote count along with a lifetime of rule over the country despite his blatant unpopularity across the country. The accusations were further solidified when one of the popular opposing candidates, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, casted a complaint with the authorities regarding the falsification of election results. Instead of being appeased, she was detained for 7 straight hours and was even forced to exile to the neighbouring country of Lithuania. This resulted in major tide of riots and protests erupting all across Minsk, preceding over 3000 arrests over the election night.

On the official front, however, an aggressive stance was upheld along with a constant refusal of Lukashenko from stepping down from the long-held office or even considering a review of the polls counted despite exorbitant reports of unfair results. Heavy use of rubber bullets and tear gas was an eccentric protocol adopted by the local police force which instead of placating the rioters, further ignited the protests in more districts of the capital city. The anti-government relies also entitled ‘March of Neighbours’ transitioned into a high scale protest with many of the state employees resigning from their positions to stand upright against the long overdue corrupt regime. With the protests raging over months and the Lukashenko government getting more and more aggressive with their policies, the fear that once sparkled in the eyes of the natives is dwindling exceedingly and is turning into a cry for an outright revolution, which would be a ground-breaking one ever since the revolution of Iran back in 1979.

European counties have taken their conventional passive position in the crisis sinceEU is well aware of the Russian influence in Belarus and does not want to interfere with a probability of a direct conflict with Russia. However, they did call out their protest over the rigged elections, slapping sanctions over Belarus yet have not accused Lukashenko directly but instead have proposed a thorough international dialogue. Russia, on the other hand, faces a complex position since the dependence of Belarus bought Moscow a base against the West along with other regional rogues like Ukraine. However, high scale protests and rising chances of a full-blown revolution is hardly the choice Russian intends to opt. As the situation continues to unfold, economic reforms, as promised by Lukashenko, appears to be the only option that both EU and Russia could encourage as a bipartisan plan. Despite that, with six months of protests erupting as an outrage over a tyranny of 26 years, the reform-offering might be a bit late an offer since its no more about the country anymore, it’s about a struggle between a liberal or a communist Belarus.

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