Georgia has been home to numerous ethnic conflicts since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even today, their effects are seen and felt in the country. The Russo-Georgian War in 2008 reminded us again that the ethnic conflicts of the region are like time bombs waiting for the trigger to explode.
It can be said that currently, there are two main ethnic conflicts in the region: South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. As it will be shown later in the paper, both conflicts were mainly caused by the Soviet leader’s decisions of setting artificial borders without taking the ethnicities into account. Or they may have considered the existence of different ethnicities but set the borders to exercise power by the divide et impera method. Regardless of their true intentions, the conflicts seem to have taken their roots from those decisions. According to Céline Francis, as the Soviet Union became more open and slightly more transparent under Gorbachev, dissatisfied ethnic groups had the opportunity to express their concerns towards the end of the Soviet Union. As a result, the ethnic groups caused widespread chaos across the region of which the effects can still be seen.
The Abkhazia Conflict
Abkhazia is a region located in the country of Georgia. In fact, early Muslim sources used the terms Abkhazia, Abkhaz, or Afkhaz instead of Georgia or Georgians. Abkhazia has 6 regions, and its population consists of various nationalities. Abkhazians have a long history, and even several Greek philosophers and historians have mentioned them. The nation has been able to keep its traditions and has always seen itself as a separate one. Although it has several reasons, one of the main reasons has been the location. Its location has protected Abkhazia from attacks from other nations and enabled it to preserve the culture. Throughout history, the Abkhazians have played important roles in the affairs of the Caucasus.
Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, which saw Russian armies’ withdrawal from the Caucasus, the Menshevik Georgian government took control of Abkhazia in 1918. With the Abkhazians’ opposition, the Independent Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia was established on March 31, 1921. The SSRs of Georgia and Abkhazia, which were formed in December 1921, signed a union agreement and shared equal status in the Soviet Union’s formation. The Georgia-Abkhazian Federation was a part of the Transcaucasian Union until 1931. However, the Soviet Union started a campaign of Georgianization in Abkhazia and replaced the names of Abkhazian places with Georgian names. It is known that both Joseph Stalin and his police chief Lavrentiy Beria were against the idea of an independent Abkhazia. The campaign became even more obvious when Beria was in power. With his orders, several Abkhazian intellectuals were removed, education in Abkhazian was banned, and speaking in Abkhazian was prohibited. As a part of the campaign, thousands of Georgians were moved to Abkhazia in order to prevent Abkhazians from being the majority there. Having realized the plan, Abkhazia strengthened its relations with Russia and asked to be a part of it, although Russia turned a blind eye to that request. In 1989, 30,000 Abkhazians signed a declaration that stated their intention of having their status back. This declaration naturally angered Georgia, and small-scale armed conflicts occurred between the Georgians and the Abkhazians.
When the Soviet Union started to decline, the Abkhazians started to worry about Abkhazia’s autonomy. An independent Georgia would certainly try to take its autonomy, and therefore, the Abkhazians wanted the Soviet Union to remain. No matter what they wanted, the USSR disintegrated, and Georgia became independent. As expected, the new Georgian leader, Gamsakhurdia tried to continue the Georgianization and Christianization campaigns, but Abkhazians expressed their concerns. In 1992, Abkhazia was declared to be a sovereign state. It even sent an invitation to Georgia for bilateral relations. However, Georgia was not pleased at all. Therefore, immediately after the declaration, Georgia started large-scale military operations in Abkhazia. Although the Georgian army had impressive success at the beginning of the war, the Abkhazians resisted until the end; neither side had a victory in the end. A truce agreement was signed at the end of the war, and the deal involved Russia, Georgia, and Abkhazia. Later, the UN was involved in the issue but failed to approach from the perspectives of both sides. After series of wars, several peace deals, and the placement of peacekeepers, Georgian and Abkhazian leaders came together with leaders of international organizations to discuss the future. Although the meeting was the largest one since the war in 1993, it did not lead to a definite conclusion. A year later, the Abkhazians expressed their intentions to have their own independent state. It should be noted that Abkhazians had never ceased to request for an independent country since the war. However, the UN did not accept their requests because that would make the situation worse.
At the beginning of 2001, another step was taken in the name of the betterment of relationships. Once again, both Georgia and Abkhazia agreed to not use force against each other and to show mutual understanding. However, in the same year, the Russian army bombed a region which was belonging to Abkhazia and under the control of Georgia. Georgian leaders expressed their concerns and stated that they did not want the Russian peacekeepers to stay in their region. However, Russia did not listen and decided to pass a new regulation which would allow former Soviet nations to join the Russian Federation in case the nation itself wants it. The regulation is still threatening Georgia because as mentioned above, Abkhazians had wanted to be a part of Russia and had expressed their preference to stay in the Soviet Union in the past. Amid the heightening tensions with Russia, Georgia became closer to the United States.
In 2008, Russia officially recognized Abkhazia which contributed to the worsening of relationships with Georgia. Since then, the situation has remained almost the same. Georgia still tries to keep Abkhazia under control, while Abkhazia tries to get other countries to recognize itself.
The South Ossetia Conflict
Ossetia consists of two separate regions: South Ossetia and North Ossetia. While South Ossetia belongs to Georgia, the latter belongs to the Russian Federation. Similar to the Abkhazians, there are several theories on the origin of the Ossetians. Nevertheless, it is known that the Ossetians have started building close relations with the Georgians since the 1st century. Their relations with Russia date back to the 18th century, which was mainly caused by the strengthening of Russia in the Caucasus. Interestingly, at that time, the Ossetians revealed their intention of being a part of Russia which did not accept it on the grounds that doing so would anger the Ottoman Empire and Iran. Nonetheless, they agreed upon that the Ossetians would support Russia during wartime and spread Orthodoxy among their population, whereas Russia would do a favor in terms of trade. In 1774, following a four-year war, the Ottomans and Russians signed a treaty that gave the entire Ossetia to the Russian Empire. That was what the Ossetians had been longing for. In the 19th century, Russia decided to give the southern part of Ossetia to Georgian feudal landowners.
It was only after the Soviet Union’s creation that South Ossetia was officially given to Georgia, and North Ossetia was given to Russia. Both regions were supposed to be autonomous regions. It should be noted that the event is still the main cause of the Ossetia conflict.
There was almost no problem during the period between the creation of the USSR and its collapse. Since all regions, including both South and North Ossetia, belonged to the Soviet Union, nationalistic movements were not needed, and people were not encouraged to protest about anything. However, towards the end of the Soviet Union, Georgia showed signs of its desire to take total control of South Ossetia. In 1988, the country passed a law to make Georgian the official language in all parts of the country, including South Ossetia. This led to worsening relations between the two. A year later, the South Ossetians aimed to unite with North Ossetia and stop South Ossetia from being a part of Georgia. The South Ossetians even asked Abkhazians to cooperate. This would be a great concern for Georgian leaders, and therefore, military confrontations began in the region in 1989. A year later, the South Ossetians wanted to be an independent country in the Soviet Union, but their request was not accepted. To heighten tensions, Georgia decided that it does not want to see South Ossetia as an autonomous region. As a result, Georgia was condemned both by the Ossetians and the Soviet Union. Subsequently, large-scale and long-lasting military operations started, and thousands of people died. Meanwhile, the Ossetians were reiterating their request to unite, and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) was supporting them.
In 1992, the first truce was signed between the Russian Federation and Georgia. The truce and the future deals were aimed to place peacekeepers from Georgia, Russia, and both North and South Ossetia. A year later, Georgia and Russia agreed to invest in South Ossetia to get it recovered from the effects of the war. Georgia was attempting to publicize the issue and attract global organizations because it was still concerned about the existence of Russian soldiers in the region. However, except for the OSCE, no organization took responsibility. Its existence in the region was very effective. Until 2002, there was almost no disagreement or any concerning issues. Peace was maintained, and almost all of the agreements were aimed to improve relations. In 2002, Abkhazian and South Ossetian leaders decided to cooperate against Georgia and have Russia’s support. Two years later, South Ossetians asked to join Russia, but President Vladimir Putin stated that it was the internal affair of Georgia and that Russia could not do anything. However, in the same year, Russia moved additional armed forces to South Ossetia. After Georgia’s warnings, Russia denied moving troops to the region.
Later, as a consequence of the arrest of several Georgian peacekeepers, military confrontations began. Although the military confrontations stopped for a while following a truce, the sides started fighting again. In 2005, Georgia approved a declaration that would make Russian peacekeepers leave the region. Although it was beneficial for Georgia, the South Ossetians did not find the deal very helpful because they had always considered Russia as their protector. Nevertheless, the deal also benefitted South Ossetia through other means.
In 2007, the relations between Georgia and Russia worsened again. The main reason was Russia’s decision of letting the residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia participate in the elections of Russia. Georgia expressed concern when the decision was made, and it refused to accept the 2008 elections of Russia in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In 2008, when it was clear that Kosovo would declare independence, Russia told the West that it would need to make changes in its policies towards both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Immediately after Kosovo declared independence, the South Ossetian and Abkhazian leaders went to Moscow and talked about their independence.
Naturally, in a period of heightened tensions, military conflicts started in South Ossetia and Georgia border. South Ossetians had already declared their independence (without Georgia’s approval), and Georgia realized that the only way to deter them was conducting military operations. Now, it would not be expected of Russia to stay silent in the face of such an important action taken by Georgia. Russia warned Georgia and told it to stop the operations. Later, Georgian President Saakashvili announced that the country was going for a large-scale war and asked every young man to be ready to protect the motherland. At the same time, Russian President Medvedev complained about how his people were being killed in Georgia. A few minutes later, Russian armed forces entered South Ossetia. Although a lot of countries and organizations called both sides to have peace, they did not listen in the beginning. On August 12, 2008, Russia agreed to sign a temporary truce agreement and pull its troops out of the region. Russia would later remove its troops from Georgia but continue its peacekeeping activities in South Ossetia. Two weeks later, Russia recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It was condemned by various global organizations for recognition. Other than Russia, four other states, namely Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Syria, recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent and sovereign states.
The Future of the Conflicts
The world is full of ethnic conflicts and almost none of them seem to be resolved in the near future. One of the main reasons is that artificial borders that have been drawn by others without taking ethnicities into account always keep those ethnicities dissatisfied. Unless the demographic distributions of those ethnicities change drastically, the enmity and dissatisfaction remain intact. Several parts of the world, including Africa and the Middle East, abound with examples. For example, it is known that the European colonialists drew border lines in Africa to distribute resources among themselves. It is not surprising then they have not considered the ethnicities who lived there. The artificial borders caused numerous enemy nations to live in the same country. Today, we still realize its effects. The current situations in Ethiopia and other countries are the direct results of the artificial borderlines. Unfortunately, those issues have not been resolved yet, and it seems they will not be resolved peacefully.
Whether it is in the Middle East, Africa, or the Caucasus, an ethnic conflict is extremely difficult to resolve. Unlike most other types of conflicts, the concept of “ethnicity” creates a very strong sense of “us” and “others” even before the conflict begins. The issue becomes more of an issue of pride rather than a mere conflict of calculated interests.
This also explains why conflicts like the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have not ended without bloody wars. In addition to the factors mentioned above, the Caucasus involves another major factor: the existence of a major power bloc, Russia.
Interestingly, almost any conflict in the Caucasus involves Russia, at least to a certain degree. This is not unusual or surprising because all dominant powers have attempted to be involved in major issues of their region in the past. However, the reason it is mentioned here is that the involvement of any other major power bloc as a third-party makes ethnic conflicts less likely to be resolved. The resolution of such conflicts means the major power would have fewer opportunities to exercise power and keep others under control. It is especially important in the case of Georgia because Georgia wants to join international organizations such as the EU or NATO. We should remember that when Angela Merkel discussed the application of Georgia to NATO with Vladimir Putin in 2008, she stated that it was impossible because the organization would not accept a country with regional or internal issues. This meant as long as the issues of Georgia are kept alive, the country is unlikely to be a NATO member. Therefore, the conflicts in Georgia can be expected to linger for a long time.
Western Influence Wanes in South Caucasus
Over the course of past year, Georgia’s relations with its Western partners have notably cooled. Under the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party which came to power in 2012, ties with the West had strengthened. But recently, as the popularity of the party declined and the political landscape in Georgia altered, distrust has grown, accusations have flown, and questions regarding the sustainability of Georgia’s pro-Western path are loudly discussed.
A primary driver is an internal political crisis which followed the 2020 parliamentary elections. That worsened following a July 28 decision by GD to walk back a deal it reached with the political opposition to end a month-long internal political crisis. The process was supervised by EU diplomats along with the U.S. ambassador. A six-point plan was produced that envisaged long-sought electoral and judicial reforms, and power-sharing in parliament. It also involved stipulations on the possibility of new elections and the issue of political prisoners (though the government says there are none.)
The decision to withdraw from the deal might be also linked to the upcoming local government elections and troubles faced by the ruling party. IRI-produced polls showed that GD is backed by only 28% of the population, with the United National Movement, traditionally the biggest opposition party, coming second with 15%. Other polls showed only slightly higher support for the ruling party.
Georgian Dream also faces serious dissent within its own ranks. Former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s active political campaigning and growing popularity (9% according to the IRI polls) have taken significant support from Georgia Dream to his new party, called For Georgia. The proliferation of parties as well as the steady process of generational change is breaking the political status quo. Gradually, older parties are losing popularity, while newer groups manage to attract support in the 5-10% range. Diffusion of political power among multiple parties is thus a significant development which breaks with traditional Georgian politics of single party dominance of the entire political landscape.
Although pro-EU sentiment within the Georgian public remains fairly high, for the political elites it has become increasingly clear that membership prospects are bleaker than ever before. Reasons range from troubles in the liberal world order, to the rise of illiberalism and the divisions within the EU on expanding onto Russia’s doorstep.
America’s failures should not be magnified, but its prestige has been shaken by the Afghan withdrawal, meaning U.S. authority is being diluted. President Joe Biden’s focus on the Indo-Pacific region has provided an opportunity for Georgia’s government to consider a more balanced approach to the Black Sea neighborhood. This involves the establishment of more equidistant external ties, both to regional and global powers. Ukraine, another long-time EU-hopeful, did something similar when the country was essentially shunned from EU and NATO membership. The country turned to China, and signed a large investment deal to improve railway and ports infrastructure. Reaching out to Turkey is another option.
In Georgia’s case, its fixation with the West no longer provides the expected results. However, this does not mean Georgia will abandon its pro-Western stance. Ideally, constructing closer foreign ties with other actors would allow the country to partially compensate for its inability to win EU/NATO membership. A multi-vector foreign policy is already visible in Turkey, Iran, Russia and other neighboring states. Even Armenia, much constrained by asymmetric dependence on Russia, is actively looking at diversifying its foreign policy options by actively seeking a rapprochement with Turkey.
One possibility is that Georgia seeks an improvement of relations with Russia — badly marred by the 2008 war — as part of a more agile and balanced foreign policy. As ties between Georgia and the West deteriorate, Russia seems to want an understanding. A series of offers on normalizing bilateral relations was suggested by the Kremlin, aiming to exploit the rising disagreements between Georgia and its Western partners.
In the end, the shift from fixation on the West to a policy of criticism as part of a broader foreign policy reflects changes in the balance of power. The West is no longer seen in the wider Black Sea region as a decisive power. The rise of an illiberal alternative to the Western liberal democratic model allows countries to take another path. That of course ultimately harms the U.S. and its friends, reduces their credibility, and may reverse liberty’s advances, achieved over several decades, both in Georgia and Ukraine.
Author’s note: first published in cepa
Ukraine’s EU-integration plan is not good for Europe
Late this summer, Estonia, in the person of its president, Kersti Kaljulaid, became the first EU country to declare that Ukraine remains as far away from EU membership as it was after the “Revolution of Dignity” – the events of 2013-14 in Kiev, which toppled Ukraine’s vacillating pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Shortly after, the ambassador of Estonia’s neighbor, Latvia, in Ukraine, echoed Kaljulaid’s statement, although in a slightly softer form. This came as unpleasant news for the current authorities of Kiev, especially amid the celebration of Ukraine’s 30th independence anniversary and the “Crimean Forum,” which, according to President Zelensky’s plan, was supposed to rally international support for the country in its confrontation with Russia. However, during the past seven years, Ukraine has been a serious problem for the EU, which is becoming increasingly hard to solve.
Back in 2014, the Kremlin’s response to the overthrow of its ally, Yanukovych, was just as harsh as to the coming to power in Kiev of pro-Western elites. Without firing a single shot, Russia annexed Crimea, a major base for the Russian Black Fleet, and populated by a Russian-speaking majority, many of whom sincerely welcomed the region’s reunification with Russia. Meanwhile, a civil war broke out in Ukraine’s also Russian-speaking southeast where the local separatists were actively supported by Moscow. Europe then realized that it was now necessary to ramp up pressure on Russia and support the budding democratic transformations in Ukraine. However, the country’s successive pro-Western presidents, Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky, who shared European values, have since failed to achieve any significant results in European integration. Moreover, they became enmeshed in US electoral scandals and the war of compromising evidence, and they do not create the impression of being independent figures. Moreover, they were consistently making one mistake after another. In two major battles with separatists near Debaltsevo and Ilovaisk in 2014-15, the Ukrainian Armed Forces suffered a crushing defeat, despite the upsurge of patriotism backed by US and European support. The closure of the borders with Russia has divided families and left tens of thousands of people without jobs. An inept language policy and rabid nationalism split the Ukrainian nation, which had just begun to shape up, with wholesale corruption plunging the country into poverty.
In their clumsy effort to prove their adherence to European values, Petro Poroshenko, and after him Volodymyr Zelensky, both made clumsy attempts to prove their adherence to Western values, starting to prioritize the interests of the country’s LGBT community. As a result, gay people were given prominent positions in the country’s leadership, and the square outside the presidential palace became the venue of almost weekly gay pride parades. This open disregard for the conservative values of the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians led to an even greater split between the ruling elites and the nationalists, who are now at loggerheads with the Zelensky administration on many issues – another gigantic problem hindering Ukraine’s European integration.
The fact is that Ukrainian nationalism has old and very controversial roots. Starting out as fighters for independence, the Ukrainian right-wingers quickly joined the camp of Hitler’s admirers and committed a number of serious war crimes not only in Ukraine proper, but on the territory of neighboring Poland as well. Their heirs now honor Hitler and Ukrainian collaborationists, deny many crimes of Nazism and espouse anti-Semitic views that are unacceptable for Europe. Moreover, they do not see Russia as their only enemy, actively provoking conflicts with the Poles and accusing them of the “genocide of the Ukrainians” during the 1930s in the territories that until 1939 were part of the Polish state.
In the course of the seven years of Ukraine’s “pro-Western turn” the local right-wingers, who already represented an organized force, were reinforced by veterans of the Donbass war, members of the country’s military and security forces. They were long regarded by the Washington as important allies in the fight against Russia, failing to see real neo-Nazis hiding under patriotic slogans. Now it is exactly these people, who are breaking up gay parades in Kiev and crippling LGBT activists. They feel no need for European values because they take much closer to heart the legacy of the Third Reich. Thanks to visa-free travel to Europe, they have become regulars, and often the striking force of neo-Nazi gatherings from Germany to Spain. They are ready to kill refugees from the Middle East and burn synagogues. Moreover, some of them have retained ties with their Russian neo-Nazi brethren, who, although in deep opposition to Vladimir Putin, continue to propagate the idea of superiority of the Slavic race.
President Zelensky and his administration are smart enough to distance themselves from the local right-wingers. Moreover, they are detained, and sometimes their rallies are broken up by police (albeit without any consequences for the leaders). Even though the ultra-nationalist Right Sector lost their seats in parliament in the last elections, they retained their hard-core base and influence. De facto neo-Nazi leaders maintain good contacts with the outwardly liberal presidential administration and are thus immune from prosecution. They also go to Europe, where right-wing sentiments are very popular.
Meanwhile, President Zelensky continues to pointlessly lose soldiers along the “contact line” with separatists, unable to “be strong with his weakness” and establish a full-fledged truce in a war he does not yet want to win. As a result, more and more illegal arms are seeping into the country’s central regions from the frontlines and many soldiers, fed up with the war, are now joining the ranks of right-wing militants! These are by no means pro-European activists. They will be just as happy to beat up LGBT members and destroy a refugee camp as the Russian embassy. The authorities simply cannot fight them in earnest because the ultranationalists have too many supporters in the state apparatus and too many activists capable of plunging Kiev into chaos in a matter of hours. Small wonder that such post-Soviet countries as Estonia and Latvia, which themselves had problems with both nationalism and the justification of local collaborationists, were the first to raise their voices criticizing Kiev.
Well, Ukraine could and should be viewed as a potential new EU member. However, it must be forced to root out Nazism, instead of holding staged gay prides in downtown Kiev just for show to demonstrate the elites’ adherence to European values! Otherwise, we would have a faction of real neo-Nazis in the European Parliament, compared to whom any members of the European Far Right would look like moderate conservatives. In addition to stamping out corruption, President Zelensky needs to eradicate neo-fascism, which threatens Europe just as it does his own country. Only then can we talk about European integration. Meanwhile, we have to admit that, just as the Estonian president said, seven years of “European democracy” have not brought Ukraine one step closer to the United Europe…
Prospects of Armenia-Turkey Rapprochement
Potential Armenia-Turkey rapprochement could have a major influence on South Caucasus geopolitics. The opening of the border would allow Turkey to have a better connection with Azerbaijan beyond the link it already has with the Nakhchivan exclave. Moscow will not be entirely happy with the development as it would allow Yerevan to diversify its foreign policy and decrease dependence on Russia in economy. The process nevertheless is fraught with troubles as mutual distrust and the influence of the third parties could complicate the nascent rapprochement.
Over the past month Armenian and Turkish officials exchanged positive statements which signaled potential rapprochement between the two historical foes. For instance, the Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan said that he was ready for reconciliation with Turkey “without preconditions.” “Getting back to the agenda of establishing peace in the region, I must say that we have received some positive public signals from Turkey. We will assess these signals, and we will respond to positive signals with positive signals,” the PM stated. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara could work towards gradual normalization if Yerevan “declared its readiness to move in this direction.”
On a more concrete level Armenia has recently allowed Turkish Airlines to fly to Baku directly over Armenia. More significantly, Armenia’s recently unveiled five-year government action plan, approved by Armenia’s legislature, states that “Armenia is ready to make efforts to normalize relations with Turkey.” Normalization, if implemented in full, would probably take the form of establishing full-scale diplomatic relations. More importantly, the five-year plan stresses that Armenia will approach the normalization process “without preconditions” and says that establishing relations with Turkey is in “the interests of stability, security, and the economic development of the region.”
So far it has been just an exchange of positive statements, but the frequency nevertheless indicates that a certain trend is emerging. This could lead to intensive talks and possibly to improvement of bilateral ties. The timing is interesting. The results of the second Nagorno-Karabakh war served as a catalyzer. Though heavily defeated by Azerbaijan, Armenia sees the need to act beyond the historical grievances it holds against Turkey and be generally more pragmatic in foreign ties. In Yerevan’s calculation, the improvement of relations with Ankara could deprive Baku of some advantages. Surely, Azerbaijan-Turkey alliance will remain untouched, but the momentum behind it could decrease if Armenia establishes better relations with Turkey. The latter might not be as strongly inclined to push against Armenia as it has done so far, and specifically during the second Nagorno-Karabakh war. The willingness to improve the bilateral relations has been persistently expressed by Ankara over the past years. Perhaps the biggest effort was made in 2009 when the Zurich Protocols were signed leading to a brief thaw in bilateral relations. Though eventually unsuccessful (on March 1, 2018, Armenia announced the cancellation of the protocols), Ankara has often stressed the need of improvement of ties with Yerevan without demanding preconditions.
Beyond the potential establishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of the two countries’ border, closed from early 1990s because of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey’s solidarity with and military and economic support for Azerbaijan, could also be a part of the arrangement. The opening of the 300 km border running along the Armenian regions of Shirak, Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat could be a game-changer. The opening up of the border is essentially an opening of the entire South Caucasus region. The move would provide Armenia with a new market for its products and businesses. In the longer term it would allow the country to diversify its economy, lessen dependence on Russia and the fragile route which goes through Georgia. The reliance on the Georgian territory could be partially substituted by Azerbaijan-Armenia-Turkey route, though it should be also stressed that the Armenia transit would need considerable time to become fully operational.
Economic and connectivity diversification equals the diminution of Russian influence in the South Caucasus. In other words, the closed borders have always constituted the basis of Russian power in the region as most roads and railways have a northward direction. For Turkey an open border with Armenia is also beneficial as it would allow a freer connection with Azerbaijan. Improving the regional links is a cornerstone of Turkey’s position in the South Caucasus. In a way, the country has acted as a major disruptor. Through its military and active economic presence Turkey opens new railways and roads, thus steadily decreasing Russian geopolitical leverage over the South Caucasus.
As mentioned, both Ankara and Yerevan will benefit from potential rapprochement. It is natural to suggest that the potential improvement between Turkey and Armenia, Russia’s trustful ally, would not be possible without Moscow’s blessing. Russia expressed readiness to help Armenia and Turkey normalize their relations, saying that would boost peace and stability in the region. “Now too we are ready to assist in a rapprochement between the two neighboring states based on mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said. Yet, it is not entirely clear how the normalization would suit Russia’s interests. One possibility is that the Armenia-Turkey connection would allow Russia to have a direct land link with Turkey via Azerbaijan and Armenia. However, here too the benefits are doubtful. The route is long and will likely remain unreliable. For Russia trade with Turkey via the Black Sea will remain a primary route.
Presenting a positive picture in the South Caucasus could however be a misrepresentation of real developments on the ground. The Armenian-Turkish rapprochement is far from being guaranteed because of ingrained distrust between the two sides. Moreover, there is also the Azerbaijani factor. Baku will try to influence Ankara’s thinking lest the rapprochement goes against Azerbaijan’s interests. Moreover, as argued above, Russia too might not be entirely interested in the border opening. This makes the potential process of normalization fraught with numerous problems which could continuously undermine rapport improvement.
Thus, realism drives Turkish policy toward Armenia. Ankara needs better connections to the South Caucasus. Reliance on the Georgian transit route is critical, but diversification is no less important. The results of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh war present Turkey and Armenia with an opportunity to pursue the improvement of bilateral ties. Yet, the normalization could be under pressure from external players and deep running mutual distrust. Moreover, the two sides will need to walk a tightrope as a potential blowback from nationalist forces in Turkey and Armenia can complicate the process.
Author’s note: first published in caucasuswatch
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