March 27, 2012, Tuesday

Security, integration and the Caucasus

It is often said that security is still the dominant issue for the Caucasus region and that its “frozen and unfrozen conflicts” remain the critical obstacle to the development of a regional security architecture.

The problem, of course, is that, while there is available terminology to discuss security issues at a regional level, history indicates that an understanding of country-based security is both more pertinent and more productive. Currently, countries in the Caucasus think about security through the question “How safe do we feel?” rather than considering how the region could be safer.

Nonetheless, fragile stability is the region’s only security achievement. What is clear is that peace and security in the Caucasus only seem possible in a situation whereby each country perceives any threat to a neighbor as a threat to itself and protects the interests of its neighbors as it would protect its own. On this topic, last week’s Wilton Park conference on “Security of the South Caucasus” in Tbilisi shed some light on the region’s security-related questions. Discussion was wide-ranging, but the region’s unresolved conflicts and integration into EU and NATO were key focal points.

During the discussions on the conflicts in Georgia, most experts agreed that in the short term, it will be difficult to achieve resolution, but in the long term, Georgia could “win the hearts and minds” of the Abkhaz and Ossetians by continuing to pursue democracy and economic reform. In this matter, Georgians see Russia’s attitude as an obstacle to conflict resolution in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; although dialogues is open and ongoing, there have been no concrete achievements. The situation is best described as a “manageable stalemate,” rather than genuine conflict resolution. The Georgian government only has one chance to take back its territories via the “State Strategy on Occupied Territories: Engagement through Cooperation,” which has full support from the West. Georgia’s commitment is positive and sounds convincing, but will the de facto authorities and population truly be able to commit to these proposals? Indeed, the very designation of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia as occupied territories is likely to trigger anger and resentment insofar as it implicitly denies that the local populations have any say over how and by whom the regions are administered.

For that reason, some conference participants argued that the strategy is hardly conducive to promoting engagement, given that the populations have different perceptions of the conflict. Moreover, EU integration and conflict resolution are seen as somehow interlinked, not only by experts but also locally. For example, the Caucasus Research Resource Center’s 2009 poll on knowledge and attitudes towards the EU in Georgia showed that for Georgians, the two biggest issues were territorial integrity and jobs. By 2011, following five years of failed conflict resolution, it seems that people have given up hope -- only 42 percent deemed territorial integrity a national priority. In both years, the survey revealed that more than 50 percent of people believe that the conflicts are an obstacle to EU integration. The other argument was that the peace process was internationalized as a result of the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war; an EU presence on the ground had been out of the question before that. It took a war to get the EU monitoring mission out there.

On the other side of the region, debates on resolution of Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict seemed to pivot on the idea that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” The most interesting aspect of the debates on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is Armenian officials’ references to their constructive role in the resolution process, and their practice of blaming the other side, which one Azerbaijani speaker correctly identified as their “need to name the aggressor; i.e. whose forces are on whose territory?” There is a belief among Azerbaijani experts and officials that the OSCE Minsk Group exists to continue the conflict rather than to solve it; in support of this point one Armenian expert argued, “The Minsk Group is more Minsk than Group.” Another Azerbaijani expert argues that the Minsk process has been delegated to the Kremlin, thereby opening the gates for Russian resurgence in the region, with the West unable or unwilling to restore international law on the ground.

Armenian representatives spoke about recurring violence along the “line of contact,” while the Azerbaijani side declared its readiness for “contact without lines.” The major concern among most experts was that prospects for a lasting solution presently seem as remote as they were a decade ago, while the risk of a renewed conflict now appears to be growing appreciably, with some analysts arguing if hostilities continue, they may accelerate, leaving the region in the grip of a “short, accidental war” that will destroy the current negotiation mechanisms.

An additional matter that was raised was the forgotten side of the conflict: the refugees and IDPs. Last year, the Brookings Institution and London School of Economics published a joint report, “Projection Internal Displacement,” which argued that 20 years of living in displacement has shaken the confidence of many that they will be able to return any time soon, but at the same time military rhetoric has increased; “Can you be an IDP for 20 years?” was a recurrent question heard from IDPs in Baku and in remote rural areas. Unfortunately, refugees and IDPs remain largely forgotten, and new generations on either side of the divide are growing up without a real grasp of their roots, and with an increasingly angry resentment and hatred for the other side.

Ultimately, better security and more integration westwards remains for the most part on paper. Despite documents on the region’s security issues, and the “reset button” between Russia and the United States, and regional countries’ move towards integration into EU/NATO, there is little serious commitment in Moscow or Washington or Brussels to properly address security in the Caucasus. The Russian saying “Mnoqo shuma, iz nicheqo” translates as “Much ado about nothing.” It sounds better in the original, but its pertinence transcends the language barrier.

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