The past 100 years have been instrumental in shaping national, public and regional identities, and history weighs heavily on the national consciousness. At this stage, it is hard to promise a safer, more integrated region. But following the counsel of Thomas Jefferson that “dreams of the future [are preferable to] the history of the past,” the region is projecting a vision for the future. Last week, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s conference “South Caucasus 2018: Facts, Trends and Future Scenarios” was held in Sighnaghi, Georgia, bringing together a number of leading experts from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
The main discussion points were the current trends in the region; perceptions and realities of security and foreign policy; economic development; and regional integration, with the aim of preparing an outline for 2018. In order to project a vision for the future, one needs first to explore the current prevailing concerns, many of which have remained open since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Caucasus and its neighboring regions a facing a period of crisis, with clashing principles, divided approaches to its various challenges, and the absence of a common vision.
There are three fundamental concerns that should drive the trajectory toward an ideal scenario for the region in 2018.
First of all, the region is riven by territorial disputes. Protracted and unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh influence every aspect of the overall landscape of the three South Caucasian states, from identity-building, cultural evolution and socio-economic development to military doctrine, foreign policy and geopolitics. The picture becomes even more complicated when these conflicts are used to legitimize the de-facto independence of the secessionist regions of Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. These threats cast a shadow of “predictable unpredictability.”
The most challenging point on the path to 2018 will be the year 2014 for two reasons: one, next year all three countries will hold presidential elections, which will overwhelm all other issues. Following this period of “election stagnation,” 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire agreement between Azerbaijan, Armenia and the de-facto authorities of occupied Nagorno-Karabakh; the Bishkek Protocol has provided a fragile peace since 1994, but this milestone is likely to fuel both expectations and frustrations, especially on the part of Azerbaijan. Additionally, on the eve of the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014, conflict between Russia and Georgia may arise if Russia wants to include Abkhazia in preparation for the games. This could dramatically increase security risks, over and above current fears about terrorist attacks from the volatile North Caucasus.
In this sense, the post-2014 period will be difficult to navigate. In addition to the factors mentioned above, 2014-15 will also bring challenges for Turkish foreign policy, with regard to the 1915 events -- what Armenia terms “the genocide issue.” The same period will be similarly testing for the South Caucasus countries with regard to relations with Russia, as 2015 is the year that Moscow’s “Eurasia Project” will be launched, in theory at least.
Looking beyond the region, with Europe currently embroiled in its internal affairs, the US increasingly less involved in the Caucasus, and Central Asia turning eastwards to satisfy China’s tremendous demand for natural resources (which will clearly have a longer term impact on Caucasian energy dealings), there are complex international dynamics at play. Then we have the Iranian question, whereby the threat of military intervention in Iran puts the neighborhood at risk, in addition to the fact that Iran is directly threatening the security of the Caucasus states via terror plots. Any one of these factors has the power to totally redefine the geopolitics of the Caucasus, and thus the next steps for the region.
The second concern is the lack of regional cooperation, which has an immediate and profound impact on any vision of future development. Collaboration on energy projects has cemented an Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey alliance, while Armenia’s continued occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh has isolated it from any such cooperation. If the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains unresolved over the next two years, on the eve of 2018, it will be impossible to bring Yerevan into regional development plans.
Looking to the economic statistics and forecasts for economic development, individual countries are developing at very different rates. According to IMF data, in 2017, Azerbaijan’s Gross domestic product (GDP) ($125,681 million) will be 76.5 percent of the total GDP of the South Caucasus. While this money could contribute greatly to regional development, for now, that direction of investment remains a pipe dream.
The third concern is the continued democratization of the region, which requires active, sincere, patient and consistent work. Repeated revolutions and street protests are not necessarily the best way forth, and the leadership of each country needs to demonstrate its fierce commitment to the progress described above.
Finally, dreaming of better future is not in itself enough; the region must learn from the experiences of the past twenty years. The region’s unique character is encapsulated in the Azerbaijani saying Bura Qafqazdır, “This is the Caucasus”. This saying is generally understood to mean, “everything is possible in this region”; for this we must keep fighting for a better future.