Institute for Advanced Strategic & Political Studies
Washington, D.C.

IASPS Policy Briefings: Geostrategic Perspectives on Eurasia

Date: February 18, 2004                            Number:   52


FROZEN CONFLICTS IN THE BLACK SEA-SOUTH CAUCASUS REGION

                                     

                   

                             -- Part One (of three) --

                                

      by Vladimir Socor,   IASPS Senior Fellow

 

This article originates in a presentation to the Sofia conference of The German Marshall Fund of the United States on “Developing a New Euro-Atlantic Strategy for the Black Sea Region,” February 14, 2003.

 

            There are altogether four “frozen” conflicts in the former Soviet-ruled territories, all four localized in the Black Sea-South Caucasus region: Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabakh. These conflicts drain economic resources and political energies from the impoverished societies of Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Three of these conflicts were caused and are sustained by Moscow's policies and  the involvement of Russian military forces supporting local proxies. In the fourth case, Russia indirectly supports one side militarily.

 

            The socioeconomic and security  ramifications of these conflicts, along with the Russian military presence, severely undermine Moldova's, Georgia's, Armenia's and Azerbaijan's  prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration. Therein lies a major incentive for Russia to keep these conflicts “frozen.”

 

RUSSIAN POLICY PARADIGM

 

            Moscow's policy paradigm with respect to these conflicts can be defined as controlled instability. It foments, then manages the conflicts; casts Russia in the dual role of party to and arbiter of the conflicts; frustrates their resolution (unless it be on terms ensuring Russia's dominance over the whole of the affected country); perpetuates Russia's military presence; capitalizes on the geopolitical and socioeconomic consequences of mass ethnic cleansing (of Azeris from Karabakh and of Georgians from Abkhazia); fosters state weakness and chaotic conditions in the target countries; distracts these from the agenda of systemic reforms; and discourages Western interest in developing organic ties with Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

 

            The overarching goal of Russian policy has evolved from the simple one of thwarting these countries' independence in the early and mid-1990s to the more ambitious present goal of thwarting their integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions. This testifies to essential continuity in  the conflict-management policy of three successive Russian regimes from 1990 to the present.

 

            The strategy paradigm of controlled instability has its counterpart at the sociopolitical level in the export of the Russian model of governance to the breakaway enclaves. Their authorities-- often headed by citizens of Russia—have become miniature reproductions of the Russian phenomenon whereby security services and organized crime, interpenetrating with each other, control policy and politics, the administration, the economy and foreign trade operations. While Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, under the Western impact, have evolved varying degrees of political and institutional pluralism and the offshoots of civil society, the Russian-controlled breakaway statelets are highly authoritarian and militarized. Such divergent political paths have widened the chasm in Moldova and Georgia between the legitimate states and the respective secessionist areas (such a chasm also exists between Armenia and Karabakh despite their de facto fusion). Russia has a  stake in perpetuating the rogue mini-regimes and, thus, the conflicts. This explains Moscow's steadfast support to the Transnistrian, Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaderships for well over a decade. Any sustainable political settlement would require the replacement of such regimes. A democratic opening in those areas is long overdue and should become a priority in the Euro-Atlantic strategy for the Black Sea-South Caucasus region.

 

 

DEEPER FREEZE SINCE 9/11

 

            The putative rapprochement between Russia and the West since 9/11 has deepened the freeze on  conflicts in this region. Even during the preceding decade, the goal of settling these conflicts had not figured anywhere near the top of the U.S.-Russia or EU-Russia bilateral agendas. After 9/11 and especially after Iraq, that goal received only sporadic attention in Washington; it has been relegated to the back burner by an overstretched NATO; and has yet to concentrate the EU's collective vision. Even as Euro-Atlantic interests grew vital in this region (strategic-military access eastward, energy transit westward, security on NATO's and EU's new southeastern border), the main Euro-Atlantic actors apparently chose to postpone conflict-settlement efforts, rather than risk  a falling-out with Russia at this time.

 

            Meanwhile, the oversold Russia-West rapprochement has turned into its opposite with respect to political values. Furthermore, Moscow's notion of U.S.-Russia strategic partnership evidences a sense of entitlement to Russian hegemony in formerly Soviet-ruled countries, and a readiness to pursue that goal while American and NATO attention and resources are concentrated elsewhere.

 

            Thus, President Vladimir Putin has authorized measures to absorb Abkhazia and South Ossetia de  facto into Russia through conferral of  Russian citizenship and visa privileges on local residents, establishment of direct transportation and communications links between Russia and the breakaway enclaves, takeovers of Georgian state property by Russian entities, control of what is legally the Georgian side of the Georgia-Russia border in the respective sectors by Russian and proxy troops; all this on top of the Russian “peacekeeping” presence and agent network implantation. Most recently, Moscow began treating Ajaria on the same footing as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Last November, Russian officials and the three breakaway leaders held a week-long, heavily publicized conclave in Moscow. Assured of Moscow's support, the Abkhaz leaders refuse to discuss—literally they refuse to take delivery of—the outline of a political settlement, prepared by senior German diplomat Dieter Boden and supported by the U.S. and other Western countries. Russia opposes discussion of the Boden document in the U.N.-sponsored negotiations regarding Abkhazia.

 

            In Moldova, Putin's first deputy chief of staff Dmitry Kozak and the Moldovan Communist President Vladimir Voronin negotiated secretly behind the West's back a settlement of the Transnistria conflict that would have ensured full Russian political control of Moldova, moreover keeping the Russian troops in place until at least 2020. Voronin initialed every page of the Kozak document, which was published. Putin was scheduled to land in Chisinau on November 25 to witness the official signing. Voronin had to call it off during the night of November 24-25 amid strong U.S. and EU (Javier Solana) demarches and calls for mass protests by opposition parties and civil society groups. Nevertheless, the essence of Russia's proposal—Moldova yielding a share of power to Transnistria's Moscow-installed leaders, in a ”federal” arrangement under the political and legal oversight primarily of Russia--remains officially the sole basis for negotiations because the OSCE has taken it on board (see Part Two of this article).

 

                                                -- end of Part One (of three) -

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