The members of parliament all agreed, however, on the strategic relevance of the South Caucasus region. On one hand, the conflicts that plague the region and the potential for instability in the neighbouring North Caucasus region to spread south have broad ramifications for Europe. On the other hand, the potential for the region to act as an additional stable supplier of and transit route for energy for Europe could be a significant strategic benefit. “The South Caucasus is at a crossroads,” said keynote speaker Goran Lennmaker, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Rapporteur on Nagorno-Karabakh and Special Envoy on Georgia. “But the individual countries are masters of their own fate,” he stressed.
The critical question is how NATO, the EU and other international actors can assist the states of the region to progress toward stability and prosperity rather than further conflict and fragmentation. Several speakers emphasized that weak political cultures and state institutions hinder progress in the region. One outcome of the seminar was that many participants agreed that the assistance of international organizations could be better targeted at helping the countries of the region develop more effective state institutions that would increase citizens’ confidence in the political system. “We do a lot on how to conduct elections, but not so much on the why” said Dennis Sammut of the London Information Network on Conflicts and State-Building. Rather than the mechanics of elections, international organizations could also increase their focus on building a broader understanding in the region of the values underpinning democracy.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
One of the central issues in the region is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Ambassador Bernard Fassier, Co-Chair of the Minsk Group explained the critical role of that international body co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States in finding a lasting solution to the dispute. Ambassador Fassier explained that the “Madrid Principles” endorsed by the co-chairs were the way forward and he was encouraged by the on-going discussions between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tabib Husenov of the International Crisis Group was also cautiously optimistic. He noted that the co-chairs of the Minsk Group cooperate closely on this issue even though Russia has many disagreements with France and the United States in other areas. He also believed that the international situation is favourable to finding a way forward. The Russia-Georgia war of 2008 showed that the status quo can be dangerous, which may also help to drive progress toward a solution.
The Turkey-Armenia Rapprochement
Sabine Freizer of the International Crisis Group stressed that the rapprochement between the two countries is not a sudden development and that there has been an increasing level of contact at multiple levels between Turkish and Armenian citizens. Although she believed there is considerable positive movement on Turkish-Armenian relations, the protocols for normalizing relations between the two countries are stalled at the moment because neither parliament is willing to be the first to ratify them.
Armenian members of parliament at the seminar insisted that they could ratify the protocols as soon as the Turkish parliament has taken action. But the Turkish members of parliament in attendance explained that there was no support in their parliament for taking this step without clarification on the exact meaning of the ruling of the Armenian constitutional court on the protocols. If the ruling meant that accepting the protocols implied an acknowledgement that the expulsion and deaths of Armenians during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide, Turkish parliamentarians stated this would undermine one of the protocols’ stipulations that calls for the creation of a commission to investigate the history of the time and give an authoritative interpretation. Armenian representatives argued, however, that the obstacle to ratification was Turkey ’s insistence that it be linked to unspecified progress on resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, which constitutes a pre-condition they could not accept. Turkish participants countered that a “roadmap” on Nagorno-Karabakh would be part of a parallel, mutually reinforcing process. Despite the obvious difficulties for both parties, there was general agreement that failure to follow through on the protocols would be a step backwards, leaving the situation worse than it was beforehand.
The Russia-Georgia Conflict
Marian Staszewski, former Deputy Head of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia, underlined a familiar theme during the seminar: mutually exclusive histories among the different states and nationalities in region weigh heavily on the present. The situation in Georgia is no exception and Abkhazia, Georgia and South Ossetia all have very different interpretations of the past and what it means for their future. There are essentially two parallel conflicts. One is over the rights of the various nationalities and how they can share sovereignty. The other is over the status of territories. Mr. Staszewski noted the “creeping annexation” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by Russia and how this fuels a sense in Georgia that time is running out for a solution that recognizes their interests.
Ambassador David Smith of the Georgian Security Analysis Center stressed a similar point and presented a detailed description of how Russia prepared for an invasion of Georgia several years in advance of the 2008 war. Particularly from 2006 to 2008, Russia conducted military exercises, built and refurbished military facilities in Abkhazia, and conducted a sustained military build-up in the region. All of this was designed to provide a means to punish Georgia for its pro-Western stance and send a message to the West when the time was ripe for a military confrontation with Georgia. “Russia is operating as a 19th century power in a 21st century environment,” said Amb. Smith. By extending its reach into Georgian territory, Russia can dominate one of the main east-west corridors that connect Europe to the Eurasia.
Energy resources from the Caspian Basin are only a small part of European energy supplies, but that could increase if oil and gas can travel freely across the South Caucasus. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has blocked the most direct transit routes and forced energy companies to spend more than a billion additional dollars to build a pipeline from Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan through Georgia instead of Armenia according to Haroutiun Khachatrian. Energy also plays a potentially significant role in the regional security. Azerbaijan ’s economy is expanding because of its oil and gas reserves and its population is expected to grow. Assuming that present trends continue, Azerbaijan likely will be both considerably wealthier in per capita terms and have a much larger population than Armenia. “Azerbaijan needs a prosperous Armenia. However, the continued occupation of our lands makes it impossible for Azerbaijan to share its growing wealth with our neighbor. The imbalance in such long-term distribution of wealth represents a true path to renewed conflict" said Ilgar Mammadov, of the Republican Alternative Civic Union in Azerbaijan.
The North Caucasus
The Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation pose a distinct threat to regional stability. Dagestan, Ingushetia, and the other republics in the region are plagued by a combination of extremely high unemployment, rampant corruption and a failure of the federal and local government to provide basic services. This has fuelled a resurgence of Islamist groups in the region that are particularly popular among the young. The failure of the state at all levels has persuaded many in the region that invoking Sharia law would be an improvement on the current situation. In general, the trend is towards “de-Russification” of the North Caucasus according to Aleksey Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center. These republics have little in common with Russia and Russians tend to view them as foreign, often referring to the region as the “inner abroad.” Even with the introduction of a new district level chief official, the outlook for the region is not good and has the potential to be a significant problem for the Russian Federation.
A full report will be available soon on our web site.