|Even positive gestures can cause trouble in Caucasus|
IT WAS LAST YEAR around this time that I made an extensive reporting trip to the volatile Caucasus region. This strategically vital territory between the Black and Caspian seas is a veritable hornet’s nest of mutually hostile former Soviet republics and breakaway ethnic enclaves. Although the distances are not vast, my travels were made extremely problematic due to the number of closed borders, frozen conflicts and not so frozen conflicts.In August 2008, the world’s attention had been briefly diverted away from the Beijing Olympics to news reports of conflict in South Ossetia. Very few pundits really understood the underlying cause of the clash, namely that ethnic Georgian forces had attempted to forcibly reclaim the tiny, self-declared independent territory back into its own sovereign authority.
When Russian troops subsequently intervened on behalf of the South Ossetians, western military analysts reverted to their well-worn Cold War playbooks to denounce Russia’s "aggression." It mattered not that Georgian troops had initiated the attack, and had been guilty of widespread slaughter of civilians and ethnic cleansing prior to the Russian intervention. The sight of columns of T-72 Russian tanks rolling through the North Ossetian mountain pass caused U.S. Senator John McCain to make the bizarre declaration that "today we are all Georgians."
As events unfolded, World War Three did not erupt, Russia did not annex Georgia, as many had feared, and after France successfully negotiated a ceasefire, the Caucasus returned to the status of being a wobbly stack of short-fused powder kegs. With the crisis thus averted, the western media coverage quickly returned to the Olympic Games.
Never fully examined was the devastating domino effect that could have plunged the entire region into yet another round of vicious bloodletting. For centuries, there have been eruptions of violence between the three major Caucasus occupants — Georgians, Armenians and Azeris — as well as the smaller minorities such as the Abkhazians, Ossetians and Circassians.
Forcibly united under the Bolshevik umbrella of the Soviet Union following the First World War, the old hatreds continued to simmer. When the Soviet Union took the first stumbling steps towards collapse in the late 1980s, the nationalist factions were already arming themselves and battling each other in preparation for the conflagration they all sensed would soon erupt.
By 1991, the defunct Soviet Union had formally granted the republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan their independence. What had been sporadic local fighting between ethnic factions developed into a full-scale albeit undeclared series of wars. Abkhazians and Ossetians fought to wrest independent homelands from Georgia and, in the most savage fighting, ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh established their own republic, independent from the recognized sovereign authority of Azerbaijan.
Backed by volunteers from Armenia and funded by their wealthy international diaspora, the Armenian forces not only secured Nagorno-Karabakh but, by the time a ceasefire was declared in 1994, they had captured seven additional Azeri provinces and completely ethnically cleansed this region of its 800,000 ethnic Azeri inhabitants. Turkey had supported the Turkic Azeris in this conflict, and closed their border with Armenia at the onset of hostilities.
For the past 15 years, with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict frozen but unresolved, this border has remained closed, leaving landlocked Armenia dependant on just two supply lines through Georgia and Iran. As Russia is Armenia’s biggest regional supporter economically and militarily, the summer 2008 conflict with Georgia served to illustrate just how vulnerable and isolated Armenia is under the current restrictions.
In 2006, the Baku (Azerbaijan), Tbilisi (Georgia) and Ceyhan (Turkey) BTC oil pipeline was completed, and it now pumps nearly one million barrels of crude daily from Azerbaijan’s oil-rich offshore rigs in the Caspian Sea to European markets via the port of Ceyhan. If anyone glances at a map, that pipeline could have been shortened by hundreds of kilometres had it been built on a more direct route through Armenia rather than through Georgia.
Last year, when I interviewed senior Armenian officials in Yerevan, the pragmatic among them recognized that a rapprochement with Turkey was the only way for their tiny nation to move forward economically. The hardliners, particularly those of the Armenian diaspora and those residing in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, demanded that Turkey must first officially admit that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against the Armenians in Eastern Anatolia in 1915. The Turks — with good reason — dispute that claim and maintain that the undenied tragedy that killed hundreds of thousands of Armenians was due in no small part to the devastating wartime conditions.
Azerbaijan and the Turkish hardliners have insisted that no peace overtures should be made until the Armenians have withdrawn from the seven occupied Azeri provinces around Nagorno-Karabakh — in accordance with the four UN Resolutions passed to that effect — and the 800,000 displaced Azeris are resettled.
Last week, at a secret meeting in Zurich, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped coerce the foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey into signing two protocols that will put these two states on the path toward opening their border without either of those preconditions having been met.
Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry immediately denounced the protocols, and Armenian President Serge Sarkisian required police protection in Paris where angry Armenian expatriates decried him as a traitor.
The Caucasus situation has been described as a multiple person Mexican standoff, with every stakeholder holding cocked guns to each other’s heads. As such, even the seemingly positive gesture of Turkey and Armenia easing their fingers off their triggers may only serve to upset the fragile balance.