The turbulent neighbourhood of the EU

Nato-Russia Clash over Georgia and the Future of the Caucasus

11 Mag 2009 - Nona Mikhelidze - Nona Mikhelidze

On 6 May Georgia hosted NATO exercises amidst domestic confrontation between government and opposition forces, which demanded the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili. The exercises were launched immediately after a real or staged mutiny for which Georgia accused Russia. In turn, Moscow condemned the NATO exercises as a clear provocation, even if according to NATO spokesman James Appathurai Russia ‘has been informed fully and from the beginning of the planning stages’ and had refused to participate as a Partnership for Peace member. Moscow has also called off a NATO-Russia council meeting in Brussels on May 18-19 which should have been the first at the ministerial level after the Georgian-Russian conflict of August 2008.

On the ground however, the NATO exercises in Georgia are playing in Russia’s hands; Moscow is, of course, well aware that these exercises consist merely in the training of 1,000 soldiers from a wide range of NATO member and partner countries and do not involve the use of heavy weapons. The Kremlin is nonetheless using this event as a pretext for actions in the South Caucasus and for expanding its influence over its “sphere of interest”.

Moscow on the offensive
Recently, Moscow signed a common border defence agreement with the secessionist republics of Georgia, which allows Russia to open permanent checkpoints in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as to conduct maritime patrol along the Black Sea coast of Abkhazia. This agreement comes in the wake of the Russian recognition of the two separatist entities after the August 2008 war against Georgia. The agreement violates not only Georgia’s territorial integrity but also the so-called “six-point agreement” mediated by the French presidency of the EU which ended the conflict. The West expressed its “serious” concerns about the Russian decision, yet it has abstained from taking any concrete action. Moscow is now set to keep 7,600 soldiers in the two secessionist regions, more than twice the number before the war. The military airbase at Bombora, near Gudauta and the ex-Soviet naval base in Ochamchire, both in Abkhazia, will become fully operational in 2009, thus allowing Russia to blockade the Georgian ports in Poti and Batumi in case of “necessity”. The importance of the Abkhaz coast increased further after the Ukrainian president Viktor Yushenko declared his intention not to prolong the permission of stay for Russian naval forces in Sevastopol after 2017.

With its reinforced military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Kremlin, which strongly opposes the prospect of Georgia’s accession to NATO, aims to safeguard its influence over the whole South Caucasus. Moreover, it wants to gain influence over the pipeline passing through Georgian-controlled territory so that it can exercise monopoly control over all transit routes from the Caspian Sea to Western Europe.

Moscow is also bolstering its role in Central Asia. In February 2009 the presidents of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) signed an agreement on the creation of a joint rapid-reaction force. Although this is hardly a new development – the CSTO was formally established in 2002 – Russian President Dimitry Medvedev publicly declared that this new force would be different and aimed at defending its member states: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan against foreign military aggression. In reality none of these countries, with the exception of Armenia (see below), face external threats. This suggests that these new forces might be used to curb internal opposition against ruling regimes. Furthermore the Kremlin is using the CSTO to legitimise its ongoing military presence in Central Asia. The revival of CSTO coincided with the Russia-Kazakhstan joint military exercise and the announcement by the Kyrgiz government that the 18th of August 2009 would be the final day for the US base in Manas airport. In contrast, Kyrgyzstan plans to strengthen the CSTO base at Kant which is predominantly a Russian airbase. Moscow has also manifested its interest in the Ayni military airfield in Tajikistan as a possible base for Russian air forces. For the Central Asian regimes cooperating with Russia in the military domain is far easier than with the European countries or the United States, which, even if very loosely, link cooperation to domestic reforms.

The use of the CSTO’s rapid-reaction forces in the context of conflicts in South Caucasus – Nagorno-Karabakh in particular – is highly speculative. However, the agreement on the creation of the Rrf is viewed by Armenia as a guarantee against a possible attack by Azerbaijan to re-establish control over Karabakh. For this reason, Azerbaijan seems now inclined to reconsider the choice not to participate in the CSTO. Indeed, the Georgian-Russian crisis already generated incentives in Baku for closer relations with Moscow.

Regional implications of the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation
Adding to this, the process of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation has put Azerbaijan in a difficult situation. Turkey’s rapprochement with Armenia has aroused much concern in Azerbaijan. Baku hoped that Ankara would stick to its double-track approach: linking normalization with Yerevan not only to its own border question with Armenia but also to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the liberation of occupied Azerbaijani territories. Yet Ankara and Yerevan agreed on a road map aimed at establishing diplomatic relations and gradually reopening the borders, leaving Azeris out in the cold. Next week Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet first Azeri president Ilcham Aliyev and then Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin to discuss the issue, suggesting that Turkey sees Russia as a key player to address both regional conflicts and energy affairs.

Next on the agenda is the plan to build the Nabucco pipeline which would transport gas from the Caspian sea to Western Europe bypassing Russia. Turkey currently obstructs the plan, allegedly to extract concessions from the EU. Furthermore the Turkish government is currently negotiating with Russia on the possible inclusion of the Russian gas giant Gazprom in the project. Indeed Russia has already expressed its willingness to buy all available Azerbaijani gas.

The Turkish-Armenian rapprochement also poses a challenge to Georgia. It may sound paradoxical, but the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and an eventual solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may marginalize Georgia. In fact, Georgia’s prominence in energy politics grew as a result of Armenia’s isolation. The normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations may pave the way for plans to build alternative transit routes via Armenia and Turkey which would be significantly shorter than those through Georgia. Georgia finds itself already in a difficult situation due to Russia’s recognition of – and growing presence in – the secessionist entities, which will probably remain unchallenged by the West. Furthermore, the Obama administration, in an attempt to mend fences with Russia, may well “sacrifice” Georgia, whose international reputation has been seriously tarnished by Saakashvili’s bad management of the conflict with the secessionist entities.

A wake-up call for Georgia
All this shows that it is high time for Georgia to redefine its foreign policy. It should become more realistic about its accession to NATO and elaborate a new concept of relations with Moscow. The Georgian leadership must understand that constantly playing the Russian card in domestic affairs, i.e. accusing opposition leaders of being agents of the Kremlin not only fails to bring about results internally but also damages Georgia’s credibility internationally. Alas, the likelihood of such change taking place in the near future is slim, which risks to condemn the region to remain unstable in the period ahead.