This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu
Despite the sweltering heat, officials in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia appeared to have taken little if any vacations this summer. The usual exodus to the beaches, or to cool mountain resorts, sometimes stretching from mid-July to mid-September, simply did not happen. In one capital, one observer commented that officials were at their desks throughout the summer. An air of uncertainty prevailed over the region.
Low-intensity border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan threatened the fragile peace process. More dead and injured were added to the long list of victims of this conflict. Azerbaijan’s decision to assert its control over the Lachin corridor that connects the Armenian population of Karabakh to Armenia created hardships for the Karabakh Armenians, who on their part refuse to be supplied through alternative Azerbaijani routes. Inside Karabakh the political turmoil finally ended the fate of the de facto president, Arayik Harutyunyan, who resigned this week, adding to the instability. A meeting of the UN Security Council on 16 August discussed the Lachin issue. Concern was expressed by UNSC members, and most called on Azerbaijan to restore unhindered movement across the Lachin Corridor. But there was no consensus on a resolution, or even a Statement.
In Georgia, summer ended as it started, with a permanent stand-off between the governing “Georgian Dream” party and the fractured opposition. The issue of whether or not Georgia will get EU candidate status before the end of the year continued to dominate the political discourse. Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, whose constitutional powers are mostly ceremonial, defied government advice and travelled to Europe at the beginning of September for talks with European leaders, who rolled out the red carpet to her. But in Tbilisi, the governing party started impeachment proceedings against her. They are likely to fail because the government is not able to muster the necessary votes needed in the parliament.
Some simply dismiss the summer shenanigans as part of the usual South Caucasus political fare. Unfortunately, there is more to it than that, and the restless summer may be the harbinger of a very difficult autumn.
Renewed violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan cannot be excluded. Whilst an all-out war is unlikely, large-scale fighting cannot be excluded if one or the other sides make a misstep. Two things are contributing to this situation. The personal mutual antipathy between President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia has not abetted. The two leaders have different backgrounds, and a different set of values and outlooks that underpin their thinking and strategy. For a moment it seemed they had overcome their differences, or at least were willing to put their differences aside, and were ready to take the vital steps necessary for peace between their two countries to be established. The problem however keeps re-emerging. Baku and Yerevan continue to engage in vitriolic verbal exchanges, which are echoed by their diplomats across the world. Negotiating in this atmosphere of mistrust, and with violent exchanges on the ground in the background has, not surprisingly, been difficult.
A second factor which has dampened hopes for peace is the ambiguous, unhelpful, and often devious role of Russia. Russian leaders have convinced themselves that the West has decided to elbow Russia out of the South Caucasus. All of Moscow’s efforts are now aimed at countering this perceived threat to Russian interests. Peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan is for Moscow a secondary issue to that. Since most progress in Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations have been registered in talks facilitated by Brussels and Washington Russia has both overtly and covertly been making obstacles, including by heaping pressure on both Baku and Yerevan – not to nudge them towards peace, but to nudge them into towing the Moscow line.
In Georgia too, Russia is exploiting the discord amongst the Georgian political elite to regain the ground it lost in 2008, when after a short war, it recognised the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Rather than compromise and form a united front in dealing with Russia firmly but diplomatically, Georgian politicians continue to exchange recriminations. Moscow has seen an opportunity, and is exploiting it.
Russia’s role in the South Caucasus should not be exaggerated, but it certainly should not be underestimated either. It has a vast range of both hard and soft power tools at its disposal, and its proximity to the region means that it is able to cast a shadow, even with little effort. Fortunately, it now has a counterweight. Recent western engagement with the South Caucasus has been more assertive, more consistent, and to a point, even more strategic. It is this engagement that is keeping the region from falling back into Russian clutches, and it must be sustained.
The EU and the US need to remain in close contact with the leadership in Baku and Yerevan. Irritating issues in the relationship with the two, of which there are aplenty, need to be managed. In the case of the EU, a united position among the member states is absolutely necessary. An Armenian-Azerbaijani peace agreement remains within reach. It will not be a panacea that solves all the problems, but it would certainly be a good start. The focus must remain on securing this.
On Georgia, and its EU candidate status, some rumours have it that the EU will come up with a Solomonic solution that kicks the can up the road. Caution is here necessary. The EU should have by now learnt the lesson that in the South Caucasus clarity and consistency work whilst fudge and ambiguity only add to problems. Georgia needs to be anchored in the European family once and for all, even if the process is inelegant.
It is going to be a busy autumn in the South Caucasus. All efforts need to be exercised for the worst to be avoided, and for the opportunities that remain, despite all adversity, are exploited.
source:This commentary was prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu and was first published in the electronic newsletter Caucasus Concise