Middle East and Caucasus, the new ?Game of Nations,? and the Karabakh problem
by Ivan IVEKOVIC*
Since the disintegration of the USSR, after nearly two centuries of isolation from their Middle Eastern neighbors, the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia became once again part of what is known today as the Greater Middle East. It is a geopolitical laboratory in which external players, primary Russia and the United States, try, using political, military and economic muscles, to assert their competing interests. Newly independent countries of the Southern Caucasus and of former Soviet Central Asia, as well as the countries of the classical, or Lesser Middle East, became the arena in which this new ?Game of Nations,? reminiscent of Russo-British rivalries of the 19th century, is actually unfolding. Of course, state-actors belonging to that region have their own agendas, which, as in the case of Armenia and Azerbaijan, or in the cases of Georgia and its breakaway provinces, clash with each other. Turkey and Iran have also their separate regional agendas. And, actually chaotic developments in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan (extending also to Pakistan) are part of the larger picture, as well the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. In this situation of generalized regional crises, the support or enmity of great external actors, is essential. Fluid alliances were shaped during the last decade: on one side, the US-sponsored axis of Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey (with extension to Israel in the Middle East, and to Ukraine and Moldova, within the GUAM group, in Eastern Europe); on the other side are Russian privileged relations with Armenia and Iran (with Syria as recent recruit).
An important role in the shaping of the US-sponsored alliance is played by the pipeline route that by-passes both Russia and Iran (and Armenia), and connects Caspian oil and gas wells to Turkey via Georgia. But this could change if Turkish trade interests with Russia (and Iran) prevail. If on the other hand a compromise solution for the Karabakh conflict is found, Armenia could liberate itself from Russian sponsorship.
If the next American administration departs from the actual confrontational stance with Tehran, Iranian foreign policy could change radically, etc. Iran could play a positive role in the internal stabilization of Baghdad?s and Kabul?s regimes. Because it its geographical location and the fact that it is a major oil exporter, it cannot be excluded from future security arrangements in the Gulf.
The situation in Central Asia is equally fluid. Ruling elites of that region are trying to play balancing games between contradictory interests of Russia, USA and China. They are all internally vulnerable. Sudden regime changes could bring-in new foreign policy alignments.
There are many ?ifs? that could be discussed, but for the Armenians and Azerbaijanis the only really burning issue is the fate of Karabakh. As long as this frozen conflict is not solved by mutual consent (unavoidably a compromise), Armenian economic perspectives will remain bleak. Instead of being an isolated local player as it is now, Armenia could become a hinge state between East and West (the shortest route between Turkey and Azerbaijan), and North and South. It would be also in Baku?s interest. There are many speculations pointing at a possible formula, which would be part of a much larger, internationally-sponsored package. The package, which was already on the floor in 1986 when Levon Ter-Petrossian was forced to resign, is once again aired by various think-tanks. In the meantime, however, the international configuration of forces has evolved. The actual system of regional alliances is challenged both from within and outside. There is perhaps a possibility for untested openings. Whatever it might be, the new package is supposed to include: territorial concessions from both sides; a formula for the status of Karabakh; strong international guarantees that will bind, not only great external players, but regional actors as well; the controversial issue of the Armenian genocide; the end of the blockade imposed on Armenia by Azerbaijan and Turkey; the opening of new oil and gas transit routes. Bilateral problems opposing Georgia and its foreign allies to Russia should be addressed also within a larger regional stability re-arrangement.
As for myself, I am not taking sides or advocating any particular formula. But having in mind that any sort of compromise is still in advance opposed by intransigent nationalistic circles, both in Armenia and in Azerbaijan, I think that it is important to open a debate on these issues.
The Nagorno Karabakh Issue: A View from Outside
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are hostages of the Nagorno Karabakh problem. Without its settlement, in one way or another, Armenia could not get out of its actual regional isolation, which is the condition sine qua non for its better future. Its economy cannot rely indefinitely on the financial injections of its Diaspora, which, with the ongoing global economic crisis, will decrease already this year. Subsidized prices that Armenia actually pays for Russian gas could not be maintained eternally; besides, Russian gas transit route could be cut in the case of a renewed Russo-Georgian conflict. Although the Armenians of Artsakh cannot survive without Armenia, Armenia itself would fare much better without the costly burden of Karabakh. Landlocked as it is, it has to get out of the blockade to which it is actually subjected. As an Armenian friend, a banker, told me in Yerevan ? ?if the government wants to open to our population the perspective of better life, it has to open the country to our immediate neighbors.? Those neighbors are – Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Azerbaijan is in a better position, thanks to its oil and gas revenues, although, similarly to Russia, it is already feeling the pinch of depressed oil prices. Economically, it does not need this part of its ?national territory,? but it cannot give it away, and recognize N.K.?s would-be ?independence,? its de facto annexation by Armenia. More sensitive is the future of adjacent Azeri districts that were and are still occupied by the Armenians. While Yerevan and Stepanakert could claim that the majority population of N.K. has democratically opted for ?national self-determination,? the districts outside, from which the local Azeri population has been also expelled, are illegally occupied territories, which are kept in reserve as future bargaining chips. But besides these issues, Azerbaijan is certainly interested to gain direct access to its exclave of Nakhichevan and to open the energy export routes to and transiting Armenia.
I had the opportunity last October to visit Armenia and to travel to Stepanakert. It was a short visit, similar to the one I made two years before to Azerbaijan, including Nakhichevan. I retained from the October visit to N.K. two contradictory observations: (1) no N.K. Armenian is ready to accept the return to any kind of Azerbaijani ?sovereignty? over their region; all of them see their future in association with Armenia; some officials believe that some ?strategically important? occupied districts, outside the N.K. territory, should not be returned to Azerbaijan; (2) all Armenia is facing the problem of depopulation ? perhaps as much as one million Armenians have left the country since independence ? but the demographic losses of N.K., not counting expelled Azeris and Kurds, are dramatic; among these emigrants are some politicians who found a more comfortable life in Yerevan; many N.K. commoners are still struggling to get out, because they lost faith in promised improvements. Life is definitely difficult for those who remained in N.K. With the subsidies coming from the Diaspora and Yerevan, which will likely decrease, they cannot expect anything better. Something has to change.
Last November, when the presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, met in Moscow, and issued an unprecedented joint declaration, it seemed that a step was made in the right direction. Most important was their common commitment to seek a political solution to the bilateral Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, through negotiations, mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group. The Minsk Group, co-chaired by the ambassadors of France, Russia and the United States, has submitted in the past a number of suggestions, a whole package with alternative solutions and time-tables, which could be negotiated and filtered again. While I am writing these lines, the three co-chairs are touring the region. After calls to Baku and Yerevan, they are due to go to N.K. ?The two sides? – as EU?s Commissioner responsible for external relations and European Neighborhood Policy, Ms. Ferrero-Waldner, put it – ?should find a compromise in accord with the principle of territorial integrity and the right of nations to self-determination? (Pan Armenia.Net, 19/01/2009). Those are contradictory principles, but it does not mean that a compromise is impossible.
The main problem is to find a formula for the future status of Karabakh that would be acceptable to the Karabakh Armenian population, to Yerevan, and to the Azerbaijanis (both government and refugees). It seems to me, as an uncommitted outsider, that the main hurdle on the way to such a compromise is semantic. The Azeris are insisting on ?sovereignty? and ?territorial integrity;? the Karabakhis on their ?self-determination? and ?independence? (associated with Armenia, which Yerevan, paradoxically, has not recognized). Perhaps a ?special status? hybrid formula, linking N.K. both to Armenia and Azerbaijan, could be worked out. Or something similar to the Hong Kong formula of ?one country ? two systems,? or, the Aaland Islands? formula (Finland and Sweden are members of the Minsk Group). If accepted, Karabakh could be promoted into a free-trade territory, to the benefit of its own population, and of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Besides, with such an arrangement, Armenia would open itself to the transit of Caspian oil and gas toward external markets. Once the formula for the future status of N.K. is agreed, even if it is supposed to be ?transitional? (some of the transitional/temporary solutions in international relations proved durable), other issues, some of them very complicated and other rather technical, could be ironed out during the forthcoming process of OSCE-mediated negotiations. That is the task of diplomats, but the meetings of the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan (the next one is likely to take place at Davos, Switzerland, on the margins of the World Economic Forum in February) could contribute to a breakthrough.
The Armenian-Azeri problem cannot be reduced to its bilateral dimension only: it is also regional and much more. The involvement of the OSCE proves that it is also European. It is regional, because it is not the only one in the Southern Caucasus (remember the August Russo-Georgian war, and the later Russian recognition of the ?independence? of South Ossetia and Abkhazia). It is also linked to the Middle East (Armenia maintains cooperative relations with Iran, while Turkey, which is member of the Minsk Group, sides with Azerbaijan). Important is the fact that the Moscow Accord was immediately backed by the United States (co-chair of the Minsk Group) and the European Union. Washington, otherwise very much involved into the affairs of the Southern Caucasus, has certainly it own reasons for such an endorsement, and this will not change with the Obama administration. However, its regional policy could become less antagonistic toward Russia and Iran.
I do not expect that all the problems enumerated above could be solved with the Azeri-Armenian peace, but part of the same package should be the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, a process that was already initiated and seems on the right track. The normalization of the relations between Yerevan/Stepanakert and Baku would also permit the inclusion of Armenia into regional development projects that until now by-passed its territory. The Nabucco East-West transit corridor is one of the energy projects that was revived during the recent Russo-Ukrainian gas dispute. One of its tracks could run through Armenia. But to be successful, it has to take-in also Turkmen gas. A useful addition would be Iranian gas.
Perhaps such a package could open the way for a general reshuffle of geopolitical cards in the broader Caucasus region, but it is too early to speculate.
*Ivan IVEKOVIC had previously a double career, as diplomat of the S.F.R. of Yugoslavia, and university lecturer. He served as ambassador to the U.R. of Tanzania, director of the West-European Department in the M.F.A. and ambassador to the A.R. of Egypt. Since 1992, he is professor of Comparative Politics at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. In 2001 he authored a book ?The Political Economy of Ethnonational Mobilization: Ethnic and Regional Conflicts in Yugoslavia and Transcaucasia,? Ravenna: Longo editore.
Source: “Analyticon”, Stepanakert, March 2009
“The Analyticon” is published by the editorial board of the “Demo” Public Newspaper, that has been issued in Artsakh in the course of five years (2004-2008).
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