The Caucasus and Its Geopolitical Neighborhood:
Horizons for Peace and Security
In the context of the renewed, and by now perhaps subsided, great game for political and economic influence in the Caspian basin and Central Asia, the Caucasus has special geopolitical significance. Three regional powers, Russia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Turkey, share borders with the Caucasus and each has vital strategic interests in the region. In the pursuit of those interests, policies are easily devisable to exacerbate ethnic and social divisions, geographic and economic vulnerabilities, and legacies of past conflicts and injustices endemic to the region.
As a result, until the championship is won or the terms of engagement are changed, the promise of peace and a new, effective security architecture for all three Caucasian countries remains dim. So does the development of Azerbaijan's vast energy resources and of Turkish routes to Western Europe for Caspian basin oil.
In the meantime, the long-term interests of the South (or Trans)Caucasian peoples and regional and international security can best be served by limiting opportunities for mischief in the Caucasus. To do so, they must begin to chip away at the internal divisions, the evident vulnerabilities, and the "modernization" of historical, at times reciprocal, injustices. Of paramount importance to the termination of these disruptive processes in Caucasia are the regulation of the bilateral relationship between Turkey and Armenia and the inclusion of all three regional powers in significant decision-making for the Transcaucasus.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, intense competition began for influence up to and including Central Asia. However, because of its geographic position, the Caucasus became critical to the determination of who would exercise control of the flow of the entire macroregion's petroleum resources and if and how they would reach the West. Moscow pushed Russian routes for economic and strategic reasons. The West sought alternatives that would limit Russian power in the post-Soviet era. It supported Ankara in its bid for Turkish routes and jettisoned Iranian options out of all discussion, understanding of course that without a Tehran connection the only way that oil could transit Turkey was via Georgia or Armenia.
And so the struggle for sway over the Caucasus began. Combatants in local conflicts often served as proxies in the much larger battle for the region and for supervision over the movement of oil.
Indeed, even without external meddling, ours is a volatile area. When the central hand of Moscow was no more, conflicts reappeared around old fault lines in Mountainous (Nagorno) Karabagh, Abkhazia, and southern Ossetia. Just over the South Caucasian borders, Russia took on its Chechen population, Turkey cracked down on its Kurdish minority, and some in the region began laying the ideological groundwork for an Azerbaijani insurrection in northwestern Iran.
External support for governments and movements for self-determination, or separation, widened conflicts in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Chechnya. This backing took on many forms. Regional powers provided weapons, military training, intelligence, political and economic support, and sometimes military personnel. The situation has frustrated attempts to finalize any deal on oil routes and to develop regional economic integration.
In addition to these conflicts, the three Caucasus states are geographically vulnerable to pressures by regional powers. Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan each have been made painfully aware of the ability of influential players to impede their access to international commerce. Attempts at economic strangulation have further pressured political leaders in Caucasian countries to abandon the development of independent policy.
If they are to build a new and improved security infrastructure in Transcaucasia and to have alternative routes for Azerbaijani and Caspian basin oil, all area actors themselves must begin effectively to address conflicts in the region and the economic and geographic fragility of the Caucasus republics. In addition, for these efforts to succeed, the international community must encourage the full participation not only of the Russian Federation and Turkey but obviously of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Russia, regardless of its political orientations and domestic choices, should be viewed as a leading partner in the affairs of the region and encouraged to maintain its constructive role there. A new formula must find the delicate equilibrium that will allow reliance on Russia's stabilizing strength without endangering a return to a vertical future. Russia must find itself, fine-tune its policy, and assume its strategic new place in regional and world affairs.
Turkey might be encouraged to come to terms with history's baggage and make peace with all its neighbors. To this end, it could unequivocally reject the voices that have from time to time called for Turkish expansion into Caucasia and Central Asia. Turkey does have legitimate and vital interests in the region, but the populations of the newly-independent states to its east cannot be expected to trade one outright imperial legacy for another creeping penetration.
Iran is an Islamic republic that enjoys good neighborly relations with Christian Armenia and co-religionist Azerbaijan. It has remained neutral on the Karabagh issue and has resisted certain attempts to draw it into the confrontation. Iran increasingly must be looked upon not as a force to be checked and balanced, but as a necessary participant in bilateral and multilateral initiatives for the creation of a peaceful, prosperous, and secure political environment.
In order to eliminate the geographic and economic isolation and the vulnerability of the Transcaucasian states, the international community may help develop and finance new alternative routes of communications. Viable alternative routes will constitute a disincentive to blockades and will help convert the geographic intradependence of states in the region from a destabilizing to a stabilizing factor. These channels will also create obstacles to external attempts to pressure governments by creating social conflict through economic hardship.
The community of nations, in specific cooperation with Russia, Iran, and Turkey, should look to formulate a strategic development plan for the Caucasus republics, in view of their geopolitical value and their potential as an arena for regional destabilization. With their relatively small territories and populations, as well as their abundant natural and human resources, these countries would make rapid progress if there were a serious world commitment to the area's reconstruction and development. Prosperity in the Caucasus secured at a relatively modest price would contribute greatly to regional security and peace.
Addressing conflicts over self-determination in the Caucasus poses a much more difficult problem. In a number of these, regional powers in pursuit of their strategic interests have supported one side or another with political, economic, and military assistance and have facilitated their escalation. On their part, arms embargoes and, in most cases, diplomatic activity have proved sadly ineffectual.
Under the current situation, as long as regional and world actors continue, parallel with their situational cooperation, to jockey for their crucial interests in Caucasia, resolution of local conflicts will prove elusive. Part of the reason for this has been the inability of the parties and the international community to resolve for themselves the tension between the equally acceptable, equally applicable, and equally defensible concepts of territorial integrity of states and self-determination of nations.
While both concepts are enshrined in charters of world and regional institutions, the reality is that they sometimes clash or at least are unevenly applied based on politically expedient and interest-based calculations. The world's powers have failed to examine conflicts concerning self-determination on a case-by-case, merit-anchored basis. This approach has only prolonged conflict and harmed the cause of peace and international security.
In the Mountainous Karabagh conflict, the people of Karabagh defended themselves and, tragically for all sides, had to win their right to govern themselves on the battlefield. It can be convincingly demonstrated that they have achieved sovereignty under both international and controlling Soviet domestic law. But because global and regional decisionmakers have not fully considered their case for decolonization and self-rule, the parties have not felt compelled to sue for final peace. Juridically and otherwise, Karabagh is not comparable with other conflict havens, is not an open and shut case and, while taking into account the rights of all parties, should not be treated as such in the search for a solution.
A case of precedential import, the Karabagh conflict remains a major destabilizing factor in the Transcaucasus and a major obstacle to the development of Azerbaijan's oil fields and of a Turkish pipeline for Caspian basin oil. Unless the West and the East and the parties together begin realistically to address the tension between territorial integrity and self-determination in the Caucasus, conflicts along this hinge will remain an instrument of choice in the arsenal of powers at once collaborating and competing in the region.
In many ways, Armenia has been one of the keys to influence over Transcaucasia and where and how Caspian oil will flow. The cause for its geopolitical attention, however, is derived largely from the fact that it geographically divides Turkey from Azerbaijan.
Historically, Armenia's changing, usually shrinking frontiers with Turkey have been the lines over which Turkey has sought to extend into Azerbaijan, the Turkic regions of southern Russia, and Central Asia. For Russia, these borders have been the springboard to push back Turkish policy in the area. Iran, too, has looked to Armenia as a buffer against the expansion of influence along its northern frontier and in Iranian Azarbaijan.
Beyond its importance in resumed historical rivalries, the Turkey-Armenia border is also one of the front lines in the contemporary quest for Central Asia. Among other reasons, strain and suspicion between Turkey and Armenia have dashed hopes for pipelines to bring Caspian basin petroleum through Turkey to markets in the West.
Turkey keeps its border with Armenia closed, and has deployed large numbers of troops along it. The serious boundary incidents of several years ago have recently resurfaced, and the two countries have yet to establish diplomatic relations.
Armenia and Turkey are very much prisoners of history. Without attempts to confront that history, they will continue to find themselves in opposite camps in the Transcaucasus and so help ensure opportunities for fomenting conflict and division there. Mutual mistrust between Turkey and Armenia stemming from the Armenian Genocide earlier this century therefore remains a threat to regional and Eurasian security.
Turkey cannot fathom an Armenia that may one day make claims for reparations and especially territorial restitution. Armenia cannot trust a Turkey that cannot admit the fact of genocide and that continues to posture and make threats against it.
The past has loomed large over the Karabagh conflict as well. Karabagh Armenians, unable to exorcise the ghost of the genocide and fearing total annihilation, have forged an independent existence. Meanwhile, Turkey, with history as guidepost, looks on and considers implications for itself as Armenians reclaim lands once lost to Azerbaijani rule. In this sense, the Karabagh-Azerbaijani conflict has become the vehicle through which both Turks and Armenians live out their worst fears of each other, fears rooted in the legacy of the Big Event.
Unless both Armenia and Turkey-and Azerbaijan for that matter-grapple with this bequest head on and start talking meaningfully with each other, it will hold their relations, and therefore regional and transregional security interests, hostage. As in the striking example mid-century, without international support one is unlikely to face an inconvenient past on its own; first and foremost, however, this is a matter for the parties involved.
In fact, official Armenia, landlocked, blockaded, and in dire need of land routes through Turkey, has itself attempted to skirt the issue. Armenia has hoped economic normalization could come first and eventually lead to a climate where political normalization would be possible. But avoiding the issue has only compounded distrust on both sides. Relations between the two countries in the nine years since Armenia regained its independence have always been strained.
The importance of normalization has not been lost on a variety of foreign policymakers. They have worked hard at times to help this normalization along. However, these efforts have not borne fruit because they have ignored the G-legacy as the root of reciprocal suspicion between Turkey and Armenia.
The primary argument for a brave and constructive new discourse on this world-documented calamity is overwhelming. Renewed affirmation of the fact and of a common history will provide Turkey and Armenia with an honest foundation for encountering the past, eliminating mutual mistrust, exploring their combined comparative advantages, normalizing their relations, and telling the hitherto untold story of thousands of individual Turkish heroes who risked their own lives to save Armenian victims and survivors. If nonetheless Ankara and Yerevan continue to ignore or rationalize this watershed inheritance, they will remain hostage to the past, and their bilateral relations-or the political absence thereof-will continue to play a major destabilizing role in the Caucasus, allowing third parties to pursue political agendas based on that absence.
Armenia also is not above criticism and self-critique. In terms of human resources and much more, we have lost almost as much during the nine years of our own sovereignty as under any empire. Many of our policy problems, foreign and domestic, are of our own doing and a result of a confusion between national and less-than-national interests. Being heir to an ancient culture and rich civilization is a value permanently to be treasured, but it is not an automatic guarantee of good governance and effective statecraft. The challenge for the new Armenia is to develop a political culture based on concept and principle, compromise and consensus-building, and the preeminence of vital national concerns over parochial imitations.
In summary, transregional security for all Eurasia depends on peace and stability in the Caucasus. However, current horizons for peace and a contemporary, operational security system turn on the capacity of the international community to create mechanisms to engage all area actors, primarily Russia, Iran, and Turkey, in a substantive framework for the region and its independence. There must be greater world commitment to the development of alternative routes of communication and the economic integration and prosperity of the Caucasian states. Relevant global policymakers, but most importantly the actual parties including Mountainous Karabagh, must attempt a fresh, forward-looking approach to the Karabagh conflict. Finally, by mutually addressing 1915 and beyond, governments and institutions, scholars and societies must help bring about real, not window-dressing, normalization of the bilateral relationship between Turkey and Armenia and reconciliation between their peoples.
Each of these measures will require courage, vision, and for many a break from the past. Taken together, however, they will help bring home the promise of peace and security in the Caucasus.