World Politics Review
Jan 6 2009

In Aftermath of Georgia War, a More Stable Caucasus

Emil Sanamyan | 06 Jan 2009
World Politics Review

For most observers, the brief war between Russia and Georgia last
August only underscored the instability of the Caucasus region and the
dangerous potential energy stored in its so-called frozen
conflicts. Remarkably, though, the war's immediate impact has actually
led to a relatively more stable regional status quo.

Dangerous Build-up

The wars of the early 1990s, in which newly independent Georgia and
Azerbaijan lost control of their Soviet-era ethnic minority regions,
became formative experiences for the two young nation-states. In both
countries, the popular nationalist narrative continues to promote the
"return" of the breakaway territories as a sine qua non of their

The republics' post-Soviet economic recovery -- fueled in part by
Western-sponsored Azerbaijani energy production exported via Georgian
transit routes -- left them more confident about their ability to
revise the status quo in their favor. The subsequent political
transition in 2003, in which both countries replaced their Soviet-era
leaders, reinforced the conviction.

In Georgia, the "revolutionary" government of Mikhail Saakashvili
unseated the stability government of Eduard Shevardnadze. Saakashvili
moved to upgrade the Georgian military, raising its annual budget --
to $1 billion in 2007 -- and, with it, the pressure on both South
Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev succeeded his dead father, Heydar Aliyev,
as president in the best traditions of Middle Eastern politics. But
even in the absence of a popular "color revolution," growing oil
revenues have led to a more hard-line approach with regard to the
Armenian-supported separatist province of Nagorno-Karabakh. As in
Georgia, the military budget grew -- to close to $2 billion -- and for
the past several years, hardly a week has passed without an
Azerbaijani official threatening a new war over the province.

There have been several escalations in recent years in all three
conflict areas, but things began to get increasingly out of hand in
the first half of 2008.

Georgia repeatedly sent its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly
over Abkhazia, eliciting flyovers and attacks by the Russian air
force. There were also bombing campaigns in Abkhazia and increased
mortar attacks and assassination attempts in South Ossetia.

In Karabakh, where -- unlike Ossetia or Abkhazia -- extensive trenches
and minefields forming a de facto border separate the two opposing
forces, the sides fought one of the deadliest skirmishes in
years. Azerbaijani aircraft also began flying closer to the Line of
Contact, apparently seeking to trigger an Armenian response.

By summer, conditions were ripe for escalation, and the smell of war
was in the air.

What Changed in August

When Georgia launched its attack on South Ossetia on Aug. 7, few could
have imagined the rapidity and intensity of the Russian response.

Speaking on the night of the attack, Assistant Secretary of State Dan
Fried said there was "no evidence" of Russian involvement, and that he
expected Russia to help "restrain" the Ossetian side.

In Azerbaijan, a spokesman for the foreign ministry welcomed the
Georgian operation, saying that it could chart a new course for
"resolving" the Karabakh conflict as well. But once Russia responded
to the Georgian operation with massive force, Azerbaijani officials
and pundits became unusually silent.

In the West, the response was one of surprise and anger.

"This decision to invade Georgia was . . . simply stupid," the State
Department's Caucasus manager, Matt Bryza, told RFE/RL-Georgia a week
after the war.

Nevertheless, this "stupid" war helped restore Russia's image as the
sole hegemon in the Caucasus.

In the past, Azerbaijan may have hoped for a "controlled" escalation
in Karabakh as a form of political pressure against Armenia. But
following the war in Georgia, the potential consequences of such an
escalation, if exploited by Moscow, became rather apparent.

Days after returning from the Beijing Olympics, Azerbaijan's Aliyev
traveled to Moscow, where he assured Russian leaders of his
determination to resolve all conflicts by peaceful means. Soon after
that, he sat down with the presidents of Russia and Armenia to sign a
declaration pledging a political settlement to the Karabakh conflict.

On a visit to Armenia this fall, the State Department's Fried conceded
to RFE/RL-Armenia that the "danger [of war in Karabakh] has somewhat
receded because [of] the war in Georgia."

The New Status Quo

"Saakashvili should get a Nobel peace prize for bringing Armenia and
Azerbaijan together," Georgian publisher Malkhaz Gulashvili wrote
recently, with no small amount of sarcasm.

But the Georgian president is unlikely to be so honored, either abroad
or in his own country. His gamble humiliated Georgia militarily and
resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians. With
the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia now formally recognized
by Russia, Georgia is left building new de facto borders around its
two former provinces.

While that makes another war much less likely in the foreseeable
future, there are less fortunate consequences of the new status quo as
well. In the words of the Georgian president, "[T]he reputation that
America has gained since the Cold War [has gone] to hell." As have
efforts to build democratic systems, to a certain degree, leaving
countries in the region more likely to favor the seemingly more
effective -- and obviously more authoritarian -- Russian political
model. Unless, that is, the United States or Europe offers new
credible alternatives.

Emil Sanamyan is Washington editor and bureau chief for the Armenian

Image: Map of the Caucasus (Wikimedia Commons image, licensed under
the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2). aspx?id=3121