by Tony Halpin
They were five days in August that shattered assumptions about the Caucasus that have held since the collapse of the Soviet Union and exposed the great-power rivalries that now course through the region.
Georgia's attempt to reclaim its breakaway region of South Ossetia ended in humiliating occupation by Russia and triggered the most serious confrontation between the Kremlin and the West since the invasion of Afghanistan almost 30 years ago.
Russia's decision to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia's other breakaway region, as independent states has also created a new dynamic over Nagorno Karabakh that has already brought profound change in the relationship between Armenia and Turkey.
For two conflicts that had festered in international obscurity for most of the past 16 years, Abkhazia and South Ossetia suddenly became names that tripped off everybody's lips in television and radio debates around the world.
One school of thought has it that Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili got what he set out to achieve, by internationalizing a problem that Russia was slowly resolving to its advantage under the guise of neutral "peacekeeping." This presupposes, however, that Georgia started a war in order to lose it—a perilously uncertain choice. The United States and Europe had also warned Saakashvili repeatedly that he would be on his own if he began military operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Georgia and Abkhazia came very close to war in April, shortly after the decision by Russia's then President Vladimir Putin to establish formal economic and legal ties with the two regions. International pressure pulled the two sides back from the brink then, but it became increasingly clear that this "frozen" conflict was thawing rapidly.
Putin's decision was itself a reaction to the international recognition of Kosovo—and though the parallels are poor, there is little doubt that this was the stone that started the avalanche.
This was quickly followed by Russia's decision to send troops into Abkhazia to repair a railway line to its capital, Sukhumi, that had been destroyed in the 1992 war. Moscow claimed that it would aid Abkhazia's economy but many suspected that the true purpose was to create a speedy route for moving troops into the region.
Then there were the war games played out by Russia in the north Caucasus in July, simulating a response to a Georgian attack on South Ossetia and rehearsing the tactics that the 58th Army was to put into action with devastating force in Georgia itself less than a month later. The remarkable speed with which the Russian military responded to Georgia's attack on South Ossetia lends credence to Saakashvili's claim that Moscow was waiting for him to make just such a move—and may have provoked him into falling into a trap.
Nino Burjanadze, one of the leaders of Georgia's Rose Revolution and formerly the country's second most powerful figure, levels exactly this charge against the president. Now in opposition, she has published a list of 43 questions in Georgian newspapers demanding government accountability for the political and military defeat.
"Today, the government states that the Georgian State fell into the trap laid by Russia. The main question is—whether our government did everything for the country to avoid falling into this trap," she stated in the questions.
In the days leading up to the conflict, Georgian and South Ossetian forces exchanged increasingly fierce artillery fire. Georgia's military claimed later that the shells used on the South Ossetian side were bigger and more powerful than any used before, prompting an urgent need to defend Georgian villages.
In what later came to be seen as a ruse to buy time as he massed his forces on the border with South Ossetia, Saakashvili offered a ceasefire on the night of August 7. Within hours, however, Georgian forces crossed into South Ossetia to "restore constitutional order," as one commander put it.
Saakashvili later denied that any such statement had been made, though there is ample evidence that it was. In any event, Russia says that it intervened in response to the unleashing of GRAD rocket attacks on the sleeping population of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia's capital.
There is little doubt that Georgia did fire rockets into Tskhinvali, causing widespread damage, and that 12 Russian soldiers were killed during a bombardment of their base in the city. But Russian allegations of attempted "genocide," including claims within hours that 2,000 civilians were killed, were wide of the mark. A month later, Russian experts could identify 356 dead at most.
The conflict shook the region, including Armenia, because it overturned assumptions about Russia's willingness to use force following the Soviet collapse. This was the first intervention in a foreign country by the Russians since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Further, Georgia under Saakashvili had been widely regarded as an American "project," a beacon of democratic change in the former Soviet space.
Yet Russia had demonstrated that Washington was unwilling or incapable of protecting its friends in the region when the chips were down, a message that has reverberated throughout the former Soviet republics. A message, too, that Armenia may not find as troubling as its neighbors who do not enjoy Armenia's cozy relations with Russia. Russian tanks came within 20 miles of Tbilisi and there was nothing beyond diplomatic pressure to prevent them going the whole way if they had so chosen.
Forced to Talk
One immediate effect was felt in Turkish-Armenian relations, which had been in limbo for 15 years with closed borders and an absence of diplomatic ties. Turkey's President Abdullah Gul accepted an invitation issued by President Serge Sargsyan a month before the war to watch the historic Armenia-Turkey World Cup football match together in Yerevan.
Turkey had responded to the outbreak of war in Georgia by calling for the establishment of a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact that would bind together Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Given the unresolved state of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of Karabakh, and Turkey's open support of Baku in the conflict, this was a startling indication of Ankara's alarm at the turn of events and its willingness to review its policies.
There are many reasons why this proposal might fail, not the least of which being Azerbaijan's rejection of all attempts to integrate Armenia into regional transport projects such as the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway. Similar objections sank a stability pact put forward by Turkey and Georgia in 2000.
But Gul's visit to Yerevan was judged a success and he received a much less hostile welcome than many Armenians in the Diaspora might have expected. Indeed, most Armenians in Yerevan seemed to welcome the fact that the ice had finally been broken in relations with their neighbor. Gul, too, spoke of breaking a "psychological barrier" in the Caucasus with his visit. Sargsyan has been invited to attend the return soccer match in Ankara next October.
After his visit to Yerevan, Gul described the Karabakh conflict as the most important issue in the region. He spoke later in unusually optimistic terms during a trip to Baku of "a new opportunity" to resolve it. In comments broadcast on Azeri television, he said: "After the events in Georgia, we as statesmen, as leaders, must analyze the situation in the right way, and express firm political will. It is necessary to better assess the new opportunity, not to allow frozen conflicts to continue but to solve them."
Discussions continued after Gul's visit to Armenia between the two countries' foreign ministers. This was followed by a meeting between Turkish, Armenian and Azeri foreign ministers on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.
Turkey's foreign minister, Ali Babacan, explaining the burst of activity shortly before that meeting, told reporters: "The recent crisis in Georgia urged all the countries in the region to reevaluate policies and also have a stronger feeling of urgency."
Of prospects for finding agreement, he said: "The political will is there, which is probably very important, and then the rest is details to be discussed and the devil is obviously in the details, of course."
The devil has always been in the details in the inability to find a solution acceptable to both sides during 16 years of negotiations. But the war over South Ossetia and Abkhazia has had a sobering effect.
For Azerbaijan, it demonstrated that any renewed military action can produce disastrous outcomes. Even on the most optimistic reading of the August crisis—that the Saakashvili regime internationalized the problem of its frozen conflicts—the facts on the ground are that Georgia has probably lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia for good. Certainly, any attempt to stitch the country together again is much more difficult than it was.
The Karabakh question has already been internationalized in the form of mediation efforts for the past 16 years by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The current troika in the Minsk Group seeking to negotiate a deal are France, Russia and the United States.
The risk for Azerbaijan is that Russia may intervene as "peacekeeper" on the side of Armenia, its closest ally in the Caucasus, were there to be any resort to military force. The visit of Vice-President Dick Cheney to Azerbaijan and Georgia (but not Armenia) showed that both Baku and the US were concerned by this prospect. Azerbaijan is crucial to the West's hopes of bypassing Russia and piping oil and gas from Central Asia through the Caucasus. For the Kremlin, the Karabakh conflict represents a golden opportunity to wreck that objective and put the whole of Central Asia on notice that they will need Moscow in all future energy deals.
For Sargsyan, then, the positive outcome of the war in Georgia has been to expose as hollow all of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev's recent bellicose talk about reclaiming Karabakh by force. But Armenia, too, faced risks from Russia's intervention in the Caucasus. With Georgia's key port of Poti threatened by Russian military roadblocks and the railway line blown up for several days, Armenia suffered immediate petrol shortages that produced long lines at the pumps and uneasy recollections of the early 1990s. Armenia's government has estimated losses caused by disruption to its economy from the Georgian conflict at almost $700 million.
Armenia's dependence on Georgia for trade access to the outside world had a key part to play in Sargsyan's decision to reach out to Turkey and reduce the risk of a repeat of the petrol shortages. This is particularly important if, as many within Georgia believe, the realization that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are lost produces a domestic backlash against Saakashvili that either sweeps him away or results in a prolonged period of instability.
But Sargsyan's initiative was also a key signal to the West not to write Armenia off. By engaging with Turkey, Armenia could reduce the perception that it is captive to Moscow's strategic interests as well as create space to balance Russia's dominance over its politics and economy.
For good or ill, the logjam in the Caucasus has been broken by the events of August. The rosiest forecast for what comes next involves the realization of the region's potential to grow rich on its historic role as a conduit between East and West, trading energy and goods between Europe and China. For that to happen, a mindboggling array of historic problems and rivalries would have to be overcome. Given Armenia's continuing internal instability, Georgia's poisoned relations with Russia, Azerbaijan's bewilderment at the attempted rapprochement between Yerevan and Ankara, the shadow of genocide recognition over Turkey and international tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions, that seems a tall order.
The most pessimistic assessment takes all of the above and mixes in a revived Cold War contest between Russia and the US, focused on the Caucasus with a dash of tension thrown in for good measure over the fate of Ukraine's Russian-populated Crimea region. On that reading, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, with their associated disputed territories, become pawns in an intensified "Great Game" played out for renewed spheres of influence and control of vital energy resources.
The world community is now intensely engaged with the Caucasus. If it was neglected as a complex backwater for years, it is now at the forefront of diplomatic thinking and energy. A new determination to lift the region out of the post-Soviet mess into which it sank can only be a good thing.
But a resurgent Russia has posed new questions—is the Kremlin engaged in attempts to rebuild the old Russian empire? Was its Georgian adventure a one-off? What happens if NATO embraces Georgia by offering a Membership Action Plan? Can Armenia and Azerbaijan find an accommodation that sticks over Nagorno Karabakh? And is Turkey really capable of dealing even-handedly with its Armenian neighbor in assisting with a resolution of the conflict?
The Caucasus needs statesmanship as never before. Saakashvili, Sargsyan and Aliyev all have their flaws and vocal critics. The biggest question is whether they are capable of rising to the challenges and opportunities created by those five hot days in August.