This was first published on January 6, 2009 in World Politics Review
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.
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 existence.
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 Reporter.