The landscape view of Karabakh mountains

The South Caucasus is a region that borders with the regional powers of the Russian Federation, Iran and Turkey and includes internationally recognised states,  Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and three unrecognised or partially recognised states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia have developed diverging foreign policy orientations, which embody their distinctive prospects for their countries, the whole region, and relations with neighbouring countries and international actors. At the basis of these approaches there are the often politically exploited thorny issues related to the disputed territories within the South Caucasus, which have contributed to rise cleavages among states in the region and in the neighbourhood.  Although at a different level, concerns over nationalistic tendencies, endemic corruption, lack of respect of minorities as well as of human rights, democracy and rule of law are being reported in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and in the breakaway territories.

Georgia has made the most unambiguous choice to prioritize integration with the European Union, NATO, and European political, economic and security institutions.[1] Among other factors, the decision relates to Georgian demands of regaining control over the breakaway entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as to the troublesome Georgian-Russian relations that the strife has contributed to sharpen.  Although at times wavering, Georgia’s has made substantial progresses towards closer integration with the European Union, as witnessed by the decision of the European Parliament (February 2017) to grant a visa waiver for Georgian citizens entering the European Union for short stays. [2]

Armenia has prioritized closer relations with Russia, mainly because of security considerations related, but not limited, to the Nagorno-Karabakh territory, and joined the Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO) as well as the Eurasian Economic Union. At the same time, Armenia is seeking  to balance its foreign policy by establishing closer tailored ties with the European Union as a member of the Eastern Partnership.

Unlike Georgia and Armenia, Azerbaijan has adopted a more independent foreign policy agenda focused mainly on economic cooperation with international actors, thanks to its vast wealth of oil and gas resources. Azerbaijan maintains a strong and significant bilateral relations with Turkey, a country with which it shares cultural, religious and linguistic ties. Despite disagreements on specific domains, including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan is trying to establish a friendly relations with the European Union and Russia.

A complex situation has emerged in the South Caucasus after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a result of the region’s historical peculiarities, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity, Soviet legacy, strategic position and energy resources. These circumstances have created instability, friction and hostilities in the region, particularly in relation to the three heavily disputed areas of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh, whose status remain ambiguous. Amid ongoing instability, regional fragmentation, and simmering tensions, these protracted conflicts remain unsolved and negotiations on their peaceful settlement are deadlocked.

The de facto Republic of Abkhazia, de jure belonging to Georgia, is a direct result of the ethno-political conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia in early 1990s. The conflict is rooted in concerns of ethnic Abkhaz over losing their identity while being a part of the newly independent Georgia. The demands of Abkhazia for greater autonomy increased as the Soviet Union unravelled, nationalism was rife, tensions flared, and a 13-month war broke out in 1992.[3] As a result of the conflict nearly 12.000 people were killed and tens of thousands of Georgians were forced to leave their homes in Abkhazia. In 1993 the sides involved in the conflict signed a ceasefire, while in 1999 Abkhazia declared independence. However, it is worth to mention that ceasefire between the parties was repeatedly violated in May 1998, October 2001, July 2006 and finally in August 2008. [4] Following the August 2008 Russian-Georgian War over South Ossetia, the Russian Federation, along with a handful of other states, officially recognised the independence of Abkhazia (and South Ossetia), and in 2009 allowed military base there. [5] Georgia considers Abkhazia as a breakaway region and these actions as a violation of its territorial integrity. Since then, relations between Russia and Abkhazia have strengthened and in 2014 the parties have signed a treaty on ‘alliance and strategic partnership’, which foresees closer cooperation in the areas of defence, foreign policy, customs and border control, law enforcement, education and social welfare. [6]

Alike Abkhazia, the Georgian-Ossetian conflict flared-up after the collapse of the Soviet Union and is rooted in the secession demands of South Ossetia from Georgia and over the status of the de facto Republic of South Ossetia within Georgia. Tensions erupted in the 1991-1992 South Ossetia War leaving some 2,000 dead, 120 missing, extensive destruction of homes and infrastructures, and a large number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). [7] Despite the 1992 ceasefire and peace talks efforts, clashes have continued to occur in the region. With the 2006 elections and referendum, South Ossetians overwhelmingly voted for independence – results being not recognised by the Georgian government – while the minority of South Ossetia’s ethnic Georgians voted to stay as part of Georgia. [8] Resumed tensions between Georgia and South Ossetia military forces in spring 2008 led to the August 2008 Russo-Georgian War, which lasted five days until a ceasefire agreement was reached. According to official Georgian sources,  military operations started as a reaction to provocations from South Ossetia and the direct threat of a Russian aggression. Meanwhile Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that the reasons of Russian troops deployment to South Ossetia was the aggression of Georgian forces and the consequent humanitarian crisis, 30 thousands refugees fleeing the region, loss of Russian peacekeepers and South Ossetians lives.[9] Shortly afterwards, Russian Federation officially recognised both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent entities. Since then, tensions and skirmishes have been reported on both sides.

The roots of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan traces back the early 1920s when Josef Stalin, the acting People’s Commissar of Nationalities, decided to establish the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, with an Armenian ethnic majority, within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan. Whereas the struggle seemingly died down for decades under Soviet control, the question of the Nagorno-Karabakh re-emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In this period, Karabakh Armenians called for a reunification with Armenia, resulting in demonstrations, confrontations, large numbers of refugees leaving Azerbaijan and Armenia, and violence against minorities  – such as anti-Armenian pogroms in Azeri cities, namely in Baku, Sumgait and Kirovobad. [10] As both Azerbaijan and Armenia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and Karabakh Armenians overwhelmingly voted in favour (99.89%) of an independent Nagorno-Karabakh state in a referendum boycotted by the Azeri population of Karabakh, the strife escalated in a subsequent full-scale ethno-political conflict. [11] The war caused thousands of casualties, atrocities, and an immense number of refugees and IDPs on both sides.[12] In 1994 internationally mediated ceasefire signed between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan put an end to the violent conflict leaving Nagorno-Karabakh and a buffer zone in Azeri territory around the enclave in hands of ethnic Armenians. [13] Despite diplomatic progresses have occurred at times, since the truce, internationally brokered talks to settle the dispute have not succeeded. Negotiations on a peaceful “settlement based on mutual compromise” as advanced in the 2007 Madrid Principles mainly include “the return under Baku’s control of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh controlled by ethnic Armenian forces; the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh; return of displaced persons; and security guarantees”.[14] However, the struggle remains a tool of political influence for both sides, and numerous ceasefire violations have been reported. Among these, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution in January 2016 deploring the deliberate deprivation of water to inhabitants of frontier regions of Azerbaijan and the creation “of similar humanitarian and environmental problems for the citizens of Azerbaijan living in the Lower Karabakh valley”.[15] As both sides have increased their defence spending and built up their military capacities, incidents and exchanges of fire have intensified since 2014, while in April 2016 fierce clashes took place leaving hundreds of soldiers and civilians dead.[16] Renewed OSCE Minsk Group efforts resulted in Armenian and Azeri commitment to resolve the conflict peacefully, however since mid-2016 progresses are stalled, the situation on the ground deteriorates and the risk of new escalations of hostilities is high.[17]

Bibliography

[1] Andrew C. Kuchins, Jeffrey Mankoff “The South Caucasus in a Reconnecting Eurasia”// US Policy Interests and Recommendations. Center for Strategic and International Studies. October, 2016

[2] European Parliament News, “Georgia visa waiver approved by Parliament”. Press release – Visa policy − 02-02-2017.

[3] History: Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Conciliation resources. http://www.c-r.org/where-we-work/caucasus/history-georgian-abkhaz-conflict. Date of access: 08.03.2017

 [4] Сергей Маркедонов. Грузино-абхазский конфликт 1992-2012. URL: http://politcom.ru/14358.html․Дата обращения: 09.04.2017

[5]History: Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. Conciliation resources. http://www.c-r.org/where-we-work/caucasus/history-georgian-abkhaz-conflict. Date of access: 08.03.2017

[6]  The Guardian, “Georgia angered by Russia-Abkhazia military agreement”. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/25/georgia-russia-abkhazia-military-agreement-putin Date of access: 08.03.2017

[7]  Georgia: Avoiding War in South Ossetia. International crisis group// Europe Report №159. November 2004. http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/UNTC/UNPAN019224.pdf. Date of access: 08.03.2017

[8] CNN, 2008 Georgia Russia Conflict Fast Facts. http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/13/world/europe/2008-georgia-russia-conflict. Date of access: 08.03.2017

[9] Пятидневная война (8-12 августа 2008 года) URL: http://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/210899/. Дата обращения: 09.04.2017

[10]  The National Interest, Face Off: The Coming War between Armenia and Azerbaijan, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/face-the-coming-war-between-armenia-azerbaijan-12585. Date of access: 08.03.2017

[11] Tim Potier. Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia: A Legal Appraisal. Kluwer Law International. Massachusetts. 2000

[12] BBC, Nagorno-Karabakh Profile, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-18270325Date of access: 08.03.2017

[13]  Ibid.

[14]  International Crisis Group, Watch List 2017, Special Report N.3, February 2017.

[15] Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of the Europe, Resolution 2085/2016, Inhabitants of frontier regions of Azerbaijan are deliberately deprived of water.

[16]  International Crisis Group, Watch List 2017, Special Report N.3, February 2017.

[17] Ibid.